The Monk  

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"Sometimes I felt the bloated Toad, hideous and pampered with the poisonous vapours of the dungeon, dragging his loathsome length along my bosom: Sometimes the quick cold Lizard rouzed me leaving his slimy track upon my face, and entangling itself in the tresses of my wild and matted hair: Often have I at waking found my fingers ringed with the long worms which bred in the corrupted flesh of my Infant. At such times I shrieked with terror and disgust, and while I shook off the reptile, trembled with all a Woman's weakness."--The Monk (1796) is a novel by Matthew Gregory Lewis

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Monk (1796) is a novel by Matthew Gregory Lewis about a monk named Ambrosio that first appeared in 1796. It was written before he turned 20, in the space of 10 weeks. The work was influenced by The Devil in Love, although Lewis denied having read it (Praz, 1930).


Plot summary

The story concerns Ambrosio - a pious, well-respected monk in Spain - and his violent downfall. He is undone by carnal lust for his pupil Matilda, who tempts him to transgress, and, once satisfied by her, is overcome with desire for the innocent Antonia. Using magic spells Matilda aids him in seducing Antonia, whom he later rapes and kills. Matilda is eventually revealed as an instrument of Satan in female form, who has orchestrated Ambrosio's downfall from the start. In the middle of telling this story Lewis frequently makes further digressions, which serve to heighten the Gothic atmosphere of the tale while doing little to move along the main plot. A lengthy story about a "Bleeding Nun" is told, and many incidental verses are introduced. A second romance, between Lorenzo and Antonia, also gives way to a tale of Lorenzo's sister being tortured by hypocritical nuns (as a result of a third romantic plot). Eventually, the story catches back up with Ambrosio, and in several pages of impassioned prose, Ambrosio is delivered into the hands of the Inquisition; he escapes by selling his soul to the devil for his deliverance from the death sentence which awaits him. The story ends with the devil preventing Ambrosio's attempted final repentance, and the sinful monk's prolonged torturous death.


Agnes is Don Lorenzo's younger sister and Don Raymond's lover. Her mother was ill while pregnant with Agnes and promised to send Agnes to the convent if she delivered her safely. She is a virtuous young lady who intends to marry Don Raymond but she succumbs to her desires and becomes pregnant with his child before trying to run away with him. Their plans are foiled and she enters the convent, secretly pregnant. When the Prioress discovers her secret, she locks Agnes in the sepulcher. There, Agnes delivers her baby boy, who dies shortly after. Agnes slowly wastes away but is rescued. She and Don Raymond finally marry. Agnes is grateful for Virginia's careful attention and wants Virginia and her brother to marry.

Ambrosio is an extremely devout monk about 30 years old. He was found left at the Abbey doorstep when he was too young to tell his tale. The monks consider him a present from the Virgin and they educate him at the monastery. According to Don Lorenzo, he has “never been known to transgress a single rule of his order.” The progress of the novel chronicles Ambrosio's fall from innocence and virtue to complete evil.

Antonia is a timid and innocent girl of 15. She was brought up in an old castle in Murcia with only her mother Elvira and is therefore very sheltered. She is the object of Don Lorenzo's attentions. She is eventually buried alive, raped and murdered by Ambrosio, who turns out to be her older brother. In The Monk, the evil characters are “done better” than the good ones, and Antonia's character is so virtuous that some have found her “deadly dull”.

Baptiste is a robber living outside of Strausbourg. He lets travelers stay in his house so that he may rob and murder them. His two sons by a previous wife, Jacques and Robert, assist him to this end. He then forces Marguerite to marry him.

Elvira is the mother of Antonia and Ambrosio. She married a young nobleman in secret. His family does not approve of her and because of this she and her husband escape to the Indies, leaving her 2 year old son behind. After 13 years, when Antonia is very young, her husband dies and she returns to Murcia where she lives on an allowance given to her by her father in law. She is extremely protective of her daughter. Because her husband's family did not approve of her, she is very cautious of Lorenzo's attentions to Antonia. Elvira tells him that should he get his family's approval, she will agree to the match but she does not believe this will actually happen. She also gives Antonia an edited version of the bible so as to protect her innocence. Because of this implication that the bible is inappropriate for a young lady, Coleridge later calls Lewis blasphemous.

Leonella is Elvira's sister and Antonia's spinster aunt. She takes an immediate disliking to Ambrosio after hearing his sermon. She believes Don Christoval's polite attentions are more significant than they actually are and is hurt when he fails to call at her house. She eventually marries a younger man and lives in Cordova.

Don Lorenzo de Medina is Agnes' older brother and friend of Don Raymond and Don Christoval. Immediately intrigued by Antonia after meeting her at Ambrosio's sermon, Don Lorenzo resolves to marry her.

Matilda is first known as Rosario, the young boy who looks up to Ambrosio “with a respect approaching idolatry”. Rosario is brought to the Monastery by a well dressed rich stranger but not much more is known of his past. He always hides under his cowl and later reveals that he is actually Matilda, a beautiful young lady who loves Ambrosio. Matilda was also the model for the Madonna painting that hangs in Ambrosio's room. She seduces Ambrosio and aids in his destruction of Antonia with magic.

The character of Matilda was highly praised by Coleridge as Lewis' masterpiece, and is said to be “exquisitely imagined” Though she is considered by some critics to be the most intelligent, articulate, and interesting, she is difficult to characterize. The plot of the novel relies on her being a supernatural force with magical powers, but she begins human. She tells Ambrosio she loves him when she thinks he is asleep, and cries “involuntary” tears when she realizes he no longer cares for her. These passages, together with the haste in which the novel was written, “that Lewis changed his mind in the course of the narrative”.

Mariana, Alix, Violante are nuns who vote to punish Agnes and are aware that she is being kept in the sepulcher. They fall victim to the outraged crowd at the processional.

Marguerite is first introduced as a short and unwilling hostess and wife of Baptiste. Her first husband dies after receiving wounds from an English traveler. The group of banditti do not trust Marguerite to keep their secret and she becomes the property of Baptiste. She has two sons, Theodore and a younger unnamed boy. She saves Don Raymond's life by revealing Baptiste's true intentions through mysterious bloody sheets and significant glances. She stabs and kills Baptiste as Don Raymond tries to strangle him, allowing them both to escape.

The Prioress, also known as Mother St. Agatha, is given Don Raymond's letter to Agnes by Ambrosio. She punishes Agnes severely to uphold the honor of the convent of St. Clare. “Viciously cruel in the name of virtue”, she keeps Agnes prisoner in the dungeons beneath the convent with only enough bread and water to sustain her but not nourish her. The prioress circulates the story of Agnes' death to everyone, including Agnes' own relations. She is torn to pieces by the crowd that gathers to honor St. Clare when they realize she is responsible for Agnes' supposed death. She is also the inspiration for the Abbess of San Stephano in Radcliffe's The Italian.

Don Raymond, Marquis de las Cisternas is also known as Alphonso d'Alvarada. He takes the name Alphonso when his friend, the Duke of Villa Hermosa, advises him that taking a new name will allow him to be known for his merits rather than his rank. He travels to Paris, but finds the Parisians “frivolous, unfeeling and insincere” and sets out for Germany. Near Strausbourg he is forced to seek accommodations in a cottage after his chaise supposedly breaks down. He is the target of the robber Baptiste but with help from Marguerite, he is able to save himself and the Baroness Lindenberg. Grateful, the Baroness invites Don Raymond to stay with her and her husband at their castle in Bavaria. It is at the Castle of Lindenberg that he first meets Agnes.

Donna Rodolpha, Baroness of Lindenburg meets Don Raymond while traveling to Strausbourg. She is in love with Don Raymond and becomes jealous when she finds out Don Raymond is in love with her niece, Antonia. She asks him to leave the Castle of Lindenberg and later speaks poorly of his character.

Don Christoval, the Condé d'Ossorio, is Lorenzo's friend. He attracts Leonella's desires but does not return them.

Mother St. Ursula assists in Agnes' rescue. She is a witness to the Prioress' crimes and without her, Don Lorenzo would not be able to accuse the Prioress.

Theodore is Marguerite's son who becomes Don Raymond's page. He enjoys writing poetry and authors the poems “Love and Age” and “The Water King”. After reading “Love and Age”, Don Raymond points out the flaws in the piece, which may be flaws Lewis noticed in his own work. Far from being the unwaiveringly faithful servant stock character, Theodore plays a key role in moving the plot forward by helping with Don Raymond's plans to escape with Agnes. Theodore's character also provides foreshadowing through his poems. His poems parallel the action of the story. For instance, in his poem “The Water King”, the lovely maid's fate foreshadows Antonia's. In addition, Theodore also bears a striking resemblance to other characters in other of Lewis' works, including Leolyn in One O'clock (1811) and Eugene in “Mistrust” from Romantic Tales (1808).

Virginia de Villa Franca is introduced late in the story. She is a beautiful, virtuous young relation of the Prioress who represents St. Clare in the Procession. Virginia nurses the ill Agnes back to health and thus wins Lorenzo's affections. Like Isabella in The Castle of Otranto, she is introduced as an acceptable marriage partner for Lorenzo but plays an unessential part in the plot.


The Monk is remembered for being one of the more lurid and "transgressive" of the Gothic novels. Featuring demonic pacts, rape, incest, and such props as the Wandering Jew, ruined castles, and the Spanish Inquisition, The Monk serves more or less as a compendium of Gothic taste. Ambrosio, the hypocrite foiled by his own lust, and his sexual misconduct inside the walls of convents and monasteries, is a vividly portrayed villain, as well as an embodiment of much of the traditional English mistrust of Roman Catholicism, with its intrusive confessional, its political and religious authoritarianism, and its cloistered lifestyles. The American fictitious anti-Catholic libel, The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, borrowed much from the plot of this novel.

The Gothic novel, le roman noir and the Schauerroman

At about the same time as the English Gothic, parallel Romantic literary movements developed in continental Europe: the roman noir ("black novel") in France (including such writers as François Guillaume Ducray-Duminil, Baculard d'Arnaud, and Madame de Genlis) and the Schauerroman ("shudder novel") in Germany (e.g. Christian Heinrich Spieß's Das Petermännchen, 1791/92) - which were often more horrific and violent than the English gothic novel.

The fruit of this harvest of continental horrors was Matthew Gregory Lewis's lurid tale of monastic debauchery, black magic and diabolism The Monk (1796). Though Lewis's novel could be read as a sly, tongue-in-cheek spoof of the emerging genre, self-parody was a constituent part of the Gothic from the time of the genre's inception with Walpole's Otranto. Lewis's tale appalled some contemporary readers; however his portrayal of depraved monks, sadistic inquisitors and spectral nuns, and his scurrilous view of the Catholic church was an important development in the gothic novel genre.


Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière attempted to film a version of The Monk in the 1960s, but the project was halted due to lack of funds. Buñuel's friend, the Greek director Ado Kyrou, used this script as the basis for his 1972 film version. Le Moine (English The Monk) boasted an international cast with Franco Nero in the title role. The film also starred Nathalie Delon, Eliana de Santis, Nadja Tiller and Nicol Williamson.


1700s literature - 1790s - gothic novel

Appraisal by Stephen King

"The Monk was a black engine of sex and the supernatural that changed the genre--and the novel itself--forever. There has never been anything quite like it. At this writing, the book is over two hundred years old and still explosive" (Stephen King, 2002)

Praise by Sade

From Reflections on the Novel.

Peut-être devrions-nous analyser ici ces romans nouveaux, dont le sortilège et la fantasmagorie composent à peu près tout le mérite, en plaçant à leur tête le Moine, supérieur, sous tous les rapports, aux bizarres élans de la brillante imagination de Radgliffe; mais cette dissertation serait trop longue; convenons seulement que ce genre, quoiqu'on en puisse dire, n'est assurément pas sans mérite; il devenait le fruit indispensable des secousses révolutionnaires dont l'Europe entière se ressentait. Pour qui connaissait tous les malheurs dont les méchants peuvent accabler les hommes, le roman devenait aussi difficile à faire que monotone à lire; il n'y avait point d'individu qui n'eût plus éprouvé d'infortunes en quatre ou cinq ans, que n'en pouvait peindre en un siècle le plus fameux romancier de la littérature; il fallait donc appeler l'enfer à son secours, pour se composer des titres à l'intérêt, et trouver dans le pays des chimères, ce qu'on savait couramment en ne fouillant que l'histoire de l'homme dans cet âge de fer. Mais que d'inconvénients présentait cette manière d'écrire! l'auteur du Moine ne les a pas plus évités que Radgliffe; ici nécessairement de deux choses l'une, ou il faut développer le sortilège, et dès lors vous n'intéressez plus, ou il ne faut jamais lever le rideau, et vous voilà dans la plus affreuse invraisemblance. Qu'il paraisse dans ce genre un ouvrage assez bon pour atteindre le but sans ce briser contre l'un ou l'autre de ces écueils, loin de lui reprocher ses moyens, nous l'offrirons alors comme un modèle.


"Antonia shrieked. The Monster clasped her in his arms, and springing with her upon the Altar, tortured her with his odious caresses. She endeavoured in vain to escape from his embrace. Lorenzo flew to her succour, but ere He had time to reach her, a loud burst of thunder was heard. Instantly the Cathedral seemed crumbling into pieces; The Monks betook themselves to flight, shrieking fearfully; The Lamps were extinguished, the Altar sank down, and in its place appeared an abyss vomiting forth clouds of flame. Uttering a loud and terrible cry the Monster plunged into the Gulph, and in his fall attempted to drag Antonia with him. He strove in vain. Animated by supernatural powers She disengaged herself from his embrace; But her white Robe was left in his possession. Instantly a wing of brilliant splendour spread itself from either of Antonia's arms. She darted upwards, and while ascending cried to Lorenzo, `Friend! we shall meet above!' "

Reception of his Work

As a writer, Lewis is typically classified as writing in the horror-gothic genre along with authors Charles Robert Maturin and Mary Shelley. Though he was most assuredly influenced by Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and William Godwin’s Caleb Williams, taking Radcliffe’s obsession with the supernatural and Godwin’s narrative drive and interest in crime and punishment, Lewis differed with his literary approach. Whereas Radcliffe would allude to the imagined horrors under the genre of terror-gothic, Lewis defined himself by disclosing the details of the gruesome scenes, earning him the title of horror-gothic novelist. For Lewis, by giving the reader the information, he provides a more fulfilling experience. In the article “Matthew Lewis and the Gothic Horror of Obsessional Neurosis,” Ed Cameron argues that “Lewis disregards and often parodies the sentimentality found in Radcliffe’s work.” Without ambiguities, however, Lewis sometimes appears excessive in his materialized descriptions of the supernatural, losing a sense of wonder in the process.

Lewis is often criticized for a lack of originality. Though much of Lewis’ career dealt with the translation of other texts, these criticisms more often refer to his novel The Monk and his play The Castle Spectre. Beginning with The Monk, Lewis starts the novel with an advertisement which reads:

The first idea of this Romance was suggested by the story of the Santon Barsisa, related in The Guardian. –The Bleeding Nun is a tradition still credited in many parts of Germany; and I have been told, that the ruins of the Castle of Lauenstein, which She is supposed to haunt, may yet be seen upon the borders of Thuringia. –The Water-King, from the third to twelfth stanza, is the fragment of an original Danish Ballad—And Belerma and Durandarte is translated from some stanzas to be found in a collection of old Spanish poetry, which contains also the popular song of Gayferos and Melesindra, mentioned in Don Quixote. –I have now made a full avowal of all the plagiarisms of which I am aware myself; but I doubt not, many more may be found, of which I am at present totally unconscious.

While some critics, like those of The Monthly Review, saw combinations of previous works as a new invention, others, including Samuel Coleridge, have argued that by revealing where Lewis found inspiration, he surrendered part of his authorship. This bothered Lewis so much that in addition to a note written by Lewis in the fourth edition of The Monk, he also included notes to the text when he published The Castle Spectre as a way to counteract any plagiarist accusations. However, his success is debatable.


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