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Review: The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis

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:
    While listening to the music [of the chorus at St. Clare], whose melody distance only seemed to render sweeter, the audience was wrapped up in profound attention. Universal silence prevailed through the crowd, and every heart was filled with reverence for religion—every heart but Lorenzo’s. Conscious that among those who chanted the praises of their God so sweetly, there were some who cloaked with devotion the foulest sins, their hymns inspired him with detestation at their hypocrisy. He had long observed with disapprobation and contempt the superstition which governed Madrid’s inhabitants. His good sense had pointed out to him the artifices of the monks, and the gross absurdity of their miracles, wonders, and superstitious relics. He blushed to see his countrymen the dupes of deceptions so ridiculous, and only wished for an opportunity to free them from their monkish fetters. That opportunity, so long desired in vain, was at length presented to him. He resolved not to let it slip, but to set before the people, in glaring colours, how enormous were the abuses but too frequently practised in monasteries, and how unjustly public esteem was bestowed indiscriminately upon all who wore a religious habit. He longed for the moment destined to unmask the hypocrites, and convince his countrymen that a sanctified exterior does not always hide a virtuous heart. (Ch. X, pp. 226-7)
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):
    An author, whether good or bad, or between both, is an animal whom everybody is privileged to attack; for though all are not able to write books, all conceive themselves able to judge them. A bad composition carries with it its own punishment—contempt and ridicule; a good one excites envy, and entails upon its author a thousand mortifications: he finds himself assailed by partial and ill-humoured criticism; one man finds fault with the plan, another with the style, a third with the precept which it strives to inculcate; and they who cannot succeed in finding fault with the book, employ themselves in stigmatizing its author: they maliciously rake out from obscurity every little circumstance which may throw ridicule upon his private character or conduct, and aim at wounding the man, since they cannot hurt the writer. In short, to enter the lists of literature is wilfully to expose yourself to the arrows of neglect, ridicule, envy, and disappointment. Whether you write well or ill, be assured that you will not escape from blame. Indeed, this circumstance contains a young author’s chief consolation: he remembers that Lope de Vega and Calderona had unjust and envious critics, and he modestly conceives himself to be exactly in their predicament. But I am conscious that all these sage observations are thrown away upon you. Authorship is a mania, to conquer which no reasons are sufficiently strong; and you might as easily persuade me not to love, as I persuade you not to write. (Ch. V, pp. 129-30)
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:
    Haughty lady, why shrunk you back when yon poor frail one drew near? Was the air infected by her errors? Was your purity soiled by her passing breath? Ah, lady! smooth that insulting brow: stifle the reproach just bursting from your scornful lip: wound not a soul that bleeds already! She has suffered, suffers still. Her air is gay, but her heart is broken; her dress sparkles, but her bosom groans.
         Lady, to look with mercy on the conduct of others is a virtue no less than to look with severity on your own. (Ch. XII, p. 291)
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.]
Tags: genre: fantasy, genre: fiction, genre: romance, xxx author last name: i-q
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