Monday, April 28, 2014

Book Review: The Monk (1796), by Matthew Lewis, Part 2

I thought I was finished with this review, but I wanted to revisit it for the sake of another point of contention.  As you may know from my other reviews of classic works, I take particular objection to the portrayal of and condemnation of so called "fallen women" - meaning the views of society as portrayed in literature.  If a woman has premarital sex with someone other than her future husband, she usually comes to a bad end.  We see this in several examples including Bleak House and Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, and Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy.

I am going to give spoilers to The Monk.  If you don't want to know how it ends, don't continue reading.
At the end, the monk Ambrosio finally rapes the young girl, Antonia, and then kills her.  As she lay dying, her love, Lorenzo, finds her.
She told him that had She still been undefiled She might have lamented the loss of life; But that deprived of honour and branded with shame, Death was to her a blessing: She could not have been his Wife, and that hope being denied her, She resigned herself to the Grave without one sigh of regret.
So let me get this straight.  Because she was raped by another man, she could not get married.  Because she was raped, she was branded with shame!  Raped!  Okay, do we understand that?  She resigned herself to die since her life is pretty much over.  That, in a nutshell, is the problem I have with those old fashioned attitudes.  People put such importance on this whole virginity thing that a woman is only suitable as a wife is she has never had sex before.  That sucks.  It really sucks.  It sucks for their whole society, and it sucks for the women who were forced to look at themselves as something less than they were.

Even if she were not raped, even if she had consensual sex, that doesn't mean she can never, ever marry a decent person and she must die.  Not that I want a fifteen year old girl to have sex in the first place, but give her a break!

I hate that attitude.  I hate that ending.  I hate that puritan idealism that convinces people they are not worthy of heaven or worthy of living because of sex.  We're not talking about a woman who runs around having sex with gangs of bikers just for fun.  In most of these stories, it is a woman who is either raped, or is in love with a person who tricks them into sex.  Yet it didn't matter to society at the time.  As I stated in my review of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, society made no differentiation regarding the circumstances.

Although I love the old classics, the lack of compassion is what drives me nuts.

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