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

  • Syndy M. Conger

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  • Syndy M. Conger
    Western Illinois University

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." 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. 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." 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," 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: For the sake of his immortal soul, Ambrosio should have "remembered" something else at this point; namely, …