Women, Revolution, and the Novels of the 1790s

By Linda Lang-Peralta | Go to book overview

Lewis's The Monk and the Matter of Reading

Clara D. McLean

P erhaps one of the fullest flowerings of the genre of the Gothic novel, Matthew G. Lewis The Monk1 ( 1796) is corrupt to the core, narratively driven and riven by a consumptive quest for knowledge. Pursuers of the tantalizing secret, curious to the point of deadliness, wind their way through a marvelously labyrinthine architecture which the novel both thematizes and structurally repeats. In one of the several interweaving plots, a group of men engage in a prolonged effort to "worm out the secret" (213) of the nun Agnes's imprisonment inside the "massy walls" (346) of her convent. Their inquisitive "worming" consists of a series of schemes to penetrate the convent's interior regions, never before "pervad[ed]" by "a man's profane eye" (213). They press on to unearth the dark female secrets hiding there, in the pitch-black passages of the convent called, ironically enough, "St. Clare." The truth they seek is a physical one: the body of a woman, perhaps tortured, perhaps dead. To find it they must undertake an archaeological burrowing through both the convent's complex layers and the narrative blockages imposed by its forbidding prioress. The men are driven, even overtaken by their quest to uncover this lost flesh, by their need to see it, to drag it to the surface. This seemingly noble project has a dangerous side: as the mystery deepens it becomes apparent that the urge to pursue it is as much carnal as rational--a ravenous animal digging. When he finally gains admission to the convent's catacombs, Agnes's brother

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