The implications of Ambrosio’s development extend beyond the walls of a comfortingly exotic monastery in Madrid

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Last updated: April 8, 2019

“Lust, murder, incest and every atrocity that can disgrace human nature, brought together, without the apology of probability, or even possibility, for their introduction1” was the welcoming The British Critic in 1796 bestowed upon Matthew Lewis’ gothic novel, The Monk.

This is what sums up the novel in general, grasping its violence as well as the complicated nature of its foundations in a brief sentence. The foundation of the violence plaguing the novel is implicit in the development of the hero whose repressed religious upbringing transforms him into an antihero.However, for all the supernatural and religious aspects in the novel, which contribute to its ‘atrocity’, it is Ambrosio’s terrifying progress into a state of sin, violence and insatiable sexual desire that becomes the subject of terror within the novel. Having spent most of his life in the monastery, Ambrosio has grown up to become Madrid’s most reverent and pious monk. However, after establishing his respectable career as an abbot and orator, an inspiration of immeasurable faith, he is seduced by a woman pretending to be a noviciate (Matilda) in order to gain access to him.After the initial seduction, ennui sets in and his increasing desire for sexual gratification (which can no longer be satisfied by Matilda alone) leads him to turn his attentions to the innocent Antonia, eventually leading to the violent downfall of both pitiful characters. This slippery slope of events is one that is terrifying in the extreme. This monk, this respected and supposedly virtuous monk was believed to be above human sin by all of Madrid even dubbed the “Man of Holiness2”, having reached the age of 30 without committing a single sin.

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His fall from greatness is remarkable though Lewis credits Ambrosio’s ruin to his repressed upbringing. His innate qualities should have rendered him a hero, “had his youth passed in the world3” outside the monastery walls however, “the Monks terrified his young mind, by placing before him all the horrors with which Superstition could furnish them4”. It is almost no wonder that he cannot control his desire once it is released and it is interesting to observe that not even religion nor the physically restricted boundaries of the monastery can restrain him.The terror of the novel is the psychology of this flawed character; the implication of his upbringing, its result of violence and death and the psychological process in between, is far more horrifying than the surprisingly tangible supernatural occurrences in the novel.

Ambrosio’s personal perverse development creates a shudder in readers, but its echo in the perverse development of religion, which occurs throughout the novel, is a chill that creates a sense of invasion, of sacrilege, within the hearts of readers.Ambrosio derives a sexual pleasure from Antonia’s virtues and modesty, as he does with the picture of the Virgin Mary at the very beginning. Although he reprimands himself at first for his salacious thoughts, he cannot help but feel drawn to it. Little does he know at this point that the picture is actually a depiction of Matilda as the Virgin Mary, which can then be somewhat forgiven as the work of Matilda’s magic charms although his desire for Antonia, on the other hand is not so easily forgiven.

His craving for virginity, for Antonia’s modesty and innocence, is transferred to the corruption of religion.The fact that there something that is residing within the sacred monastery walls that is evil and hides itself with the face of virtue is what creates a fear amongst readers and shakes their beliefs as it would to the public within the novel itself. This corruption hidden behind sacred walls is present throughout the novel. The Prioress of St. Clare’s Convent is ruthless and severe in her punishment to Agnes, almost to a limit beyond that which should have been acceptable. Her accomplices, furthermore, in the abduction of Agnes shows a corruption that resonates through all levels of the religious order.

Even the fact that there is a woman, Matilda, hiding in the monastery of St. Francis is a sacrilege and that the ‘Idol of Madrid5 knows of Rosario/Matilda is shocking enough. How can such a place of worship and of virtue hide such adulterous, dangerous activities? Because the novel, typical of gothic fiction, is set in a place that is geographically and historically distant from its readers in late 18th century England, in the archaic world of medieval Madrid, its secrecy and displacement from the readers serves to provide a sanctity not only for the sinners within the novel but for us too.

It is not the backdrop of dungeons, vaults, sepulchres of the monastery itself that evokes fear; it is the idea of these dangerous and scary places that truly create terror. The sense of the sublime gained from an exotic location and its dark vaults, where its foreign mysteries gives way to the imagination and of unknown territories thus associating it to the gothic novel. Add the additional monstrosities behind the walls of such a place and the terrors of The Monk become manifest. I have used the words terror and horror without a proper definition of the very separate terms.Both can be used to describe The Monk in various ways but not often in the same way.

For Ann Radcliffe, a contemporary gothic writer of Lewis’, terror is that which “expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life” whereas horror “contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them”6. The distinction of the two can be simply explained by the fearful effects of that which is tangible, obvious and imaginable (horror) and that which is unlimited, mysterious and most of all, sublime (terror).The horror of the novel is often associated with the fact that Lewis introduces supernatural conceptions to the storyline. His detailing of specific superstitions – the Bleeding Nun as the best example, is elaborated and full as to create the sense of realism within the novel. The Bleeding Nun saga in the novel is used to generate this sense of real supernatural occurrences in the novel by describing the tale as a legend, a myth. It turns out, however, that the Nun is actually real and attaches herself to its critic, Don Raymond.Her haunting of the Marquis seems to be real within the novel and thus contributes to Lewis’ creation of horror.

The problem with this horror within the novel is that it leaves no space for mystery or for obscurity. The supernatural is laid out in a most unadulterated form of horror and realism in the novel means that it does not have the same effect in reality; we view such obvious supernaturalism with scepticism and recognise its impossibility in real life. However, the terror is also intertwined within the whole horror aspect of the novel.The way Lewis portrays this horror, though detailed and thus limited, also produces imaginative possibilities. The idea of the sublime and of terror is that it is the unknown, the mysteries and the unimaginable that provokes powerful emotions but the sublime is a human conception and one that is quite impossible without the use of imagination in the first place. Lewis’ developed imagination leads us to further our own imaginations by invoking that which already produces a deep sense of fear – not with his description, but the effects of it.Terror is effective in the novel because of the psychology behind the description, the evils hiding between the lines of gory details which evoke our most deepest feelings of fear and the unknown.

And after all, imagination is unlimited in itself – a corporeal representation of the Bleeding Nun does not restrict our understanding of it. The psychology of terror is also presented in Ambrosio’s development, which cannot be confined by the walls of the monastery.His loss of a conscience and his unlimited boundaries (which were once restricted to the grounds within his sanctuary) demonstrate a frightening amount of loss of control, one that is now free to penetrate into the psychology of others. If Ambrosio is unable to escape temptation and as a result, succumbs to the devil in a Faustian pact, what is there to stop human kind from suffering the same fate? Of course, The Monk is just a work of fiction but its questions, its penetrating insight to the flaws of humanity, is that which terror is. That is the unknown, the unlimited and the sublime of the novel.The gothic novel serves as an escape from what is real and places the reader in a world where it is safe to consider things that would not happen in real life. This voyeurism gives us a “pleasurable shudder”, a sense of enjoyment from the novel.

We are curious and intrigued by the novel’s violence and its controversy. This voyeuristic pleasure is not unlike Ambrosio’s voyeuristic pleasure of viewing the naked Antonia in the magic mirror in that it provokes a sense of disgust within ourselves almost. What this means is that we can somewhat identify with Ambrosio and recognise his faults with some of our own.Ambrosio however, portrays an extreme that we cannot imagine in ourselves (though his character is possibly due to his repressed desires from a restrictive childhood) and so our voyeuristic pleasure of watching this fictional derives from this sense of escape. Lewis leaves no room in the novel for mysteries or ambiguities of the supernatural but he leaves room in our imagination for questioning. The imaginary walls of the fearful dungeons, the crypts and the sacred monastery, protect us as readers from personally experiencing this terror ourselves.

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