Into the Gothic World of the Monk

One of my maxims for writing stories that take place in past eras is that people have always been the same.  What goes on inside hearts, and behind closed doors has never changed.   It is only the outer society that differs in clothes and manner.

A fantastic example of this is the 1796 novel by Matthew G. Lewis.   It is difficult to imagine this being published in the staid Victorian period.  But go back one century to the much more bawdy 18th, and this book was not only published, it was a smashing hit.  The fact that some critics deemed it obscene and dangerous, of course, only helped to sell more copies.

Matthew Lewis, born on July 9. 1775, to a prominant English family, wrote the novel in a span of ten weeks.   Inspired by the novel, Mysteries of Udolpho, he aimed to write his own Gothic masterpiece.    Evidently putting aside any care or worry what anyone would think of him or his novel, he went full out, no-holds barred.

The title character, Ambrosio is the ultimate man of two faces.  To his congregation he is the embodiment of purity and moral excellence.  Inside, he is an ego-ist who feeds on their adoration.    The novel weaves back and forth as he engages in a forbidden love affair while hearing confessions.   The novel becomes a Matryoshka doll of stories within stories.  Romance,  sex, magic, murder,  and ghosts  fill the pages.

While the confessions show most of the characters as decent folk caught up in a very unjust world,  Ambrosio the Monk spirals into one of the most loathesome characters in all of literature.  A hypocrite to the extreme who blames everyone  and everyone but himself for anything and everything he does,  his arrogance and utter disregard for others leads him to rape and murder.

The novel also boasts one of the most fascinating, unapologetic characters in Matilda.  As Ambrosio’s lover and nemesis,  she is his perfect foil, and the reader will be quite curious whose side she is really on.

Story-wise, the novel is a marvel and it is easy to see why it had such great influence on such later literary figures as Emily Bronte and Poe.  On the negative side, the novel is unfortunately filled with the racism and sexism of its day.  Reading the treatment of the women is not easy.  Their constant punishment will raise the hair of anyone with modern sensibility.   While the men happily go along their merry ways, you can bet any of the female characters who engages in physical intercourse- whether it be consensual sex or  rape, will either die or lose her beauty and retire into a convent.  Only one female character in the book who has had pre-marital sex is “allowed” by the author to marry the man she loves at the end.   But not until after she has suffered one of  the cruelest, most heartbreaking tragedies one can imagine.

If the book had been written today I would have thrown it out the window.  But accepting the book for the era it was written, I was able to greatly enjoy the story while glaring at times and being grateful that authors no longer need to punish their ladies as some sort of horrible, hypocritical “moral”.

Recommended as a highly engaging, spellbinding, and at times, surprisingly humorous tale with a fantasic, witty end.

Published in: on May 20, 2012 at 7:52 pm  Comments (17)  
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17 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. That’s such a great idea to keep in mind when writing. Human nature is human nature, and today’s scandals re: fallen preachers are nothing new. The interesting thing is watching society see-saw back and forth between outward piety and conservativeness, and the free-wheeling attitudes that started up again in the 1960s.

  2. I agree with both you and DD. I would of thrown it out the window as well and human nature is human nature. I just really hate the book of how it deem female less than worthy for anything.

  3. Absolutely, DD. And I also find it a bit weird how one decade can be so out there, and then the next people are all (as you put it): “outward piety”. I don’t get it. What’s the point? I think by now it’s kinda well-known that we humans have sex and stuff… 😉

  4. Lora, yeah. It can be frustrating reading older lit for that reason. And just an aside, I’m always careful to differentiate between an author realisically depicting sexism, and being sexist themselves in the treatment of their female characters. This book, sadly, was an example of the latter.

    Shame, because the novel is pretty damn good otherwise.

  5. […] Tweet of the Day: Into the Gothic World of the Monk […]

  6. Sounds like something I need to read

  7. Let me know what you think if you do. 🙂

  8. I had a similar experience recently reading E.M. Hull’s ‘The Sheikh.’ Alas, there were no fascinating characters to mitigate the sexism and racism. Just an unrepentant rapist and the flighty nincompoop who falls in Stockholm Syndrome with him. It would have hit the wall if I hadn’t been reading it on my Kindle.

  9. Heh. I’ll likely avoid that one. I just know of it due to the Valentino film.

  10. I read this one a couple months ago and enjoyed it. I particularly liked the way Matilda slowly morphs from an apparently sympathetic admirer into a diabolical sorceress as the story progresses. I was intrigued by the worldview that presents–one where life’s small temptations are really snares that have been placed to drag you deeper and deeper into iniquity, until finally you’re selling your soul to the devil. The people who read Monk must have imagined their world filled with supernatural agency, and conceived of their individual choices as endowed with cosmic significance. It’s not the best story in the world, but I enjoyed inhabiting its worldview.

  11. Hi there,

    I thought Matilda was the best part of the whole thing. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the novel. Interesting way to look at it.

  12. Cruel and unusual punishments,it seems!Poor gals!

  13. Hey Colby!

    Yeah…glad to be living *now* !

  14. When you spoke of the punishments that the females in the book receive due to their moral flaws reminded me of 80s slasher films like Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th. The reason you die in a horror film if you have sex was the movie industries way of trying to say sex before marriage is bad.

  15. On a related note (sort of, well not really) I took the (immense) liberty of pasting a sample of this post to the I Write Like… page and it came out:

    H.P. Lovercraft!

    Congrats! 😀

  16. Interesting coincidence, Ralfast A friend of mine and I were just discussing how we wish to read some Lovecraft!

  17. […] Into the Gothic World of the Monk […]

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