The Monk:A Rebellious Offspring of the Age of ReasonUnderstanding the Gothic novel can be accomplished by obtaining a familiarity of the Augustan point of view, which helps to develop a reference point for comparing and contrasting the origin of Gothic literature. The thinking that was being questioned by the Gothic novel was Augustanism; and without some understanding of Augustan principles and their role in eighteenth-century thought it is difficult to understand the purposes of the Gothic revival, either in terms of history or in terms of the way in which it offered a new conception of the relations between man, nature and a supreme being. David punter describes the political relationship of the Augustan thinker to the literary world, It is tempting to see in Augustanism the doctrine of a small cultural elite holding on to power and status under increasing pressure, and that pressure as precisely that exerted by the new reading public on the homogeneity of the old literary establishment (p 31 Punter). This small number of elite would have included, but not limited to, Fielding, Johnson and especially Pope.
However, Fielding and Johnson were slowly stepping outside of the realm of the Augustan limitations. Fielding was undoubtedly Augustan in his beliefs in the stability of social rules and the necessity of a social and psychological compromise, but his mocking attitude towards literary stipulation represents a more moderate Augustan replication. Johnson, on the other hand, was a firm believer in these literary rules and yet it was his Preface to Shakespeare which became the first significant breach in these limitations.
Alexander Popes Essay on Man embodies the cosmological, theological and ethical beliefs of the Augustan age; while at the same time exemplifying submission to the rules of literary form. The Augustan approach was intellectual with formal restraint; while relying on reason and traditionalism to create literary works. These stipulations were very controlled by their boundaries and could not be exaggerated with out being broken. The Augustan critical attitude condemned spontaneity for its chaotic qualities, imagination for its objection to reason and liberalism for its opposition to traditionalism.Gothic fiction appears as a specific response to the Age of Reasons order. During the late eighteenth-century, several different kinds of new fiction arose to challenge the Augustan tradition; leading the way was the Gothic novel.
An interest in those things, which cannot be understood, for example religion and the soul, results in an overwhelming expansion of what is accepted as art in the literary world. No longer is literature responsible for explanation, but it now has the power to question. Where the classical was obsessed with order, the gothic exemplified chaos; where simple and pure, Gothic was ornate and lustful; where tradition was expected to be followed, the Gothic represented boundless exaggeration; and where reason was respected, imagination took hold. With the evolution of the Gothic novel, for the first time literature was perceived as limitless. In a literary context Gothic is most usually applied to a group of novels written between 1760 and 1820.
Characteristics of the Gothic novel are: an emphasis on portraying the terrifying, insistence on archaic settings, a very prominent use of supernatural forces, the presence of highly stereotypical characters and an attempt to perfect the technique of literary suspense. Angela Carter most accurately defines Gothic, in her collection of tales Fireworks:The Gothic tradition grandly ignores the value systems of ourinstitutions, it deals entirely with the profane. Its great themesare incest and cannibalism. Character and events are exaggeratedbeyond reality to become symbols, ideas and passions. Its stylewill tend to be ornate, unnatural and thus operate against theperennial human desire to believe the word as fact. Its only humoris black humor. It retains a singular moral function that ofprovoking unease (p 4 Carter).
This description identifies all the defining characteristics of Mathew Lewis The Monk and educates the reader as to what to expect.Unlike traditional literature of predecessors like Fielding, Johnson and Pope, Lewis The Monk embodies one of the first steps into the realm of the Gothic novel; presented as a rebellion against the traditional norms. The chilling paradox of the novel is found in Lewis mixing of a rationalistic secular skepticism and insistent employment of the least rationalistic supernatural element: Satan. God does not truly exist but the devil does (p63 Greary).
Lewis evokes the horror of horrors, a malign cosmos where the devil, not God, is the only authoritative power presented. Robert Geary acknowledges Lewis use of religion as a basis for skepticism in his novel. Instead of focusing on the conventional wrath of God, Lewis implores a wrath of a demonic supernatural force. The basis for this creation lies within a mistrust of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Gothic fantasy was not a call for revolt, but a revolution from the values and attitudes of everyday life. In creating a monk who rapes, kills, and sells his soul to the devil, Lewis is enlightening the reader to the moral depravity which man is capable of when he becomes obsessive. This psychological aspect of the novel appeals to the readers mind and self. The differentiation between the mind and self was a relevant topic duringthe late eighteenth-century. While Ambrosio has all the qualities of a monk, Lewis draws attention to the unnaturalness of his rearing through the church.
All that a monk is expected to avoid, is constantly enveloping Ambrosios mind. Lewis illustrates, exceptionally well, the devils control over an individual most unlikely to succumb. Without the psychological analysis, which is available today, Lewis attempts to offer symbolic suggestions as to the cause of the irrationality of his characters.
For example, Ambrosias condition is blamed on fault in his background, for he was brought up by monks who terrified his young mind, by placing before him all the horror with which superstition could furnish them ( P188 Lewis). As evident here, the Gothic novel evoked a new perception of viewing what was considered normalcy, in a way that was for so long buried beneath the rationalism of the Age. The Monk became the authoritative model for the high Gothic novel of unmitigated hideousness and extravagant supernaturalism (p7 Barron). Lewis offers the reader a continuing extravaganza of horrid shock while subjecting both his good and evil characters to the powers of the devil.Throughout the novel, the Catholic Church is seen as a thorn in a side of the characters , which allows them to become claustrophobic instruments of isolation and reinforce the errors of social communication, which have been a longstanding convention of the eighteenth-century life. According to Barrons Horror Literature, this depiction of the church as a threat meets the first criteria for a Gothic novel in that Gothic characters must feel enclosed by menacing buildings and by other circumstances of enclosure within the Gothic structure Claustrophobic confinement is the psychic imperative of all Gothic fiction (p8 Barron). Lewis was interested in the particular vicissitudes of the psyche and he made use of social phenomenon and setting to reinforce this depiction.
Lewis took the stipulations set before him by the Augustan thinkers of the eighteenth-century and created a novel by representing everything these thinkers opposed; ultimately creating a whole new genre of literary fiction. Fielding and Johnson helped to lay the framework for Lewis by bending the limitations placed on literature.The creation of the Gothic novel can be contributed to Lewis The Monk; he set the standard for which authors still today use for reference in their own Gothic novels. Mathew Lewis is the father of the Gothic revival.Works CitedBarron, Neil. Horror Literature: A Readers Guide . Garland Publishing, New York: 1990Carter, Angela.
Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces. London: 1974. p4Greary, Robert. The Supernatural in Gothic Fiction. Edwin Millen Press, Lewiston: 1992.
Lewis, Mathew. The Monk. Penguin Press, New York: 1990.Punter, David. The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fiction from 1765 to PresentSingman Press, London: 1980.