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"The Monk:" A Consideration of Formal Realism and Chastity in the Eighteenth Century Gothic Novel

Updated on July 13, 2016

The Gothic Novel: A Response to Formal Realism

Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk is a response to formal realism like most Gothic novels. It is, therefore, important to define and understand the Gothic before looking into this novel’s take on chastity. When considering what defines a gothic novel, one stock device that is impossible to overlook is the genre’s use of the supernatural, which is key for the Gothic to maintain for its stance against the confines of realism.

In The Monk, the central supernatural feature is the Devil himself, who uses Matilda as his servant and, in the end, convinces Ambrosio to sell his soul. As much as the genre is ridiculed for its use of the supernatural, there is no way that it would be able to act as a response to realism without including the unreal. In order to remove this genre from the everyday realm of life, novels of this genre must be set in a place where ghosts roam and the Devil comes to make deals.

What makes the Gothic genre unique is its attempt at blending the real with the imaginary. Not only does this produce terror because of the suspense and unpredictability associated with something fantastical and unknown, but it also makes their characters even more realistic than novels from other genres. No matter how fanciful the situation, characters always react in ways that are truer to everyday responses to these circumstances than the circumstances themselves, even providing natural explanations for what the reader knows is supernatural.

The use of the paranormal in the Gothic genre may be difficult for some to look past when understanding it but it is the key feature for any novel within this genre.With it, the Gothic is able to reach its goal, which is to take realism to a deeper level by blending the supernatural with the real.

The Gothic genre is commonly subjected to nearsighted examinations that deem it little more than a collection of mostly supernatural stock devices. However, it is a response against the eighteenth-century neoclassical resurgence. Robert D. Hume defines it best when he claims that the Gothic “can be seen as one symptom of a widespread shift away from neoclassical ideals of order and reason, toward romantic belief in emotion and imagination.” Furthermore, he says that the genre is divided into three parts: sentimental Gothic, Terror-Gothic, and Historical-Gothic.

Lewis’s novel falls under the second division, Terror-Gothic, which is considered the most “pure” of the types of gothic novels. One of the most important distinguishing features of the Terror-Gothic is its focus on the interior mental processes, which makes characters more human despite their supernatural circumstances. The mixture of the Gothic’s standard use of emotion and focus on the internal is best seen with Ambrosio as he is much of the focus of The Monk and goes into many reflections on his actions.

Hume compares Ambrosio with Richardson’s character, Robert Lovelace, in Clarissa, claiming that “Lovelace is a simpler character than Lewis’s Ambrosio. But although Ambrosio is a more repulsive person, his responses to his own urges and actions are far more complicated and meaningful.” Therefore, by its focus on the interior of characters, the Gothic genre actually surpasses the more reasonable and orderly novels of the time in its development of more human and deeper characters. Their heroes and heroines are not put through trial in order to gain reward but are instead challenged in order to become something more than just flat characters.

The emotional distress that the Terror-Gothic plays with only gives it the ability to create characters that are believable in their reactions to the supernatural, imaginary world they are thrown into. In this way, characters in Lewis’s and other gothic novels should be measured in relation to their reactions to situations and their development, not just whether or not they are stock devices of the form.

How "The Monk" Differs

Lewis’s novel contradicts that assumption that all novels under this genre are the same. According to Hume, the “Gothic trappings” that commonly give the Gothic its supernatural stereotype include castles, secret passages, and poorly lighted scenes.The Monk, however, breaks this stereotype for the most part by having a limited number of supernatural devices scattered throughout the novel.

Although it has some moonlit scenes and Ambrosio’s temptations from and dealings with the Devil are key to its plot, they are not central. If the supernatural devices were central to the novel, it would be a lot shallower and everything would be explained in much simpler terms. These supernatural aspects of the novel only add to its entertainment value by making it more interesting and, at times, less predictable.

The Monk would fall under a completely different genre if just the supernatural was removed. Instead of being gothic, it would be an example closer to realism. This is because the humanlike characters would be placed in situations more similar to reality. Focus on the supernatural aspects of the novel takes away from its deeper meaning, which is why it is more important to focus on its characters when understanding the novel. The supernatural is key to placing novels under the category of Gothicism but are not the central focus of the narrative.

© 2012 LisaKoski


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    • Enlydia Listener profile image

      Enlydia Listener 5 years ago from trailer in the country

      interesting analytical review. I used to love gothic novels as a youngster, not really understanding what they were...maybe I just liked the word "gothic".

    • GetitScene profile image

      Dale Anderson 4 years ago from The High Seas

      Interesting. Never heard of this before.

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