The Monk by M. G. Lewis

“Insolent in your yet-unshaken virtue, you disdained the prayers of a penitent; but God will show mercy, though you show none. And where is the merit of your boasted virtue? What temptations have you vanquished? Coward! you have fled from it, not opposed seduction. But the day of trial will arrive! Oh! then when you yield to impetuous passions! when you feel that man is weak, and born to err; When shuddering you look back upon your crimes, and solicit with terror the mercy of your God, Oh! in that fearful moment think upon me!”

Note: This review will contain spoilers. I usually try not to discuss a book in full, but I just couldn’t resist with this one. Also, there’s some really gruesome stuff in this book, so read on at your own risk.

The Monk by M. G. Lewis was originally published in 1796 when the author was just 19 and became immensely popular due to its sex and over-the-top violence which wasn’t common at the time. I’d say it’s still pretty shocking today.

The book contains some nice details. I liked that in a letter, a couple lines were written in red ink to indicate that the letter writer was blushing at the time she wrote them. One character’s hair is said to always be ornamented with a garland of willow, which is an interesting fashion choice. There’s also a fortune-telling gypsy who speaks in rhyme and poems sprinkled throughout.

It’s a bloody book, but it’s not without its funny parts. For example, when someone is describing how chaste the monk is, he claims he doesn’t even know the difference between men and women. Antonia, who apparently is so innocent that she doesn’t know either, asks if that makes her a saint as well. Her aunt starts explaining that “a man has no breasts, and no hips, and no…’ when she gets cut off by the start of service. We learn later that Antonia’s mother even edits out the naughty bits from the Bible to further preserve her daughter’s innocence.

I liked the description of a woman whose “understanding was strong and excellent when not obscured by prejudice, which unluckily was but seldom the case.” It’s funny that one character thinks she’s damned for eating meat on Friday. “Oh! That chicken’s wing! My poor soul suffers for it!” It’s unfortunately anti-Catholic in less funny ways as well.

This does have some misogynistic lines such as “She was wise enough to hold her tongue. As this is the only instance known of a woman’s ever having done so, it was judged worthy to be recorded here.” Also, older women looking foolish when they suppose a younger man is in love with them is a bit of a theme.

There’s some confusing moments too. At one point, a bird starts playfully nibbling at Antonia’s breasts when she’s about to get into the bath. What? Where did this bird come from and why is it so interested in breasts?

Anyway, the novel starts with Lorenzo and his friend arriving at a chapel to hear a sermon. Lorenzo immediately falls in love with a young woman he meets there named Antonia and resolves to marry her. When his friend points out that she barely said anything except yes and no in their conversation, Lorenzo replies, “But then she always said yes or no in the right place.”

Later, Lorenzo discovers that a man named Raymond is having a relationship with his sister Agnes, who’s a nun. Raymond promises to explain.

The scene then shifts to the monk Ambrosio who is like the rock star of his day with people crowding into the chapel to hear his awesome sermons. We learn he’s in love with the Virgin Mary, even having erotic dreams about her. One of his fellow monks is actually a woman in disguise who is in love with him and she’s jealous of the picture of the Madonna that he so revers, which makes for an interesting love triangle, especially since the portrait is based on her.

When Matilda reveals to Ambrosio that she’s a woman, I like that Ambrosio has several competing emotions at once. He’s surprised, confused, resentful, flattered, pleased, and lustful all at the same time. In one scene, the monk is pretending to be asleep while Matilda cries over him and one of her tears falls upon his cheek, which I thought was a nice visual.

Meanwhile, Raymond is about to explain to Lorenzo how his sister Agnes got pregnant. We’re told earlier that Lorenzo has a fiery temper and we’re supposed to believe he’s really mad at Raymond, yet he patiently sits and listens to Raymond’s long drawn-out story.

Raymond is rich, but pretended to be poor in order to observe the lower classes. While he was traveling through Germany, he and a Baroness almost got killed by some bandits, but managed to escape. While staying with the Baroness, he falls in love with her niece, Agnes. However, she’s supposed to go to a convent, so they make a plan to elope. Agnes dresses up as a ghost called the Bleeding Nun, however, Raymond ends up running off with the ghost instead by mistake. He also kidnaps an old nun and locks her up in his room to keep her from telling anyone about the planned elopement. The ghost starts haunting Raymond, but the Wandering Jew shows up and helps him exorcise it.

While Lorenzo is wondering what this fantastical tale has to do with his sister being pregnant, Raymond finally admits that he did knock his sister up, but he intends to marry her, so Lorenzo vows to help him rescue his sister from the abbey where she is being held by the prioress, the secondary villain in this book. The prioress is ashamed that one of her nuns has become pregnant, so she makes everyone think Agnes is dead while secretly locking her up.

Meanwhile, the monk Ambrosio becomes Matilda’s lover, but he soon tires of her and falls in love with Antonia. He hatches a plan to rape her with Matilda’s help. He’s going to slip her a drug that will make it appear that she’s dead, then when she’s entombed in the cemetery vault of the church, he’ll have his way with her. So both Antonia and Agnes end up being administered a drug that makes them seem dead and get locked up in the church’s crypt.

The prioress meets a particularly gruesome end when a crowd thinks she murdered Agnes. Even after she’s killed by rioters, they continue to beat her lifeless body “till it became no more than a mass of flesh, unsightly, shapeless, and disgusting.”

Agnes gives birth locked up alone in the crypt and her baby dies almost immediately. She refuses to part with her dead baby and holds it close even after it becomes a “mass of putridity.” Fortunately, Lorenzo, with help from a member of the Spanish Inquisition, manages to rescue her before she dies. That’s right. This book is so messed up, the Spanish Inquisition are the heroes.

After Ambrosio rapes and mortally wounds her, Antonia finds death a blessing. It’s better to die than continue to live “deprived of honor and branded with shame.” I was surprised an innocent suffered like this in a book that’s basically a morality tale. Her end contrasts that of Agnes who is also branded with shame due to being a pregnant nun, but unlike Antonia, she gets to go on living and even gets a happy ending.

Ambrosio ends up getting tortured by the Spanish Inquisition. We are told of his “dislocated limbs, the nails torn from his hands and feet, and his fingers mashed and broken by the pressure of screws.” When the book is almost over, it’s revealed that Antonia was Ambrosio’s sister, so in addition to everything else, he’s also guilty of incest.

In a way, what happened to Ambrosio is entrapment. I don’t think he would have sinned if the devil hadn’t laid such a complex trap for him. So I guess the moral of the story is, if the devil wants to corrupt you, there’s nothing you can do about it? In the case of Antonia, the moral seems to be that being innocent and kind won’t save you from being subjected to awful horrors. Life just sucks, I guess.

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