The Monk by Matthew Lewis | Summary and Analysis


23 Mar 2015 14 Dec 2017

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The monk which is an historical novel written by Matthew Lewis in 1796, is noted as one of the most complicated among the classic gothic novels that were published in those times; between 1764 and 1820). From the begging, the novel portrays reveals sexuality and the meaning of "catholic" lust and incest. The novel later overted the complicated and homoerotic nuances of sexuality which have shocked and intrigued those readers who believe in the more chaste and faithful oeuvres of Radcliffe Ann. The thesis of the novel which can be regarded as "the black legend of monastic Catholism" was agreed to and upheld by those individuals who were hostile to the Catholic Church in France and England (Steven Blakemore, 1998).

According to Steven, Catholism avoided the pure religion which in turn promoted deviant sexual practices which came from the unnatural vows of chastity that violated 'nature'. The sexual repression of catholic stimulated the obscure insincerity that covered the orgiastic sexuality carried out in unnatural and convents and monasteries. In England, the demonization of sex by the aberrant catholic "other' was part of the ideological formation of national identity of protestants in England. Moreover the monk was published at a time when france was at war with England and the French revolution was still linked with the terror. As a result there were a series of political and sexual anxieties, in particular anxieties concerning feminine men and masculine men. These anxieties are also involved in the contexts and texts of "The Monk".

According to Steven, although the critics have for along time focused on the erotic dimensions of the novel, its many inversions in sex and religion as well as the ideological implications of the attendants, have not yet been systematically evaluated. Lewis in his writing of the monk, he performs linguistically the equivalent of a black mass, while subverting and inverting the traditional purposes of sex and religion, which is an ironical correspondence of the satanic ceremonies in the novel. This paper concentrates on the significance of sexual and religious inversions in the novel "The Monk" while making references to the gendered language of femininity and masculinity. The paper also extends its research to the way these inversions inform about the connection between misogyny and feminine, catholic "Other" in the protestant discourse of the eighteenth century.

Sexual and religious inversions in "The Monk"

The idea of anti-Catholicism in the monk is basically portrayed through Ambrosio; who was a chief catholic villain. Ambrosio was discovered as an infant at the door of abbey, raised by the church, but latter became flair. Having been brought up by the church, Ambrosio rose to the position of abbot and was celebrated in the whole of Madrid while being respected for his virtue particularly his strict respect for chastity. Since the beginning, Ambrosio is put in a 'feminine' position, as a young virgin who is sheltered and protected so that she can maintain her virtue and innocence. More so Ambrosio is not familiar to the world and its temptations.

In "the monk", the emphasis on monastic male chastity by the catholic, which is normally a condemned issue in the literature of Protestants, has its base in female virtue and virginity, which has been an issue in most of the novels and conduct books of the nineteenth century. In t this context, Ambrosio is particularly related to Antonio who is also a sheltered and protected young virgin and equally unknown to the world and its temptations just like Ambrosio (p.12). In this story, Antonio and Ambrosio are a sister and a brother but both of them are not aware of the blood relationship since they had been separated during their early ages. On the other hand both Antonio and Ambrosio seem to have a sublimated, mutual incestuous attraction.

An admirer of Antonio, who was known as Lorenzo, identified Ambrosio to Antonio and her aunt Leonella while thematically presenting Ambrosio as a virgin by referring to his story; where he was found and how he was brought up. Ambrosio was found/ discovered at the capuchins door and was therefore largely believed to a "present" from Virgin Mary (p.17). Ambrosio who was thirty years at that time, had lived in seclusion from the outside world and therefore knew nothing about sex, actually "he was a strict observer of chastity and knew nothing of what consisted the difference between a man and a woman" (p.17). His character was undisputable, and had not been stained.

The author of "the monk" uses suggestively gendered language, to make the male monk appear like a holy virtuous female and then connects him with Antonio a female who is also ignorant of sex. Leonella's ridiculous reply that Antonio, just like Ambrosio does not know the difference between an man and woman and that she views everybody as being of the same sex with herself, happen to connect "the same" brother and sister together (pp17-18). The authors point in using metaphors and suggestively gendered language is to show that the vows of chastity in catholic feminize monks who then are made susceptible to hypocrisy and temptation by their sexual ignorance. This is emphasized when Rosaria, a fiend camouflaged as a young male novitiate, discloses that he is actually a woman. Rosaria, whose real name was Matilda had reformulated Leonella's unworkable imperative. Just like Antonio, Ambrosio was supposed to forget that Matilda was a woman because she had disguised her sex so that she could be friends with Leonella and shield him from sexual knowledge (p.63).

The fact that Matilda is actually an evil spirit (demon), who pretends to be a woman while she is a man, exploits the sexual controversy as well as brings confusion of gender roles in the novel. Sexual knowledge in the novel is viewed as the forbidden apple which makes which tempts allusively the feminized monk to fall. Matilda is at the same time archetypal fatale woman who later corrupts the virtues of Ambrosio. However hi devilish seduction is enhanced by Ambrosio's ignorance on sexual matters which then makes him very susceptible to Matilda's seduction. Ambrosio evaluates his repressed attraction to Matilda by repeating her seductive arguments after showing her nakedness to him; "may I not safely credit her assertions? Will it not be easy for me to forget her sex and consider her as my friend and as my disciple?, She strove to keep me in ignorant of her sex.. She has not made attempts to rouse my slumbering passions, nor has she ever conversed with me till this night on the subject of love" (PP.66-67).

According to Lewis (), prelapsarian ignorance and innocence of knowledge about sex is an illusion, hence Ambrosio is easily lured into sexual relationship with the deceiving Matilda: the sexual repression lastly ends up in the very knowledge which the monk was denying. Ambrosio is also further feminized by vocabulary that is specifically gendered which contextually differentiated by the female from the male sex, but them its averted and reapplied by Lewis to the central catholic villain of the novel. In the eighteenth century such words like virtue, innocence, shame and honor, had a gendered significance. For example a, word like virtue came from a Latin word vir which means man, while virtus implied masculine strength, excellence and courage. Generally the word meant male virtue. Although it had other meanings, when applied to the sexes the word signified sexual division of labor.

In "the monk', just like a gendered virgin of the eighteenth century, Ambrosio is respected for his virtue, particularly his chastity which on the other side makes him susceptible to temptations of sex. In the early part of the book, Lorenzo indicates that although the character of Ambrosio is undisputable since he had grown up in the monastery for his whole life, he is therefore not ready to face the world together with its temptations. Lorenzo noted that being a monk the ecclesiastical duties of Ambrosio will make him enter into the outside world where his virtue and righteousness will be put to test.

The Monk’s numerous sexual, religious interventions and their attendant ideological implications have not been systematically explored.” He goes on to say, “In this context, I focus on the significance of the novel’s sexual and religious inversions with reference to the gendered language of “masculinity” and femininity,”

Works cited

Steven Blakemore 1998 Matthew Lewis's black mass: sexual, religious inversion in ‘the monk.' (


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