Places: The Monk

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1796

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Gothic

Time of work: The Spanish Inquisition

Places DiscussedChurch of the Capuchins

Church Monk, Theof the Capuchins. Elaborate religious complex in Spain’s capital city, Madrid, with multiple interconnected institutions. Typical of churches in gothic fiction, this one has a monastery with secret tunnels that lead to a nearby convent, which is itself built over top of a deep catacomb that serves as a burial ground and a prison. This novel made significant changes to the gothic novel genre. In the first place, most novels before this one were set in either France or Italy; this one, however, made use of Spain and was thus able to tap into longstanding English hostility to Spain and to Roman Catholicism. For instance, Matthew Gregory Lewis chose a cathedral as the centerpiece setting of his novel and linked various other institutions to it: The villain, Ambrosio, is the abbot of a nearby monastery; his female counterpart, a tyrannical mother superior, dominates a linked convent. With the use of this setting, Lewis presents Spain as a country in which “superstition reigns with . . . despotic sway.” Everything about Spain, from the point of view of this novel, revolves around either repressed sexuality or religious hypocrisy.

Nowhere is this more true, according to Lewis, than in the main monastery. Ambrosio is represented as the archetype of repressed sexuality, and the setting is to blame. As Lewis puts it, Ambrosio’s naturally powerful character might have led him to virtue and greatness in society; however, the monks “[rooted] out his virtues, and . . . allowed every vice which had fallen to his share, to arrive at full perfection.” Thus the monastery serves in this novel to thwart natural feelings and channel them in unhealthy directions. Instead of being a place of devotion, it is a place of resentment and perversion. Predictably, the monastery is the setting for other vices–including various forms of repressed sexuality and black magic.

Convent of Saint Clare

Convent of Saint Clare. Place of living death and of barbarous incarceration for the female characters of the novel. The novel explores female and male religious devotion, and the convent serves as a counterpart setting to Church of the Capuchins. Like the latter, the convent is represented as a place in which the emotions and human drives are sublimated not into religious devotion but into cruelty and vice. The female characters suffer intensely under the tyranny of various religious figures, none so barbaric as the sister who is in charge of the convent. The suffering they undergo is extreme, as, for instance, one character is bound to the corpse of her stillborn infant and locked into an underground chamber. Although scenes like this one earned Lewis a considerable amount of critical condemnation, they were highly believable to many English readers and were copied by later gothic writers.

Monastery garden

Monastery garden. Place of natural beauty and hidden temptation. As in other gothic novels, Lewis’s work introduces a garden that replays and transforms the biblical story of Eden. In this novel Adam is represented by the titular character, Ambrosio, whose life in the monastery has not prepared him to resist temptation; representing Eve is a young woman who has disguised herself as a monk in order to be close to Ambrosio, whom she claims to love. As is typical of gothic settings, however, the tempter is never far away. In this case, the young woman is in reality a demon who has taken on human form in order to lead Ambrosio into damnation.

BibliographyAndriano, Joseph. “The Feminine in The Monk.” In Our Ladies of Darkness: Feminine Daemonology in Male Gothic Fiction. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993. Provides a Jungian reading of the novel, demonstrating a movement from the sublime (the Madonna in the form of the demoniac Matilda) to the supernatural (the Bleeding Nun).Conger, Syndy M. “Sensibility Restored: Radcliffe’s Answer to Lewis’s The Monk.” In Gothic Fictions: Prohibition/Transgression, edited by Kenneth W. Graham. New York: AMS Press, 1989. Notes that The Monk stands apart from the norm of the horror fiction of its time because it makes explicit what writers like Radcliffe implied, shocking the sensibilities of both writers and readers.Kendrick, Walter. The Thrill of Fear: 250 Years of Scary Entertainment. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991. Discusses the value of The Monk in its own time as a success and scandal. Emphasizes the novel’s influence on Nathanial Hawthorne, Mary Shelley, E. T. A. Hoffman, and other writers through the late twentieth century.Lyndenberg, Robin. “Ghostly Rhetoric: Ambivalence in M. G. Lewis’ The Monk.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 10, no. 2 (1979): 65-79. Asserts that the use of Beatrice, the Bleeding Nun, suggests that the Bleeding Nun’s ghost is a mere stock device and a composite of clichés.Watkins, Daniel P. “Social Hierarchy in Matthew Lewis’s The Monk.” Studies in the Novel 18, no. 2 (Summer, 1986): 115-124. Discusses the social hierarchy that evolves in the novel, using the monastery and the Inquisition as the norm invaded by the supernatural.
Categories: Places