Matthew Lewis’ “The Monk”

In her introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Monk, Emma McEvoy notes that “The Gothic tradition, for those used to reading realist novels, can prove strange and inaccessible.”

No kidding.

I haven’t had this much trouble with a book since I didn’t read Tristram Shandy in Dr. K’s Enlightenment Lit class. Sorry. It wasn’t out of trying, mind you. But after a hundred pages or so, I just couldn’t follow the thing.

The Monk

I’m older now and, if not necessarily wiser, at least a heck of a lot more disciplined. I finished The Monk — less than two hours before the start of class. And I managed to get a bit of writing done as well. I rock.

But I was so very confused so very often while reading. Lewis’ habit of jumping around, bringing in stories-within-stories-within-stories drove me wacko.

Where did Ambrosio go? Are Lorenzo and Raymond the same person? Will we ever make it back from Germany to Spain?

And why, just when I think I’m following the plot of the novel, does Lewis toss in multiple stanzas of poetry?

I guess I have trouble with texts that cut against the grain of the stereotypically chronological modern novel. I love Faulkner’s short stories, and I appreciate the novels of  I’ve read (As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury). But I really had to slog my way through them. And when I was done, what I felt most was a profound sense of relief at having finished the novel, rather than a sense of elation at the conclusion of what were spectacular novels.

That’s kind of how I feel about The Monk. There’s a lot in it that I enjoyed. Here’s a few things in no particular order:

  • The theatrical nature of the book. It makes sense that Lewis was mainly known as a playwright, because there’s so much in this text that screams to be made into a big-budget motion picture. Oddly enough, a lot of this theatricality happens with one character: the young novice monk Rosario, who turns out to be the young girl Matilda, who eventually transforms into an über-sexy sorceress in the midst of a crypt filled with blue flames. Cool.
  • The monkThe humor. I still don’t know for certain if I get all the jokes of the novel. But they’re there, and though some of them are a bit over-used, I appreciate the intentionally and unintentionally funny bits. And, just like Rick and Ilsa, I’ll always have the scene where the linnet bird flies into Antonia’s shower and “nestled its head between her breasts.” I had to read that one aloud to several people to share the joy.
  • The gross stuff. I haven’t ever been as icked-out by a description as much as I was when Lewis took the time to have Agnes describe how she refused to give up her child. Was that really necessary? Then of course there’s the ending. A bit gratuitous, perhaps? But I do appreciate how Lewis is flouting convention with such an over-the-top description.
  • The stories-within-the-stories. This is actually the part of the novel that drove me nuts. They went on for so long, I lost track of where I was. But I did enjoy some of the stories, particularly the story of The Bleeding Nun (see humor and gross stuff above).

I’m not sure I’ll be picking up The Monk again, but I’m very glad I read it. It challenged my ideas about what a novel is, exposed me to a genre of literature I likely wouldn’t have encountered on my own and provided me with a highly amusing read.

But now I need a break. So I’m going to kick back and read the first book in my now huge “To Be Read” pile. That’s Phillip Hoare’s The Whale. A nice, happy non-fiction book. That should function as a sort of palate-cleanser before I move on to the final two readings for my gothic class.

Yep, that’s two. In addition to the vampire book I knew was coming, my instructor tossed another one on the pile. I’m hanging on for the ride.

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4 thoughts on “Matthew Lewis’ “The Monk”

  1. I am a English Literature student about to go into my second year and this book was the first thing that was on my reading list. I am so glad I came across this page because I feel exactly the same way as you did! I was actually searching for a plot summary so I could actually tell what had happened in each chapter. I have no idea who is talking and if i put it down and come back to it later, I am just confused. I am about to read the story of the bleeding nun but thank you for this! I’m glad i’m not the only one!

    • Join the club. This is not a “great” novel — if you expect a “great” novel to be clear, well-designed, structured and one that “closes all the doors.” So relax and enjoy the trip. You’re not missing anything.

      One trick we used in the class: mark up the text as you go, writing an I where the text pulls you in (i.e. interests you), and an O where the text pushes you out (annoys you, loses your interest). Giving yourself permission to be confused or annoyed by the novel might help.

      Good luck!

  2. I loved the Monk. It was absolutely shameless, and didn’t let plot get in the way of ridiculous theatricality. There was a line about ‘her beauteous orb’ that I just found hilarious (yes, and the linnet). Having said that, I think Dracula would have been a much kinder intro to gothic fiction for you. And marginally less silly.

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