The Monk by Matthew Lewis

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According to my Harmon and Holman A Handbook to Literature, “romance” has had a special meaning in terms of literature since the beginning of the novel. As opposed to a “novel,” a term which suggested realistic manners and society, a “romance” was more unlikely to happen in reality.

In common usage, [romance] refers to works with extravagant characters, romantic and exotic places, highly exciting and heroic events, passionate love, or mysterious or supernatural experiences. In another and more sophisticated sense, romance refers to works relatively free of the more restrictive aspects of realistic verisimilitude.  (“Romance,” page 450, William Harmon and Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, eighth edition 1999)

Since I do not normally enjoy science fiction and rarely read fantasy beyond children’s books, I’m starting to suspect that the original classics that were the precursors are likewise not likely to be my favorite of classics. The Monk by Matthew Lewis (published 1796, when Matthew Lewis was 20 years old) is subtitled “A Romance” and such a description, had I realized the original connotation, should have been evidence enough that it would not be a cherished read. I loved the beginning and the end (more on that in a minute) but for the most part, The Monk was a drudge for me to read.

But, this may very well be just the right classic novel for you.

Lest you take my word for it, I will suggest that The Monk is far different from the stereotypical 1790s classic, such as the contemporary and perennial favorite Jane Austen. I picked up The Monk based on Amanda’s review, in which she explains what a fun novel it was. It was funny: I laughed out loud on many occasions. But I simply dislike the extreme drama that is a part of the early “romance” novel. I also didn’t like Dracula for similar reasons. I kept rolling my eyes with both books.

I also will say I went in knowing very little about how it would play out. All I knew was it dealt with monks, love, and fantastic pacts with the devil. There is so much more to it, but knowing little is, I think, a perfect way to approach it. The humorous episodes are much more random when one does not expect them. If you haven’t read this yet and may be interested in doing so, keep in mind that the remainder of this post may contain spoilers.

Amanda suggested that The Monk is a “romance with the devil” and I think that is a perfect summary. Ambrosio is a righteous but sheltered monk that, once he discovers the pleasures available to him, enters into a flirtation with all things carnal. He is making up for lost time! I loved the set up of Ambrosio’s character in the beginning, and I loved his eventual demise. His fate was so appropriate.

Reading it so closely on the heels of my Paradise Lost reread gave me an added layer of insight, I thought. In Paradise Lost, the devil is humbled. By the end, God looks over the world with satisfaction, and in fact, Satan, who is a ferocious being in the beginning, is not a huge presence in the last books of Paradise Lost. In The Monk, the Devil finally gets his control over a person, and he is happy.

‘Our contract? Have I not performed my part? What more did I promise than to save you from your prison? Have I not done so? Are you not safe from the Inquisition—safe from all but from me? Fool that you were to confide yourself to a Devil! Why did you not stipulate for life, and power, and pleasure? Then all would have been granted: Now, your reflections come too late. Miscreant, prepare for death; You have not many hours to live!’

On hearing this sentence, dreadful were the feelings of the devoted Wretch! He sank upon his knees, and raised his hands towards heaven. The Fiend read his intention and prevented it—

‘What?’ He cried, darting at him a look of fury: ‘Dare you still implore the Eternal’s mercy? Would you feign penitence, and again act an Hypocrite’s part? Villain, resign your hopes of pardon. Thus I secure my prey!’ (Volume III, Chapter V)

Oh, what a beautiful scene that last one was! I really liked it, and considering I’d been hating the novel at that point, that says something.

As for what I hated, the faults lay in the drama. I didn’t like the forced poetry interspersed in the text. I began to be bored when the characters started telling their life stories — first Don Raymond’s story, then Don Lorenzo’s story, and Agnes’s story, etc. These sections were huge digressions for any action and they seemed to be far too much “telling” not “showing.” But even those boring sections could have been forgiven. I began hating the book about the point of Ambrosio’s determination to have Antonia, even through rape. I can’t stand reading about rape.

Despite the presence of rape, incest, murder, and so forth, The Monk was, as I mentioned, a funny book. I laughed aloud when I discovered Rosario’s secret and I loved the ghost story, the crypts, and Ambrosio’s ultimate fate. I just disliked so much of the in-between stuff, I am relieved to have finished it. I am not looking forward to more gothic or “romantic” literature. I don’t think it’s for me. I hate the melodrama.

Do you think you’d like this story? Are you a fan of gothic literature? Which “romance” novels have you read?

Read The Monk via Project Gutenberg.

Reviewed on October 21, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I read this in college as part of a Gothic literature class and don’t remember much about it except that it was quite possibly the most outrageous thing we read all semester. I thought it was a scream, but I can see why it wouldn’t appeal to everyone.

  • Some of the story-within-a-story-within-a-story stuff bothered me too, and the middle got kind of drudgy, but once it worked itself out, I did enjoy the book. I can see why the rape scene would color the whole book for you. This will probably sound like a weird comparison, but last year I read Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan (not a book you want to read if you can’t read about rape!), and there was a scene near the end that hit on one of the things that I absolutely can’t read about without feeling sick. It was only five pages long, but it really destroyed the book for me. I tried and tried to continue liking it, because the rest of the book was really well done and there were parts that I thought were beautiful, but in the end, it was that one scene that stuck with me, no matter what the rest of the book was like. I wonder how you’d feel about this book if it werent’ for the rape scenes.

    • Amanda, Yes, if he hadn’t been such a predator in trying to get Antonia, I probably would have left the book with a much more positive feeling. I did like the beginning and the end and some of the stories in the middle! It WAS funny! And I loved the whole “pact with the devil” scene. So appropriate. Of course, given how much I disliked Ambrosio by the end, I thought his fate quite appropriate for him, so maybe I had to hate him that much to appreciate the end?

      Anyway, I decided long ago not to read Tender Morsels! Definitely not a book for me…

  • This is one I would actually like to try! Lately I’ve been finding I have a renewed (or perhaps newly discovered is more apt) appreciation for Gothic fiction. For me the key is not to take it at all seriously and just enjoy how zany it can all get. There were certainly bits in Jane Eyre that could have one rolling one’s eyes, but I think if you go in accepting the conventions of the “genre”, then you’re better able to just roll with the punches as it were! Great review!

    • Steph, I don’t put Jane Eyre in the same category (“gothic”) as this at all. I loved it. But anyway, yes, some people love how “zany” this one it. I hope you too enjoy it!

  • I often have trouble reading about rape, but in the context of The Monk it didn’t bother me, probably because the whole story was so ridiculously over-the-top and all the characters were so wooden and two-dimensional that I didn’t feel it had any basis in reality. I read this book on the long plane ride to Australia, and sniggered the whole way…thought it was hilarious, and “so bad it was good,” especially how transparently it played of British fears of “popery” and stereotypes about the licentiousness of monks and nuns.

    • Emily, You’re right — it had no basis in reality. That must be why some people aren’t bothered by it. But this one I just couldn’t stand the rape sequence, regardless. It was pretty hilarious, if I try to ignore the disturbing parts…

      Where did you go in Australia? I lived in Melbourne for 15 months! It’s where my boy was born!

      • Aw, I really regretted that we didn’t have the chance to stop in Melbourne when we were there. We tagged along for a business trip David’s dad was on, so were in Canberra and Sydney, with a long weekend on Kangaroo Island. We went in December & it was awesome to get a little shot of warm weather at a time when it’s so gray in Portland. 🙂

        • Emily, oh don’t feel bad. I lived in Melbourne for 15 months and never left the state of Victoria (although we had a layover in Sydney). I.e. I never even saw “the bush.”

  • I, too, added this to my list after Amanda’s review. I haven’t picked it up yet. I suspect my reaction may end up being similar to yours (minus the Paradise Lost insights). I am curious about the book because it’s so far outside of what I usually read!

  • I must admit I am not a great fan of melodrama, and I really do know how reading something that is upsetting (I have a thing against the deaths of children in books) can ruin the experience altogether. But at least you tried it, right? That’s as much as any book asks of us.

  • I read this a couple years ago for the RIP Challenge and while there were parts that were kind of a slog, overall I quite enjoyed it. The melodrama in general is what cracked me up. It’s hard to read books like this sometimes because disbelief must be completely suspended and that is not an easy thing to do.

  • This is my favorite gothic of all time. I first ran across it in college as part of a British Lit class and it has been one of my go-to’s ever since. I am so glad you read it and are sharing it with others…it gets overlooked quite often. I think the over the top plot is really what got me especially for that time in literature. As you mentioned the humor and outrageous antics are so great because you do not see them coming.

  • I’m dragging my way to the finish on this one (what a terrible way to be reading a book…). Like you, I’ve found a lot of the characters’ stories to be too long, too distracting from the rest of the stories, and even though I’ve been momentarily interested in some of them or laughed (the part when don raymond ends up in a carriage with the nun’s ghost) I’ve mostly found this a good book for putting myself to sleep. I’m about 3/4 of the way through and enjoyed the beginning – and since you say the end is better, I’ll probably keep going till I finish this one. I’m pretty disappointed in it right now, mostly because after reading “Castle of Otranto” I was convinced that the gothic was going to become my new favorite genre. Maybe premature since that was the first one I read?

    • Ellen, I did find some of it funny. Did you finish it? I found the ending rather satisfying, but it did take a lot of not-fun stuff to get there.

      I was the opposite: thinking I didn’t like gothic because of this one. May have to try Castle of Otranto.

  • I’m reading this right now for a college Gothic lit class, and because I’m not enjoying it at all, have read many pages of prose I can’t remember, I’ve opted to read reviews to understand what’s going on. It’s certainly not anything I would have ever read on my own. I love to read but only nonfiction like memoirs, travel writing, biographies, etc. So thank you for providing me some insight on this story. It’s one rough ride and I can’t wait to get off!

    • Karen, I’m glad I’m not alone in disliking this one! I do like reading nonfiction too as well as fiction. But THE MONK just didn’t work for me either. Sorry to hear you have to read it for a class, hang in there! This too shall end some day!

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