Review of The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis

November 26, 2014

When this book was released, in 1796, it was harshly censured and charged of blasphemy.  At the time, indeed, I wasn’t easy to tell a story where religion and sex were closely melded. Despite all, Matthew Gregory Lewis managed to write a novel capable to create a burning mix of religion, power, sex and even of fantasy. We are speaking about The Monk, a book for adults classified in gothic literature.

The gothic genre is a type of story set in the Middle Age, where characters are priests, religious authorities who are often involved in dark stories made of corruption, sex and countless temptations. This genre is the same which caused success of many modern writers, by starting from Ken Follett to other famous international novelists. In this field, though, the first true pioneer of gothic literature was Matthew Gregory Lewis. The first edition of The Monk contained many scandalous details which Lewis was forced to remove in the later editions. But if a reader will be so lucky to find and read the original edition of the book (buy here),  he can be sure to have found a real masterpiece of gothic literature. The Monk is firstly the story of father Ambrosio, a 30 year old devout monk who holds passionate sermons.

These sermons are much followed by the people who lie near the abbey where the monk lives, and also by Elvira and her daughter Antonia, a timid and innocent teenager of 15 years old. Father Ambrosio speaks with such vehemence that  the young Antonia ends up to be very attracted to the fascinating monk.

To be attracted to Ambrosio, it is also Matilda, a young and beautiful girl. To stay close to him, Matilda decided to disguise herself as a monk called Rosario. Hosted in the abbey, the false Rosario meets Ambrosio. In this stage of the book, readers will be overwhelmed by an upsetting plot, because Rosario, namely Matilda, seduces the apparently incorruptible father Ambrosio. The two make love every day and every night, so that Ambrosio is so addicted by sex to be even unable to realize to have committed a sin. In the middle of the story, Matilda turns out be a demon disguised as a woman.

The demon arrived on the Earth just to tempt father Ambrosio and prove that this monk is in reality a man like all others. Later, Ambrosio is not more attracted to Matilda and tries to have sex with other women, with his followers and even with the young Agnese. And thus, through various perversions, Ambrosio goes towards a diabolic damnation made of sorcery, violence, torture, incest and abuse of power.

Is father Ambrosio a victim of the devil? Or he is only a hypocrite priest able to teach the faith to others but incapable to follow it by himself? These are two important questions that will arise during the reading of The Monk. It is probable that the apparition of the demon disguised as Matilda was only an excuse used by the author to prove that Ambrosio was in reality a weak man and the its sermons are only the clearest evidence of its inner pride.

Where there is pride, there is no room to the real faith. The latter can be only gained humbly and with no hypocrisy. The message of Lewis was probably turned to the people of his time, an epoch where hypocrisy was widely spread anywhere. After writing the book, the same author said to have lived a hard period of anxiety and distress because of too many critics about  “The Monk”. This is the most evident example about a writer haunted for his work. Today, The Monk is instead regarded as a successful book. In fact, from this work, several movies were drawn. Unfortunately, that is a very impressive book and for that reason we not advise this reading to those people suffering from depression and anxiety.

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