Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Book Review: The Monk (1796), by Matthew Lewis, Part 1

This novel has all the elements wanted for a Gothic Romance, including old castles, ghosts, catacombs under old abbeys, and the like.  But this book has a much more important feel to it than the other two Gothic Romances I recently read (The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Castle of Otranto).  That's because it tackles such weighty subjects as the heavy hand of religion and premarital sex.  A century later, Tess of the d'Urbervilles would show the effects of both religion and society on that subject.  But to see it discussed frankly in an 18th century novel surprised me.  In fact, the narrative outlook on it seemed quite modern, at least for certain characters.

There are multiple intertwined storylines, each involving a young woman and the men who love her (or lust after her).  The title refers to the great foe of the story.  But to say he's only a foe demeans the wonderful character study by Matthew Lewis.  Here is a man who believes himself safe from the sins of the world, but is then exposed to sins and soon develops other ideas.  All the other characters are classic stereotypes that could be pulled from any major novel of the day, and they represent the contemporary thoughts and actions of heroes and servants.  That's not to say they're poorly drawn.  On the contrary, each character is a unique piece of work, though some are still a bit cliched.

Early on in the book I surmised a moral.  It is that there is no evil comparable to someone without the compassion of experience.  People who condemn others for so-called transgressions due to trials they face that the condemner has never faced, they are the foil for our heroes and heroines.  I can't forget to mention the evil nun.  Yes, there is a monk and a nun, neither of whose beliefs have anything to do with Christianity.  Far from it, theirs is a strange and oppressive religion of judgement and punishment.  Unfortunately, their beliefs must have been common enough for this and other authors to write about.

This story takes place in Spain in the latter days of the Inquisition.  But for the most part the Inquisition plays little or no role in this story.  When it does crop up, believe it or not, the reader cheers, "Yay!  The Inquisition is here to save the day!"  Weird, I know.  But when you read it you'll understand.

A man is seeking his sister, who pledged her nunship, or whatever it's called.  He didn't want her to, SHE didn't want to, but felt she had no choice.  The man's friend is in love with the girl, has sex with her and gets her pregnant.  Don't worry, I'm not giving away anything that's not given out very early in the story.  The reason I mention this is that, unlike almost every other contemporary book I've read, this act is not truly condemned in this book.  And far more importantly, the girl herself is not condemned.  That's what's so amazing about this book is that she's shown in a sympathetic light, not just as a character to the readers, but as a character within the story.  In other words, it's as if the author wrote the story with no expectation of there being any objection to this "fallen woman", but - on the contrary - for the readers to feel sorry for her and side with her.  Contrast that to Thomas Hardy's late Victorian Tess, and it feels even stranger.  Tess was so objectionable that publishers and reviewers condemned Hardy for showing sympathy to a "fallen woman", while a century earlier, Lewis' Agnes was shown in a positive light - so much so that her "sinful act" is hardly even the subject of the story but only the catalyst for the intervention of the evil nun.  The contrast is remarkable.

I won't say that this book is anti-Catholic.  That would be a hard statement to make considering the story takes place in Catholic Spain and all the characters are Catholic.  But there is definitely an anti-Monk and anti-Nun sentiment throughout the story.  The main characters talk about how bad it would be to join a convent, and the truly bad characters of this story are found only in the monastery and the convent.

There is plenty of the wonderful old Gothic style to be found.  There are dark underground vaults, ghosts, haunted locations, demons, sorcery and the like.  However, the ending is so unexpected and so over-the-top that it almost makes you feel sorry for the lowliest of evil characters in this book.  Matthew Lewis had no qualms about bringing Satan himself into this tale, and giving it an anti-deux-ex-machina feel.

Matthew Lewis wrote this book in only a matter of weeks.  It's amazing when you think about it.  But it's certainly not perfect, as you would expect.  It often feels disjointed, storylines go off on wild tangents from which you wonder if they could ever return (but they do).  Characters are introduced late in the novel, forcing Lewis to fill in their backstory with lots of "had happened" scenes, telling you how they had been intertwined with the main characters but were just not mentioned before.  Some storylines are so far removed from the main one that you believe Lewis just had a tale to tell and figured he'd squeeze it in there, regardless of the need.  Plus, near the end, the woman who got pregnant before marriage gives a long discourse on her story (leaving little out) to a somewhat public audience, something that felt entirely unrealistic.  And then there are long, unnecessary poems stuck right in the middle of a chapter.  If this were submitted to a modern publisher it would probably be rejected.  I don't know if that's a good thing or not.  It's one of the best Gothic Romances I've read, despite the disjointed feel.  The story is provocative and captivating.  The social and religious issues it tackles are relevant and for the most part well handled.  The delicate subject matter is shown in a straight and unapologetic manner.

But enough talk.  Read the book.

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