Title: The Monk
Writer: Matthew Lewis
Publishing House: Wordsworth
Date of Publication: 2009 (first published 1796)
Rating: 5 stars
‘’I must have your soul; must have it mine, and mine forever.’’
This is one of the pioneers of Gothic Fiction, a work that defined one of the most fascinating, demanding and controversial genres. A novel written in the end of the 18th century that shocked the reading audience of its time with its last, darkness and violence. But what about the contemporary readers? Well, a few hundred years later and ‘’The Monk’’ still continues to attract us. My first experience with Lewis’ novel took place during my studies, in an exciting course called ‘’The Bible in English Literature’’. Since then, I’ve overlooked reading it and I don’t know why. This Christmas, an amazing colleague gave me a collector’s edition as a Christmas present. I think she knows me well.
In Madrid, Ambrosio is a charismatic monk who dazzles the congregation with fiery sermons. A younger monk, Rosario, is his faithful shadow and confidante. However, Rosario is actually a young lady who has no other way to be close to him except disguising herself as a boy. Ambrosio discovers the truth and succumbs, because he is weak in spirit and in flesh. When his attentions turn to a young lady from a noble family, all Hell breaks loose. Literally, I assure you…
‘’The Monk’’ echoes Shakespeare and the Jacobite playwrights quite clearly. The cross-dressing, the scandalous love affairs, the ambivalent outcome, the extreme depiction of violence and punishment. The action is set in Spain, faithful to the stereotype which imagine the people of the Southern part of Europe as more vulnerable and governed by their passions, within a context that breaks apart the two institutions which are supposed to provide comfort and security. The Family and the Church. Dishonesty is common. ‘’Holy’’ men break their vows, noble sons try to trick virgins into their path, parents bargain their children away. It is a world far more terrifying than any satanic involvement could ever create and it is too real. Obsession leads to crimes and Lewis paints a dark portrait of a society that is corrupted to the core. Men and women blame God for their ‘’weak souls’’ while choosing a path that leads nowhere. The atmosphere is tangible with dark sensuality and violent lust and madness, as Lewis depicts a country and an era in all their attractive paranoia.
We live in the time when violence and sex are always around, often used to shock but ending up being nothing. We aren’t easily shocked now, exposed to them from an outrageously young age through TV and video games. ‘’The Monk’’ may seem to us anything but shocking. Some may say that it stereotypically places the women in the archetypal roles of the Seductress or the Virgin. Yes, well, obviously! Take the story within its historical context and you’ll have the explanation. But wouldn’t this be too simplistic to consider?
We love ‘’A Song of Ice and Fire’’ (most of us, at least….), we love Stephen King and Gothic Fiction has never been better both in Literature as well as in exceptional TV series like BBC’s ‘’Taboo’’. Violence, darkness and sexual implications don’t shock us, but dark stories of quality continue to fascinate us and will always do so. And by ‘’quality’’, I mean Literature, not mass-produced adult situations garbage…Darkness continues to rule many a life, forming a kind of obsession that may lead to horror and despair. This is why ‘’The Monk’’ still remains an iconic creation in the vastness of Literature.
I would also wholeheartedly suggest the 2011 film version of the novel, starring Vincent Cassel at his best.