This novel caused a scandal because it showed how evil people use virtue to disguise their hideous crimes.
The eighteenth century is usually referred to as the Enlightenment, when reason prevailed over superstition. That’s why some of the most controversial books in history were written at that time: they were meant to question and challenge centuries of old beliefs and ignorance that somehow still endured. For instance, it was in this century that the first works of Gothic literature were written. Maybe nowadays we would only think of them as simple ghost stories set in eerie castles or monasteries, most of which had an evil villain trying to corrupt a good-hearted heroine. And while that’s really the core of the first Gothic novels, they also adopted the subversive spirit of the time when they were conceived, so these stories were meant to shock audiences and to criticize the ignorance and superstition that the Enlightenment attempted to erase. Although most of these novels are known for that scandalous factor, one that caused a stir for the unapologetic and open way it criticized Catholicism and the severe punishments of the Inquisition was Matthew G. Lewis’s The Monk.
When Lewis published his novel in 1796, it received both praise and criticism from other authors and his audience, especially because the plot was considered a blasphemous depiction of the Church, gender, and sexuality, even in terms of the Gothic novels that were being written at the time, since it also mixed them with “sinful” themes such as incest, Satanism, witchcraft, and murder. The novel revolves around Ambrosio, a pious monk who has lived in a monastery all his life because he was abandoned there as a baby. One night, one of Ambrosio’s fellow monks confesses that he is actually a woman named Matilda, and that she's fallen in love with him. While the monk’s façade of severity and piousness keeps him from responding to Matilda’s feelings at first, he later reveals his true twisted self as he surrenders to her advances and starts lusting after other women, including Antonia, a young woman who admires him because she believes he is a virtuous man. Having Matilda as his accomplice, Ambrosio commits a series of crimes with the sole purpose of having Antonia, even if that implies harming her and recurring to wicked supernatural forces.
At first sight, Lewis’s novel seems to be an R-rated morality story, especially if we consider that it was common back then for all stories to have a lesson in the end. Nonetheless, the possible moral at the end of the story is actually a mask to disguise the critical spirit of the novel against the severity and hypocrisy of many Catholic precepts, especially celibacy and taboos on sexuality. Even the use of language in the novel enhances that critique. For instance, when Matilda (who I personally believe is the most interesting character in the novel) is described, the author purposefully makes her sexually ambiguous and well-acquainted with forbidden knowledge –in this case, sexuality and witchcraft–, contrary to Ambrosio, whose fall into perversion is mostly due to his ignorance of his own desires and the blind belief that, despite committing the most hideous crimes and resorting to Satan, he’ll be okay. Of course, many people weren’t too happy with Lewis’ not-so-subtle comment on Catholicism, represented by the main character of his novel, an evil man who, besides hiding behind a mask of virtue, condemns those who commit lesser crimes that shouldn’t even be considered as such.
As for this last topic, it is mostly developed in the subplot of the novel. Just before Matilda reveals her true identity, Ambrosio scolds a nun who tries to elope with her lover because she is pregnant, and tells the prioress to give her the worst punishment. What we later learn, however, is that the nun never wanted to be a nun, but she was forced to enter the convent after she tried to run away with her lover some months earlier. However, after the prioress’ punishment, her family and her lover search for her, believing that, most likely, she was killed by the nuns when they heard she was pregnant. The way this subplot perfectly links with Ambrosio’s crimes shows the hypocrisy behind false piety and devotion, not only in the monk himself, but the fact that even others in the name of religion would willingly punish and torture innocents for a “crime” that is nothing compared to the ones committed by an actual member of the clergy.
Later, as if Matthew Lewis had unconsciously tried to prove this point in real life, he became the target of harsh criticism from audiences that thought his book was lewd, irreverent, an open attack on Christianity, and a means to corrupt society. The critiques were so strong that in the fourth edition of the novel, published in 1798, he edited it to make the plot less shocking because, according to a letter he wrote to his father, the scandal was affecting his family. In fact, in the introduction of the book he wrote an apology of sorts for the distress the previous versions might have caused on some readers, especially because he assured he wrote it with good intentions.
While I do believe Lewis’s apology was rather forced, the shocking effects of The Monk had to be there, so it could go down in history as a perfect example of the critical spirit of his time. In his story, he recurred to supernatural evil to depict the very human evil that many were committing, sheltered by a whole institution that is thought to represent virtue. By doing so, he tried to encourage people to use their reason and decide wisely which sins and crimes are the ones we should actually condemn as a society. Undoubtedly, when Lewis stated he had good intentions with this profane story, he was telling the truth.
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Photos from Dominik Moll's film adaptation of The Monk