Matthew Gregory Lewis
Oxford University Press
November 1, 2021 November 5, 2021
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Set in the sinister monastery of the Capuchins in Madrid, The Monk is a violent tale of ambition, murder, and incest. The struggle between maintaining monastic vows and fulfilling personal ambitions leads its main character, the monk Ambrosio, to temptation and the breaking of his vows, then to sexual obsession and rape, and finally to murder in order to conceal his guilt.
Inspired by German horror romanticism and he work of Ann Radcliffe, Lewis produced his masterpiece at the age of 19. It contains many typical Gothic elements - seduction in a monastery, lustful monks, evil abbesses, bandits an beautiful heroines. But Lewis also played with convention, ranging from gruesome realism to social comedy, and even parodied the genre in which he was writing.
About the book
We are in Madrid, in the 18th century, a period in which the Inquisition and death by burning existed. Here preaches Ambrosio, abbot of the Capuchin monastery present in the city, a virtuous man who manages to charm the congregation with his sermons. He never leaves the monastery and preaches in church only on Thursdays.
Antonia is a young woman who is bewitched by the abbot one Thursday when she goes to hear the homily with her aunt. Here, however, she also meets Lorenzo, a young noble who gives her his seat.
Agnes is a nun of the convent of Santa Chiara adjacent to the monastery and Lorenzo’s sister. As we learn, she hides a secret that will be the beginning of Ambrosio’s ruin (even if it has nothing to do with it directly).
What I think
I liked the book, I know the three stars don’t say that, but I’ll explain why later. The book reflects very well what human life is, sin is natural even for those who should be full of virtues. Obviously the sins in the book are taken to the limit since there is also talk of murder. There is no need for an evil entity to make us sin, obsession with a given person, obsession with a given thing naturally leads us to be “weak”. Of course there are sins and there are crimes.
I did not remember how much I loved reading about this period where superstition and appearance were sovereign in this society. The book gives many food for thought, the first of all is it right to deprive nuns and priests of the love of another human? They, too, are human and can go the wrong way; is it fair to blame them for being human (like Agnes? obviously I’m not talking about Ambrosio and his obsession because it’s obvious it wasn’t born out of love for another human being). The bigger question is why don’t priests get married? Or nuns. No, I am not asking, I know why, I am saying that this rule is archaic and should be changed, but I also understand that Catholicism is like this and if it doesn’t suit you either you do not become a priest / nun (at least in our days) or you change “religion” and you become Protestant. You are always a Christian. (and I know it’s much more complicated than that)
I read the book because I was intrigued by Ambrosio and what could happen once the “tempting devil” had tried him, but Agnes’s story intrigued me more. She reminds me of the Nun of Monza and the Nun of Monza is my favorite Manzonian character.
Matilda is shrewd. She puts the blame for her deception on Ambrosio or at least she often says “if you hadn’t made me confess my secret”. Also after revealing her secret she always adds something to make Ambrosio fall into temptation even though she says it’s not her purpose (and I like that about her).
In conclusion, I recommend the book because it is a good starting point for debate even if the themes are strong and therefore it is not for everyone.
Now why only 3 stars:
From here on, I talk about events that happened in the book so read only if you have read the book.
I understand the reason for certain facts and therefore I liked it from that side, but if Antonia hadn’t died and if Ambrosio hadn’t done what he did to the girl I would have liked it more. I repeat, I understand why, if it had not been for that act Ambrosio would not have been tormented by his actions, since Matilda was only a representation of the devil and not a real person, therefore a human person had to suffer his sins by force, but he had already killed Antonia’s mother, his soul was still cursed, did he really have to succeed in his intent to “ruin” the beautiful Antonia?
I know that the gypsy predicted Antonia’s future and that she practically told us what would happen to her, and so I knew about her “ruin” but I was hoping… Oh yes I like the feats of heroes that at the last, before the crime happens, they arrive and save the damsel in distress. I also don’t like the fact that Lorenzo marries Virginia and Antonia is forgotten. Here too, I understand why but I would have preferred otherwise.
The only saving aspect of the book is that Agnes is alive even though her child is not and that she can finally marry Raymond.
Is it only me who doesn’t like the end that both the abbess and Ambrosio have done? I would have condemned them to eternal torments, but I know that in that way I would not be better than them. I swear if it weren’t for the last two chapters, this book would be a full 5 star. Furthermore, if Ambrosio had found out who Antonia was in a different way and not introduce like “oh by the way” by Lucifer, I think I would have been more surprised. The final twist had potential but I think the author was in a hurry to finish the book. At the beginning of the book I thought that that child is Ambrosio then I completely forgot about it and had to re-read the first chapter to see the clues.