The Monk by Matthew Lewis

This tale is full of plots and twists. It starts off with innocence, but, like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, the snake of vanity is nestled in the monk’s bosom. And, as the story progresses we see that this orphaned boy, who is taken in by the monks develops into a character who, though he is believed to be saintly, in fact nurtures a character without compassion. As Matthew Lewis weaves his tale of treachery, we are confronted by pillars of religion: on the one hand the nuns of St Clare’s Convent and on the other the abbots of the Capuchin in Madrid. Lewis reveals in the characters of Reverend Ambrosio and prioress Agatha how from their positions of power they are able to torment lesser souls; we at once feel Lewis’ contempt for religion: perhaps during the time of publication—late eighteenth century—feelings against the Catholic Church which was seen as all-powerful and corrupt, were at their zenith. In any event, Lewis paints a gloomy picture and we are introduced to Satan and his devils in humanly form which they take to lead astray the characters in the novel.

I can well imagine how this bold outlook and the descriptions of Satan in league with and tormenting the holy would have upset the readers of the time which explains why the publication had to be modified. This novel, in line with a few other Gothic novels such as ‘Wuthering Heights’ and paranormal novels such as ‘Frankenstein’, pushed the boundaries of their times and attacked religion which had become stagnant and needed revitalising, and looked upon creation and the development of science at different angles. The Monk, unlike Frankenstein, does not delve into scientific issues, but it does attack the Catholic faith and paints the monastic life in the most gloomy and suspicious colours. A happy balance needed to be reached and Lewis was an advocate for the opposite view.

The moral of the story, without giving it away, is that what at first sight might seem pure and just, can prove to be evil and can be brought down if vanity burns too brightly in the victim’s breast. The characters portrayed are rich, interesting, and we follow their development and tragic ends with bated breath. The story has both a happy and tragic end which remains in the reader’s mind well after the conclusion of the tale. In Matthew Lewis’ ‘The Monk’ we have a good story, not as great as Alexandre Dumas’ ‘The Three Musketeers’ or Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, but entertaining nonetheless.

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