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Confessors and Penitents in M. G. Lewis's The Monk

  • Syndy M. Conger

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  • Syndy M. Conger
    Western Illinois University

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In his History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault conjoins the medieval church and a major shift in cultural attitudes. With the "codification of the sacrament of penance by the Lateran Council of 1215," he claims, the institution of confession becomes "one of the main rituals . . . for the production of truth"; society becomes "a singularly confessing society"; and "sex" becomes its "privileged theme." [1] The ritual of confession facilitates the "transformation of sex into discourse" about sins and ills, a materialization of a cultural system for dealing with sexuality as illness that will also include, by the year 1900, medicine, psychiatry, and pedagogy as well as poetry. Accompanying these changes, the literature of sexuality is transformed from an ars erotica to a scientia sexualis ; and even literature in general ultimately redirects its gaze from the great deeds of heroes and saints to sinners' secrets and self-scrutiny. [2] Foucault's study offers a useful new contextual framework for the study of Gothic novels like Matthew G. Lewis's The Monk , already often interpreted as literature of sexuality. As if it were previewing a pointedly Gothic chapter in Foucault's lifelong study of discursive practices in the Western World, The Monk rehearses several tales of a human sexuality enthralled "within an unrelenting system of confession." [3] Made bolder by its revolutionary era, The Monk deplores that capture more openly than does Foucault's study, presenting the system and its agents as corrupt and corrupting, as—quite literally—the devil's advocates. The key advocate in this case is the monk Ambrosio, Madrid's preferred confessor and the novel's anti-hero in his network of relations with the penitents Rosario/Matilda, the unfortunate Agnes, the care-worn Elvira and her beautiful daughter Antonia.

Ambrosio is an apt test case for the medieval penitential system, for he is both a product and a professor of that system. Found at the "abbey-door" while still an "infant," [4] he begins his initiatory education for the order of St. Francis as a young boy. Lewis's narrator describes this education disparagingly: "while the monks were busied in rooting out his [Ambrosio's] virtues [here identified as generosity, frankness, compassion, and genius], and narrowing his sentiments, they allowed every vice which had fallen to his share to arrive at full perfection" (238): the vices here identified include superstition, servile humility, pride, ambition, disdain, inflexibility, severity, even cruelty. He emerges from this instruction acutely at odds with himself, subject to an unsettling, ongoing "contest for superiority between his real and acquired character" (239), his virtues untested and fragile, and his vices only undiscovered because of his strict observance of a self-imposed penitential seclusion.

However fragile his piety may be, the public reveres him as a "Man of Holiness," and his charismatic manner and eloquence have made him the darling of "the chief families in Madrid." "Above all," claims one citizen, "the women s[i]ng forth his praises loudly, less influenced by devotion than by his noble countenance, majestic air, and well-turned graceful figure." As if pre-programmed by their church to associate confession and sex, "the noblest and fairest dames of Madrid" prefer a sexually attractive confessor to hear "their secret peccadilloes" (240). Even the devout nuns of Madrid are not immune to his charms, "it being absolutely necessary for every fashionable convent to have him for its confessor" (55). Unknown to them, as these women confess, "the eyes of the luxurious friar devour their charms" (241), a seducer's gaze he has practiced in the privacy of his cell before a portrait, of all things, of the Madonna:

Oh! if such a creature existed, and existed but for me! were I permitted to twine round my fingers those golden ringlets, and press with my lips the treasures of that snowy bosom! gracious God, should I then resist the temptation? Should I not barter for a single embrace the reward of my sufferings for thirty years? Should I not abandon—Fool that I am! Whither do I suffer my admiration of this picture to hurry me? Away, impure ideas! Let me remember, that woman is forever lost to me.

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For the sake of his immortal soul, Ambrosio should have "remembered" something else at this point; namely, that his meditation on the Virgin Mary's portrait is impious, for a monk, surely a mortal sin. Instead of uttering a "short ejaculatory prayer" of the kind recommended to priests who find themselves listening to or thinking impure thoughts, [5] he concludes his meditation with a Faustian boast: "Are not the passions dead in my bosom? . . . Fear not, Ambrosio! Take confidence in the strength of your virtue" (66).

Self-deluded, conflicted, and vulnerable, Ambrosio's character is scarcely a match, regardless of this boast, for the temptress Matilda. A mysterious and melancholy young novice named Rosario, devotedly attached to Ambrosio in ways that elicit the monk's paternal affections, reveals one fatal night that he is a she , and that she (Matilda) is hopelessly in love with him. As she tells her story, like Ambrosio Matilda is educated into piety; like his many other women admirers, she has come to associate religion with sexuality. In her case, her guardian's moral education alienates her so much from the "vice, dissipation and ignorance" of the young Spanish men she meets that she can only admire churchmen, an admiration that, once she meets Ambrosio, quickly turns into an obsessive infatuation with him. Although she insists at first that her only wish is to share with him a platonic "eternal friendship" (83), eventually she tells him that she "lusts for the enjoyment" of his "person" (108). Throughout the period of gradual self-revelation, Rosario/Matilda casts him/herself in the role of a penitent and her seductive disclosures in the mold of the confession just enough to catch the confessor each time he seriously contemplates banishing the novice or fleeing from his/her sight. "I resolved," Matilda insists to explain her initial disclosure of her gender, "not to leave the discovery of my sex to chance—to confess the whole to you, and throw myself entirely on your mercy and indulgence " (italics mine, 84). Not surprisingly, at her confession and her subsequent threat to plunge a dagger into her bared breast if Ambrosio banishes her, the contending elements that constitute Ambrosio's character spring into combat, rendering him "confused," "irresolute," and both repulsed and attracted (87). After some hesitations, at last Ambrosio casts aside his vows of celibacy to "riot" with Matilda "in delights till then unknown to him" (227). Also unknown to him, Matilda is the bait the devil uses to angle for Ambrosio's soul.

The Matilda-Ambrosio relationship is the book's most scintillating one with its midnight trysts, magical cures and talismen, and hair-raising conjuration scenes, but it does not show the monk at his worst. He is the object, not the subject, of this narrative plotline; just how completely he is manipulated only the devil knows (418). Nevertheless, he struggles against Matilda's seduction in the role of the former Rosario's spiritual mentor: he pities her suffering (82), he urges her to consider the impropriety of her presence in the abbey (85), and he reminds her that suicide is the gravest of crimes (87). If Matilda were Ambrosio's only crime—that is, if there were no Agnes, Elvira, or Antonia—he would look much less perfectly villainous in the end.

It is in his relationship to these latter three penitents that Ambrosio forgets himself. The Manual for Confessors lists four chief duties of the confessor: spiritual father, director of souls, spiritual physician, and spiritual judge. Ambrosio makes a mockery of all those duties, his actions sometimes seeming so like satanic parodies that they both foreshadow and ensure his damnation. It is in these relationships, too, that Lewis's version of the history of sexuality in the penitential system is told: a repeated story of captivity, degradation, torture, and even destruction.

Agnes de Medina offends her family by loving and being loved by Raymond de la Cisternas, a young nobleman Agnes's aunt unfortunately covets for her own purposes. When their alliance is forbidden, they attempt to elope; when that attempt is discovered, Agnes is sent to the convent of St. Clare, where she becomes, despite her situation, a model votary, gentle, affectionate, and pious. Once Raymond discovers her there, they begin meeting in secret, she becomes pregnant, and he devises a scheme for her rescue. As the nuns of St. Clare are filing out of the chapel one evening where Ambrosio has just listened to their confessions, Agnes happens to drop the tell-tale letter from Raymond detailing the escape plan and Ambrosio happens to retrieve and read it. At this point Agnes is swept up—and nearly swept away—by a penitential system in place to discourage unauthorized forms of sexuality. That system allows Ambrosio and Agnes's Mother Superior St. Agatha to assume that Agnes should be punished and, in addition, feeds the anger first of one, then of the other, to ensure that the punishment will be a draconian one. Her prioress is doubly angry with her: once for failing to adhere to celibacy inside the convent walls, again for damaging the reputation of her establishment "in the eyes of Ambrosio." Ambrosio's anger is also magnified at the moment of discovery because Agnes has just "feigned" a "confession" He meets her repeated pleas for mercy with unpriestly scorn:

"Your boldness confounds me. Shall I conceal your crime—I whom you have deceived by your feigned confession?—No, daughter, no. I will render you a more essential service. I will rescue you from perdition, in spite of yourself. Penance and mortification shall expiate your offence, and severity force you back to the paths of holiness.

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His peremptory dismissal of Agnes's pleas for mercy violates the spirit if not the letter of the confessor's duties. In an introduction to those duties, the confessor's manual begins by reminding priests of their responsibility to Christ as well as the sinners before them:

The confessor's . . . spiritual children, weighed down by the burden of their sins, come to him—as Christ's representative—to obtain that relief and comfort necessary for their spiritual well-being. The priest is the minister of the sacrament of reconciliation , and as such must realize the great responsibilities of his office. His people have the right to demand what Christ has promised them ["Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest"], and the priest must qualify himself to satisfy that demand; otherwise he is not fulfilling the obligations of his high calling. [6]

For Agnes, whose fate for the moment rests entirely in the hands of church officials, punishment follows swiftly. Her prioress first confines her to her cell, then announces to her convent that she will be "examined." A sympathetic friend among the nuns, St. Ursula, comforts and instructs Agnes in how to confess under such circumstances by simply "answer[ing] the domina's questions by an assent or a negative" (341). Neither of them anticipates the Prioress's intent. When she enters Agnes's room at the appointed time, first she berates her, then forces her—at knifepoint!—to drink what Agnes believes at the time to be poison. "The nuns then seated themselves round the bed; they answered her groans with reproaches; they interrupted with sarcasms the prayers in which she recommended her parting soul to mercy; they threatened her with heaven's vengeance and eternal perdition; they bad her despair of pardon, and strowed with yet sharper thorns death's painful pillow" (342). In Agnes's story, confession shifts to torture with terrifying suddenness, something that would certainly not surprise Foucault, who calls torture, historically speaking, confession's "dark twin": "One confesses—or is forced to confess. When it is not spontaneous or dictated by some internal imperative, the confession is wrung from a person by violence or threat; it is driven from its hiding place in the soul, or extracted from the body." [7]

Ambrosio is, it should be said, largely peripheral to Agnes's story; but he does report her misconduct to the Prioress in the first place (he had the chance to conceal it), and he authorizes—even outlines—her punishment. He is much more intimately implicated in the crimes against Donna Elvira and her daughter Antonia. Donna Elvira, a stranger to Madrid and an ailing widow with a single daughter, first encounters Ambrosio when Antonia convinces him to break his rule of seclusion to come to their house to hear her mother's confession (Antonia believes her mother to be dying). He agrees to come in secret, and he subsequently does an exemplary job of instructing and consoling Elvira as spiritual father, director, physician, and judge:

With persuasive eloquence he calmed every fear, and dissipated every scruple. He bid her reflect on the infinite mercy of her judge, despoiled death of his darts and terrors, and taught her to view without shrinking the abyss of eternity, on whose brink she then stood. Elvira was absorbed in attention and delight; while she listened . . . confidence and comfort stole insensibly into her mind. She unbosomed to him without hesitation her cares and apprehensions . . . . She trembled for Antonia.

247

What the reader knows that Elvira does not at this point is Ambrosio's ulterior motive for agreeing to come to their home: he desires Antonia. With each subsequent visit to her mother's sickbed, his attentions to Antonia become warmer and more explicit. Presumably, as a priest Ambrosio would have to know that priests were expected to take special precautions when talking to—or hearing confessions from—women, some of them clearly designed for confession without anything like a confessional booth. A priest is enjoined to avoid eye contact, to ask questions without injuring "his own name or bringing the sacrament into disrepute," to include a third party in the conversation after dark, and to avoid "all familiarity particularly with young women." The instructions conclude with this unambiguous directive: "he should not visit them in their homes." [8]

Heedless and passion-driven, Ambrosio not only disregards all such precautions, he also seems to follow his own contrary, anti-priestly rules of conduct. Posing as Antonia's spiritual father, he "seize[s] every means with avidity of infusing corruption into Antonia's bosom" (256). When this does not work any better for him than it did for Faust attempting to seduce Gretchen, Ambrosio at last abandons verbal seduction for physical assault. Elvira's interventions do little good and much harm: they result only in temporary safety for her daughter and they lead, ultimately, to both their murders. When she discovers Ambrosio gloating over the sleeping Antonia late one night, she threatens him with discovery and shrieks to raise an alarm. His brutal suffocation of her undercuts his priestly services to her earlier, while his posture underlines his apostacy: this, the text seems to say, is Ambrosio's substitution for Elvira's last rites.

The monk continued to kneel upon her breast, witnessed without mercy the convulsive trembling of her limbs beneath him, and sustained with inhuman firmness the spectacle of her agonies, when soul and body were on the point of separating.

297

To his credit, he almost immediately recognizes "the enormity of his crime" (297); to his detriment, this does not deter him in his determination to possess Antonia.

Antonia, his other victim, Ambrosio drugs and stows in the abbey catacombs, where he rapes and then murders her. In his campaign of persecution born of desire, he has moments of terror, regret, or pity, but never at a time that will avert Antonia's doom. Throughout the final minutes of her life, Lewis's book underlines the heinousness of Ambrosio's actions as a priest both by hyperbolic language of disapproval and by overlaying periodic visual or verbal vestiges of a confession scene on the rape and murder scene.

I possess you here [in the catacomb] alone; you are absolutely in my power . . . . My lovely girl! my adorable Antonia! let me instruct you in the joys to which you are still a stranger, and teach you to feel those pleasures in my arms, which I must soon enjoy in yours. Nay, this struggling is childish . . . . (367)

     Antonia's shrieks were unheard; yet she continued them, nor abandoned her endeavours to escape, till exhausted and out of breath she sank from his arms upon her knees , and once more had recourse to prayers and supplications . This attempt had no better success than the former. On the contrary, taking advantage of her situation, the ravisher threw himself by her side . He clasped her to his bosom almost lifeless with terror, and faint with struggling. He stifled her cries with kisses, treated her with the rudeness of an unprincipled barbarian, proceeded from freedom to freedom, and, in the violence of his lustful delirium, wounded and bruised her tender limbs. Heedless of her tears, cries and entreaties, he gradually made himself master of her person, and desisted not from his prey, till he had accomplished his crime and the dishonour of Antonia. (368)

     Supposing his brain to be turned, Antonia sank in terror upon her knees; she lifted up her hands , and her voice almost died away ere she could give it utterance.

"Spare me! spare me!" she murmured with difficulty.

"Silence!" cried the friar madly, and dashed her upon the ground—— (370)

Ambrosio's words are a mockery of his role as spiritual teacher and father, and those, combined with his barbarous physical attack on a suppliant for mercy, allow readers to take full measure of his distance, at this point, from the priestly ideal. It hardly seems to matter that, as the devil reveals in the novel's last pages, Elvira was Ambrosio's mother and Antonia his sister; it does little more than round out a long list of transgressions and broken vows and tabus that litter his career.

One of Foucault's many provocative points is that, far from being a sexually repressed culture, Western society has proliferated talk about and intensified the focus on sex. Sexual activity has been anatomized and monitored, sexual attitudes have been, since Freud, viewed as keys to individual personalities, the already known secrets, the telling of which nevertheless has to occur before individual personalities can achieve the absolution of self-understanding and self-mastery. The Gothic tradition has certainly participated in this cultural obsession, nowhere more evidently, perhaps, than in The Monk ; but the book also manages, I believe, to reflect critically on that obsession. It brands that obsession as antiquated, while it censures the notion of ritualized confession as transgression, as a killing cure. In so doing, like Foucault's history, it deplores the persecution of gentle love and lovers whoever and wherever they might be.

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