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Published in 1796, M.G. Lewis’ “The Monk” caused major controversy among the critics of the time, with some even black-labeling Lewis to be the source of all the evil they observed in the work. Though the contradictory point is many of the same critics also confessed being heavily drawn by the drive of its conception, style, and richness, noting it as one of the most significant works of the Gothic, as well as in retrospect, the most transgressive (notable admirers of the novel included Marquis de Sade). The work stands out as the second retelling of the German folktale Faust; the first being Marlowe’s “The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus,” and the third, Goethe’s “Faust.” But Lewis, unlike Goethe and Marlowe, didn’t adjust to the flow of the folktale, only keeping its basis of ‘deal-with-the-devil,’ and changing almost everything else, something that wasn’t done until the 20th century by none other than Thomas Mann. But even Mann didn’t go as far as Lewis, in terms of blasphemy and transgression.
“The Monk” is known for its multifarious, at times complex plot, which consists of numerous sub-plots, characters, and motifs. The main story is about a famed priest named Ambrosio, while the underplot; a 15-year-old girl, Antonia. Ambrosio is the perfect preacher. He is the finest and everybody respects him, most people attending his sermons on a regular basis. He is said to have been left at the abbey as a child and raised in the monastery by monks who saw him as a present from Virgin Mary. Antonia, on the other hand, is an ordinary girl who lives with her mother Elvira. She eventually finds the love of her life, a man named Don Lorenzo.
As the two stories continue, they soon start to converge, and as one could expect from a Faustian tale, the events result in Ambrosio’s fall from grace and subsequential, demonic collusion. Here, however, the deal-with-the-devil motif is embedded in the narrative, and the actuality of the encounter — although present in the coda — is largely implied. This proto-modernist approach is but one of pioneering facets of Lewis’ work. Some have noted the lack of divine in “The Monk,” and how it sets the novel apart from morality tales, while on the contrary, what Lewis achieved was this obscuring of the lines between the holy and the unholy.
Slavoj Žižek’s de-forming of the Dostoevsky (mis)quote “If God doesn’t exist, everything is permitted” into its exact opposite; “If God doesn’t exist, then everything is prohibited,” is the stepping stone for understanding “The Monk”. Ambrosio being the prime example of a delusional manifestation of authority in one’s unconscious. One could notice the aforementioned in the gradual shift in his character; as the plot evolves he becomes more and more unite with the sacred and the ethics, proclaiming himself as the sacred through the course of action. That is to say, if anything lacking in “The Monk,” it is the diabolic.
Written by Ari Wilson