Gothic Horror by Small Steps
The story starts out like a conventional romance, tracing two plots concerning thwarted desire. As the monk who features in one of the plots gradually betrays his vows, the novel cleverly veers step by step into a nightmarish vision of ghosts, witches, corpses, and demons. That is Lewis’ most masterful trick. You slide into the horror like wading into a lake, mirroring the monk’s slide into corruption.
First, we are introduced to the legend of a ghost known as The Bleeding Nun. We scoff at the legend, like the lady Agnes who conspires to escape with her lover Don Raymond by pretending to be the ghost. But the ghost turns out to be real. Then we learn that the “innocent” woman with whom the monk Ambrosio fell in love is actually a witch who consorts with demons. As she encourages the monk to commit increasingly heinous acts, more horrors follow. Spectres, sepulchers, skeletons, murders, riots abound. Incidents and people turn out not to be what they first seem. That may be a common theme in Gothic literature—or think of so many Shakespeare plays—but it also features prominently in modern thrillers and horror.
The Role of Music
Lewis’ masterful storytelling and plotting were not the only charms of the novel. He also used music to advance the story in a number of scenes.
Matilda, the young woman masquerading as a novitiate, plays the harp and sings a ballad to Ambrosio while he is ill. In the ballad, “Durandarte and Belerma,” Lewis versifies a tale from Don Quixote about a dying knight and the lady who scorned his love. The song and Matilda’s care for her beloved monk make us sympathize with her situation. Later, though, Lewis will turn our sympathy on its head. We learn Matilda is a witch. And when she summons the devil, he appears as a surprisingly beautiful figure, accompanied by “a full strain of melodious music.”
In the parallel plot, Don Lorenzo serenades his beloved, Antonia. A gypsy sings a song promoting her fortune-telling prowess to Antonia and Antonia’s aunt. Lorenzo’s compatriot Don Raymond languishes in illness, fearing his beloved Agnes is lost within the convent of St. Clare. His servant Theodore pretends to be a beggar and uses music to gain favor with the nuns, hoping to learn what really happened to Agnes.
Antonia chants a midnight hymn as her mother recovers from illness. The hymn contrasts angelic images with mention of goblins, witching spells, and ghosts. These “horrid dreams” anticipate what will befall Antonia. And singing to soothe a sick person recalls the similar situation when Matilda sang her song for Ambrosio.
Social Commentary on Religion
The Monk offers a cautionary tale about religious extremism and authoritarianism. None are more wicked than those who hide behind a mask of purity. The abbott Ambrosio abuses his authority for selfish lusts. His counterpart, the severe Mother Superior of St. Clare, is equally wicked. But her fault stems from an uncompromising rigidity in rooting out impurity. Although two centuries old, this novel still feels relevant today.