One of the modules I studied during my time at University was entitled Gothic Fiction. Rather than looking specifically at the origins of Gothic Fiction, the course focused largely on works from the later Victorian period – ones which had been influenced by the forerunners of the genre (think Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe). It was a course I really enjoyed, especially when identifying the tropes and themes of the genre and realising how they adapted these to suit the genre to their society. Whilst The Monk is not necessarily one of the originators of Gothic Fiction, it is one of the earlier novels to come under this title. Curious to read more within this iconic genre, and having purchased the beautiful Penguin English Library edition, I quickly started my next read.
Published in 1796, The Monk was originally seen as scandalous and controversial in nature. With sexual assault, rape, murder and even incest, it really was a novel to shock readers. Whilst the novel can be viewed as focusing upon the eponymous character of Ambrosio, who is quite literally ‘The Monk’, I read it more as the story of several characters, and their interlinked plots. Ambrosio is regarded as the greatest of holy men on earth, a man whose is able to refuse all other temptations normal men would fight to resist. Yet this is, of course, a Gothic novel. Ambrosio , who is lured into the world of temptation, fights to maintain his sacred vows, often with deadly consequences for the other major characters. What ensues is a novel soaked to the bone in Gothic traditions.
The novel itself does not actually open directly with the character of our fated Monk, Ambrosio. Instead, it starts with the arrival of two women to a church in Spain. The congregation is full to bursting, all of the people desperate to hear the speech of, yes, you’ve guessed it, the celebrated Ambrosio. This first chapter did sustain my interest, as we piece together bits about the lives of the two new women, and their reasons for arriving in Spain. The youth and innocence of Antonia, one of the women, combined with the location of this religious sanctuary, produced a highly moral and comfortable start. Yet through this exaggeration, there is a deadly undertone of just how far the characters within the novel actually have to fall, and a suggestion of what may be to come. It’s also interesting to note the broader setting of Spain. I found this interesting, as it shows a period in literature where the Gothic could still be largely associated with the foreign, and was something which could be distanced from the reader. Unlike later Victorian novels, the Gothic had yet to be brought into a closer, and all the more scarier, proximity.
Whilst the plot of the novel is largely linear, there are moments within the story where we do stray from this straight forward path. Likewise, as the novel does not focus solely upon Ambrosio, but instead upon several different characters, I did feel that there was a disconnect of sorts within the novel. The novel seemed a bit slow because of the fact that it had to establish and then also link the different threads of plot, and I felt that I missed out on a closer intimacy to the characters because of this. Having said that, the novel hits its stride about half way through. The links between characters start to come together, and we start to see the moral decline of Ambrosio which acts as an ignition to give the plot much more interest.
Plot rhythms aside, I still did not feel massively invested in any of the characters. Many of them, the women in particular, felt extremely two-dimensional, and as if they had purposefully been created to be used as creative tools to reach an end goal. I could almost see the author purposefully pulling the strings as each character was designated a purpose to fulfill the plot, meaning that they did not really shine through as characters in their own right. As it may be assumed, the most interesting and complex of the characters is Ambrosio himself. As a man who has dedicated his life to serving God, to abstinence and religious idolatry, it makes witnessing the poisonous decline as he gives in to the excess of his passions, all the more intriguing. Against Ambrosio, even Matilda, a woman who aids him in the discoveries of pleasures, often falls rather flat, as if she is more of a caricature of the fallen women, and yet another tool to give the plot definition.
Whilst the plot and the characters did not necessarily enthuse me, as a lover of Gothic Fiction I thought this book was brilliant purely in its uses of the tropes and themes of the genre. For example, the use of damsels in distress and women who innocence is put at risk held a continual presence within the book. In fact, I think I can count about four/five women who can be seen as needing to be saved from a perilous decline. And whilst I did not really feel personally involved for the people within the book, the locations themselves make for brilliant characters. As with many Gothic novels, the setting, here in the form of medieval cathedrals, crumbling castles and underground crypts, are places of intense secrecy. They speak with their own voices from within the pages, telling of the horrible deeds which are concealed within. These spaces are threatening, and maintain the crucial balance between terror and horror. Lewis is brilliant at capturing these spaces and turning them into dangerous zones.
With a book which is titled, The Monk, it is always obvious that religion is going to come into play at some point. Thankfully, this was not done in a way which lorded religious superiority over the reader, smothering us under the rules of the church. Instead, it used this theme to explore and further heighten the brutal hypocrisies of the church and its members. A paragraph which I felt perfectly encapsulated this (besides the villainy of obvious main characters) examines the actions of the Superior as she rules over her convent.
‘The superior’s word is an oracle to but too many of a covenant’s inhabitants. The nuns believed whatever the prioress chose to assert: thought contradicted by reason and charity, they hesitated not to admit the truth of her arguments. They followed her injunctions to the very letter, and were fully persuaded, that to treat me with lenity, or to shew the least pity for my woes, would be a direct means to destroy my chance for survival’ (p. 390).
By opening up to critique those who are suppose to exemplify the religious teachings of the bible, including Ambrosio, you can only imagine the effect this would have had on a contemporary audience which would have been highly religious themselves. It certainly shines a light on deeds which may have before gone unnoticed or have had blind eyes turned towards them, opening these aspects up to much scrutiny.
Whilst I did not think this book was great in terms of character development, I did enjoy the Gothic aspects of the novel, and the rich traditions which have sprung from its origins. For lovers of this genre, I would certainly recommend it, and for lovers of classical literature, the illicit deeds concealed within these pages may prove interesting. If you are new to Gothic Fiction, I would suggest starting with more accessible reads such as Dracula, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and, as a much more modern example, the amazing Rebecca.
Have you read this book or many other Gothic fiction novels? What did you think?
Publisher: Penguin English Library