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.