Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Matthew Lewis's Black Mass: Sexual, Religious Inversion in 'The Monk.'

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Matthew Lewis's Black Mass: Sexual, Religious Inversion in 'The Monk.'

Article excerpt

Matthew Lewis's The Monk (1796) is the most controversial of the classic Gothic novels published between 1764 and 1820.(1) From its inception, the novel's overt sexuality--its depictions of "Catholic" incest and lust--and, later, its ambiguous, homoerotic nuances--have intrigued or shocked readers accustomed to the more chaste oeuvres of Ann Radcliffe.(2) The novel's thesis, however, what can be called the Black Legend of monastic Catholicism, was accepted by those hostile to the Catholic church in England and France: Catholicism perverted "pure" religion, producing deviant sexual practices originating from "unnatural" vows of chastity violating "nature"--Catholic sexual repression engendered the veiled hypocrisy masking the orgiastic sexuality performed in unnatural monasteries and convents.(3) In England, the sexual demonization of the aberrant Catholic "Other" was part and parcel of the ideological formation of English, Protestant national identity.(4) In addition, Lewis's novel was published in 1796, at a time when England was at war with France and the French Revolution was still associated with the Terror. Consequently, there were a variety of sexual, political anxieties, specifically anxieties about masculine women and feminine men, that are also pertinent to the "texts" and contexts of The Monk.(5) Although critics have, for two centuries, concentrated on the novel's erotic dimensions, The Monk's numerous sexual, religious inversions and their attendant ideological implications have not been systematically explored. As author and narrator, Lewis linguistically performs the equivalent of a Black Mass, inverting and subverting the traditional roles of religion and sex--a Black Mass ironically corresponding to the satanic ceremonies in the novel. In this context, I focus on the significance of the novel's sexual and religious inversions with reference to the gendered language of "masculinity" and "femininity," and I suggest how these inversions illuminate the linkage between misogyny and the feminine, Catholic "Other" in eighteenth-century Protestant discourse.

The Monk's anti-Catholic ideology is primarily presented through its central Catholic villain--Ambrosio, the friar who as an infant was discovered at the Abbey door of the Capuchins and who, having been raised by the Church, has risen to the position of abbot and is esteemed throughout Madrid as a holy man renowned for his virtue, especially his strict observance of chastity.(6) From the beginning, Ambrosio is situated in a "feminine" position: like a young virgin who is protected and sheltered so she can keep her "innocence" and "virtue," Ambrosio is similarly ignorant and innocent of the world and its temptations. In the novel, the Catholic emphasis on monastic male chastity (usually a condemned and/or risible subject in Protestant literature) has its correspondence in female virginity and virtue--the subject of so many eighteenth-century conduct books and novels. In this context, Ambrosio is specifically linked to Antonia, the young virgin who has also been protected and sheltered and hence is equally "ignorant" of the world and its ways (pp. 12, 247, 264). Although Ambrosio and Antonia are brother and sister, they are both ignorant of their blood relationship, having been separated early in youth, and they both seem to share a mutual, sublimated incestuous attraction.

Lorenzo, the admirer of Antonia, first identifies Ambrosio to both Antonia and her aunt, Leonella, thematically placing Ambrosio in a virginal, feminine position: discovered at the door of the Capuchins and popularly believed to have been a "present" from the Virgin Mary, Ambrosio was "educated in the Monastery, where He has remained ever since." Having "pronounced his [monastic] vows," the thirty-year-old virgin monk (ironically, the age Jesus began his ministry, the product of the same "virgin" birth) has lived in "total seclusion from the world." Having never been outside of the Abbey walls, his character is without the "smallest stain," so "strict an observer of Chastity, that He knows not in what consists the difference of Man and Woman" (p. …

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