In 1800, the Marquis de Sade observed that the Gothic novel “was the inevitable product of the revolutionary shocks with which the whole of Europe” resounded. People had experienced so many horrors that “it was necessary to call upon hell for aid in order to arouse interest.”
Sade was referring especially to Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796). Written partly in response to the French Revolution, Lewis’ novel features everything from matricide to incest to Satanic pacts. Beneath the catalogue of taboos, however, lies a complex examination of responsibility and justice in a world falling apart.
In the novel’s climactic scene, a nun, Mother St. Ursula, tells a crowd gathered for the festival of St. Clare that she saw her convent’s prioress (Agatha) and her four allies murder a young nun, Agnes. The crime? Pregnancy. Although Agnes begged for her life and that of her unborn child, Agatha poisoned her. The prioress and her accomplices then seated themselves so that they could reproach Agnes in comfort as she died.
Mother St. Ursula’s tale inflames her audience as effectively as a viral video does today. Without cell phones, the mob cannot cancel the church, but they do riot, murdering the prioress, assaulting the sisters of St. Clare, and burning down the convent. Nun lives matter. Except when they don’t.
Critical of both riots and the abuse of power, Lewis’ novel can help us reflect on the revolutionary shocks of our own time. As Stephen King argues in Danse Macabre, “we make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones. With the endless inventiveness of humankind, we grasp the very elements which are so divisive and destructive and try to turn them into tools—to dismantle themselves.” What might Lewis’ novel illuminate about our own divisions?
“Superior to the Rest”: The Abuse of Power
First, Lewis depicts the abuse of power as the result of a sense of superiority, particularly in authorities of the Catholic Church (a key target of French Revolutionaries). The prioress hides “her secret pride.” The “pride” of Ambrosio, the abbot of the adjoining monastery, likewise “told him loudly, that he was superior to the rest of his fellow-creatures.”
This sense of superiority renders them merciless. In the opening chapter, Ambrosio finds a letter to Agnes discussing her pregnancy, and she begs him not to tell the prioress. He refuses, having abandoned “universal benevolence” for personal advancement. Within the monastery, “he was taught to consider compassion for the errors of others as a crime of the blackest dye.”
Yet Lewis characterizes other members of the Church as brave and benevolent. Mother St. Ursula and her friends stand for Agnes and consistently feed the poor, providing an essential service to the community. Lewis’ attack is not on Christianity itself but on hypocrisy and abuse among its leaders, who Lewis suggests have damaged the foundations of the Catholic Church.
Lewis symbolically reinforces this point during the riot, when the hero, Lorenzo, literally gets to the bottom of St. Clare’s. In a dungeon beneath the sepulchre of St. Clare’s, he finds his sister, Agnes. The prioress had actually given Agnes a drug that simulates death, then chained her to a wall so that she would repent. Filthy and emaciated, Agnes clings to her dead baby. In St. Clare’s vaults, Lorenzo then discovers the novel’s heroine, Antonia, whom Ambrosio has also drugged, violated, and ultimately murdered.
By situating these crimes in dark crypts with fetid corpses, Lewis links the abuse of power with our most primitive fears: fear of confinement, fear of a gruesome death, fear that the authorities we trust to protect and guide us are actually the ones most capable of harming us. Horror is a dance seeking these “phobic pressure points,” Stephen King argues, which are both individual and, in times of economic and political stress, national.
“Popular Phrensy”: Mob Violence
Lewis surely grasped this point, as he wrote this novel in 1794 for a British audience looking across the channel at the French Revolution. While memoirists such as Margaret Coghlan defended its violence as necessary to overturn oppression, political writers such as Edmund Burke deprecated its brutality and destruction. Lewis uses the Gothic form first to convey the temptation to mob violence before illuminating its horrors.
Like Mother St. Ursula’s audience, we initially hear that Agatha cruelly taunted and murdered a young, pregnant woman, and a very human instinct rises for revenge. As King argues, horror offers us a chance to “exercise . . . emotions which society demands we keep in check,” to “join the mob” and destroy the outsider.
Yet Lewis’ depiction of that mob checks our impulse by tapping into another fear. Like zombies, members of the mob seem not only legion but unstoppable, because one cannot reason with them. Their “popular phrensy” in The Monk reduces rioters to “nothing but the gratification of their barbarous vengeance.” Attacking Agatha, they “stifled with howls and execrations her shrill cries for mercy, and dragged her through the streets, spurning her, trampling her,” and abusing her body long after she dies. They then continue their rampage, tearing down the convent and slaughtering nuns.
The scene clearly parallels violence in the French Revolution, particularly as Lewis imagines it in his poem “France and England in 1793”:
Here the wild People drenched the soil with blood
and bathed exulting in the crimson flood;
Justice was spurned; Religion awed no more;
The holiest Shrines were dyed with human gore.
And still while trampling Heaven’s and Nature’s laws,
Hoarse was the shout—“We sin in Freedom’s cause!”
No one, he mourns, was safe, not even “sad Antoinette.” Like Burke, who famously depicted Marie Antoinette as the target of brutal assassins, Lewis saw the queen as maligned and heroic. Her name is echoed in that of his heroine, Antonia.
“Riot Unrestrained” and a Return to Order
In Lewis’ novel, however, it is not the mob who violate and murder Antonia but the monk, Ambrosio. He is tempted down this path of violence by a seductive woman (literally Satan’s spy), who promises, “You shall riot unrestrained in the charms of your mistress.” Here Lewis uses “riot” in the sense of behaving wildly, indulging in excess and dissipation without restraint.
Meanwhile, the mob in the building above them riot in the more common sense of participating in a violent, uncontrolled attack on people and property. Lest readers miss the parallel, Lewis refers to them as “rioters” four times before noting that “the riot” had ended.
The simultaneity of the scenes underscores the similarity of these opposing groups: both engage in self-indulgent destruction, generating the terror of Gothic novels, which Stephen King defines as “a pervasive sense of disestablishment,” a sense “that things are in the unmaking.”
What the Gothic offers is an opportunity to understand terror, to see the monsters, and to restore our faith in the status quo. As King argues, “we love and need the concept of monstrosity because it is a reaffirmation of the order we all crave as human beings.”
In The Monk, Lewis links the restoration of order with justice. Initially Lorenzo was unable to secure a trial for Agatha, who correctly declared that she had not murdered Agnes, though her real crimes against Agnes and her child were perhaps worse. A trial would have uncovered the truth and led to more impartial justice.
Lorenzo is more successful in defending Virginia de Villa-Franca, a pensioner of St. Clare’s who fears the mob because she is related to Agatha. Also at risk are the innocent nuns of the convent, who were later received by other convents only reluctantly. “This prejudice was extremely false and unjustifiable,” Lewis’ narrator observes. In fact, an investigation proved their innocence. But the mob was “blinded by resentment.”
As for Ambrosio, he awaits the Inquisition’s verdict with “his heart the seat of anarchy and confusion.” Fearing that he will be burned alive, Ambrosio signs his soul over to Lucifer, who whisks him away from prison. Instead of rewarding Ambrosio, however, Lucifer blames his hypocrisy before sending him to a painful, protracted death.
If Lewis’ novel suggests anything, it is that we ponder the significance of unthinking revenge and abuse of power. Both are divisive and destructive, creating a sense of disestablishment that endangers our future. Who can feel secure in the midst of riots and murders? How can insurgents “sin in Freedom’s cause” if violating the rights of others only inflicts horrors on us all? If we are indeed in what The Wall Street Journal calls “America’s Jacobin Moment,” if we are truly—as Christopher Bedford warns—in danger of replaying the violence of the French Revolution, then it is essential that we restore “things in the unmaking.” To do that, we must turn from Sade’s hell to something else entirely: the rules of justice.