“The Monk” by Matthew Lewis
Matthew Lewis’s, The Monk, was the most renowned historical novel of the gothic era during the 17th century. From the start, the novel delineates overriding themes of reversed gender functions in a time where these norms remained entrenched within that society. The Monk claims that infringing on these sex roles during the 17th century led to the inevitable downfall for those who stray from the typical concepts. Consequences befall characters who adopt contradictory gender role, that is, for passive men and active women, for example, the relationship dynamic between Matilda and Ambrosio. Not only do these characters fall prey to their unsuitable gender role, but by engaging the opposite spectrum, their inevitable destruction is effectuated both through Ambrosio’s innocence and Matilda’s manipulation.
The author also directs the reader to tether these themes with witchcraft, possession, and magic that unravel its propagating influence on the characters and outcome of the novel. Moreover, beyond the scope of the effeminization and masculinization of characters, there are suggestions of nuanced homosexuality throughout the novel, where Lewis presents disruption of both sexuality and roles of sexual functions. Through these approaches, he can paint an ambient representation of the role witchcraft, religion, and love manifested in Europe, during a time of transformation and pressure.
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From the beginning of Ambrosio’s life, he was depicted as feminine, as his upbringing elevated him to this position, the people mark him as the church’s prized-possession. Growing up sheltered from the outside world left Ambrosio naive to the prospect of sex. This is perpetrated in the novel when Leonella portrays him as, “an observer of Chastity, that He knows not in what consists the difference of Man and Woman” (Lewis 15). This feminine position as a young virgin leaves Ambrosio exposed to the many temptations of sin and sexual ignorance. The author parallels this scene with society’s general feminization of monks to portray the vulnerability being a saint entails and therefore leaves them susceptible to succumbing to these temptations mentioned above.
Ambrosio’s character representation is a greater manifestation of life through the eyes of a woman. Before connecting Ambrosio an Antonia, Leonella also compares the negligence to differences between man and women to Antonia’s life, introducing a possibility of a hidden connection between these two characters (Lewis 16).
Furthermore, this juxtaposition connects the virtuality of Antonia’s womanhood to Ambrosio’s feminized character, portraying him as the embodiment of a woman as well. The reversal of the gender role may not actively coincide with his gender expression. However, many instances that lead to his inevitable corruption outline what typically befalls women as well. Another explanation for the feminization is stereotypical ideologies embedded within 17th-century of what being homosexual meant, where, Ambrosio facilitated through his interactions and reactions.
The author uses various scenes to emphasize this idea, through the interactions with Rosario, a male, novice monk. For example, the scene between Rosario and Ambrosio becomes very intimate, where Ambrosio grasps his hand, “and pressed it with tenderness,” and they fall silent (Lewis 45). However, subsequently after, Rosario is unable to continue the farce and reveals his identity as a woman named Matilda. Ambrosio is shocked and angry at this discover yet struggles to accept her instantly.
One interpretation was the relationship between the two men was beginning to grow more provocatively intimate, yet their connection is abruptly severed, closeting any possible homoerotic relationship from advancing. This relationship presented readers with a nuanced homosexual relationship that during that time would be something illegal and subject to death. The similarities of how many homosexuals in the past would have to cease same-sex relations perpetrated itself within Rosario’s and Ambrosio’s relationship. The fear of repercussions for homosexuality directed many to continues their lives through a life of concealment which did not portray the lawful sexual orientation of these individuals. This meant that Ambrosio’s sexual repression led him to become more promiscuous, and more get angry at the revelation of Rosario’s gender, as the revelation of Rosario’s identity sets back his goal of seducing Rosario, leaving his intentions concealed.
Along the journey to indulge in Antonia, his sexual repression begins to erupt as his insatiable lust for worldly pleasure specifically, sex, envelops Ambrosio. Not only has Matilda prevented him from expressing his sexual curiosity and sexual orientation, but his sexual relations with Matilda tire quickly, and he is incapable of fulfilling his desires. The restriction of conveying his sexuality leads him to become more unpredictable. However, Ambrosio being unable to express his sexual interests left him erratic and vulnerable to Matilda’s deception.
Learning about Matilda’s nature as an evil demon further describes her influence and perpetuates the further understanding of the Monk as a representation of a woman. First, the garden scene. There appears to be an indication of the bible story of Adam and Eve where Eve is tempted by the devil to consume the forbidden fruit. Matilda(Devil), here, tempts Ambrosio (Eve) to grab a rose; unfortunately, he is bitten by a snake.
The parallelism between these two stories show the temptation of Ambrosio(Eve), but also depict a broader picture of punishing both, for Adam and Even, are forever expelled from heaven, and Ambrosio will die from the temptation from the devil. Furthermore, the further portrayal of Ambrosio as Eve shows the greater feminization of his character. Through this portrayal, the author is able to assert how the continuing as an active women befalls great punishment. The contrast between this time and when the bible was written shows the perpetuation of gender stereotypes that existed within the authors time. Through this projection of the devil temptations, there is also an implicit assertion of how a woman’s susceptibility to control make it easier for the devil to convert them to witchcraft, providing one explanation for why the dynamic for those who engage in sorcery and other related arts with the devil are women.
Throughout the story, reversed gender roles leading to more substantial consequences remained. In another instance, Ambrosio begins losing attraction to Matilda because of evolving activeness, only ushering him to another woman, Antonia, he perceived as passive. This shift of interest left Ambrosio to understand that associating with an active woman only leads to destructions, leading him to pursue Antonia. Furthermore, rather than actively seeking Antonia, his growing passiveness causes him to ultimately fall prey to Matilda’s devilish influence.
As both of these characters approach there opposing stereotypical gender expression, there is a general downward spiral that leads to impending destruction unless they return to following the gender binary. The reversed roles indicate the act of a woman acting against her position in society would undermine the power Ambrosio would hold against her. Moreover, mass instances of this reversal meant disrupting the patriarchy which many believe to be disastrous to human nature.
By undertaking her active role in society, Matilda only perpetuates this destruction, leading man to eventual chaos. Disrupting these systems manifested themselves within the presumed purpose of witchcraft, possession, and magic, as the growing activeness for women, entailed an association with the devil. This begun instilling fear within those back then and led them to believe the significant proprietors of magic, possession, and witchcraft were these women hoping to undermine this patriarchy.
In greater term, The Monk provides extensive detail into the experience a homosexual would endure. This in no way is employed to exclude the LGBT+ community from this book; however, the focus remains in the realm of same-sex relations. This novel provides an invasive understanding of what maintaining conflicting sexual orientations represented in a time where homophobia remained instilled within its citizens.
First, an implicit satire portrays the challenge of having to suppress one’s sexual interest and become someone they do not want to. Coincidentally, Ambrosio cannot love Rosario because it would mean defying the norms of society and would have to face repercussions from a homophobic society. This leaves Ambrosio incomplete and still unable to reveal his true identity, and thus stuck with releasing his frustration and sexual repression onto Matilda and Antonia, people he will lust over but never love. This hidden homosexual nuance in the novel becomes more explicit and evident throughout interaction and pact signing with the Devil.
For example, the Depiction of the Devil as a male entity further emphasizes this theme as a complete consummation of not just serfdom, but spiritual dominion. The Dæmon asserts, “‘I must have your soul; must have it mine, and mine for ever’ … ‘Mine you are marked in the book of destiny, and mine you must and shall be!’’(Lewis 333). Throughout the story, this personification of commitment also appears when Matilda seduces Ambrosio, and then again before Ambrosio rapes Antonia. In all three cases, the reversed gender roles alternate within each case, from feminized with Matilda, Masculinized with the rape and re-feminized with the demon. However, the situation with the pact further draws on this idea is during the concluding scene with his death.
When the Devil, who transforms into a bird, drops him. As he falls, there is a symbolism behind the phallic insinuation when the novel says, “The sharp point of a rock received him” (Lewis 338). The contrast Lewis brings are also presented through other scenes in the novel when Ambrosio’s words penetrated Antonia’s soul, and similarly, the gaze the Dæmon gave that “penetrated the Friar’s soul with horror” (Lewis 15, 334). Given the circumstances, the ending physically and metaphorically represents the molestation of Ambrosio by the Devil, who the author portrays the Devil and Ambrosio as respectively. This allusion to sexual assault reflects the theme of religion and the consequences of participating in possession, magic, and witchcraft.
Through an intersectional lens, there exists a relationship between homosexuality, religion, and witchcraft. Religion views homosexuality and witchcraft in a similar view, in which the punishments were comparable, and individuals considered homosexuality accomplices with the devil. In which case, it can be safe to assume that some religious figures and extremist associate homosexuality to be a byproduct of witchcraft. Even more than the gendered phenomenon that exists within witchcraft, possession, and magic, the assumed feminized aspects/behaviors of expressed by homosexuals in the 17th century might have invoked many to affiliate them with witchcraft.