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Matthew Lewis - The Monk Legolas Send a noteboard - 18/09/2012 09:31:27 PM
A year or two ago I bought a volume called "Four Gothic Novels", containing four works of 18th and 19th British literature that can indeed be called "gothic": Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, arguably one of the pioneers in the genre; William Beckford's Vathek, which Larry recommended to me a number of years ago when he found out I was studying Arabic; Matthew Lewis' The Monk; and finally, the obvious one, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein.

I'd already read Vathek earlier, but now I decided to read The Castle of Otranto and The Monk. I'll spare you my thoughts on the former; suffice to say I'm not a fan. The latter, however, has many things going for it.

The Monk is a story set in 18th century Madrid, about a few young Spanish noblemen and the women they love; and about the monk, Ambrosio, who is the talk of the town thanks to his inspired and passionate preaching and guidance. It's a melodramatic romance, a horror story but perhaps most importantly of all, a vehement attack on religious hypocrisy in general and Catholic monasteries in particular. The titular character, the shining example to all the city of Madrid, who is generally considered a flawless man, rapidly finds himself led astray by his pride and vanity, and ends up a monstrous criminal; the prioress of the nuns is scarcely better.

By the standards of Lewis' time, the novel was positively scandalous, and even a modern reader may raise an eyebrow at the discovery that Lewis became a Member of Parliament shortly after publishing this novel so full of violence, sex and other things that we generally would expect 18th century British society to frown upon. The merits of the book go beyond its shock value, though, at least if one is willing to judge it by the right standards. True, the plot seems rather Shakespearean with regard to all the extraordinary coincidences, star-crossed lovers, and the like, and most characters lack depth. But Lewis certainly could write (and rhyme - there's a number of quite good rhyming poems throughout the text), and knew how to create the right atmosphere and build up tension. At one point he completely sidetracks the plot of the novel for a remarkably long time by throwing in a very tangentially (at best) relevant backstory about a gang of bandits and a haunted castle, but it was a good story, so I didn't mind too much.

The main thing I'm not happy with in this novel is the ending; it may have to do with my being a 21st century reader, but when a novel tells the story of a man's fall from grace into blackest sin (if that sounds melodramatic, it's supposed to), I really don't like it when suddenly the Devil is brought in as a convenient scapegoat, who engineered it all and really didn't leave the poor man much of a choice. Perhaps Lewis figured this might make his novel at least marginally less offensive to Catholics, or perhaps he had planned it from the start, but either way, I find it a cop-out and in my view it considerably weakens the novel.

In short: definitely not a novel for everyone, but on the whole and with that last caveat, I liked it a lot.
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Three reviews: The Yacoubian Building, The Monk, A Bride of the Plains - 18/09/2012 09:00:44 PM 7390 Views
Actually, it sounds like a bad copy of Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy - 18/09/2012 09:06:40 PM 1438 Views
I've yet to read the final two books of that trilogy. - 18/09/2012 09:36:33 PM 1329 Views
Mahfouz tackles almost all those "taboos". - 18/09/2012 11:20:59 PM 1313 Views
Matthew Lewis - The Monk - 18/09/2012 09:31:27 PM 1383 Views
Baroness Orczy - A Bride of the Plains - 18/09/2012 10:18:51 PM 1597 Views

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