Fair exteriors oft will hide
Hearts that swell with lust and pride
Having recently finished and quite enjoyed Matthew Gregory Lewis’s Gothic romance The Monk
, it seems to me a modest review is in order. (I won’t attempt anything comprehensive, but I will highlight several points of interest.)
Lewis authored The Monk
in 1795 in the space of just 10 weeks, and composed it just before he turned 20. The novel is set in a Capuchin monastery in Madrid and is purportedly the first to depict a priest as the villain. Lewis’s tale contains murder, unwitting incest, conspiracy, malevolent spirits, clerical corruption, the Spanish Inquisition, as well as terrifying appearances by the legendary Wandering Jew and the most malevolent spirit of all, Satan himself.
The book received great praise and criticism—sometimes from the same individual. The great Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for instance, called it “the work of no common genius” and writes, “The whole work is distinguished by the variety and impressiveness of its incidents; and the author everywhere discovers an imagination rich, powerful, and fervid.” However, Coleridge also bemoans that “the errors and defects are more numerous, and (we are sorry to add) of greater importance,” though many of his criticisms we might today actually consider merits. In particular, the novel’s anti-clerical sentiments resonate not little in contemporary American culture. Indeed, I found it quite felicitous to read this novel weeks after finishing Kierkegaard’s attack on Christendom (in a series of articles he published in Fædrelandet
and a pamphlet he entitled The Moment
). A representative passage from Lewis is the following:
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Lewis was not wholly unaware of the effect his novel would have on its readers, and anticipated his critics in the following passage, in which Don Raymond counsels the young Theodore (after hearing him recite a few verses):
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One of the great merits of this book is the success of its innumerable instances of humor and horror one finds throughout. Of the former, Don Christoval’s role as Lorenzo’s wingman is probably the most noteworthy, not to mention this related gem:
Now Antonia had observed the air with which Don Christoval had kissed the same hand; but, as she drew conclusions from it somewhat different from her aunt’s, she was wise enough to hold her tongue. As this is the only instance known of a woman’s ever having done so, it was judged worthy to be recorded here. (Ch. I, p. 19)
As for the novel’s horror, the ominous appearance of the Wandering Jew—concluding while also augmenting the terror of the Bleeding Nun—is perhaps the most remarkable. But Satan’s second appearance to the monk Ambrosio, the so-called “man of holiness,” runs a close second.
The overarching theme of the book, the hypocrisy of the religious, is best epitomized in the first passage I have quoted above. But at the very end of the book we find a repetition of this sentiment with greater specification. For here the narrator himself addresses the tyrannical, heartless prioress of St. Clare (rather than pitiful Ambrosio!) regarding Raymond’s beloved Agnes:
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It seems that the miserable vice into which Ambrosio falls is but symptomatic of greater corruption within the Capuchin abbey; indeed, it is the prioress who appears to represent a more profound level of vice. But Lewis gives greater attention to Ambrosio’s steady descent and submission to evil, almost as if to warn us—through a careful narrative psychology of temptation—that no one is too virtuous as to be unsusceptible to the alluring quality of the lusts of the flesh (not all of which are purely sensual).
I could say much more about this book, but this should suffice to give you an impression of why it has my recommendation.
[Cross-posted to my journal.]