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The Monk – Review

Book Review

Title: The Monk

Author: Matthew Lewis

A lot of evil is found in hearts that claim to be religious. Published in 1796, this Gothic novel lays bare some of that revoltingly horrifying evil in the most macabre way possible. It is set in Madrid and much of the action takes place in a Catholic monastery and a convent. It may be useful to remember that the author was only 20 years old when he wrote this. Hence you will find some parts grating against your aesthetic sensibility. On the whole, however, it is a riveting novel with a lot of suspense, drama, lust, perversions, hypocrisy and depravity. Most of the evil is perpetrated by religious persons, especially the monk named Ambrosio who is the abbot of a Capuchin monastery, and the prioress of St Clare’s Convent.

Father Ambrosio is a living saint for the people around the monastery. The novel opens with a huge audience assembling to listen to his weekly homily. One of the devotees describes him thus:

His knowledge is said to be the most profound, his eloquence the most persuasive. In the whole course of his life he has never been known to transgress a single rule of his order; the smallest stain is not to be discovered upon his character; and he is reported to be so strict an observer of chastity, that he knows not in what consists the difference of man and woman. The common people therefore esteem him to be a saint.

This saint is the villain of the novel. How a saint becomes a devil is a very fascinating theme for those who are interested in such themes. Vanity is a dominant vice of this priest. He is very proud of all the attention he gets from the people. And a woman enters the monastery pretending to be a man and becomes a novice merely to bring about the degeneration of Ambrosio. This woman, Matilda, can only belong to a Gothic novel. She is as charming as Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost. Her logic is extremely persuasive. Ambrosio is misled by that logic.

Ambrosio, who sends a nun named Agnes to the most painful punishment because she sinned against chastity, will soon have revoltingly passionate sex with Matilda and will commit appalling crimes in order to have sex with Antonia, the most beautiful and equally innocent woman around.  

Sister Agnes never wanted to be a nun in the first place. Her mother offered her to the convent because of one of her superstitious beliefs. Agnes was in love with Raymond. They had planned an elopement which was foiled by her family. Raymond follows her to the convent secretly and the pregnancy happened in spite of Agnes’s resistance. Raymond’s love is genuine. He wants to take Agnes out of the convent and marry her. But Ambrosio discovers the plan and Agnes is given the most brutal punishment possible by her prioress.  

Raymond is a friend of Lorenzo who is the heir of the duke of Medina. Agnes is Lorenzo’s sister. Lorenzo is in love with Antonia whom Father Ambrosia lusts after.

It is a plot with a lot of twists and turns. Amazing. This book is available in the Penguin classics series. I wouldn’t have bought it had I not been tempted by that ‘classic’ label. I loved reading it. I enjoyed the plot though parts of the narrative did revolt me with all the cruelty perpetrated by religious people, particularly Ambrosio and the prioress. Though I know that a lot of evil is actually committed even now by the religious people, when it is presented bluntly in a novel it rattles my bones. This novel is set in Spain where the horrors of Inquisition were far worse than what the author of this novel presents.

The novel’s climax is breathtaking. Too many shocking facts come together towards the end.

This novel altered the very history of the Gothic fiction. A lot of horror grips the reader page after page here. There are devils and ghosts too in addition to manmade evils. There is mob violence, sorcery and incest. There is an underground burial vault too where much action takes place. What about a prison beneath the vault? The novel was a huge success with the public when it was published though literary critics had many problems. If you want to be jolted by the macabre, which wasn’t just fantasy of some writers and the kind of which can still be found around us, here is a wonderful novel. I recommend it absolutely.



  1. Hari OM
    Not one I would add to my listing... not that I avoid facing up to the depravity Humankind can descend to, for I do "enjoy" listening to true crime podcasts, and watching 'noir' television. However, Gothic fiction is not of the sort that appeals. YAM xx

  2. Fr. Marko Ivan Rupnik is similar to Fr. Ambrosio. The way Society of Jesus and Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith rehabilitated him after his excommunication is a scandal. Many times there is little difference between fact and fiction.

    1. The Church has much to answer for, too many sins, too much darkness...

  3. I am interested to read it. It is amazing that novels on such themes were made as early as 18th centuary.

    1. This novel was not received happily and Lewis was forced to edit it. This present edition is loyal to the original version.


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