Gothicism has been around for centuries, pervading architecture, music, literature, and film alike. Its roots are deep, and its identifying factors are strong—baroque style, high passion, and a healthy heap of darkness. Compared to architecture and music, Gothic fiction is fairly young, developing in the late 18th century with English authors such as Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe. No one was prepared, however, for the arrival of Matthew Gregory Lewis, who published his deliciously controversial novel The Monk at the ripe age of 19.
When The Monk was unleashed, the literary world had already been introduced to Radcliffe and Walpole’s gloomy melodramas, along with Romantic works from Germany and France. None of these stories contained the moral quandaries, the viciousness, or the sex and violence of Lewis’ novel. It tells the story of Ambrosio, the titular Monk, who is considered the holiest man in all of Madrid, until he encounters a woman disguised as a fellow monk in his abbey. Her seductiveness leads Ambrosio on a descent into depravity, murder, and corruption, burrowing to the depths of Hell.
His moral battle draws in Antonia, a beautiful virgin for whom his lust is massive; along with two noblemen, one of whom is in love with Antonia, and whose sister is being tortured by the abbey prioress. Lewis’ plot is complex, almost maddeningly so, but it all revolves around this idea of corrupted holiness. The nobleman’s sister, unjustly pledged to the convent, is condemned to punishment by the cruel prioress because she is discovered to be pregnant. This occurs as Ambrosio and his disguised companion craft a wicked plot to seduce Antonia, a plot which soon involves diabolical forces.
The best, and most aggravating, elements of Gothic fiction are at play here. Lewis sets his dialogues in dark corridors, midnight gardens, and eventually the abbey crypts, where a disturbing climax takes place amongst the rotting bodies. His characters are wildly passionate—always emoting extreme joy or sorrow—and for the most part, either good or evil, with few shades in between. The young, brave characters are constantly battling the ideals of brutal tyrants, who are portrayed as gluttons for misery. The noblemen battle their way through violent bandits, abbey riots and, of course, corrupted monks in order to win their beloveds’ hearts. It’s an adventure story, fixed with supernatural and demonic elements. But the moral backbone makes it highly fascinating.
Readers were shocked into anger when The Monk was released, including Ann Radcliffe, who would go on to write a novel quite similar, though not nearly as graphic. Lewis does not shy away from nasty details, and considering the time in which it was published, his images are still shocking. The idea of a monk engaging in wild sex acts within holy walls is a potent one, and the instances of the supernatural are wonderfully grotesque. Beyond this, the themes at the core of the story are remarkable. Through the melodrama and sensationalism, Lewis portrays a world where people in power can get away with murder. Almost every villain in the story holds a royal title or is a sworn member of the Catholic Church. Released at a time when the Church was still a major power, and religion was intertwined with law in every European country, this was a bold statement.
Moral horror is nothing terribly new—we see it in Greek mythology with “The Bacchae,” Grimms’ fairy tales, Dante’s Inferno, and even the Bible itself. The emotion of horror can be used to make a point and make it stick; no one will do something wrong if they know they’ll burn for eternity afterwards. Lewis’ moral ideas, though, are rebellious. To suggest that a monk, the holiest monk in all of Spain no less, could so quickly turned into an agent of the Devil, is a controversial idea. It makes us wonder about the solidity of our institutions, and more readily question them, perhaps.
This inversion of morals can be seen throughout much of Gothic fiction later on. Nathaniel Hawthorne questioned Puritanism in “Young Goodman Brown” and The Scarlet Letter; Charlotte Bronte dismantled the patriarchy far before her time with Jane Eyre; and Shirley Jackson pokes massive holes in the ideas of “community” and “sanity” in almost all of her works. While much of The Monk reads as a traditional Gothic morality tale, the fact that the evil is conducted by a holy person is fascinating, and that upending of “goodness” has permeated literature ever since. This idea of evil religious figures is commonplace now, and has proven to be all too real, yet to see it put in place so early in literature is thrilling. An entertaining and lurid read, but also a savage examination of our society’s deference to power, The Monk remains essential.