Ruotolo Response

"Monk" Lewis

The Monk


I'd like to begin this response with Frederick Frank's striking definition of the Gothic novel: "In its most effective state, the Gothic novel is a violently destructive or sadomasochistic fantasy of the multiple self in which various hypothetical personalities or repressed and unwanted identities are released into an architectural dream collage where anything can happen -- and usually does." Let that simmer a little; we'll touch upon a few aspects of it later...

TERROR AND HORROR, OR WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO SENSIBILITY? In 1826, Ann Radcliffe distinguished between terror and horror as follows: "Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts and freezes and nearly annihilates them." Simply put: the terror mode generates suspense and fear, as the protagonist is threatened with atrocities which are narrowly averted or defused; the horror mode generates shock and disgust, as the atrocities are fully realized and depicted, often in sickening detail. Frank has taken this distinction a step further, dividing Gothic novels into two separate, gendered categories. The feminine Gothic is terror-oriented -- the heroine/victim is at the psychological center of the text, and we empathetically follow her as she escapes from a series of dangerous (usually sexual) predicaments. (The paradigmatic example is Radcliffe's _Mysteries of Udolpho_ [1794]). In contrast, the masculine Gothic is horror-oriented, and its narration psychologically probes the villain, not the damsel in distress. In horror, "the triumph of evil is appallingly complete"; rationality is totally overthrown, and no mercy is available, either for the satanic hero or his hapless victims.

It's clear how _The Monk_ exemplifies this latter category, and represents Lewis's response to Radcliffe's more tepid brand of Gothicism. Although the narrative voice shifts around among the various plot lines, Ambrosio is obviously the psychological center of the novel, and the most important scenes are "shot" from his perspective, providing rationalization for his crimes through dialogue with Matilda and forcing a certain amount of reader identification (I am thinking of the parallel to the contemporary horror film, in which key scenes are often shot from the killer's POV). The Monk's power is absolute, and there is simply no one to stop him from carrying his persecution of Antonia through to its nauseating conclusion, just as there is no one to protect Agnes from the Prioress's gruesome revenge. But what's most remarkable about this story is its ending: the lurid punishments meted out to the villains at the end of the novel don't seal off the cycle of suffering and torture, but carry it to an even further extreme. The sadistic fury of the mob -- which tramples and burns innocent nuns along with the guilty, and beats the Prioress to an unrecognizable pulp for the murder of Agnes (a crime she didn't actually commit) -- is the most horrifying element in the novel, with the possible exception of the Inquisition. Despite the perfunctory resolution of the Lorenzo-Agnes story, the last few chapters of The Monk represent the complete overthrow of rationality, justice, and human feeling. We are left with a landscape of pure evil -- which becomes literalized in the final few pages book.

So what's my point here? I'm trying to trace an emotional trajectory through the texts we've read so far this semester. We've progressed from our tearful empathy with Clarissa to a more detached and alienated relationship with Yorick, to the titillating schadenfreude suggested by the last paragraph of Sidney Biddulph, to the fear we acknowledged in our discussion of Dangerous Liasons, past the terror stage we would have stopped at had we read _Udolpho_ at the appropriate moment, finally landing in _The Monk_'s world of absolute horror. Empathy to detachment to fear to terror to horror -- what's happened? How did we get from _Clarissa_ to _The Monk_? Tentative theory: each of the books I've mentioned thematizes the individual psyche more deeply than the one that came before it, and creates anxiety for the reader in proportion to this probing. While it's true that there is great psychological depth in _Clarissa_, the fact is that Clarissa's virtue is largely inscrutable, as is Lovelace's vice. The later novels seem increasingly interested in explaining how the characters got to be the way they are, and they investigate the individual consciousness (especially the individual passions) with increasing rigor. By the time we get to the Gothic, individual psychology is an overt preoccupation. In _The Monk_, aspects of the human psyche are literalized as landscape, architecture, supernatural phenomena, etc. The elements of Ambrosio's subconscious -- his id and superego -- become separate entities, represented by Matilda and the institutions of Catholicism, respectively. The primacy of these individual passions, which have become far more powerful than the social superstructure that attempts to reign them in, is what leads us away from sentimentality and into horror.

Of course, there are material explanations for this transformation as well. Peter Brooks discusses the Gothic as a product of the "moral transvaluation" that occurred at "the dead end of the Age of Reason". For Brooks, the late 18th century was marked by disillusionment with Enlightenment rationality, accompanied by increasing religious skepticism. The result was a moral void that was eventually filled up by a new "Gothic" code of ethics, "implicitly founded on terror rather than virtue". Or consider Sade's explanation of the rise of the Gothic: "For those who are acquainted with all the ills that are brought upon men by the wicked, the romantic novel was becoming somewhat difficult to write, and merely monotonous to read: there was nobody left who had not experienced more misfortunes in four or five years than could be depicted in a century by literature's most famous novelists: it was necessary to call upon hell for aid in order to arouse interest, and to find in the land of fantasies what was common knowledge from historical observation of man in this iron age". I'm not sure if Sade is referring to the "ills" that precipitated the French Revolution, or the "ills" that resulted from it. But whatever the case, the shadow of the Terror looms large over _The Monk_, especially in the horrifying mob scenes at the end. Is Lewis responding directly to the social upheaval of the Revolution, and if so, what exactly is he saying about it? Is it a source of real anxiety for the British in this period, or merely something exotic and far off, like banditti and the Inquisition and institutional Catholicism?

SO HOW ARE WE SUPPOSED TO READ THIS? I'm interested in how the rest of you responded emotionally to Ambrosio. I feel the book is constructed in a way that makes it impossible to avoid identifying with him to a certain extent. In a way, I felt that I had _become_ Ambrosio by the end of the text. Of course I wanted to see grisly revenge exacted upon the Monk and the Prioress, and who didn't? But after my bloodlust had been satisfied, I took no pleasure in the fulfillment of my desires -- I, like Ambrosio, felt nothing but disgust. What do you all think? Do the other texts we've discussed so far prompt us to read as the hero or heroine might read? (I suppose our attitude toward James Harlowe is once again relevant here. I apologize.)

ON WOMEN I'm sure that we will be discussing Lewis's disturbing depiction of his female characters: Matilda -- woman as demon, Satan's whore, not even autonomous in her absolute evil, just Lucifer's flunky. Elvira -- the suffering mother is actually responsible for her own death; her abandonment of the Monk has set in motion the process in which his virtues are converted to vices. Agnes -- nun turned whore is rigorously punished for her transgression, and in the end apologizes to Raymond for his violation of her! Antonia -- the most blameless character still seems somehow responsible for her fate, if only through her idiotic trust and naivete. And let's not forget the Prioress (who is just as luridly evil as the monk, although no internal narration allows us to empathize with her, even remotely) and her band of evil nuns, to which the monastery provides no counterpart. A few possible ways of breaking this down: in _The Fantastic_, Todorov observed that fantastic literature sets up "an equivalence...between sexual love and death," and that "the transformation of an attractive woman into a corpse is the pattern repeated time and again." Yet woman is never just the victim, but also the agent of evil, a figure of otherness who stands in for that ultimate Other -- the devil. Kari Winter has qualified Todorov's view, which only seems to hold for male- authored Gothic. Winter argues that as female Gothic authors "exposed the terms of patriarchy from the victim's point of view," male Gothic authors like Lewis responded "by reinscribing violence against women in their texts." This is yet another way to distinguish between masculine and feminine Gothic -- perhaps we can discuss it in more detail when we get to _The Italian_. Finally, Lewis's reaction to compulsory heterosexuality probably figures in here somewhere...