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Literature / The Monk

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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, at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. Mere minutes after the cathedral doors open, the pews are packed with people 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 him are a beautiful girl, Antonia, and her Maiden Aunt, Leonella, who meet a pair of gallant young 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 (and more complicated) is an understatement.

An e-text is available from Project Gutenberg.

The novel was adapted into a film in 2011, The Monk, starring Vincent Cassel, Déborah François and Geraldine Chaplin. Two previous film adaptations, Le Moine, from 1972, and The Monk (also released as The Final Temptation and The Seduction of a Priest), from 1990, starred Franco Nero and Paul McGann respectively. A faux film adaptation was also recorded for the videogame Immortality.

Not to be confused with the detective show.

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.
  • Adaptational Heroism: In both movie adaptations Ambrosio is portrayed somewhat more sympathetically (in the 2011 movie he specifically asks Satan to heal Antonia's damaged mind).
  • 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.
  • Author Filibuster: Raymond complains to Theodore that there are many inexperienced book critics who judge a book by its cover. He rambles on for several sentences.
    • At an other point, Antonia is shown reading a bowlderised version of the Bible. The narrator notes that young girls are recommended to read the Bible, even though it is full of content that would evoke sinful thoughts in them.
  • Beta Couple: Raymond and Agnes.
  • Big Bad: Satan himself is the main villain and the source of all misery and torment in the novel.
  • 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. Not that he agrees with the latter sentiment.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Matilda first disguises herself as a boy called Rosario to get closer to Ambrosio. She then reveals that she's actually a girl and is in love with the monk. She first acts "normally", but then is revealed to be a witch and a servant of the Devil. She advocates for the rape and kidnapping of Antonia.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Borders on a downer, but with enough sweetness to keep from being wholly depressing. Ambrosio and the Prioress are exposed and punished, but Antonia is not only raped by Ambrosio, but murdered in Ambrosio's vain attempt to keep his sins hidden. Agnes, however, survives despite her torture and the loss of her baby, and ends up recovering and become Happily Married with Raymond. Lorenzo is left grief-stricken by Antonia's death, but ultimately moves on, and finds a second love with one of the nuns' pensioners who's left the convent, who he helped to keep safe from the angry mob. All in all, the villains got their comeuppance, but not without causing some lasting damage by the time it happens.
  • Black Magic: So that Ambrosio can seduce (and later, rape) Antonia. And perhaps earlier, when Matilda cures herself of the poison, though this may be debatable, as it is revealed that she is a demon assigned the job of corrupting Ambroio, so may not have been in any danger to begin with.
  • Brain Fever: Raymond after he gets words of Agnes' "death." There are implications that this is what happened to Sister Carmilla, Agnes' jailer, as she is torn between her loyalty to the Prioress and common humanity towards Agnes' suffering.
  • Buried Alive: Ambrosio keeps Antonia in a tomb for a while. Agnes fears this is her punishment, but is proved wrong - the punishment is worse.
  • Character Title: In fact, the novel's full title is: Ambrosio, or The Monk.
  • Character Filibuster: Don Raymond gives a quite lengthy one to Don Lorenzo when he retells the story of his and Agnes' relationship.
  • Clothing Damage: Deliberately done by Matilda to tempt Ambrosio.
  • Creepy Cathedral: And creepy monastery and creepy nunnery. Complete with crypts of rotting corpses.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death:
    • The Prioress gets ripped to shreds by an angry mob, along with her co-conspirators. Worse, the same fate befalls other, innocent nuns of the convent who the mob declares guilty by association.
    • Ambrosio is dropped from a cliff by Lucifer, shattering his body, but leaving him just barely alive. He then spends six days paralyzed and in excruciating pain as wild animals slowly tear him apart, and only dies on the seventh day when he is drowned by sudden rainstorm.
  • 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.
  • The Devil Is a Loser: Inverted. Matilda convinces Ambrosio that the devil can be summoned and made a sorcerer's slave with no danger to the summoner. Turns out Satan here is scarily competent, leading Ambrosio from lifelong virtue into utter depravity in a matter of weeks.
  • Dirty Old Monk: Ambrosio. He's about thirty, so not very old, but certainly very dirty.
  • 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. Agnes is rescued. Antonia, on the other hand...
  • Doorstop Baby: The only thing anybody knows about Ambrosio's origins.
  • Dramatic Irony: The prioress praising Ambrosio's virtue right as he is helping his demonic mistress carry out rituals.
  • 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 he becomes the viewpoint character.
  • Evil Gloating: Once Satan is firmly in possession of Ambrosio's soul, he doesn't hesitate to mock him for his incontinence.
  • Exact Words: Ambrosio finally sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for being rescued from the Inquisition. Once Lucifer has done so, he points out that he has fulfilled his end of the bargain and is now free to kill Ambrosio and claim his soul.
  • Eye Scream: As part of Ambrosio's fate.
  • Faith–Heel Turn: Ambrosio starts off as a man renowned for his piety who is said to be incorruptible, but once he gives into temptation, he abandons all scruples and goes down a path of rapidly escalating sins and atrocities.
  • 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. Likewise, his growing Lust for Matilda, and later, Antonia, acts as the basis of his depravity over the course of the book.
  • Flying Dutchman: The Wandering Jew makes an appearance in Don Raymond's backstory — he is the exorcist who banishes the Bleeding Nun from Raymond's presence.
  • Foil: The prioress is this to Ambrosio. Whereas Ambrosio strays from the path of good by breaking the rules of his order, the prioress does this by adhering to them to the point of cruelty.
  • 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.
  • Gender-Blender Name: Rosario. It's much more commonly a girl's name within Spain and its colonies. Possibly a form of Foreshadowing considering its bearer is a Sweet Polly Oliver actually named Matilda (though it's not clear whether Lewis was aware of this when writing the novel).
  • Ghost Story: In the middle of the novel, there's a very long detour from the main plot in which Raymond recounts his encounter with the ghost of the Bleeding Nun in Germany.
  • 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 purity can indeed be corrupted, he turns petulant and spiteful.
    • Antonia could really be considered a Deconstruction of this trope, though it's hard to say whether it's intentional or not. Her purity makes her incredibly likable, but that purity stems from her being from being sheltered from the outside world, particularly its harsher and less comfortable aspects. Consequently, she is completely naive about the ways of the world, makes all the wrong and foolish decisions because of that naivety, and is blind to Ambrosio's true nature until it is far too late.
  • Innocent Blue Eyes: Antonia.
  • Jackass Genie: Satan promised to take Ambrosio out of the dungeon. He made no promises about where Ambrosio would be going to get out.
  • Karma Houdini: While the mortal villains suffer their horrific ends, Satan suffers no repercussion whatsoever and kills Ambrosio to claim his damned soul by the novel's end.
  • Karmic Death: After becoming corrupt and pure evil, Ambrosio is led into a trap by Satan and hypocritically begs God for help, with no true devotion or goodness behind it. Mocking him for this, Satan flies him up real high, drops him and leaves him to suffer for five days until the rivers rise and carry off his corpse, with his soul damned to hell.
  • 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."
  • Magical Jew: The Wandering Jew pops up in one chapter to rescue Raymond and Agnes from the ghost of the Bleeding Nun, then disappears after delivering some cryptic warnings to them.
  • Maiden Aunt: Leonella, the sister of Antonia's mother. Subverted, since it's later mentioned she married a Gold Digger man.
  • 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.
  • Pedophile Priest: Ambrosio is about thirty. His sister Antonia is fifteen.
  • 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.
  • Predecessor Villain: In the 2011 adaptation Ambrosio's Grandfather the Marquis is the one who ordered one his men to kill infant Ambrosio. The guy couldn't do it and instead dumps him at the monastery.
  • 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.
  • Real After All: The Bleeding Nun.
  • Religious Horror: One of the oldest examples.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Virginia for Lorenzo after Antonia's death.
  • Roaring Rampage of Romance: Ambrosio and Matilda, who resort to murder, black magic, and, for Matilda, selling her soul to the Devil.
  • 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.
  • Surprise Incest: As if him raping her wasn't bad enough, it turns out that Ambrosio and Antonia have the same mother.
  • 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.
  • Virginity Makes You Stupid: Antonia, to the point where she theorizes that Ambrosio was "born in the abbey."
  • 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.