The Representation of Gender and Gendered Roles in Lewis’ ‘The Monk’
The Monk, published in 1796 by Matthew Lewis, holds the distinction of one of the most popular and most controversial Gothic novels of all times. Set in the backdrop of the Protestant Reformation in Spain, the novel addresses and challenges many sensitive, tabooed societal norms, and elements of seduction, blasphemy, incest and lust are central to the text. At the time that it was written, the gender ideologies in Europe were governed by the idea of males and females co-existing in Separate Spheres, where females ‘naturally’ embodied traits of moral superiority, compliance and virtue, making them the ideal mates for domestic life and simultaneously lacking sexual drive – those with sexual appetites were frowned upon. Conversely, men were the epitome of rationality and strength, and had fewer societal restrictions placed upon them. (Huges, 2014) However, monastic chastity was still mandated thus bringing to light how dominant a role the prevalent religion – Catholicism – played in defining the societal attitude towards gender and sexuality. With sexual transgression as one of its central elements, the text features characters who violate these ideals and the consequences they face become a reflection of the contemporary attitude towards such transgressions.
The novel centers around Ambrosio, a monk, who is led to indulging his carnal desire through the temptation of Matilda – previously disguised as Ambrosio’s male admirer, Rosario. Upon procuring sexual favors from her, he grows weary of her and becomes overwhelmed with sexual attraction towards the virginal, virtuous Antonia. Matilda aids Ambrosio in his pursuit to satiate this desire, an act which causes him to commit a series of even more heinous crimes – including rape and murder – and eventually leads to his downfall. At the heart of the novel is the transgression of gender ideals and the associated consequences, and through the devout monk Ambrosio’s pursuit of fulfilling his sexual urges and subsequent punishment at the hands of the Devil, portraying the sexually driven female Matilda as the Demon, and innocent Antonia as the virtuous victim, it condemns the violation of prescribed norms of chastity. Simultaneously, through the contrastive language used in context of the characters of the lustful Matilda, the modest Antonia and the sinful Bleeding Nun – who shamelessly pursues her carnal desires and is subjected to eternal suffering – it deplores the exploration of female sexuality, connecting the consequences directly to sin and death. Themes of anti-Catholicism and sexual desire run parallel to these critiques and the ill-representation of male transgressive sexuality and its negative connotations is directly attributed to the religious upbringing of Ambrosio, thus connecting to the different, but not separate agenda of Lewis to mock institutionalized religion (Rosenthal, 2016). The Monk’s condemnation of sexual transgression is primarily illustrated through its central villain, Ambrosio, a friar who was left at the Abbey door as an infant and has been brought up within the Church. His protected upbringing has limited his exposure to many worldly desires and given him an apparent set of virtues which leaves him drunk on an overwhelming sense of superiority. He is predominantly lauded for his sexual chastity and in the opening pages of the novel, Lorenzo describes him as ‘so strict an observer of Chastity, that he knows not in what consists the difference of man and woman’ (The Monk, page 15). This description capitalizes upon his ignorance of the reality of sexuality, accentuated by him taking pride in his seclusion, and though he is praised for his initial lack of awareness of sexual drive, it is the same obliviousness that later leads to his severe transgressions, for he never learns to exercise control over such base urges. Monastic chastity was central to the Catholic approach to Christianity and through highlighting Ambrosio’s overwhelmingly pious nature, the author contrasts and consequently blames his overtly blasphemous transgressions on the ‘feminine’ position the Church put him in – protected and sheltered to save his virtue as a woman was at the time. The lack of self-awareness drilled into him by virtue of his religious upbringing is instrumental in him falling prey to the temptations of the Devil and thus his transgression and the resultant consequences he faces are attributed more to the failings of the Catholic Church – and its overt insistence on Monastic chastity – than to the sin of a man in losing his virtue in premarital sexual acts. He is described as being ‘yet to learn, that to a heart unacquainted with her, vice is ever more dangerous when lurking behind the mask of virtue’ (The Monk, page 87) when he learns that Matilda was the model for the portrait of the Virgin Mary that he admired so with longing. From the beginning, he is seen to be entranced by purity and virtue, and is resultantly attracted to Matilda, eventually succumbing to his sexual desire for her and sleeping with her. However, as Matilda becomes more forward in her sexual advances, he grows weary of her, and shifts his desire towards the innocent Antonia, thus highlighting a very disturbing sexual behavior for which the overtly Catholic nature of his value system is blamed. So protected and secluded has been his upbringing, reinforced and validated by his religious context, that he is aroused by the erotic nature of modesty and loses all forms of moral reasoning, giving himself over to his carnal desires and committing rape and murder to satiate them. He can thus be viewed as a tragic hero, and his transgressions an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of his limited exposure to reality. Consequently, the novel’s take on his sexual transgressions, though overwhelmingly negative as portrayed through Ambrosio’s ultimate fate – the realization that he raped his sister and murdered his mother before being victimized by the Devil – can be associated with Lewis’ condemnation of religious extremism, more so than it can be linked to his critique of male sexual transgression. Premarital sex was common amongst the male nobility in the 18th century – men would visit brothels to avail to prostitutes – and though frowned upon, it was treated as an open secret and without the Catholic morals, the males were not shunned. Staying true to that context, through Ambrosio’s rebellious transgression and how his overtly religious value system counterproductively leads to him commit crimes, the theme of religious hypocrisy and anti-catholocism are reinforced and the condemnation of male sexuality becomes secondary to that end. The females in the novel, however, are not favored to the same treatment, and Lewis openly condemns and demonizes those who transgress the prevalent ideals of chastity and praises those who conform. Transgressive female sexuality is epitomized through the character of Matilda, who is introduced as the male Rosario, admits to being a female, and is later revealed to be a Demon. She seduces Ambrosio through her initial, apparent modesty and later reprimands his values of chastity by telling him, ‘unnatural were [his] vows of celibacy; man was not created for such a state; and were love a crime, God never would have made it so sweet, so irresistible!’ (The Monk, page 238) and that he should ‘banish those clouds from [his] brow’ (The Monk, page 238). She directly belittles ideals central to Catholicism and blatantly deviates from the expectations of an 18th century female in her assertiveness and awareness of her sexuality (Huges, 2014). She demonstrates a keen sense of self-awareness and competence, as she knows what she wants and employs all means available to her to procure it – she successfully tempts Ambrosio into sleeping with her, and later aids his sexual predation of Antonia, both through contemptible means of manipulation and associations with the Devil. She thus becomes an embodiment of everything anti-religious and anti-female; her advances on Ambrosio are described in very gendered terms as she takes the lead in their sexual relationship, leaving Ambrosio ‘trembling and weak’ (The Monk, page 247) as she becomes more ‘masculine’ and the despoiler of Ambrosio’s previously ‘feminine’ virtue and sexual innocence. Allusions to the Devil are made consistently through her actions, one instance of which is her asking Ambrosio for a rose as a token for his affection which leads to a serpent biting him and he almost dies – allowing her to seduce him in his vulnerability. (The Monk, page 56) This indulgence to temptation can be associated with the Garden of Eden story in Genesis, where Eve, herself persuaded by the serpent to eat the forbidden fruit, in turn tempts Adam to do the same, and they both face punishment from God for their transgression. This is strongly paralleled by Matilda, the woman, who tempts Ambrosio, the pious man, to go against God’s will – an act of defiance that ends disastrously for the latter. Through Matilda’s fluxing gender and demonic portrayal, Lewis makes his stance on female sexuality very evident, and the novel opposes female sexual transgression. It is implied that to assume roles of power – as Matilda does – women must corrupt their virtue, and such behavior of rejecting the gendered ideals does is almost demonic and not conducive to anyone’s long-term happiness. This view is reinforced through the portrayal of Beatrice – the Bleeding Nun – furthering the associations between women who go against the status quo with sin and death. A prostitute when she was alive, Beatrice ‘abandoned herself freely to the impulse of her passions, and seized the first opportunity to procure their gratification’ (The Monk, page 180) thus becoming a blatant rebel to the prevalent prescriptions for docile, virtuous female behavior. Unlike the guilty Ambrosio, she reveled in her transgression, and though forced into the covenant by her parents, ‘professed herself an atheist’ (The Monk, page 180) and ‘took every opportunity to scoff at her monastic vows, and loaded with ridicule the most sacred ceremonies of religion’ (The Monk, page 180). Her breaking of her vows of chastity and plotting the murders in order to pursue her sexual desires are analogous to Ambrosio doing the same for Antonia, and her atheism furthers the dissociation of religious faith from sexual liberation – an element common to the narratives of many of the novel’s characters. Beatrice, eventually murdered by her lover, is condemned to haunt the Earth as the Bleeding Nun, and her fate illustrates the eternal suffering female transgression results in. In the 18th century, women were expected to lack all forms of sexual desire; even if they were to desire marriage it was to be out of a desire to become mothers than to achieve sexual gratification, and like in the novel, those who failed to conform were shunned. While the characters of Beatrice and Matilda, are condemned for their sexual desire, Antonia is lauded for her lack of thereof. A virtuous, sexually innocent young girl, she is revealed to us when she is non-consensually unveiled by Lorenzo and Lenolla (The Monk, page 10), foreshadowing her eventual rape and death in the novel. Unveiling is seen as a violation of modesty, which leads to death and misery, making its reappearance when Raymond unveils the innocent Agnes to find the Bleeding Nun (The Monk, page 109), the symbol of death and suffering, in her stead. The polar opposite of Beatrice, Antonia is absent of sexual desires and her ‘delicacy and elegance of figure’ (The Monk, page 9) leads to Ambrosio lusting after her. She maintains her sexual indifference towards the monk, however, has her virtue stolen from her and is killed in her attempt to escape from the him. Though she loses her virtue, Antonia is never depicted in negative light – rather the reader is encouraged to sympathize with her plight as she acts ‘with timidity’ and ‘respectfully withdraws’ till her death (The Monk, page 295). Through the associating positivity to her character but subjecting her to a cruel ending, Lewis reinforces the idea that even nonconsensual transgression of sexual expectations leads to suffering for women, contrasted by happy ending given to Virginia Villa de Franca who maintains her sexual innocence throughout. The Anti Catholic sentiments in the novel are capitalized by the sympathy evoked by Antonia’s fate, as had it not been for Ambrosio’s initial overtness to sexual desire, he would not have plagued the life of an innocent girl.
The novel is a strong advocate for the prescribed roles for females when it comes to the exploration of sexuality, and through its usage of unflattering diction and evoking negative atmospheres around transgressive women, reinforces the contemporary ideals. Through its more ambiguous stance on male transgression, the ill consequences of which are attributed to the failings of institutionalized religion, it underlines the prevalent misogyny of 18th century Europe. Thus, the representation of male and female gender ideologies in the Monk are quite in line with ideals of its contemporary audience, and tell present day readers a great deal about the value systems of the time it was written.
Works cited Hughes, Kathryn. Gender roles in the 19th century. The British Library, 13 Feb. 2014. Web. 13 Oct. 2016 Lewis, Matthew Gregory. The Monk. New York, NY, United States: Dover Publications, 2003. Print Rosenthal, Jamie. Class Lecture. Gothic Literature. UNC-Chapel Hill, NC. 10 Oct. 2016.
Criticism of the Fetishization of Purity found in The Monk
Matthew Lewis’s The Monk takes its era’s heightened anti-Catholicism to heart, and uses it to critique social norms. Lewis tackles the problem of the fetishization of purity that the Catholic Church, and society outside the Church hold so highly. Lewis presents the idea that despite the Church’s intentions, this fetishization of purity, which causes dangerous seclusion from society, actually leads to depravity in both the religious and secular world. Though Lewis includes both men and women as examples in this critique, regarding the characters Ambrosio and Antonia, his work echoes arguments being made at the time for better education for women. Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman had presented a foundation on which proto feminists could build an argument for women to be educated, instead of remaining innocent and“pure”. It seems that Lewis took this to heart, but applied it more generally across society than his female counterparts. He sees this fetishization of innocence and purity as societal flaws brought upon by the Catholic Church’s authority within society. The Monk criticizes the Catholic Church and the faulty social ideals it brings forth by presenting the fetishization of purity and innocence as a blaring cause of the depraved downfall of once-innocence characters.
The character Ambrosio is one of the main cautionary examples in Lewis’s work. He is idealized by the Church because of his intense innocence and purity from the sin of the secular world. Lewis writes, “He is now thirty years old, every hour of which period has been passed in study, total seclusion from the world, and mortification of flesh… His knowledge is said to be the most profound, his eloquence the most persuasive. In the whole course of his life He has never been known to transgress a single rule of his order; The smallest stain is not to be discovered upon his character; and He is reported to be so strict an observer of Chastity, that He knows not in what consists the difference of Man and Woman” (15). Lewis criticizes this idea of purity in an echoing of John Milton’s argument for the moral value of liberal reading. Milton writes, “He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true wayfaring Christian. I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister’d vertue, u nexercis’d & unbreath’d, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race” (Milton). Like this argument for the value of a real-world testing and trial of one’s moral purity, Lewis uses Ambrosio to argue for the testing of the durability of morality, instead of the glorification of chaste innocence. Ambrosio grew up outside of the secular world, never experiencing temptation of sin before he is too old to learn differently. This is eventually the reason for his downfall into sin. Ambrosio himself anticipates this when he says to Rosario, “Man was born for society. However little He may be attached to the World, He can never wholly forget it, or bear to be wholly forgotten by it… No longer sustained by the violence of his passions, He feels all the monotony of his way of living, and his heart becomes the prey of Ennui” (Lewis 43). This seclusion Ambrosio has been living in to foster the kind of purity that the Church wants him to have causes his heart to become “prey” to the secular world, instead of a master of it. This troubled upbringing of a boy and the destruction that follows is, according to Lewis, the work of the Catholic Church.
Lewis introduces us to Ambrosio by first describing his congregation, which is acting more like a performance audience than a religious gathering. He writes, “Do not encourage the idea that the Crowd was assembled either from motives of piety or thirst of information… and in a city where superstition reigns with such despotic sway as in madrid, to seek for true devotion would be a fruitless attempt” (Lewis 7). Notice the coded language for the strong anti-Catholicism that ran rampant at the time, i.e. “where superstition reigns”. Lewis does this to criticize the Catholic Church’s treatment of Ambrosio and blame it for his character’s downfall. He also includes in these lines the implication that the power of the Catholic Church acts like the power of a despot. This is to further indict the Church with the cause of Ambrosio’s fall in sin, as he seems to say that their power over him is unavoidable and overpowering. The obsession the Church places upon Ambrosio’s forced innocence causes the congregation to study the man Ambrosio himself, instead of God or the Bible. Lewis writes, “The only persons truly anxious to hear the Preacher were a few antiquated devotees, and half a dozen rival Orators, determined to find fault with and ridicule the discourse” (7). This line presents an argument regarding Ambrosio’s purity that mirrors one made about Antonia’s. It is assuming that Ambrosio’s well-known purity and innocence, which the Catholic Church holds so highly within his power to be a leader in the Church, actually makes him more desirable to see fall. The Orators don’t desire to learn from him, but rather see that his “purity” be proven false, because of the pompous importance placed upon it. Ambrosio’s purity not only draws rival Orators in, but the Devil himself as well. The Devil cites Ambrosio’s innocence, and the overdone pride that is caused by this fetishization of his purity, as what that made him so desirable for the Devil to take, saying, “I have him then in my power! This model of piety! This being without reproach! This Mortal who placed his pun virtues on a level with those of Angels” (337). A very similar argument is made towards Antonia later on.
Antonia is both a cautionary tale of a secluded life of innocent purity and an echoing call for the education of women. Antonia grew up similar to Ambrosio, innocent and secluded. Lewis writes of this, “‘Tis a young creature’, said She, ‘who is totally ignorant of the world. She has been brought up in an old Castle in Murcia; with no other Society than her Mother’s, who, God help her! Has no more sense, good Soul, than is necessary to carry her Soup to her mouth” (11). This ignorance of the world is meant to make Antonia virtuous, as that’s what her parents and her aunt desire her to be. On the contrary, Lewis says that this is what makes Antonia all the more desirable to men and all the more likely to fall victim to lust, writing, “ She looked round her with a bashful glance; and whenever her eyes accidentally met Lorenzo’s, She dropt them hastily upon her Rosary, Her cheek was immediately suffused with blushes, and She began to tell her beads; though her manner evidently showed that She knew not what She was about” (11). These lines tell us that though Antonia is ignorant of the world’s sins, she is not protected by them because of that ignorance. We see Antonia delve further into lust when she sees Ambrosio: “Antonia, while She gazed upon him eagerly, felt a pleasure fluttering in her bosom which till then had been unknown to her, and for which She in vain endeavored to account. She waited with impatience till the Sermon should begin; and when at length the Friar spoke, the sound of his voice seemed to penetrate into her very soul… Though no other of the Spectators felt such violent sensations as did the young Antonia, yet every one listened with interest and emotion” (15). These “fluttering” pleasures and “violent sensations” that Antonia is feeling are utterly new to her, and uncontrollable for her. These feelings coupled with her ignorance of them lead her to be tricked by Ambrosio later on, where we again see that Antonia’s innocence causes men to desire her more: “An air of enchanting innocence and candour pervaded her whole form; and there was a sort of modesty in her very nakedness, which added fresh strings to the desires of the lustful Monk” (232). When Antonia’s flawed upbringing and the destruction it causes her to experience is, like Ambrosio’s, said to be at the fault of the Church, but it is also at the fault of the home and society in which she lives.Though Lewis extends the wish for better education to men as well, since Ambrosio is brought down by very similar faults in his character as Antonia is, one can see the result of an obstructed education in woman through Antonia’s upbringing. Antonia’s mother, Elvira, buys into the purity fetishization of the Church and raises Antonia to a parallel extreme to Ambrosio. Antonia must read a Bible that her mother has censored, leaving her to be ignorant of the very sins her mother wants her to not commit. Wollstonecraft argues in A Vindication for the Rights of Woman that a woman would be more suitable to society and her home if she were educated as much as the man. This argument finds holding in regards to Antonia, for if she were to be educated on what the sins she is expected to resist are, she could hold true on the question she asked in the beginning of the story, “Does that make me a Saint?” (Lewis 15). To the Church, her ignorance would make her a “saint.” To Lewis, however, education would both protect her and make her more of a companion to society.
This criticism of Elvira’s parenting extends the fault from the Catholic Church to secular society. Elvira represents to Lewis the social acceptance and adoption of Church doctrine. Seemingly fearing a repetition of her own life by her daughter, Elvira adheres to the social norms promoted by the Church as a parent. Lewis uses her as a warning against reacting this way, because while she was exposed to too much perhaps, her daughter is now ignorant of the dangers her mother faced rather than able to learn from them. She also is a representation of the idea that the Church may have good intentions in their motives, but their actions and promotions do not bring forth good results. Elvira has the right motives for her daughter, saying to Ambrosio, “Antonia secure from you? I will secure her! You shall betray no longer the confidence of parents!” (234) Her fault, however, is in the sheltering and censorship of her daughter’s education due to her fear of the sin her daughter might fall into.
Lewis indicts the fetishization of purity of leading to the sexual degradation and social ignorance. Where does this degradation stem from? He gives different but similar answers for each of his main morally degraded characters. For Ambrosio, the cause of his degradation lies in the seclusion he is forced into by the Church. For Antonia, it is the lack of education she receives from her mother about the sin she is expected to avoid. Both characters, however, find their downfall stemming from the innocence that the Catholic Church fetishizes, according to Lewis. Thus, this anti-Catholic criticism doubles with secular social criticism of a norm that Lewis finds flawed and dangerous.
Lewis, Matthew. The Monk. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2016. Print.
Milton, John. “A Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing.” London: 1644. Print.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. New York: Bartleby, 1999. Print.
The Institution of Family in Matthew Lewis’ The Monk
Matthew Lewis’ The Monk makes extensive use of the institution of family in order to underscore the implied author’s ambivalent position towards the French Revolution and its aftermath. The novel recounts the tale of two families: Antonia’s family, which consists of her mother, Elvira, her step-uncle Raymond, her aunt Leonella, and her brother, Ambrosio (although their kinship remains unbeknownst to her until her death), and Agnes’ family, which includes her mother Inesilla, her father Gaston, her brother Lorenzo, her Aunt Rodolpha, her uncle, the baron Lindenberg, her ancestor Beatrice, and her deceased child. The novel also deals to a lesser extent with Marguerite’s family, which consists of her father, her first husband, her second husband Baptiste, and her two children, among whom Theodore becomes an important character. Through these three families the implied author explores the equivocal role of the family, as either a protective force that saves its members from annihilation, or an oppressive institution that is excessive in and of itself, and also breeds excess in others. The two matriarchs, Elvira and Inesilla, embody the destructive aspect of the family, when it becomes an institution that indulges in excess. Elvira is excessively overprotective of her daughter: she conceals from her any and all information regarding sexual relations between men and women, she refuses to allow Lorenzo access to her until he receives his uncle’s consent to marry her, and she refrains from revealing to Antonia the whole truth of her suspicions regarding Ambrosio. She even goes so far as to censor the Bible in a scene that contributed much to the novel’s infamy. If Elvira had been more moderate in shielding her daughter from the world, then her tragedy, as well as her daughter’s, may well have been averted, either by Antonia’s immediate marriage to Lorenzo or by a more wary attitude towards Ambrosio on Antonia’s part. Hence, Elvira’s excessive overprotection is one of the central causes of the doom that befalls her family. Inesilla is the mother figure antithetical to Elvira: she is excessively selfish towards Agnes. She condemns Agnes to monastic life in St. Clare’s, in order to solicit divine grace and thus save her own life, and after she recuperates and gives birth to Agnes, she abandons her to the jealous and vindictive Donna Rodolpha, with the intent of concealing her design from Don Ramirez and Lorenzo. This excessive selfishness also leads to disaster, although to a lesser extent than that which befalls Elvira and Antonia: Inesilla dies, as does Agnes’ baby, but Agnes is rescued after long weeks of suffering. It is important to note that these two matriarchs do not only personally display excess, but also instill excess in their progeny. Elvira’s excessive overprotection inculcates Antonia with excessive innocence, to the extent that even after Ambrosio sexually molests her for the first time, she still feels that he “contributed essentially to compose her ruffled spirits” (282). Inesilla’s excessive selfishness causes Agnes’ passion for Raymond to become excessive, as is evident in her rash surrender to his sexual solicitations, because she is forced into a way of life she abhors and is bereft of any hope of marriage. Furthermore, Elvira and Inesilla are especially poignant symbols of excess, in light of the French Revolution’s emblem of the motherly young lady, who stands erect with naked breasts, as Liberty offering her milk to the children of the revolution. Thus, I suggest that the implied author’s critique of Elvira and Inesilla, as matriarchs whose excess leads to their downfall, reflects his condemnation of the radicalism that permeated the National Assembly following the first stages of the French Revolution, when its dogmatism becomes so extreme that it instated a Reign of Terror in which thousands of people were executed in an excess of violence. The positive aspect of the family institution is embodied in Lorenzo. Lorenzo is the epitome of the faithful brother, who sees through the web of deception woven around Agnes, exposes the iniquities of the prioress, escapes the enraged mob, overcomes superstition and descends into the tombs of St. Clare’s convent in order to liberate his sister. The fact that it is her brother, not her lover, that saves her, is significant, especially when we take into account the other pair of siblings in this novel: Antonia and Ambrosio. Lorenzo’s heroic rescue of Agnes exemplifies the power of brotherly love to protect, heal, and restore justice. Conversely, Ambrosio’s rape and subsequent murder of Antonia exemplifies the catastrophic damage that siblings can inflict on one another. These two paradigms of sibling relationships resonant strongly with the French Revolution: if we consider all members of a nation as brethren on some level, then the Reign of Terror may be deemed mass fratricide, since both the judges of the Revolutionary Tribunal and the people they condemned to death were French citizens. I therefore argue that Ambrosio’s cruelty towards Antonia, which stems from his lack of awareness that she is his sister, critically reflects on the Revolutionary Tribunal’s death sentences, which are arguably predicated on the Tribunal members’ refusal to acknowledge that the men they condemn are their kindred. Hence, the novel’s opposition between the loving relationship of Lorenzo and Agnes and the victimizing relationship of Ambrosio and Antonia serves to dramatize the implied author’s approbation of the French Revolution’s original ideal of fraternity, while denouncing the Reign of Terror as a betrayal of this ideal. The domestic upheavals in the novel and lack thereof also accentuate the implied author’s ambiguous position regarding the French Revolution and its aftermath. The fate of Beatrice and Ambrisio illustrate his denunciation of absolute rebellion, because they are the most extreme rebels in the novel – they revolt not only against the institutions of family, religion, and aristocracy, but also defy basic human morality by committing the capital crimes of murder and rape – and their doom is far worse than that of any of the other characters: they suffer extensively, and in Ambrosio’s case probably eternally, the torments of the afterlife. However, the implied author does not endorse the opposite extreme of utter submission to institutional authority, as is evident in his treatment of Antonia: her tragic end is a direct result of her inability to contest her mother or Ambrosio. What the implied author does support is moderate, calculated rebellion against authority, if and when the need arises. This is evident in the plot twists and dénouement of Agnes and Marguerite’s narratives. Agnes rebels against the matriarch and the patriarch of her family twice: first, when she agrees to elope with Raymond and even takes the initiative and contrives an ingenious escape plan, and second, when she makes love to Raymond in the convent. I suggest that the suffering she endures in the dungeon of St. Clare’s convent is the implied author’s method of punishing her for her second transgression, which is caused by an outburst of excessive passion, as she admits later on in the narrative: “Raymond, affection for you betrayed me.” (355). Conversely, Agnes’ relatively happy end may be construed as the implied author’s endorsement of her first transgression, which was much more intelligent and restrained. This reading is supported by Marguerite’s story, which mirrors Agnes’ narrative. Like Agnes, Marguerite transgresses against her father out of excessive love for a man, and is consequently punished: “Chagrin and discontent preyed upon my constitution…the dejection of my countenance denoted the sufferings of my heart.” (109). Yet when she rebels against Baptiste, her second husband and therefore the new patriarch of her family, by concocting and carrying out a plan to save Raymond, Rodolpha and herself, she is rewarded by a second chance at life. Thus, the implied author rejects the extremes of rebellion out of excessive emotion on the one hand, and of absolute compliance to authority on the other hand. Instead, he supports temperate rebellion against authority, if and when this authority becomes tyrannical and unjust. This attitude towards domestic upheaval positions the implied author as a supporter of the first, relatively moderate, stages of the French Revolution, while adamantly opposing the radicalism that followed. By the end of the novel, all the protagonists have either died or reintegrated into a new domestic sphere. Agnes and Raymond, Lorenzo and Virginia, become married couples, and even Leonella weds an apothecary. None of the major characters remain alive and single, aside from Theodore, who throughout the novel has been situated on the border between a gentleman and a servant, and in this case may be deemed the latter, thereby exempting him from the necessity to wed. Moreover, the implied author has purged the novel of children who were born outside of wedlock: Agnes’ child is dead, and Antonia has died before she had any chance of giving birth, even assuming that Ambrosio has impregnated her. Thus, the implied author reestablishes the family institution as the only framework in which his protagonists can consummate their love and bear progeny. However, the new domestic spheres are not identical to their antecedents: the protagonists have learned and matured through their hardships. They will not send their daughters to a convent, nor will they excessively protect them from the world. Instead, they will probably instill their children with their newfound peace, which enables them to make the best of their fate and “think lightly of every succeeding woe” (358). It is this golden path between change and stability which the implied author postulates as a new and better vision of the future, one that incorporates the original ideals of the French Revolution into moderate, well thought out actions, and in which violence caused by excess is a thing of the past. BibliographyLewis, Matthew. The Monk. London: Penguin Books, 1998.
A Failure in Characterization: Female Depiction in The Monk
In the novel The Monk, author Matthew Gregory Lewis’ portrayal of women is often blatantly fused with patriarchal stereotypes. While not surprising in a piece of literature from this period, the weak development and cliche characteristics of many of the female characters provide head-scratching moments for the modern reader. Indeed, the novel is centered around two male protagonists, and the female characters often seem to function simply as disposable plot-advancing appendages. The most blatant examples of this tendency are found in the virginal women, Antonia and and Virginia. Scarcely a word is said of them that does not enforce their banal purity, and the plot seems to sweep them up and spit them out without any difficulty. As a result, their characters are incomparably insipid, seeming to exist only as tokens of purity rather than real individuals with agency. Not all of the female characters are so easy to orient in this scheme, however. At a first glance, a few of these characters, including Matilda and Agnes, may seem more active participants in the plot. However, upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that their narrative power only exists in exchange for overtly masculine affiliations, dehumanization, or nearly complete subordination to male characters. Thus, it can be seen that Lewis is ineffective in his attempts to present sympathetic female characters. This paper will consider the characters of Antonia, Matilda, and Agnes in this light.
Lewis’ depiction of Antonia exemplifies the shallow conception of a number of the female characters in the book. From the beginning, Antonia is a passive, conveniently quiet female figure. From the scene where the reader meets her in the Church of the Capuchines until the point of her death in the catacombs, her character is deigned essentially no development. In the opening church scene, Antonia is veiled and says scarcely a word. Her aunt, Lionella (an archetypically shallow “old maid” archetype) does all of the speaking for her. This first interaction essentially sets the scene for the rest of the novel. Although she does eventually remove her physical veil, Lewis leaves a figurative veil over her real characteristics, choosing to shroud her in tropes of purity and moral perfection. One of these cliches is apparent in how affected she is by the sermon in the church, wiping away a single tear after hearing his fire-and-brimstone discourse on spiritual morality and punishment. Her purpose in the novel in apparent within the first few pages: she is a sacrifice to vice, too pure for this world. On page 63, the gipsy makes this abundantly clear by relating that “destruction o’er you hovers;/Lustful man and crafty devil/Will combine to work your evil;/and from earth by sorrows [drive]” (Lewis). The rest of the gipsy’s song only functions to add more certainty to the message that was already blatantly clear–she is going to be defiled by a “crafty devil” and be driven from this earth. Immediately after these two scenes, the reader is presented with Lorenzo’s dream, yet another vision of Antonia’s fate and immaculacy, only this time in even clearer terms. In this dream, she is standing at the altar, on the point of marrying Don Lorenzo (clearly his fantasy). As he approaches, things quickly go awry. She moves to throw herself into his arms, and a gigantic figure with the words “Pride! Lust! Inhumanity!” tattooed on his forehead opens a flaming abyss and drags her into it. She immediately rises up in white light, and ascends through the opened ceiling of the cathedral, which rings with “harmonious voices” an shines with “dazzling brightness” (Lewis, 55). In displaying her as an angel, Lewis is in no uncertain terms establishing her archetypical form. These three scenes effectively complete her development and establish her as a perfectly one-dimensional symbolic character. Throughout the rest of the book, she remains essentially as the image of the perfect woman to court, who would prove an ideal wife. The majority of the rest of the scenes she appears in are either simple plot-advancing ones which increase her hopes of marrying Don Lorenzo, or eventually her being “defiled” by Ambrosio. In both, she is the passive object of the action rather than an agent.
A discussion of Matilda in this context could take up a whole book. Matilda is inarguably the most insidious character in the book, if you consider her as a human character. She is the instrument of Ambrosio’s destruction, working closely together with Lucifer himself to bring ruin upon him. She first lures Ambrosio into sin by fornicating with him, and then by degrees enables him to commit further crimes, culminating in the incestuous rape and murder of Antonia. She is also perhaps the most developed character in the book, and the most active in driving the plot. But in exchange for this activity, she is depicted first as a male (because, of course, only someone masculine would be able to have as much agency as she does in the book), and then, indeed, as an inhuman demon-sorcerer. With these facts in mind, it seems that Lewis is perhaps capable only of developing female characters that are either virginal and pure to the point of banality, or masculinized, inhuman, and evil. His major female characters thus seem only to fall at either end of this spectrum, or fail to gain the reader’s true sympathy.
One may argue that Agnes seems to provide a counterexample to this last point. She begins as a pure character, similar in many ways to Antonia, but appears more active in her destiny. She falls in love with Don Raymond, plays a part in conceiving the plan to remove her from her “house arrest,” and eventually becomes pregnant by Don Raymond. In the end, she is rescued from the monastery she has relegated herself (and subsequently been effectively imprisoned and tortured) and marries him. Thus, she is found to be imperfect, but not a moral anomaly like Matilda. However, each of these scenes can be analyzed to show that Lewis is uncomfortable writing a sympathetic active female character. When Agnes shares her plan to elope with Raymond, it is in the form of a note that is less than five lines in length. This is essentially the full extent of her involvement, apart from a short meeting scene in which she affirms her plan with Lorenzo before being discovered by her maid, Cunegonde. At least 90% of the ensuing rescue tale, as told by Don Raymond, is only a collection of scenes of Raymond pining after her and plotting his side of the escape plan. After this plan is botched by the appearance of the Bleeding Nun, Agnes fears she has been abandoned and agrees to go to the convent in Madrid out of desperation. The main critique of her character is that her story is told at varying levels of removal, and she is only allowed a short monologue in chapter 11 to explain her story (Lewis, 334-345). Her activity in the novel is therefore co-opted and seen through the lens of a male character, which removes a large amount of the power of her account. Therefore, Lewis’ sole attempt at a relatable female character in the novel is ineffective.
Overall, it is apparent that the novel The Monk is not successful at presenting realistic and sympathetic female characters. Antonia is effectively a symbol of purity and not much more, and Matilda is complex and active in the plot, but mostly by virtue of the fact that she is literally a demon under Lucifer’s control. Agnes, a possible counterexample to this trend, is portrayed ineffectively because she is not allowed to tell her own story, and is viewed almost exclusively through the lens of a male character. An analysis of these three characters, while by no means a complete look at the book, shows without question that Lewis fails in his presentation of female characters.