“Ambrosio was yet to learn, that to an heart unacquainted with her, Vice is ever most dangerous when lurking behind the Mask of Virtue.”
Before Lolita and The Catcher in the Rye, before The Portrait of Dorian Gray and Dr. Seuss’ apparently terrifying book (albeit only to the Chinese government) Green Eggs and Ham – before the steady stream of B movies, there was a cheeky nineteen year old with a pen, a roving imagination, and ten weeks of free time.
About the Book:
The Monk is a gothic novel at heart, but has been shunned from the vaults of tasteful literature since its publication in 1796.
It was written by Matthew Gregory Lewis when he was nineteen, and if famously claimed to have been completed, start to finish, in ten weeks. The writing and plot does reflect this time frame, as the story seems a little diffuse, and the author leaves all the ends to be tied up in the last two pages. However, if Lewis’ assertion of ten weeks is true, it does also imply that the themes in this story are spontaneous and unaffected by social didacticism.
If we pick through the plot, we find two distinct storylines. One involves a pregnant nun attempting to be reunited with her lover, while the other, more central, storyline concerns a self-righteous capuchin monk (the novel’s namesake) and his descent into debauchery and disgrace. These two threads of the novel are connected through a character – a gallant young Spanish aristocrat – who, though central to the novel, does not feature in it much.
Why it’s so important:
It might be a mathematical concept, but if you ignore the didacticism and protestant bias, The Monk is a literary pioneer of the Butterfly Effect. There are a few blink-and-you’ll-miss-it clues scattered across the novel that, though insignificant, pull it through to its conclusion.
The book is also an unconscious commentary between a work of literature and its reader. Its themes go beyond mere morality to lead readers to discover a few inconvenient truths about themselves. If you find yourself cringing, outraged or shocked at any part of this book, it goes out of its way to make you aware that you’re still reading it, you sanctimonious little shit, you.
Why you should read it:
I feel like we tend to have a squeaky-clean, romanticized view of the 18th and 19th centuries; that we, being so distanced by time, assume that literature was always of the highest quality, and everyone spake thus, even when performing their morning ablutions. This book flips that veneer on its head and shows us the underbelly of society of the time – even if it is just a glimpse into the mind of a teenager of the period. We have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that this young man was expected to go about ‘m’lord‘ing and ‘m’lady‘ing while hatching up scenes of incest rape in his mind.
If you have an appetite for darkness, this book is for you. It goes out of its way to offend, then tries to one-up its previous efforts at every turn. It is truly a salacious, ludicrous and absolutely delightful race to the bottom.