Ambrosio and Irony in ‘The Monk’

‘The Monk’ is a pretty crazy book, it grabs you by the throat and does not let go. It is not afraid to tackle difficult topics, and covers murder, corruption and incest in its monastic setting. It was difficult to write this and choose one topic to focus on, but I do feel that the overriding themes of irony come from Ambrosio, and that the main message of the novel is that evil lurks around every corner, no matter how pious something may appear.

We are told, at the start, that ‘women came to show themselves, the men to see the women’ at church.[1] Ok, this is not the reason to go to church. The idea of irony is established here, as everyone is pretending to be pious and virtuous when in fact, they have just gone to church to see who is around. Some, like Antonia, go to church for the right reasons. We know she is virtuous because of her ‘whiteness,’ a colour associated with purity and chastity.[2] Antonia is here to see the famed monk Ambrosio.

Ambrosio is a fascinating figure in the novel. It seems rare that someone so pious can live in such a corrupt city. He embodies the irony of the church more than any other. He looks like a Gothic hero, ‘his nose was aquiline, his eyes large, black and sparkling.’[3] His glance is noted for being ‘fiery and penetrating.’[4] The darkness in him and the intensity of his glare emphasises his importance, and the use of the word ‘penetrating’ may well be a sexual reference, as we know that Ambrosio is struggling with his sexual desires and passions. His appearance is unique, and coupled with his murky past, the character has the ability to bewitch and entice. Ambrosio is held in high regard by all in the community, especially Antonia who is spellbound. Again, this emphasises the irony of the story, as he who is the most pure, will become the most corrupted. At this point he is doing an ok job at keeping his passions caged, but it does not last long.

Matilda facilitates Ambrosio’s fall. She manipulates him by showing him her breast, and threatening to kill herself if she is forced to leave the convent. When Ambrosio is literally stung by a serpent in the garden, it is clear that this is just a metaphor for Matilda.[5] She becomes Eve, as well as the forbidden fruit in Ambrosio’s eyes. It’s ironic, as originally, we met Matilda when she was disguised as a man. She is Ambrosio’s confidante, and again, it is ironic that someone who is so close to Ambrosio is so determined to destroy him. This is where Ambrosio’s fall begins, as in a moment of weakness, he has sex with her.[6] This one act sets Ambrosio on a dangerous path, as the prospect of breaking his vows does not seem that scandalous. He has already broken them once by having having sex with Matilda, so he is not that bothered if he does it again. Especially when he becomes obsessed with Antonia. Matilda in true femme fatale fashion, has led Ambrosio by hand into corruption and destruction.

Matilda again encourages Ambrosio to pursue Antonia, even concocting a plan that would allow Ambrosio access to her with or without her consent. It is pretty scary stuff, and also asks whether Ambrosio’s fall is his own fault. It is revealed in the ending pages of the novel that the entire affair was designed by the Devil, who sent a demon disguised as Matilda to corrupt Ambrosio, just for His own amusement.[7] Perhaps Ambrosio would not have committed the acts that he did if the Devil had not interfered, and purposely tried to destroy him? It is an interesting idea, and raises questions about our own human nature. Ambrosio’s crimes are certainly inexcusable, but it is also made obvious that without Matilda’s help, Ambrosio would not have been able to do what he did. As a whole, the character represents the fall of mankind, and what happens when we give in to temptation. The novel, and character, warn the reader that there is evil in the world, and that we must be guarded against it. Good does not even win, as most characters die, especially those who are the most innocent, like Antonia and Elvira.

This makes the whole novel work as a Gothic story. The darkness of humanity is explored, as well as the ironies we represent, and all things that affect the characters are spearheaded by Ambrosio’s self serving nature. We see this in ‘The Castle of Otranto’ and ‘A Sicilian Romance.’ The male characters in these novels dominate all others, especially women. A classic example being Manfred’s murder of his own child, Matilda. This directly contradicts the place that the patriarch, or dominant male figure, should have in the family, the church or the world. Big irony here. The novels convoluted and sensationalised plot also aligns it with the original Gothic novels, and ensures that even now, it still makes for gripping and chilling reading. There is definitely more to unpack within the novel, so watch this space, there may be more Monk madness to follow.

Thanks for reading!

[1] Matthew Lewis, The Monk, (London: Alma Classics, 2019) p. 13.

[2] Ibid., p. 13.

[3] Ibid., p. 23.

[4] Ibid., p. 23.

[5] Ibid., p. 74.

[6] Ibid., p. 69.

[7] Ibid., p. 429.

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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