Reading Resolution: “The Monk” by Matthew G Lewis

19. A book older than 100 years: The Monk by Matthew G Lewis

List Progress: 14/30

Trigger warning for rape, murder, abuse.

Trashy media has always existed. Reality shows, Youtube drama, soap operas, pulp, none of these are new, and as long as there has been media, there has been media that scratches the itch of people’s base impulses. Not all of it has survived to the modern day, of course, but a few examples have had just enough impact on the genres that followed them to be preserved for posterity. The Monk, published in 1796 by Matthew G Lewis, is one of the progenitors of the infamously raunchy Gothic novel genre, giving it enough historical clout for academics to have to preserve it, despite its contents. The Monk is a story of rape, murder, hypocrisy, fervor gone mad, and all the base impulses people can give into beneath the veneer of religious purity. It is an exploitative display of excess, but I won’t pretend it’s not a hell of a lot of fun.

The Monk follows two main plotlines, with a bit of overlap in between them: a nobleman, Don Raymond, is in love with a woman named Agnes whose parents’ pledged her to convent life as an infant. The two of them, with the help of Agnes’ brother Lorenzo, strive to release her from these bonds and this life of needless sacrifice. Lorenzo is in love with the young woman Antonia, who has caught the eye of a lustful monk, Ambrosio, who makes it his mission to capture and rape Antonia, in spite of the efforts of her protective mother and the need to keep his sins secret.

If that quick synopsis does not make it clear, Lewis had some very strong opinions about the Catholic church and monastic life. The narrative does not pull any punches about how stupid it thinks superstition under the name of religion is, and how monastic life and revoking society just serves to amplify the worst traits of humanity without allowing them to be tempered by any of the good. Ambrosio begins the novel as a pillar of virtue, having been left on a monastery doorstep as an infant and raised his entire life within the church, but it quickly becomes clear that when he first encounters real temptation, he has not been equipped with the tools to deal with it and that secluding himself from the world has made him weak to the call of true sin, having never tested himself against smaller crimes. Thankfully, the book does not place his crimes solely at the feet of his upbringing and he does receive the blame he deserves.

While Ambrosio’s storyline is the core, Raymond and Agnes’ plot has a lot of adventure to offer as well, deviating off into subplots and largely-unrelated ghost stories seemingly for the fun of it. At over 400 pages, The Monk still moves quickly and feels like an adventure, and is surprisingly readable for something published in 1796. If you are able to get caught up in the silliness of the overly dramatic adventures, it is a fast read. But if you are looking for something with a bit more gravitas, this was considered pulp in its day and still reads like pulp now.

Though I would be remiss to not point out the troubles a reader could find with it: the whole back third of the novel revolves around a plan to commit rape, in persistent detail, and it was genuinely hard to read in places. I would not blame anyone for not wanting to pursue a story like this as part of their entertainment. The Monk has a lot of big emotions, from the heights of bliss and rapture to absolute tortuous grief and rage, but the real world impacts of these crimes lurks in the background. It is up to each reader to decide if they want to engage with that.

On the whole, The Monk moves fast and has a ton of ups and downs, which make it a fun and dramatic read. If you have the stomach for some sin and terror, this is a better way than some to get it.

Would I Recommend It: Yes, for someone who wants a classically trashy read.

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