Forshadowings: Religious Gothic and ‘The Monk’ by Matthew Lewis

Last week, Sheffield Gothic had its first meeting of the new semester, screening the 1947 film Black Narcissus, based on Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel of the same name. It was a brilliant film about madness and desire in an isolated convent full of troubled nuns. Afterwards we discussed surveillance within convent life and how the film’s gendered and political discourses reflected the post-WWII world. Mental illness and the resurrected and returned past were also important elements discussed in a Gothic context. Most notably, the unusual aesthetic of the piece made it stand out among the other Gothic materials we’ve read and watched – rather than depicting shadows and obscurity, this film was shot in a stark and bright yet dream-like space on the top of a mountain, and numerous characters complain of being able to see to much of themselves and their surroundings rather than too little. 
 In our next reading group meeting we will be going back to the early Gothic genre to discuss Matthew Lewis’s infamous 1796 novel The Monk. This work employs a more traditional Gothic aesthetic and is considered a formative text among Gothic students. The story follows a troubled, repressed monk as he struggles within a hypocritical system of morality and eventually falls prey to demonic forces.

Early Gothic novels are particularly relevant to our semester’s ‘Religious Gothic’ theme (plus the novel is named ‘The Monk’ so… there’s that). The first examples of Gothic novels emerged during a time when many British authors were trying to redefine their of national literary identity. One of the strategies for this was aligning ‘Britishness’ and national identity with a Protestant morality as opposed to a Catholic (French / Italian) ‘otherness’ and a pre-Enlightenment preoccupation with superstition. For example, heroines in Ann Radcliffe’s novels, while ostensibly foreign, represent an ‘English’ / Protestant belief system which finds itself trapped in a dangerous, alien, and nominally Catholic culture. The heroine’s evolving ‘sensibility’ suggests a rational emotional intelligence which rejects a blind belief in the supernatural and the corresponding inability to respond maturely to ‘terror’.


“…and this one time, at band camp…”
“Please stop…”

Matthew Lewis wrote The Monk as a response to, and a deviation from, Radcliffe’s work, and in keeping with his ‘masculine’ Gothic style tends to be more preoccupied with overt ‘horror’ than the nuances of ‘terror.’ Maggie Kilgour argues that “Lewis presents himself as the complete revealer, who takes all of the terrors that Radcliffe leaves submerged and exposes them, turning gothic potentials into reality” (The Rise of the Gothic Novel, 142). He creates worlds where identity is fluid and anything is possible, and as such established institutions and religious and political and class identities are destabilized, exposed as inadequate, hypocritical, or corrupt. Rather than advocate for one religion or national discourse over another, Jacqueline Howard argues that Lewis uses discourses of sublimity to “describe a world in which there is no universal rational and moral order” (Reading Gothic Fiction, A Bakhtinian Approach, 219). Such narrative is a significant Gothic alternative suggesting a libertine discourse which sees all institutions, including religious institutions as represented by monastic hierarchies, as inherently problematic.

As such, organized religion becomes the mechanism through which Gothic monsters and grotesques are made. The titular monk Ambrosio’s better traits are twisted within a repressive monastic system, leaving him open to seduction by a demonic temptress. A man attempts to elope with his love despite her commitment to become a nun. He is later entrapped by the ghostly ‘Bleeding Nun,’ who drains him of life and is only banished by the intervention of the ‘Wandering Jew.’  A prioress of a convent attempts to murder deviant nuns, a monastery tomb becomes the scene of a horrific rape and murder, and ultimately both the monastery and convent are destroyed by a raging mob.

Still… beats the morning commute! Am I right? Anyone…?

By the time we learn that one overbearing mother character has forbidden her daughter from reading the Bible – “ convinced that, unrestricted, no reading more improper could be permitted a young woman, and that “the annals of a brothel would scarcely furnish a greater choice of indecent expression” – one is, surprisingly, forced to concede some truth in the mother’s ironic fears (Lewis, 191). Most of the text up to that point has suggested that religion nurtures vice and corrupts virtue, at best failing to provide an adequate moral compass, at worst imposing arbitrary restraints and denying free human emotion with mortal consequences. 

But is the novel really that straightforward? What is Lewis really trying to say about organized religion? How do religious tropes define the characters and their actions? How does Lewis use religion to construct the ‘Gothic,’ and how does the ‘Gothic’ influence our understanding of religion and identity? 
Come to Gothic reading group for more discussion, cake, and death! We’ll be meeting on October 21st, 4-6 pm, and the University of Sheffield (JW, Hub 2).  Follow us on Twitter @SheffieldGothic for more updates!

Kathleen Hudson is a final year PhD student studying servants in early Gothic literature at the University of Sheffield. She has a desk Cthulhu…and it’s adorable.