Agnes is Don Lorenzo's younger sister and Don Raymond's lover. Her mother fell ill while pregnant with Agnes and promised to send Agnes to the convent if she delivered her safely. She is a virtuous young lady who intends to marry Don Raymond but her parents want her to become a nun, so she decides to run away with him. Their plans are foiled and, thinking Don Raymond has abandoned her forever, she enters the convent.
Ambrosio is an extremely devout monk about 30 years old. He was found left at the Abbey doorstep when he was too young to tell his tale. The monks consider him a present from the Virgin Mary and they educate him at the monastery.
Antonia is a timid and innocent girl of 15. She was brought up in an old castle in Murcia with only her mother Elvira and is therefore very sheltered. She is the object of Don Lorenzo's attentions. The novel's evil characters are considered to be better written than the virtuous ones, and Antonia's character is so virtuous that some have found her “deadly dull”.
Baptiste is a robber living outside of Strausbourg. He lets travelers stay in his house so that he may rob and murder them. His two sons by a previous wife, Jacques and Robert, assist him to this end. He then forced Marguerite to marry him. Marguerite, however, is disgusted by his life of crime.
Cunegonda An old nun who is held by Don Raymond to prevent her telling of his attempted elopement with Agnes.
Elvira is the mother of Antonia and Ambrosio. She married a young nobleman in secret. His family does not approve of her and because of this she and her husband escape to the Indies, leaving her 2-year-old son behind. After 13 years, when Antonia is very young, her husband dies and she returns to Murcia where she lives on an allowance given to her by her father in law.
Leonella is Elvira's sister and Antonia's spinster aunt. She takes an immediate dislike to Ambrosio after hearing his sermon. She believes Don Christoval's polite attentions are more significant than they actually are and is hurt when he fails to call at her house. She eventually marries a younger man and lives in Cordova.
Don Lorenzo de Medina is Agnes's older brother and friend of Don Raymond and Don Christoval. Immediately intrigued by Antonia after meeting her at Ambrosio's sermon, Don Lorenzo resolves to marry her.
Matilda is first known as Rosario, the young boy who looks up to Ambrosio “with a respect approaching idolatry”. Rosario is brought to the Monastery by a well dressed rich stranger but not much more is known of his past. He always hides under his cowl and later reveals that he is actually Matilda, a beautiful young lady who loves Ambrosio. Matilda was created by the Devil as an exact likeness of the Madonna painting that hangs in Ambrosio's room. She seduces Ambrosio and aids in his destruction of Antonia with magic. The character of Matilda was highly praised by Coleridge as Lewis's masterpiece, and is said to be “exquisitely imagined” and “superior in wickedness to the most wicked of men." Though she is considered by some critics to be the most intelligent, articulate, and interesting, she is difficult to characterize. The plot of the novel relies on her being a supernatural force with magical powers, but she begins as a human. She tells Ambrosio she loves him when she thinks he is asleep, and cries “involuntary” tears when she realizes he no longer cares for her. These passages, together with the haste in which the novel was written, seem to indicate “that Lewis changed his mind in the course of the narrative”.
Mariana, Alix, Violante are nuns who vote to punish Agnes and are aware that she is being kept in the sepulcher. They fall victim to the outraged crowd at the processional.
Marguerite is first introduced as a short and unwilling hostess and wife of Baptiste. Her first husband dies after receiving wounds from an English traveler. The group of banditti do not trust Marguerite to keep their secret and she becomes the property of Baptiste. She has two sons, Theodore and a younger unnamed boy. She saves Don Raymond's life by revealing Baptiste's true intentions through mysterious bloody sheets and significant glances. She stabs and kills Baptiste as Don Raymond tries to strangle him, allowing them both to escape.
The Prioress, also known as Mother St. Agatha, punishes Agnes severely to uphold the honor of the convent of St. Clare. “Viciously cruel in the name of virtue”, she keeps Agnes prisoner in the dungeons beneath the convent with only enough bread and water to sustain her but not nourish her. The prioress circulates the story of Agnes's death to everyone, including Agnes's own relations. She is beaten to a bloody pulp by the crowd that gathers to honor St. Clare when they realize she is responsible for Agnes's supposed death. She is also the inspiration for the Abbess of San Stephano in Radcliffe's The Italian.
Don Raymond is the son of the Marquis and is also known as Alphonso d'Alvarada. He takes the name Alphonso when his friend, the Duke of Villa Hermosa, advises him that taking a new name will allow him to be known for his merits rather than his rank. He travels to Paris, but finds the Parisians “frivolous, unfeeling and insincere” and sets out for Germany. Near Strausbourg he is forced to seek accommodations in a cottage after his chaise supposedly breaks down. He is the target of the robber Baptiste but with help from Marguerite, he is able to save himself and the Baroness Lindenberg. Grateful, the Baroness invites Don Raymond to stay with her and her husband at their castle in Bavaria.
Donna Rodolpha, Baroness of Lindenburg meets Don Raymond while traveling to Strausbourg. She is in love with Don Raymond and becomes jealous when she finds out Don Raymond is in love with her niece, Agnes. She asks him to leave the Castle of Lindenberg and later speaks poorly of his character.
Don Christoval, the Condé d'Ossorio, is Lorenzo's friend. He attracts Leonella's desires but does not return them.
Mother St. Ursula assists in Agnes's rescue. She is a witness to the Prioress's crimes and without her, Don Lorenzo would not be able to accuse the Prioress.
Theodore is Marguerite's son who becomes Don Raymond's page. He enjoys writing poetry and authors the poems “Love and Age” and “The Water King”. After reading “Love and Age”, Don Raymond points out the flaws in the piece, which may be flaws Lewis noticed in his own work. Far from being the unwaiveringly faithful servant stock character, Theodore plays a key role in moving the plot forward by helping with Don Raymond's plans to escape with Agnes. Theodore's character also provides foreshadowing through his poems. His poems parallel the action of the story. For instance, in his poem “The Water King”, the lovely maid's fate foreshadows Antonia's. In addition, Theodore also bears a striking resemblance to other characters in other of Lewis's works, including Leolyn in One O'clock (1811) and Eugene in “Mistrust” from Romantic Tales (1808).
Virginia de Villa Franca, introduced late in the story, is a beautiful, virtuous young relation of the Prioress who represents St. Clare in the Procession. Virginia nurses the ill Agnes back to health and thus wins Lorenzo's affections. Like Isabella in The Castle of Otranto, she is introduced as an acceptable marriage partner for Lorenzo but plays an unessential part in the plot.
Newly arrived in Madrid, Leonella and her niece Antonia visit a church to hear the sermon of a celebrated priest, Ambrosio, and while waiting tell their story to two young men, Don Lorenzo and Don Christoval. Antonia's Grandfather is the Marquis de las Cisternas, who was unhappy with his son’s marriage, causing her parents to flee, leaving their young son behind only to be told a month later he has died. Leonella has come to Madrid to convince the Marquis’ son, Raymond de las Cisternas, to resume their pension, which has been cut off. As the story is told, Lorenzo falls in love with Antonia. The mysterious priest, who was left at the abbey as a child, delivers the sermon, and Antonia is fascinated with him. Lorenzo vows to win the hand of Antonia, but must first visit his sister Agnes, who is a nun at the nearby abbey. Having fallen asleep in the church, he awakens to find someone delivering a letter for his sister from Raymond de las Cisternas. On the way home, a gypsy warns Antonia that she is about to die, killed by someone who appears to be honorable.
Ambrosio is visited by nuns, including Agnes, for confession. She drops a letter which reveals her plans to run away with Raymond de las Cisternas. When Agnes confesses that she is pregnant with Raymond’s child, Ambrosio turns her over to the prioress of her abbey for punishment. As she is led away, she curses Ambrosio. Returning to the abbey, Ambrosio's constant companion, a novice named Rosario admits that he is a woman named Matilda, who disguised herself so that she could be near Ambrosio. They both know he must throw her out of the monastery, but she begs him not to, and vows to kill herself if he does. He relents, but after talking the next day she decides to leave of her own accord, on the condition Ambrosio gives her a rose to remember him by. As he picks the rose, he is bitten by a serpent and is rushed to his room where it is predicted that he will die within three days. Rosario acts as his nurse, and the next day it is discovered that Ambrosio is cured which is proclaimed a miracle. When the other monks leave, Matilda reveals that she sucked the poison from Ambrosio’s wound and is now dying herself. At the point of death, she begs him to make love to her, and he succumbs to the temptation at last, having discovered that she is the model who sat for his beloved portrait of the virgin Mary.
Lorenzo confronts Raymond about his relationship with his sister Agnes and his being identified as Alphonse d’Alvarada, who tried to elope with her. Raymond tells a story of the time he went travelling in Germany with his rank concealed under the name Alphonse d’Alvarada. While traveling, his chaise is incapacitated and His servant finds him some lodging at a nearby cottage owned by Baptiste and his wife, who is anything but congenial. Another party, a baroness and her retinue also stop for the night. Receiving a sign of bloody sheets on his bed from Marguerite, Baptiste’s wife, Alphonse realizes that something is amiss, and discovers that he has fallen into a group of murderers, who waylay travelers to kill and rob them. He avoids being drugged and manages to escape with the others, along with Marguerite, who kills Baptiste. They make it to Strasbourg, where Marguerite shares her story of illicit love with a bandit, by whom she has two children, and being forced into marriage with Baptiste. She returns to the home of her father, and Raymond continues his travels, taking along Marguerite’s son, Theodore, as a servant.
At the home of the baroness Raymond falls in love with her niece Agnes, and goes to the baroness to ask for her blessing. However The Baroness is in love with Raymond and when he refuses her advances since he loves Agnes, she vows vengeance. Discovering that it is Agnes, she plans to send her to the convent and so Raymond and Agnes make plans to elope. Agnes plans to dress as the bleeding nun, a ghost who haunts the castle, when she escapes with Raymond. The two drive away in the night, but the carriage crashes, and when Raymond awakens, he finds the nun Agnes is gone. After several months healing, he learns that it was not Agnes but the bleeding nun herself who was with him. Raymond learns that the bleeding nun is an ancestor, and he is responsible for burying her bones and so release her from her hauntings. He finds Agnes in the convent and takes the disguise of the convent gardener. There he overcomes Agnes, earning her rejection. However, when she discovers that she is pregnant, she begs him to come to rescue her.
When Raymond finishes his story, Lorenzo agrees to help him elope with Agnes. Lorenzo then goes to visit Elvira, who is Raymond’s sister-in-law and the mother of Antonia, to ask for permission to court Antonia. However, Elvira is very fearful that her daughter might be rejected by Lorenzo’s family, just as she was rejected by the Cisternas. Despite Lorenzo’s pleadings, Elvira suggests to both Raymond and to Antonia that they resist their love. Lorenzo promises that he will get his family’s blessing and marry Antonia. In the meantime, Lorenzo tries to visit his sister Agnes in the convent, but is told that she is too ill to see him. He has sent to Rome to receive a papal bull releasing Agnes from her vows so that she may honorably marry Raymond without fear of retribution. When the prioress of the abbey is presented with the papal bull, she tells Lorenzo that his sister died several days before. Lorenzo does not believe it, but knows that is simply the prioress’s way to relieve the shame that having a pregnant nun would have on the abbey. However, after two months, there is no other word concerning Agnes. In the meantime, he has secured his family’s blessing on his hoped-for marriage with Antonia.
Ambrosio and Matilda spend the night making love, Ambrosio no longer feeling the guilt of sin. The next night in the cemetery, she performs some ritual of which Ambrosio can only see flashes of light and quaking of the ground; when she returns, she is free of the poison, and free to be Ambrosio’s secret lover. But as the week progresses, Ambrosio grows tired of her, and his eyes begins to wander, noticing the attractiveness of other women. Ambrosio is approached by Antonia, who asks him to provide a confessor for Elvira, her dying mother, and is immediately attracted to her. He prays for Elvira, who begins to improve, and so agrees to come to visit them often, for the simple purpose of being with Antonia and hopefully seducing her. Elvira confesses that she sees something familiar in Ambrosio, but she cannot pinpoint what it is.
Ambrosio continues his visits to Antonia. He asks if there is not a man whom she has ever loved, and she confesses that she loves him. Misinterpreting her, he embraces her, but she resists him, insisting that she did not love him in that way, yet the priest continues to ravish her until her mother enters. Ambrosio pretends that nothing was happening, but Elvira had already suspected his designs on her daughter and tells him that his services are no longer needed. Matilda comes to his room and tells him she can help him to gain Antonia’s charms, even though she realizes she herself no longer holds his interest, in the same way in which she was healed of the poison: witchcraft. Ambrosio is horrified and rejects her suggestion. However, when she shows him a magic mirror that reveals to him Antonia bathing, he agrees. Matilda and Ambrosio return to the cemetery, where Matilda calls up Lucifer and receives his help, and they receive a magic myrtle bough, which will allow Ambrosio to open any door, as well as satisfy his lust on Antonia without her knowing who is her ravisher. Ambrosio agrees, without, he believes, selling himself to the devil.
Raymond mourns the death of his lover, Agnes, so Theodore plots to disguise himself as a beggar and go to the convent to find out what happened to her. He is taken into the convent, where he hopes that Agnes will recognize him, sending some word of her state. He is disappointed when no word comes. However, as he leaves, Mother St. Ursula, hands him a basket with gifts. Theodore takes the basket back to Raymond, where they find a note hidden in the linen cover, stating that they should have the cardinal arrest both Mother St. Ursula and the prioress, so that Agnes’s murder can be requited. Ambrosio carries out his plot to rape Antonia. With the magic myrtle bough he enters her chamber and finds her asleep. He performs the magic rite that will prevent her resistance. He is on the point of raping her when Elvira enters the room and confronts him, promising that she will make his true nature public. In desperation, Ambrosio murders Elvira without carrying out his true purpose of ravishing Antonia. He returns to the abbey, unsatisfied in his lust and horrified that he has now become a murderer.
Antonia is grief-stricken at the death of her mother and alone. Leonella is married and distant, Raymond is ill and ignorant of her plight, and Lorenzo has gone to get an arrest order for the death of his sister. One night Antonia wanders into Elvira’s room and sees what she takes to be her mother’s ghost, which warns her that it will return in three nights and Antonia will die. Terrified, Antonia faints and is found by her landlady, Jacintha, who goes to Ambrosio, requesting him to exorcise her home. Under Matilda’s advice, Ambrosio acquires a concoction that will induce a condition appearing to be death for Antonia. While he is attending Antonia, he slips the potion into her medicine and waits. While he is waiting, he sees what he fears is, in actuality, the ghost of Elvira retreat across the room. He pursues it and discovers it is Flora, Antonia’s maid, who is spying on him on the advice of Elvira before she died. As they are speaking, Jacintha cries out that Antonia is dying, as it indeed appears. With her "dying" breath, Antonia confesses how much she admired Ambrosio and desired his friendship, against her mother’s wishes. She leaves everything to her aunt Leonella, and releases her half-uncle Cisternas from all obligations to her, though she waited for him to come rescue her from her dire straits.
Lorenzo arrives back in Madrid with a representative of the Inquisition. During the procession honoring St. Clare, the prioress is arrested. Mother St. Ursula publicly relates the account of Agnes’s trial by the sisters. The majority voted for the most extreme punishment, which would entail Agnes being thrown in a dungeon and left for dead. However, at Mother St. Ursula’s instigation, the punishment is mitigated to death by poison. At Mother St. Ursula’s revelation that the prioress is a murderer, the crowd turns to rioting. Despite the Inquisitor’s pleas, she is attacked and killed by the crowd. Then they turn on the other nuns, vowing that all of them must be destroyed and the convent torn down. In the confusion, Lorenzo finds a group of nuns and a young woman named Virginia hiding in the cemetery vault near the statue of St. Clare. Groans coming from the statue arouse Lorenzo’s suspicions. He manages to move the statue to find a passage leading down into a dungeon, where he finds Agnes, alive and holding the body of her baby. Lorenzo removes Agnes from the dungeon and with Virginia’s help, takes the group of nuns to safety.
When Antonia awakens from her drugged sleep in the crypt Ambrosio rapes her. Afterwards, he is as disgusted with Antonia as he was with Matilda, who comes to warn him about the riot. Ambrosio kills Antonia in her attempt to escape. Virginia visits Lorenzo as he is recovering from his grief, and the two become closer. Lorenzo convinces Agnes to tell of her experiences at the hands of the prioress. She tells of having awakened to the horrors of the tomb. With the putrid conditions of her surroundings and the pangs of hunger not expected to be assuaged, she many times contemplates suicide, but the thought of her unborn child prevents her. At length she is visited by the prioress, who admits that she purposely gave her an opiate rather than poison, so that she could carry out the punishment that she sees as fitting for Agnes’s sin. She will be imprisoned in the dungeon, with enough food to ensure her survival, nothing more. In the dungeon, Agnes gives premature birth to her baby, which soon dies. At length, no food is brought, and Agnes resigns herself to die, when she is rescued by Lorenzo. Agnes and Raymond are married, and the couple leaves Madrid for Raymond’s castle, accompanied by Lorenzo and Virginia, who are also eventually married.
Ambrosio and Matilda are brought before the Inquisition, and at first both proclaim their innocence, but then Matilda confesses her guilt and is condemned to be burned at the auto-da-fé. Ambrosio insists upon his innocence and is tortured. When returned to his cell to regain his strength for a second "questioning", he is visited by a vision of Matilda, who tries to convince him to completely yield his soul to Satan as she has. She leaves him the volume by which the rite is performed. Ambrosio again proclaims his innocence, but when faced with the instruments of torture once again, he admits to his sins of rape, murder, and sorcery and he too is condemned to burn. In despair, Ambrosio requests Lucifer to save his life, who tells him it will be at the cost of his soul. Yet still Ambrosio resists, hoping eventually for God’s pardon. Lucifer informs him that there is none, and Ambrosio, after much resistance, signs the contract. He is rescued from the cell by Lucifer and brought to a wilderness. Lucifer informs him that Elvira was his mother, making Antonia his sister, adding to his crimes the sin of incest. Lucifer reveals that it has long been his plan to gain Ambrosio’s soul, and Matilda was his servant in the process. Lucifer then carries Ambrosio up and drops him on the rocks below. Ambrosio suffers for six days, dying alone and damned for eternity.
The first edition of The Monk was published some time between 1795 and 1796. Older scholarship tended toward a 1795 publication year, but because no copies of the book so dated could be found, and because contemporary sources did not begin announcing or referencing the work until March 1796, the latter date began to be preferred. It was published anonymously, but for Lewis’s initials after the preface and was highly praised by reviewers in The Monthly Mirror of June 1796 as well as the Analytical Review.
The first edition sold well, and a second edition was published in October 1796. The good sales and reviews of the first had emboldened Lewis, and he signed the new edition with his full name, adding “M.P.” to reflect his newly acquired seat in the House of Commons. The book continued to rise in popularity, but in February 1797 review by a writer for the European Magazine, the novel was criticized for “plagiarism, immorality, and wild extravagance.”
Lewis wrote to his father on 23 February 1798, attempting to make reparations: the controversy caused by The Monk was a source of distress to his family. As recorded by Irwin: “twenty is not the age at which prudence is most to be expected. Inexperience prevented my distinguishing what should give offence; but as soon as I found that offence was given, I made the only reparation in my power: I carefully revised the work, and expunged every syllable on which could be grounded the slightest construction of immorality. This, indeed, was no difficult task, for the objection rested entirely on expressions too strong, and words carelessly chosen; not on the sentiments, characters, or general tendency of the work.”
The fourth edition of the novel was published in 1798, and, according to Peck, “contains nothing which could endanger the most fragile virtue... He expunged every remotely offensive word in his three volumes, with meticulous attention to lust. Ambrosio, formerly a ravisher, becomes an intruder or betrayer; his incontinence changes to weakness or infamy, his lust to desire, his desires to emotions. Having indulged in excesses for three editions, he committed an error in the fourth.” Lewis wrote an apology for The Monk in the preface of another work; as recorded by Peck: “Without entering into the discussion, whether the principles inculcated in “The Monk” are right or wrong, or whether the means by which the story is conducted is likely to do more mischief than the tendency is likely to produce good, I solemnly declare, that when I published the work I had no idea that its publication could be prejudicial; if I was wrong, the error proceeded from my judgment, not from my intention. Without entering into the merits of the advice which it proposes to convey, or attempting to defend (what I now condemn myself) the language and manner in which that advice was delivered, I solemnly declare, that in writing the passage which regards the Bible (consisting of a single page, and the only passage which I ever wrote on the subject) I had not the most distant intention to bring the sacred Writings into contempt, and that, had I suspected it of producing such an effect, I should not have written the paragraph.”
In the same month as the second edition was published, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a piece in The Critical Review, an important literary magazine of the day, in which he both praises and harshly criticizes the novel. He acknowledges that it is “the offspring of no common genius,” that the “underplot... is skilfully and closely connected with the main story, and is subservient to its development,” that the story Lewis weaves in about the bleeding nun is “truly terrific” and that he cannot recall a “bolder or more happy conception than that of the burning cross on the forehead of the wandering Jew.” Coleridge gives his highest praise to the character of Matilda, who he believes is “the author’s master-piece. It is, indeed, exquisitely imagined, and as exquisitely supported. The whole work is distinguished by the variety and impressiveness of its incidents; and the author everywhere discovers an imagination rich, powerful, and fervid. Such are the excellencies” (7). Coleridge continues by saying that “the errors and defects are more numerous, and (we are sorry to add) of greater importance.” Because “the order of nature may be changed whenever the author's purposes demand it” there are no surprises in the work. Moral truth cannot be gleaned because Ambrosio was destroyed by spiritual beings, and no earthly being can sufficiently oppose the “power and cunning of supernatural beings.” Scenes of grotesquery and horror abound, which are a proof of “a low and vulgar taste.” The character of Ambrosio is “impossible... contrary to nature.” Coleridge argues that the most “grievous fault... for which no literary excellence can atone” is that “our author has contrived to make [tales of enchantments and witchcraft] ‘ ‘pernicious’ ‘, by blending, with an irreverent negligence, all that is most awfully true in religion with all that is most ridiculously absurd in superstition,” commenting with the immortal line that “the Monk is a romance, which if a parent saw in the hands of a son or daughter, he might reasonably turn pale.” Coleridge finishes the piece by explaining that he was “induced to pay particular attention to this work, from the unusual success which it has experienced” and that “the author is a man of rank and fortune. Yes! the author of the Monk signs himself a LEGISLATOR! We stare and tremble.”
Thomas James Mathias followed Coleridge’s lead in The Pursuits of Literature, a poem in the 18th-Century satiric tradition, but takes a step farther than Coleridge by claiming that a specific passage made the novel indictable under law. The passage, found in Chapter Seven Volume II, discusses an interpretation of the Bible as too lewd for youth to read.
These two major pieces led the way for a multitude of other attacks on the novel, from such sources as the Monthly Review, the Monthly Magazine, and the Scots Magazine; the last of these attacked the novel six years after its publication. It was a general trend amongst those who criticized, however, to offer praise of some aspect of the novel. “It looked,” writes Parreaux, “as if every reviewer or critic of the book, no matter how hostile he was, felt compelled to at least pay lip-service to Lewis’s genius.”
The criticism of his novel, extending even into criticism of his person, never truly left Lewis, and an attack on his character was published by the Courier posthumously, calling itself a “just estimate of his character.” As recorded by MacDonald: “He had devoted the first fruits of his mind to the propagation of evil, and the whole long harvest was burnt up ... There is a moral in the life of this man ... He was a reckless defiler of the public mind; a profligate, he cared not how many were to be undone when he drew back the curtain of his profligacy; he had infected his reason with the insolent belief that the power to corrupt made the right, and that conscience might be laughed, so long as he could evade law. The Monk was an eloquent evil; but the man who compounded it knew in his soul that he was compounding poison for the multitude, and in that knowledge he sent it into the world.”
There were those who defended The Monk as well. Joseph Bell, publisher of the novel, spent half of his essay Impartial Structures on the Poem Called “The Pursuits of Literature” and Particularly a Vindication of the Romance of “The Monk” defending Lewis; Thomas Dutton, in his Literary Census: A Satirical Poem, retaliated against Mathias and praised Lewis; Henry Francis Robert Soame compared Lewis to Dante in his The Epistle in Rhyme to M. G. Lewis, Esq. M. P.
“Assurances that The Monk was not as dangerous as its enemies maintained failed to dampen its success with the reading public,” writes Peck. “They had been told that the book was horrible, blasphemous, and lewd, and they rushed to put their morality to the test.” Indeed, the novel’s popularity continued to rise and by 1800 there were five London and two Dublin editions.
A major theme prevalent in gothic novels contemporaneous to The Monk is that of the morality tale juxtaposed onto a horrific and often violent plot, laden with real or perceived supernaturalism. The morality tale is a work of literature designed to inculcate the reader with the author’s ethical precepts by outlining the experiences of the protagonist and showing how his or her virtuous decisions lead to favorable denouements, and, in contrast, their iniquitous actions contribute to their downfalls. Frequently, impious demons attempt to lead the hero into dissipation and vice, while sacrosanct angels try to secure the main character’s passage into heaven via the resistance of temptation. Lewis utilizes many of these conventions, but also modifies some of the common aspects and incorporates new elements of his own. Ultimately, Lewis’ thematic usage of the morality tale is conventional in that it shows the downfall of the depraved, yet also innovative because it has an overall lack of divine intercession and incorporates the unfortunate sacrifice of innocent characters in the course of its narrative. In doing so, The Monk displays similarities to gothic novels both antecedent and subsequent to its publication.
In its essence, The Monk’s plot is not completely unpredictable or revolutionary. Ambrosio displays traces of hubris and lust very early in the novel. It is explained that “he [Ambrosio] dismissed them [the monks] with an air of conscious superiority, in which humility’s semblance combated with the reality of pride. Similarly, “he fixed his eyes on the Virgin… Gracious God, should I then resist the temptation? Should I not barter for a single embrace the reward of my sufferings for thirty years?” Both passages explicitly show the conflicting forces, that is, the moral choices that rage within Ambrosio. His nature instructs him to exult himself above others and lust for the Virgin Mary, while his religious inclinations, or at least his awareness of his position within the church, command him to humility and chastity. Ambrosio begins to deviate from his holy conduct when he encounters Matilda, a character revealed at the end of the novel to be an emissary of Satan. All of these circumstances are consistent with the classic model of the morality tale, and, true to form, once Ambrosio is tempted into sin he enters into a tailspin of increasing desire, which leads him to transgression and culminates in the loss of his eternal salvation and his grisly murder at the hands of the devil.
This pattern of wicked actions leading to ill consequences is exactly what is expected in a morality tale and is reflected in other Gothic novels. For example, Lewis’ work is often discussed in conjunction with that of Ann Radcliffe’s. Robert Miles writes that “Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis were the two most significant Gothic novelists of the 1790s, an estimate of their importance shared by their contemporaries.”. Indeed, the repercussions of malevolent and self-serving actions are represented extraordinarily well in Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest. The Marquis in the story was driven to murder for “the title of his brother… and riches which would enable him to indulge his voluptuous inclinations.” Similar to Ambrosio, the Marquis was tempted and succumbed to sin, which sets him on a wicked path leading to his public shame and suicide.
However, despite its outcome, The Monk does have some very marked discrepancies from the normal morality tale setup used in gothic novels. In most morality tales, both vice and virtue are represented equally, but in Lewis’ work, the powers of evil are disproportionately represented. Technically speaking, Ambrosio is surrounded by virtue in the sense that he is always conscious that what he is doing is wrong and, until the end of the novel, never believes that he cannot repent. In fact, he tells Matilda that “the consequences [of witchcraft] are too horrible: I… am not so blinded by lust as to sacrifice for her enjoyment my existence both in this world and the next.” However, this general sense of right and wrong is a feeble, inefficacious defense for Ambrosio when he is confronted by the physical presence and influence of demons. There are no corresponding angels who appear before Ambrosio to counter the influence of the devil and try to dissuade him from his path of destruction. As a result, his depravity is accelerated and magnified from the minor character foibles that are congenital to him to the egregious evils that possess him by the end of the novel. The only apparition that is potentially heaven-sent is that of Elvira’s ghost. She comes back from the grave to caution her daughter, Antonia that “yet three days, and we shall meet again!” While the apparition may seem to be trying to warn Antonia of her impending death, the ghost’s appearance causes Jacintha to fetch Ambrosio to dispel the spirit, allowing him to drug Antonia and take her under his power, a chain of events ultimately leading to the demise of Antonia, which the ghost foretold. As a result of the ghost’s intrusion, Antonia is put directly into harm’s way, an action much more apropos for a demonic presence rather than a heavenly one.
This lack of divinity is, however, not unique to The Monk. John Moore’s Zeluco focuses on the nefarious plots of a single man who cannot control his passions. Like Ambrosio, Zeluco’s disposition is shown very early in the novel to be disagreeable. In his youth Zeluco “seized it [his pet sparrow] with his hand, and while it struggled to get free, with a curse he squeezed the little animal to death.” Zeluco continually gratifies his vices much to his discredit and dishonor, and, as in The Monk, his sins compound upon themselves culminating in the infanticide of his only son. Unlike Ambrosio, however, Zeluco has no physical demons spurring him onwards, but rather his insatiable appetite for sin.
Lewis also deviates from what is typically expected from morality tales when he includes the sacrifice of innocent people in the latter chapters of the novel. As a result of Ambrosio’s personal vices, both Elvira and Antonia are slain. Elvira finds Ambrosio, “the man whom Madrid esteems a saint… at this late hour near the couch of my unhappy child)” on the verge of committing rape, and Ambrosio murders her to prevent her from revealing his crimes. Elvira was guilty of no crime and throughout the novel was committed to the welfare of her family, and her daughter in particular. Likewise, Antonia is murdered to prevent her from alerting Officers of the Inquisition of Ambrosio’s crimes. Antonia is also undeserving of her fate as she was always a loyal daughter and honest woman throughout the novel. Another gothic novel in which one individual’s quest for a gratification of the senses leads to the ruin of others is Vathek. In the novel, Vathek attempts to sacrifice fifty children to a demon in order to gain his favor. Without mercy he “pushed the poor innocent into the gulph [open to hell].” Similarly, in The Necromancer, an entire village is sacrificed to a troop of banditti who are angered at their hideout being revealed. The leader of group explaining that “the villagers are not yet punished… for having assisted them, but they shall not escape their doom.” Admittedly, Vathek can be more readily identified as a morality tale, but The Necromancer warns against the pernicious effects of a legal system that is bereft of mercy. A criminal declares during his confession that his life “will afford a useful lesson to judges, and teach the guardians of the people to be careful how they inflict punishments if they will not make a complete rogue of many a hapless wretch…”
The Wandering Jew is a man doomed to walk the earth until the second coming of Jesus. There are several interpretations of why he is punished this way. One legend says that Jesus wished to take a drink from a horse trough and the Jew refused, instead pointing to a hoofprint filled with water on the ground and “observed that it was good enough for such an enemy of Moses”. Another legend says that when Christ sat to rest on a man’s doorstep, a man from Jerusalem drove him away, yelling, “‘Walk faster!’ And Christ replied, ‘I go, but you will walk until I come again!’” Both these legends show that the Jew’s rude behavior to Christ is the reason for his punishment of endless wandering.
The Wandering Jew appears in the subplot of Raymond and Agnes’ story in The Monk and foreshadows Ambrosio’s encounters with supernatural devilish spirits. The Wandering Jew is first referenced to as a “Great Mogul,” but he displays several characteristics associated with the legend of the Wandering Jew that allow us to figure out his true identity before it is directly revealed. He tells Raymond:
Fate obliges me to be constantly in movement; I am not permitted to pass more than a fortnight in the same place. I have no friend in the world, and, from the restlessness of my destiny, I never can acquire one. Fain would I lay down my miserable life, for I envy those who enjoy the quiet of the grave; but death eludes me, and flies from my embrace.
This speech reveals that this Great Mogul must constantly move from place to place, has no friends, and can never die. All of these signs point to the legend of the Wandering Jew. On top of this, the Great Mogul reveals, “God has set his seal upon me, and all his creatures respect this fatal mark”. This refers to the burning cross on his forehead, a mark of God that gives the Great Mogul his power to destroy evil spirits, such as the Bleeding Nun. This burning mark is a characteristic of the Wandering Jew specifically found in Spanish variants of the legend. The Monk is primarily set in Spain and its main characters, like Raymond, are mostly Spanish. Therefore, the Wandering Jew fulfills the aspects of the legend most commonly found in Spain. Another characteristic of the Wandering Jew found in Spain is that although he is miserable and cursed, he spends his time praying, doing good works, and helping others. Theodore tells Raymond that “he did much good in the town,” and he helps Raymond get rid of the Bleeding Nun. The Great Mogul’s identity as the Wandering Jew is eventually revealed:
When I [Raymond] related my adventure to my Uncle, the Cardinal-Duke, He told me that He had no doubt of this singular Man’s being the celebrated Character known universally by the name of ‘the wandering Jew.’ His not being permitted to pass more than fourteen days on the same spot, the burning Cross impressed upon his fore-head, the effect which it produced upon the Beholders, and many other circumstances give this supposition the colour of truth.
The Cardinal-Duke’s confirmation and belief in the existence of the Wandering Jew gives credit to Raymond’s story.
The Bleeding Nun also appears in the subplot of Raymond and Agnes and epitomizes the sin of erotic desires. Raymond mistakes her for his lover, Agnes, because she is veiled and he cannot see her face. The veil “conceals and inhibits sexuality comes by the same gesture to represent it.” Both Antonia and Matilda are veiled to protect their virginity and innocence and it is expected that Agnes also covers her face for this reason when she meets Raymond. However, the removal of the veil reveals the Bleeding Nun, dead and punished because of her sins. While she was alive, she was a prostitute and a murderer before she was murdered by her lover. Her story is the first we receive of how giving in to sexual desires leads to death and eternal unrest. Raymond expects to find Agnes’ beautiful, virgin face beneath the veil, but instead finds death. Her unveiling connects the loss of virginity and the giving in to sexual desires with death and punishment. Both the Bleeding Nun and Ambrosio begin pious but then fall prey to their sexual desires. Ambrosio has already given into his desire for Matilda and the story of the Bleeding Nun told in the subplot foreshadows his further downfall with Antonia and his eternal punishment in the hands of the devil.
The Bleeding Nun also introduces the world of the supernatural into The Monk. The supernatural something “that is above nature or belonging to a higher realm or system than that of nature” This introduction brings another Gothic element into the book. Up until this point, the plot has relied on natural elements of the sublime to invoke the terror expected of a Gothic novel. The entrance of the Bleeding Nun transforms this natural world into a world where the supernatural is possible. When she gets into Raymond’s carriage, “Immediately thick clouds obscured the sky: The winds howled around us, the lightning flashed, and the Thunder roared tremendously.” Nature is acknowledging the presence of a supernatural force.
When Agnes tells Raymond the story of how the Bleeding Nun’s ghost haunts the Castle of Lindenberg, Raymond asks her whether she believes the story, and she replies “How can you ask such a question? No, no, Alphonso! I have too much reason to lament superstition’s influence to be its Victim myself.” It is not until the Bleeding Nun appears to Raymond at night that the idea of the existence of the supernatural begins to be a reality. The Wandering Jew’s appearance coincides with this first instance of the supernatural. He can see the Bleeding Nun, proving that she is not a figment of Raymond’s imagination. His supernatural abilities give access to the Bleeding Nun’s story and provide plausibility to the existence of the supernatural. He also has the power to free Raymond from her presence. The later confirmation of Raymond’s uncle to the existence of the Wandering Jew allows the whole story to be taken for fact. This establishes the reality of the supernatural and lays the groundwork for Matilda’s later use of magic and her and Ambrosio’s interaction with evil spirits.
Edward Loder used the work as the basis for his 1855 opera Raymond and Agnes.
La nonne sanglante (The Bloody Nun), freely based on The Monk, is a five-act opera by Charles Gounod to a libretto by Eugène Scribe and Germain Delavigne. Written between 1852 and 1854, it was first produced on 18 October 1854 at the Salle Le Peletier by the Paris Opéra. Soprano Anne Poinsot created the role of Agnès.
La nonne sanglante, a 5-act play by Auguste Anicet-Bourgeois and Julien de Mallian, which premiered on 16 Feb 1835 in Paris at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin, was very popular in its day. The legendary actress Mlle Georges created the role of Marie de Rudenz. The melodrama derives its title, and certain images and motifs from The Monk.
The French writer Antonin Artaud's only full-length novel bears the same name and is a "loose translation" of Lewis's.
Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière attempted to film a version of The Monk in the 1960s, but the project was halted due to lack of funds. Buñuel's friend, the Greek director Ado Kyrou, used this script as the basis for his 1972 film version. Le Moine (English The Monk) boasted an international cast with Franco Nero in the title role. The film also starred Nathalie Delon, Eliana de Santis, Nadja Tiller and Nicol Williamson.
Maria de Rudenz is a tragic opera by Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848). The libretto by Salvadore Cammarano is based on a 5-act French play (1835), La nonne sanglante, by Auguste Anicet-Bourgeois and Julien de Mallian, a drama informed by motifs and imagery from The Monk. The opera premiered at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, 30 January 1838, with soprano Carolina Ungher (1803–1877) singing the eponymous role.
In 1990 The Monk was produced by Celtic Films. It starred Paul McGann as the title character, and was written and directed by Francisco Lara Polop.
Grant Morrison and Klaus Janson's 1990 DC graphic novel Batman: Gothic relies heavily and overtly upon the Monk, combined with elements of Don Giovanni, as the inspiration for the plot.
A film adaption, The Monk, was made by French-German director Dominik Moll in 2011, it was shot in Madrid and stars Vincent Cassel, Déborah François, Geraldine Chaplin, and Sergi López. Shooting began in mid April and was set for 12 weeks.
A stage adaptation by Benji Sperring for Tarquin Productions ran at Baron's Court Theatre, London, from 16 October to 3 November 2012.
A musical comedy based on the novel is being developed, written and composed by Tug Rice. It was workshopped at Carnegie Mellon University three times between March 2010 and March 2012, starring Grey Henson, Jessie Shelton and Corey Cost.Anderson, George K. The Legend of the Wandering Jew. Hanover: Brown University Press, 1991. Print.
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Lewis, Matthew. The Monk. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
Miles, Robert. "Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis." A Companion to the Gothic. Ed. David Punter. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000. Print.
Macdonald, David Lorne. Monk Lewis: a Critical Biography. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2000. Print.
Peck, Louis F. A Life of Matthew G. Lewis. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1961. Print.
Parreaux, André. The Publication of The Monk; a Literary Event, 1796–1798. Paris: M. Didier, 1960. Print.
Railo, Eino. The Haunted Castle: A Study of the Elements of English Romanticism. London: Routledge & Sons, ltd, 1927. Print.