The Cup of the Ptolemies, Part 3: Freezing the Soul, or A Review of THE MONK by Matthew Lewis

My title for this review comes from an essay by Ann Radcliffe titled “On the Supernatural in Poetry.”  Radcliffe, one of the most prominent gothic novelists, was concerned about where she saw the form going.  Whereas the “terror” Radcliffe used in her novels “expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life,” Radcliffe believed the “horror” she was seeing in newer gothic works at the time “contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.”  It is generally believed that Radcliffe’s criticism was aimed primarily at Matthew Lewis’ tremendously successful and controversial novel The Monk.  While I could be mistaken, it seems that Radcliffe’s comments mark the first designation of horror as a distinct genre, growing out of the gothicism of the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries.  In some ways then, The Monk, with its not explained-away-in the end supernatural elements and brazen use of grisliness could be considered the true start of horror fiction, as opposed to the proto-horror works that preceded it.  How unsurprising, given what would come in the future, that the first major reference to horror as its own genre should be a disapproving one!

It does not appear that Matthew Lewis saw himself as branching off and starting something new.  Lewis was simply trying to write a novel in the style of the gothic craze then sweeping England.  He even expressed profound admiration for one of Radcliffe’s novels.  However, there is no doubt that readers of the day perceived Lewis as having done something quite different.  In fact, many were not pleased with that difference.  While The Monk was a major literary hit, Lewis faced accusations of blasphemy and immorality.  He did have his defenders.  In her introduction to the Oxford edition of the book I read, scholar Emma McEvoy quotes a contemporary of Lewis in the journal The Monthly Mirror who said The Monk was “well-calculated to support the cause of virtue” through its exposure of the hypocritical monk Ambrosio’s overconfidence in his decency.  Intriguingly however, McEvoy, who elsewhere makes several fine points, flicks this defense aside, describing it as “ludicrous.”  I was startled since, after reading The Monk, I had pretty much the same thoughts as that writer in The Monthly Mirror!  Clearly, McEvoy perceived Lewis as doing something VERY new, just as many people at the time did.  She didn’t disapprove but she agreed with the fundamental perception of difference.  While I do agree with this perception of difference, I think it has been somewhat exaggerated.

Before returning to that, I should talk a little about The Monk itself.  First off, it made me want to read more gothic fiction, by Radcliffe and others.  It also made me sad that Lewis himself wrote no further fiction.  Had he done so, The Monk would have been juvenalia since Lewis wrote it when he was only nineteen!  So is it safe to say I liked The Monk as a novel?  Well, let’s say I liked some of the novels in it.  It is almost impossible to call this a single book.  I’ve read novels with sprawling plots before but this creates a whole new definition of ‘loose’ in my mind.  Everything is tied together in the end but, far more than once while reading, I wondered if that was even possible.  If you quantified literal ‘stage time,’ several major characters are really barely present in the narrative.  They do cast longer shadows but the small number of actual appearances is rather jolting.  I’m actually a big advocate of anti-naturalism and playfulness in literature so I’m all for authors going where their imaginations take them, without regard for taste or artificial rules.  Still, The Monk sets new records for the sheer number of things it is.  At various times it was a ghost story, a social comedy, an attack on religious extremism (Lewis’ then conventional anti-Catholicism can become offensive), a boys’ adventure story, a twisted family saga, a syrupy love story, a dramatized form of literary criticism, and a psychological study of criminality.  Lewis writes all of these with skill so I always enjoyed reading the book.  However, even a good writer like Lewis could hardly have hoped to make all of this feel truly unified.  Even as I enjoyed one strand, I often found myself mourning the radically different strand that had just ended.  It was also hard to keep things, especially characters, straight.  After a while, for the sake of my sanity, I just started to take several sections as basically independent.

The glowing exception to this was in everything dealing directly with the evil Ambrosio, the monk of the title.  This character is one of the finest villains I’ve ever read in any novel, horror or otherwise.  Lewis’ sketch of Ambrosio’s character flaws, flaws that will lead him to commit almost unspeakable crimes, is absolutely masterful.  As good as everything else is, whenever Lewis focuses on Ambrosio, The Monk approaches real pantheon status.  I could write a whole separate piece just on the numerous complex aspects of this fascinating character.  The fact that Lewis manages to keep such a despicable figure somewhat pitiful is the true sign of a potentially master novelist.  Again, it is a real shame that Lewis didn’t write any further novels.  It is striking (if hardly surprising) how much more vital Ambrosio and, to a slightly lesser extent, his partner in crime Matilda, are than most of the virtuous characters.  The exceptions to this are the loyal servant Theodore and some of the comic side figures.  Otherwise, the good people, while their adventures are entertaining, come off as cookie cutter figures.  Despite this, the section detailing the sufferings of Agnes is one of the most harrowing things I have ever read.  That sounds like hyperbole but it’s not.  Seriously, if you read this book prepare yourself for that.  It will ruin your day if you have any compassion anywhere in your heart.

That brings me back to my original focus.  By the end of The Monk, cruelty and fanaticism have been exposed and kindness and moderation praised as true virtue and richly rewarded.  While the villains are more fun to read about, there is no suggestion I could find that we should favor them or what they do.  They are riveting but hardly sexy or appealing.  So what were all the angry pointing fingers about?  And where does the modern notion that The Monk is somehow transgressive come from?  Perhaps it’s understandable that, when a work of art goes somewhere uncomfortable or unsettling, insecure people will attack it as wicked.  However, I wonder if those of us who pride ourselves on being more sophisticated fall for the same trick in a subtler way.  Maybe horror’s function in freezing the soul is only dangerous to the kind of false and hollow ‘virtue’ practiced by Ambrosio.  True virtue can be horrified but never conquered.

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