Saturday, November 24, 2007

BOOK: Matthew Lewis, "The Monk"

Matthew Lewis: The Monk. Edited by Howard Anderson, introduction and notes by Emma McEvoy. Oxford World's Classics, 1998. 0192833944. xl + 456 pp.

I'm quite fond of gothic novels, though I haven't read very many of them yet; just Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto and E.T.A. Hoffmann's The Devil's Elixirs, and now Lewis's The Monk. I also have several novels by Ann Radcliffe, which I intend to read eventually.

Anyway, I enjoyed this novel a lot. It's got plenty of everything one expects in a gothic novels; ghosts, devil-worship, monasteries, scheming clerics, a picturesque castle in Germany, subterranean dungeons with distant moans and creaking of chains, sex, rape, murder, lots and lots of melodrama. (For a synopsis of the story, see its page in the Wikipedia.) Sure, it's the pulp fiction of an earlier age. I usually think of reading pulp fiction as a guilty pleasure, but this time I didn't even feel any guilt; I just enjoyed it.

This OUP edition also has an interesting and fairly extensive introduction, which compares The Monk with other gothic novels, especially those of Ann Radcliffe (none of which I've read yet). Apparently The Monk is somewhat of an exception in this genre, and other gothic novels aren't quite as lurid or as explicit. See esp. pp. xiv and xix.

One thing that I found interesting about this novel is how many crimes the bad guys get away with, and for how long. Sure, in the end the good side wins, sort of, but how much damage has been done until then! Especially the monk, Ambrosio — the deeper he sinks into his crimes, the less they bother him, and the manages to murder Elvira and kidnap and rape Antonia before the novel is over. And then there's poor Agnes, her circumstances getting worse and worse despite all the efforts to the contrary, until at the end of the novel she is rescued from the very brink of death. First we see how her scheming relatives manage to get her to enter a monastery, despite the best efforts of don Raymond; and then, when the nuns discover her pregnancy, the abbess and a few other older nuns, after failing to obtain enough support among the others to have Agnes condemned to the worst sort of underground imprisonment, resort to trickery — they drug Agnes, making it seem that she died, and then after her ‘burial’ they convey her to the secret prison. Anyway, my point here is that we see evil doing very well indeed throughout most of the novel. It's true that the good side wins in the end, but it's hard to feel quite reassured by this after all the harm that's been done until then. From this point of view, this is not so much a reassuring story that good will win in the end, but rather a cautionary one that the world is a dangerous place with lots of evil people. In fact the steady progress of Antonio's corruption reminded me several times of what you usually see in another writer of the same period, namely de Sade; except that de Sade went one step further, and made the evil side triumphant at the end of the story as well, not just during it.

Especially in the last part of the novel, the last third or so, I felt that the novel was also one big cry of protest against religious fanaticism. I don't know if Lewis intended it to be seen that way (or maybe he did; perhaps he wanted it to function as an anti-Catholic work?), but the vast majority of the bad things that happen in this novel, especially towards the end, are ultimately due to religious fanaticism. It was this that made it possible for Antonio's ambition to be channelled into the career of a zealous and famous preacher, with the result that, between the pious celibate austerity (on which his reputation depended) and the wanking off to a picture of the Madonna, it's no wonder that he ended up crazy with lust, first for Matilda and then for Antonia. Likewise, it was religious fanaticism (and not her own) which made it possible for Agnes to end up in a convent in the first place, and then to be imprisoned by the evil abbess and her accomplices (another example of ambition that was channelled towards evil deeds due to religious fanaticism). And there's the inquisition near the end of the story, which is another sad result of excessive religious zeal. Now admittedly the situation is made more complicated by the presence of the devil, which the narrator of the novel takes quite seriously and matter-of-factly; he is no mere apparition but genuinely takes Ambrosio out of jail and later kills him. But even this, the presence of the devil in the novel, can be seen as another sorry consequence of fanaticism — people end up believing in this kind of terrible fictitious entities (and being afraid of them).

In ch. 2, p. 58 there's a passage where the novice Rosario admits that he is in fact a woman named Matilda. Well, this reminded me of this excellent comic.

On p. 79, when Ambrosio feigns sleep: “None sleep so profoundly, as those who are determined not to wake.”

“They who are conscious of Mankind's perfidy and selfishness, ever receive an obligation with apprehension and distrust: They suspect, taht some secret motive must lurk behind it: They express their thanks with restraint and caution, and fear to praise a kind action to its full extent, aware that some future day a return may be required.” (Vol. 2, ch. 3, p. 249.)

There are some amusing remarks on the Bible on p. 259 (vol. 2, ch. 4): “That prudent Mother, while She admired the beauties of the sacred writings, was convinced, that unrestricted no reading more improper could be permitted a young Woman. Many of the narratives can only tend to excite ideas the worst calculated for a female breast: Every thing is called plainly and roundly by its name; and the annals of a Brothel would scarcely furnish a greater choice of indecent expressions. [. . .] Of this Elvira was so fully convinced, that She would have preferred putting into her Daughter's hand ‘Amadis de Gaul,’ ” and other novels of chivalry.

An illustration of Antonia's utter innocence (vol. 2, ch. 4, p. 261): she says to Ambrosio, “ ‘Father, you amaze me! What is this love of which you speak? I neither know its nature, nor if I felt it, why I should conceal the sentiment.’ ” Especially the phrase “what is this * of which you speak” is priceless :)) See the Language Log for more examples (link 1, link 2 — the above passage from The Monk seems to be the earliest instance of this cliche that they're aware of), and also this post on Language Hat. The comments there contain a few excellent examples (“I was educated with the Queen's English with all its biases. I spoke it rather well. The first time I met with blacks from the States I was puzzled by their continuous use of a word sounding like ‘fucking’. I had never heard it. So I asked them, what does that word mean? What is fucking?”) :)))

The phrase “The Marquis constantly fell into the most terrible access of passion” appears on p. 282 (vol. 3, ch. 1). I wonder if it's simply a misspelling for “excess” (either Lewis's own, or perhaps by the typesetters of this OUP paperback edition?), or if Lewis deliberately used “access”. Its meaning could after all be stretched far enough to fit into this sentence; e.g. includes the meanings “an attack or onset, as of a disease; a sudden and strong emotional outburst”).

On p. 302 (vol. 3, ch. 1) there's a passage where the monk Ambrosio is caught as red-handed as one could possibly be, just at the point where he was about to rape Antonia. Of course, since this is a gothic novel, events proceed relatively gruesomely (Ambrosio ends up killing Antonia's mother Elvira, who had just caught him), but in general this type of situation is a great vehicle for humour. Here are some of my favourite examples: a recent one from I can has cheezburger?, a slightly older one from Sexy Losers, and a classic from one of the late, lamented parts of (the link points to the version in the Internet Archive; it's very slow, if the image fails to load, try this direct link instead; or try simply searching for whytx.jpg in Google to find mirrors, such as this one).

On p. 321 (vol. 3, ch. 2), Jacintha complains how everything goes wrong for her, despite all her efforts to purchase god's goodwill: “ ‘ [. . .] What signifies my having made three Pilgrimages to St. James of Compostella, and purchased as many pardons from the Pope, as would buy off Cain's punishment? [. . .] ’ ” :)

The end is remarkably lurid and melodramatic. The devil even tells Ambrosio that he is related to his victims: “ ‘ [. . .] That Antonia whom you violated, was your Sister! That Elvira whom you murdered, gave you birth! [. . .] ’ ” etc. Someone seems to have been reading too many Greek tragedies :)

Incidentally, the text in this book is based on Lewis's manuscript and preserves many of the quirks of his spelling. He is very fond of starting his words with capital initials, but I didn't get the impression that he is following any simple consistent rule in his choice of which words to capitalize. Another curious spelling is “risque” for “risk”.

Also incidentally, I am shocked to see that this novel was originally published in three volumes. It fits quite comfortably into one, and it isn't even particularly thick. Even if they used large type, the three volumes would still have to be very thin. I suppose it must have been done for some commercial reason, to increase the publisher's profits, but I'm surprised that the buyers went along with this.


  • Other gothic novels, especially those by Ann Radcliffe.

  • The introduction in this book, p. xiii, mentions another interesting-sounding title: The Necromancer, translated into English in 1794. It is also mentioned in the Wikipedia: The Necromancer: or, The Tale of the Black Forest (1794) by ‘Ludwig Flammenberg’ (pseudonym for Carl Friedrich Kahlert; translated by Peter Teuthold).

  • It might be interesting to read some of Lewis' poetry. The biography on p. i says that The Monk is Lewis' only novel, but that he later wrote many successful plays, and also “produced some volumes of poetry, and was well respected as a poet”.

    Incidentally, there are also several poems sprinkled throughout The Monk. They may not be terribly thrilling, but aren't that bad to read either. Anyway, I find that I usually don't particularly care for poems that are included within novels. Among the rare exceptions is Scott's wonderful Proud Maisie.

  • One notable plot element in The Monk is a kind of zombification: the victim is given a drug which causes her to fall into a kind of deep sleep in which she is invariably recognized as dead. She wakes up after two days, which gives the perpetrator enough time to have her buried and then steal her body so that he can manipulate with her later. See e.g. p. 329 here (vol. 3, ch. 2). Unlike in traditional zombification, however, the drug doesn't affect her state of mind after the point when she wakes up. Anyway, this method is used here in The Monk by the abbess against Agnes, and by Ambrosio against Antonia. Well, this reminded me that I would like to eventually read The Serpent and the Rainbow, a curious book by Wade Davis about zombification in Haiti.

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