The Immaculate Desecration:
A Critique of the Church in Lewis’s The Monk
by Robert Russell
Matthew Lewis’s 1796 novel The Monk has long been regarded by scholars as one of the first and most important Gothic novels–one which, as scholar David Punter writes, “rapidly became acknowledged as the most scandalous of the early Gothic novels, on the grounds of the explicitness of its violent and especially its sexual scenes” (Punter 194). While the explicit nature of the novel was certainly a source of contention among readership, another reason for the novel’s notoriety is that buried under a psychological exploration of temptation and the confrontation of societal mores and taboos is a scathing criticism of religious institutions, particularly the Catholic Church. Such a critique arises from the various characters grappling with social taboos; many characters are caught between societal expectations and inner desires. However, it is Ambrosio, the eponymous monk himself, whose repeated crimes unveil the hypocrisy, immorality, and detriment of the Church. Ambrosio’s descent into depravity is punctuated by confrontations with the taboo. From homoeroticism to lust to the heinous crimes of rape, incest, and murder, Ambrosio’s downward spiral not only portrays a man’s psychological battle with temptation, but also reveals the culpability of the Church in the triumph of evil.
Social taboos exude from the very onset of the novel, first in the form of a subtle, albeit perceptible homoeroticism between Ambrosio and Rosario, arguably the two most important characters of the novel. Rosario–whose name punily plays on the word ‘rosary’ and Shakespeare’s Cesario from Twelfth Night–is a young novitiate and close confidant to Ambrosio, and in the introduction of his character, there is an undertone of sensuality and attraction that alludes to a certain homoeroticism:
“Ambrosio on his side did not feel less attracted towards the youth; with him alone did he lay aside his habitual severity…no voice sounded so sweet to him as did Rosario’s…Ambrosio was every day more charmed with the vivacity of his genius, the simplicity of his manners, and the rectitude of his heart; in short, he loved him with all the affection of a father. He could not help sometimes indulging a desire secretly to see the face of his pupil” (Lewis 41).
Such a description tinged with romantic and subtly sensual implications suggests a certain homoerotic attraction between Ambrosio and the young man: Rosario’s “voice sounded so sweet,” Ambrosio finds himself more and “more charmed” with the young man, and he cannot help fighting a desire to be around him. While a homosexual relationship is not overtly implied, such an intimation of its plausibility between a monk and his pupil invokes what is considered a very serious taboo in the religious order of the Church. To allude to such a relationship instills the possibility of a clergyman not simply being capable of committing such a grievous offense, but also indulging in its delight, satiating the urges that stem from unholy desires.
However, Rosario reveals himself to be a woman, Matilda; and while such a revelation appears to counteract their initial taboo relationship by reversing a homoerotic implication into a heterosexual one, in actuality the unveiling of her female identity further exemplifies a relationship which subverts the expectations of the Church. Ambrosio, having been brought up by the Church, “educated in the convent,” was destined to become an abbot, the exemplary man of God, “a model of virtue, and piety, and learning” (Lewis 216). Rosario’s transformation into Matilda affirms Ambrosio’s attraction for her, and when Matilda confesses her love for him, Ambrosio’s vow of chastity is thrown into jeopardy as his heart flutters, the excitation in his bosom grows, and his sexual urges slowly begin to swell, the imminent catalyst to Ambrosio’s very descent into depravity. Scholar Steven Blakemore attributes this catalyst to the very vows that Ambrosio took in the first place. He writes,
“Lewis’s point is that Catholic vows of chastity feminize monks whose sexual ignorance makes them vulnerable to temptation and hypocrisy. This is underscored when Rosario…reveals that he is actually a woman…[sic] Ambrosio should ‘forget’ that Matilda is a woman, since she had concealed her ‘sex’ in order to his friend and to protect him from sexual ‘knowledge’” (Blakemore 522-523).
Two critical statements are implicated in Blakemore’s assertion: that in the Church there is a certain willingness to retain an innocence that precludes one from any exposure to temptation; and that there is a certain denial that those of the Church exude towards that innocence. In Ambrosio, these two facets clash and disintegrate: he cannot remain ignorant of Matilda’s affection, of her seduction, as well as his own sexual urges and temptations. As Blakemore continues, “In Lewis’s fallen Catholic world, prelapsarian innocence and ignorance of sexual knowledge is an illusion, and hence Ambrosio is easily seduced into a sexual relationship with Matilda: sexual repression results in the very knowledge the monk denies” (Blakemore 523). The religious tenets of the Church, the virtues inculcated into Ambrosio’s psyche from birth, which as he matured came to influence his moral foundation, not only inspire the pride which hinders his ability to empathize and show compassion to others who have acted indecent (others such as Agnes), but also further engender a vulnerability to temptation due to the physical and psychological deprivation of experience. A lack of empathy and an insatiable sexual temptation are two of the most insidious and powerful ingredients in the creation of a depraved individual, and the combination of the two assuredly foments the heinous crimes which Ambrosio goes on to commit.
However, there is a third ingredient that also contributes to Ambrosio’s descent, one which motivates him to commit murder. Ambrosio, with the help and encouragement of Matilda, attempts repeatedly to rape Antonia; however, on one such attempt, just as he is about to commit the heinous act, Antonia’s mother, Elvira, catches him the act and thwart his escape exclaiming, “‘Attempt not to fly!’ said she: ‘you quit not this room without witness of your guilt’” (Lewis 262). Elvira threatens to expose Ambrosio’s violation, his committing a grievous sin, one which goes against the immovable tenets of the Church, the very virtues he has been brought up with. But it is not that Ambrosio cares about his own hypocrisy; it is that Elvira threatens to expose that hypocrisy to the public, which in turn would dismantle the very reputation he has built on his public perception of being the utmost morally righteous. Ambrosio kills Elvira, “snatching the pillow from beneath her daughter’s head, covering with it Elvira’s face, and pressing his knee upon her stomach with all his strength, endeavoured to put an end to her existence” (Lewis 263), neither out of anger nor retaliation for being caught in his heinous act, but because she threatens to reveal the very hypocrisy in his appearance. Ambrosio kills Elvira out of narcissism, the third ingredient that expedites his descent into depravity. For Ambrosio, it is unthinkable to jeopardize his reputation because it is the very source of his pride, a pride which was built on the moral superiority that is the result of his education in the Church. Transitively, Ambrosio’s narcissism, which drives him to murder, is borne of the Church.
Ambrosio’s narcissism pushes him to commit the final acts of horror: the rape and murder of Antonia. Narcissism entangled with the insatiable sexual urges and incapacity to empathize foments Ambrosio murdering Elvira which in turn arouses the intersection of sex and violence: “As if the crimes into which his passion had seduced him, had only increased its violence, he longed more eagerly than ever to enjoy Antonia” (Lewis 265). This entanglement entails the culmination of the novel. In the dungeons, Antonia, supposedly dead, awakes to find Ambrosio, who, succumbing to his savagery and temptations, rapes Antonia:
“[H]er alarm, her evident disgust, and incessant opposition, seemed only to inflame the monk’s desires, and supply his brutality with additional strength…Heedless of her tears, cries and entreaties, he gradually made himself master of her person, and desisted not from his prey, till he had accomplished his crime and the dishonour of Antonia” (Lewis 328).
Ambrosio, impelled by the need to control and overpower, as are the traits of a malignant narcissist, commits the cardinal sin, effectively attaining the object of his desire. But immediately afterward he feels disdain towards Antonia as she no longer has any worth to Ambrosio: “The very excess of his former eagerness to possess Antonia now contributed to inspire him with disgust…she, who so lately had been the object of his adoration, now raised no other sentiment in his heart than aversion and rage” (Lewis 329). Ambrosio’s immediate disgust reinforces his sense of narcissism, his overwhelming urge to control, which in turn, like Elvira, inspires Ambrosio’s murder of Antonia. As they hear Lorenzo’s footsteps growing nearer, Antonia screams for help, threatening to expose his horrific acts, and in turn, his hypocrisy. In order to silence her, in one final act of control:
“[H]e now enforced her silence by means the most horrible and inhuman. He still grasped Matilda’s dagger: without allowing himself a moment’s reflection, he raised it, and plunged it twice in the bosom of Antonia! She shrieked, and sank upon the ground” (Lewis 335).
Killing Antonia is Ambrosio’s final act of depravity, borne out of a need to control and overpower; however, one last revelation about Ambrosio’s atrocity works to upend the entire trajectory of his villainy, one which further reveals, through the worst of social taboos, the iniquity, hypocrisy, and perversity that is borne of the Church.
It is revealed that Antonia is Ambrosio’s sister, entailing his rape to be an act of incest. Imprisoned and awaiting trial, Ambrosio meets with Lucifer who lists in detail his various offenses. He says,
“You have shed the blood of two innocents: Antonia and Elvira perished by your hand. That Antonia whom you violated, was your sister! that Elvira whom you murdered, gave you birth! Tremble, abandoned hypocrite! inhuman parricide! incestuous ravisher! tremble at the extent of your offences!” (Lewis 375).
That Ambrosio has unwittingly committed both incest and familicide only increases the severity of his crimes, which in turn pushes him to the brink of insanity. Incest is widely recognized as one of the worst taboos. French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss writes at length about “the universality of the incest taboo” in a number of works, including Structural Anthropology (Lévi-Strauss 46), expounding how across all cultures, incest is a common taboo, one which is regarded with disdain, disgust, and disapproval. Moreover, incest as a social taboo extends into literature as a literary trope that underscores power and control. Scholar Jenny DiPlacidi, in her critical work Gothic Incest: Gender, Sexuality, and Transgression, writes about the role of incest in Lewis’s novel:
“Lewis’s aggressive and violent portrayal of sibling rape reinforces patriarchal power and values and has come to be understood as paradigmatic of Gothic sibling incest. The horror and disgust evoked by Lewis’s deployment of the incest trope are viewed by scholarship as characteristic of Gothic sibling incest: representations and perverted inversions of Romantic sibling relationships.” (DiPlacidi 94).
Not only is incest a social, moral, and religious taboo, but also a secular and even literary one too. It is a taboo which, as Lewis employs, subverts the familiar literary traditions within which Lewis’s novel emerges, a notion which also works to illuminate the ways in which the novel subverts the institution of the Church. Extending from social, to literary, to religious, the incest taboo reveals an iniquity that baffles and shocks, and the disdain and disgust that Ambrosio feels towards himself at such a revelation thwarts his ability to reconcile his crimes with his moral superiority.
Unable to face his own self-disgust, self-loathing, and self-deception, Ambrosio makes a pact with Lucifer, selling his soul in exchange for safety. However, cunning Lucifer tricks Ambrosio with his language, carries him high into the sky, lets him fall to the rocks below, and leaves him to die a torturous death by his injuries, thus ending the reign of terror inflicted by the monk (Lewis 376-377). In death Ambrosio finally receives comeuppance for his crimes; however, it is not the Church who carries out this justice, but Lucifer himself, which is Lewis’s final critique on the Church. In the final moments of the novel, Lucifer is painted as a noble figure, the magisterial hero carrying out the justice that has for so long evaded Ambrosio; carrying out the justice that would have evaded him still had he simply repent for his crimes before the Inquisitors. Within the Church, Ambrosio’s heinous crimes would have been absolved, a fact that Lucifer discloses to Ambrosio:
“Had you resisted me one minute longer, you had saved your body and soul. The guards whom you heard at your prison-door, came to signify your pardon. But I had already triumphed” (Lewis 375).
Lewis reverses the sentiments that define religious morality: Lucifer is a greater, more just, and prevailing figure than God himself, who is at fault for Ambrosio’s descent in the first place. The usurpation of the highest holy rank by a Satanic figure inverts the institutional order of the Church and reveals the contradictory nature of atonement and penitence as well as the inherent immorality within the faith.
Homoeroticism, lust, rape, incest, and murder are the atrocities that punctuate Ambrosio’s descent into depravity. The monk who, as an infant, “left…just born at the abbey-door,” was taken in and raised by the priests, “educated in the convent, and [sic] proved to be a model of virtue, and piety, and learning” (Lewis 216) grew up to become “a monster of cruelty, lust, and ingratitude” (Lewis 329). The very virtuous tenets that were so ingratiated into his upbringing, the righteous morals and principles pummeled into his psyche ad infinitum, in the end, foment his downfall. In Ambrosio’s descent lies Lewis’s critique of the Church. Ambrosio, for his entire life, has been hindered, secluded, confined from the experiences of the world. Within such seclusion, a complex grew, one wherein moral superiority become more important than loyalty to God or the Church itself. Ambrosio’s devotion to his sense of righteousness not only precluded any sense of empathy and compassion from developing, but further fueled a malignant narcissism that came to drive his murderous spree and descent into depravity. That the Church had a direct role in the creation of Ambrosio, a monster, reveals the culpability, hypocrisy, and deception inherent in the Church. Ambrosio’s inability to reconcile his physical and moral nature is a product of the Church; he is a mere vehicle through which Lewis drives his scathing critique: that the Monk himself is a microcosm of the Church, a physical embodiment of an obsession with power and control.
Blakemore, Steven. “Matthew Lewis’s Black Mass: Sexual, Religious Inversion in The Monk.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 30, no. 4, 1998, pp. 521–539. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/29533296. Accessed 15 Apr. 2021.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Structural Anthropology. Translated by Claire Jacobson and Brooke Schoepf. Basic Books. 1963. pp 46-47.
Lewis, Matthew. The Monk. Penguin, Christopher MacLachlan, 1998.
DiPlacidi, Jenny. “‘My More than Sister’: Re-Examining Paradigms of Sibling Incest.” Gothic Incest: Gender, Sexuality and Transgression, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2018, pp. 85–138. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2204rt6.6. Accessed 22 Apr. 2021.
Punter, David, and Glennis Byron. The Gothic. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004.