Pride goeth before the fall indeed.
First published in 1796, The Monk
is considered a classic of Gothic Fiction
and one of the most influential novels of the genre, though some also consider it to be something of an Affectionate Parody
as well. It was published almost thirty years after The Castle of Otranto
, which is considered to be the first Gothic novel. The author, Matthew Gregory Lewis, was a nineteen-year-old
English diplomat who penned the novel in a mere ten weeks. The book became an instant success, scandalizing and entrancing the reading public. None of his other works were nearly so successful as this first effort. Indeed, the work was so strongly identified as Lewis's greatest success
that he was, and is, referred to as "Monk" Lewis
Madrid, Spain, in the time of the Spanish Inquisition
. Mere minutes after the cathedral doors open, the pews are packed with people who have come to hear the famous monk Ambrosio give his sermon. Ambrosio is young, handsome
, and considered incorruptible because he has never broken a rule of his order. But Ambrosio, for all his holiness, is a proud man. In the crowd waiting to hear Ambrosio are a young girl
, Antonia, and her Maiden Aunt
, Leonella, who meet a pair of young and gallant men, Don Lorenzo and Don Christoval. Antonia and Lorenzo fall in Love at First Sight
and Lorenzo vows to marry her.
Meanwhile, Lorenzo's sister Agnes, who was forced/tricked by her guardians into taking the vows of a Nun against her will, is plotting to escape from the neighboring convent before they discover the fact that she's pregnant with the child of her lover Raymond (who also happens to be Lorenzo's best friend and Antonia's uncle). They had planned to run away together long ago in a scheme that involved Agnes disguising herself as her family's castle's resident ghost the Bleeding Nun, but it backfired when the woman Raymond whisked into his carriage turned out to be someone else, whose bloody nun garb wasn't
a disguise... By the time a mysterious man of unexplained origins and supernatural powers freed Raymond from his supernatural Stalker with a Crush
, it was too late. Their situation is now desperate... and it gets worse when a message between them is intercepted by none other than Ambrosio.
After his sermon, Ambrosio meets a young student of his
named Rosario, but it seems to him that Rosario is out of sorts today. Indeed, Rosario tells him a sad story of his sister
Matilda who loved a man who spurned her, and she died. When Ambrosio is sympathetic to Matilda's tragedy, Rosario reveals that he is actually Matilda
and Ambrosio is her beloved
. Ambrosio tells her to leave the monastery at once, but her determination to kill herself
if she has to leave makes him waver. Slowly but surely, Matilda convinces Ambrosio that she should be allowed to stay, even though she's a woman. That it would not be a problem for them to love each other. That it would not be a sin to break their vows of chastity
But this is only the beginning of Ambrosio's descent into sin, and soon all of their paths will collide tragically. To say it gets worse is an understatement.
An e-text is available from Project Gutenberg.
The Monk provides examples of:
- Abhorrent Admirer: Leonella is in love with the younger Don Christoval and is convinced he is in love with her. He thinks she's a silly old spinster.
- Anguished Declaration of Love: Matilda makes one to Ambrosio, but later events make this confession of hers suspect.
- Aroused by Their Voice: Ambrosio's first sermon in the book is clearly presented as an example as he's got half of Madrid swooning in his church.
- Beta Couple: Raymond and Agnes.
- Big Damn Heroes: Lorenzo does his best to do this when he tries to save Antonia but she's already dying and she says it's all right since she's been defiled.
- Black Magic: So Ambrosio can seduce Antonia.
- Brain Fever: Raymond after he gets words of Agnes' "death."
- Brother-Sister Incest/Surprise Incest: It's a Gothic novel, it had to happen somewhere. As it turns out, Antonia and Ambrosio have the same mother. As if his raping her wasn't bad enough.
- Buried Alive: Ambrosio keeps Antonia in a tomb for a while.
- Character Title: Ambrosio being the monk.
- Clothing Damage: Deliberately done by Matilda to tempt Ambrosio.
- Creepy Cathedral: And creepy monastery and creepy nunnery.
- Cruel and Unusual Death: Even for a woman as heartless as the prioress. She gets ripped to shreds by an angry mob.
- Deal with the Devil: Towards the end when Ambrosio finds himself in way over his head, Matilda tells him if he will give his soul to Satan, he can be saved from the angry mob. Ambrosio accepts.
- Defiled Forever: Antonia's rapist's enabler cites this as a reason to kill her, and she tells her suitor that she doesn't mind dying since being raped means she couldn't have married him. However, other female characters like Marguerite (who was raped by her second "husband") and Agnes (who became pregnant not only out of marriage, but while she was a nun) defy this trope and manage to have happy lives afterward; in fact, Marguerite's parents are specified as overjoyed to have her back and dissuade her from entering a convent.
- Demons: Matilda very likely is one.
- Disappeared Dad: Antonia's father dies before the events of the story, leaving her to be raised in relative poverty and obscurity.
- Distressed Damsel: Agnes and Antonia both get their chance to fill this roll.
- Doorstop Baby: The only thing anybody knows about Ambrosio's origins.
- Dreaming of Things to Come: Lorenzo has a nightmare in which his wedding to Antonia is interrupted by a monster.
- Driven to Suicide: Matilda swears that if she can't have Ambrosio or at least be near him, she will kill herself. This threat goes away later for reasons unexplained.
- Dumbass Has a Point: Despite the fact that Leonella is generally ridiculous, she immediately dislikes Ambrosio and points out that his sermon was severe, stern, and frankly terrifying, all of which hint his true nature before be becomes the viewpoint character.
- Eye Scream: As part of Ambrosio's fate.
- Faith Heel Turn: Ambrosio.
- Fatal Flaw: Ambrosio commits the sin of pride long before he starts committing any of his truly deplorable acts. It is his pride that allows him to believe himself holy while he continues to sin.
- Forceful Kiss: Given Ambrosio believes he is committing rape out of love, this isn't surprising.
- Fortune Teller: A "gipsy" palm-reader early in the story makes fun of Leonella for pursuing younger men, then warns Antonia about her inescapable doom.
- Four Lines, All Waiting: There are many, many storylines. It's not uncommon not to see our titular monk for chapters at a time.
- Ambrosio and his affair with Matilda and subsequent obsession with Antonia.
- Lorenzo and his efforts to marry Antonia.
- Raymond and his efforts to free Agnes from the convent.
- Elvira and her efforts to protect Antonia from a bad marriage.
- Several Nested Stories concerning characters who aren't really important to the plot told within each of these plotlines. Not to mention a number of poems that go on for two or more pages.
- Genre Savvy: Theodore
- Ghost Story: There's a very long detour from the main plot to tell one.
- Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Played straight with Antonia and initially with Matilda as well. This is emphasized by a portrait of the Virgin Mary that was painted using Matilda as the model.
- Haunted Castle: The whole business with the bleeding nun.
- The Heretic: Ambrosio becomes one when his crimes are finally exposed.
- Hero Antagonist: Lorenzo de Medina.
- Holier Than Thou: This is how Ambrosio justifies having sex with Matilda even after he exposed a young nun for having a lover. He's just that awesome.
- Hooked Up Afterwards: Lorenzo and Virginia.
- Hot for Preacher: Averted. Ambrosio mistakes Antonia as returning his passion when she claims to love him, but she is so innocent, she barely understands what romantic, let alone sexual, feelings are.
- Most of Madrid's women on the other hand seem to play this straight.
- Hypercompetent Sidekick: Theodore is not only more competent than his friend/master Raymond but than almost everyone in the novel.
- The Ingenue: Antonia, who is only fifteen when the book opens, and extremely sheltered from having grown up in an isolated castle with her mother. She even read an edited version of the Bible because her mother believed the text to be too violent.
- Incorruptible Pure Pureness: This is interestingly the quality about women that Ambrosio lusts after. When it turns out that purty can indeed be corrupted, he turns petulant and spiteful.
- Innocent Blue Eyes: Antonia.
- Innocence Virgin On Stupidity: Antonia, to the point where she theorizes that Ambrosio was "born in the abbey."
- Jackass Genie: Satan promised to take Ambrosio out of the dungeon. He made no promises about where Ambrosio would be going to get out.
- Lady of Black Magic: Matilda is a woman of many talents.
- Lemony Narrator: Agnes, when she tells Raymond the ghost story of The Bleeding Nun.
- Light Feminine and Dark Feminine: Antonia and Matilda, as highlighted by Ambrosio's interest in both of them, comparing and the roles each of them play in the story.
- Love at First Sight: Lorenzo knows after his first meeting with Antonia that he's in love.
- Love Before First Sight: Virginia for Lorenzo, based on all she's heard about him from Agnes.
- Love Triangle: Lorenzo and Antonia are in love. Too bad for them, Ambrosio wants Antonia, too.
- Madonna–Whore Complex: Certainly the view of Ambrosio, who tires of Matilda and Antonia for that matter after she is no longer "pure." Lewis himself seems to take a less extreme stance on the matter, painting Antonia as an innocent victim.
- Ambrosio initially lusts after Matilda (before he ever meets her) in the form of a painting of the Virgin Mary. After he tires of her, he throws the painting to the ground and snarls, "Prostitute."
- Maiden Aunt: Leonella, the sister of Antonia's mother.
- A Man Is Not a Virgin: Initially averted and later played straight with Ambrosio when he breaks his vow of chastity with Matilda.
- Matricide: Ambrosio kills Elvira, who it turns out is his mother.
- Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: In the manner of all Gothic fiction, there are elements of the story that the characters can't discern as natural or supernatural. Much of the suspense and horror of the story derives from this. Ultimately the supernatural is proven to be real in this world, but that only resolves things that have happened to Ambrosio. Appearances of ghosts and the like are never explained.
- Moral Event Horizon: Invoked at several points in the text, but when Ambrosio makes his Deal with the Devil, it's obvious that according to the rules of the story, he's gone too far.
- My Secret Pregnancy: Agnes tries to hide that she is pregnant with Raymond's child. This of course fails after a while.
- My Sister Is Off-Limits!: Lorenzo initially tries to do this with Agnes and Raymond because Agnes has already taken the veil, but changes his mind later.
- Naïve Newcomer: Antonia is so unused to life in the city that she doesn't know her custom of wearing a veil in public is considered old-fashioned.
- Nested Story: There are a few Gothic Tales peppering the main story, or making up part of some characters' backstories.
- One Dialogue, Two Conversations: Don Christoval is just trying to be nice. Leonella swears he wants her.
- One Thing Led to Another: Raymond's explanation to Lorenzo for how Agnes ended up pregnant with his child.
- Only One Name: Several characters are only given one name, but the one we can be sure only has one name is Ambrosio, who was found as a baby.
- Parental Abandonment: Ambrosio was raised in a monastery after having been left there as a baby. It was actually his grandfather who abandoned him, then pretended he died.
- Parental Marriage Veto: The reason Antonia was raised away from Madrid is her parents had to flee from her father's parents when they disapproved of his marriage.
- Elvira thus is very protective of her daughter's marriage prospects and insists Lorenzo receive permission before getting too interested in Antonia.
- Poor Communication Kills: Many of the problems in the story—rapes, murders, kidnappings, destitution—could have been avoided if Lorenzo and Raymond pulled their considerable influence together since Agnes was Lorenzo's sister and Antonia was Raymond's niece. They do spend most of the book trying to do just this, but wheels of justice move slowly.
- Powder Keg Crowd: And it gets set off when they believe Agnes died during her imprisonment. They tear the prioress to shreds and then go after any nun they can find, destroying the convent in the process.
- Pregnant Hostage: Agnes is locked away by the prioress after her pregnancy is discovered. She gives birth in captivity.
- Psychological Horror: The characters experiences make them wonder more than once if they are going mad.
- Rape as Backstory: Theodore's mother, Marguerite. Given a chance, she's able to move past it without being Defiled Forever.
- Rape Is Love: This is Antonio's justification for raping Antonia. Of course, afterward he is disgusted with her because she is no longer pure and kills her.
- Real After All: The Bleeding Nun
- Religious Horror: One of the oldest examples.
- Replacement Goldfish: Virginia for Lorenzo after Antonia's death.
- Romance Novel: The subtitle is "A Romance." And to be fair, one couple actually does get together in the end.
- Satan: He makes an appearance.
- Sex as Rite-of-Passage: A twisted version, as Ambrosio giving in to his sexual desire for the first time is his point of no return.
- Sex Is Evil and I Am Horny: Pretty much Ambrosio's attitude when he first sleeps with Matilda. The guilt goes away really quickly.
- Sexy Priest: Ambrosio is described as being very attractive, and is obviously popular with the ladies of his congregation.
- Shout-Out: 4 characters share their names with characters in The Castle of Otranto (Matilda, Theodore, Conrad, and Jerome).
- Sibling Yin-Yang: Ambrosio and Antonia couldn't be more unlike each other as he is an unrepentant sinner and she is almost inhumanly pure. Further underscored by their complexions—Ambrosio is dark, black-eyed and black-haired. Antonia is blond, blue-eyed, and pale.
- Sinister Minister: Ambrosio the Trope Maker in fiction, who even before his fall from grace immediately reveals himself to be prideful.
- Spanish Inquisition: The setting of the novel.
- Stalker with a Crush: Ambrosio becomes obsessed with Antonia because of her purity and goodness.
- Suck Out the Poison: Matilda claims she saved Ambrosio from a venomous snake thus.
- Supernatural Aid: Subverted. Satan doesn't care about helping you. He just wants your soul.
- Sweet Polly Oliver: Rosario, who quickly soon reveals himself to be a woman named Matilda.
- The Talk: Strangely enough for an 18th-century novel, and for a church scene, Antonia almost gets one of these in the first chapter from her busybody Maiden Aunt. Luckily for the reader and for Antonia, Ambrosio's entrance interrupts.
- Talking Down the Suicidal: Matilda initially threatens to kill herself when Ambrosio will not return her love. Ambrosio desperately tries to convince her it really is for the best if she leaves the monastery.
- Teacher/Student Romance: Matilda initially seems to want this, claiming to have dressed as a man and entered the monastery to be close to Ambrosio, and even later when she starts seeking his love in return. She seems to get bored of him about as fast as he gets bored of her, though.
- The Vamp: Matilda fills this role, particularly if you read her character as deliberately leading Ambrosio astray rather than merely acting as a temptation.
- Villain Protagonist: Ambrosio, who was never a particularly nice or forgiving person to begin with, quickly falls from what grace he had and over the course of the story gets involved in Black Magic, rape, incest and murder.
- Villainous Crush: Ambrosio's deepening obsession with Antonia.
- Woman Scorned: Agnes' aunt; she even sends assassins after him.
- Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Matilda pretends that she is poisoned and dying in order to break Ambrosio's defenses down so he will sleep with her.