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Satire in The Monk: Exposure and Reformation

  • Ann Campbell

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  • Ann Campbell
    Emory University

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Matthew Lewis punctuates the plot of The Monk (1796) with several bizarre, grisly and pornographic episodes; this "excessive, maniacal movement from one orgiastic episode to another," as Alok Bhalla has described it, makes it difficult to discern any clear narrative progression in the novel. [1] A plot synopsis of The Monk would probably follow Ambrosio's moral debasement, necessarily excluding most of the characters that populate the novel. These minor characters and forgettable exchanges are frequently satiric. Satire permeates the novel, obtruding into even the most gruesome scenes, but seems most significant when incidental. Episodes like Raymond's adventure at the inn with Baptiste and Theodore's visit to the convent disguised as a beggar distract from the story of Ambrosio. The bluntness of the satire displayed by these and other secondary characters in minor episodes, however, highlights the centrality of satire to the main narrative. Lewis aligns himself with the tradition of reformative verse satire by introducing the novel with an imitation of Horace, and he continues to mimic Horace's urbanity throughout the novel. He models his narrator's stance on Juvenal's. Though few readers would describe Lewis's tone of ridicule and disgust as "declamatory grandeur," he seems to be attempting just that, especially in scenes like the opening Cathedral scene. [2]

Lewis, however, asserts his place amongst satire's most venerable figures to make his repugnant subject matter palatable rather than to reform a corrupt society or religious institution. As a satirist it is Lewis's responsibility to expose whatever he finds beneath any deceptive exterior. The most vicious discoveries are supposed to act as purgatives for his readers: harsh but salutary. Lewis dissects the objects of his satire as if he were performing an autopsy of them, exposing layer after layer of corruption in a relentless process. The trajectory of satire, inwards and penetrating, is also that of the novel's narrative structure; Lewis penetrates forcibly into the Abbey, into Ambrosio, and Ambrosio forcibly penetrates the female body by raping Antonia in the novel's climactic scene.

Bakhtin, in his discussion of laughter, examines the way in which social interrogation can be viewed metaphorically as a dissection. Although Bakhtin primarily addresses comedy, his observations are equally applicable to the learned wit of satire. He treats the definitive characteristic of satire: it forcibly exposes an essential quality of an institution, class, etc., which individuals associated with the ridiculed body have concealed either through ignorance, hypocrisy, or affectation. He describes this process as a metaphorical "dismemberment" of the object of ridicule, an image particularly apt for the Gothic novel, a subgenre in which metaphorical dismemberment becomes literally enacted:

Everything that makes us laugh is close at hand, all comical creativity works in a zone of maximal proximity. Laughter has the remarkable power of making an object come up close, of drawing it into a zone of crude contact where one can finger it familiarly on all sides, turn it upside down, inside out, peer at it from above and below, break open its external shell, look into its center, doubt it, take it apart, dismember it, lay it bare and expose it, examine it freely and experiment with it. Laughter demolishes fear and piety before an object, before a world. [3]

Bakhtin describes the process by which laughter, as Habegger describes it, "punctuates choice lies," leaving the artificiality of social codes exposed and vulnerable. [4] Although satire may free the reader from slavish obedience to the object of ridicule, it offers no replacement for the degraded object. Exposure contains potential both for the radical undermining and conservative reinforcement of social conventions: satire disrupts the social order by "dissecting" it and revealing its arbitrariness, but ultimately reinforces it by offering no natural (or unarbitrary) alternatives to convention.

Bakhtin's observations complicate Lewis's pretensions as a reformative satirist. The classical satirists and their neoclassical imitators claimed that their verses would shame readers out of deceit and folly, a stance hardly credible but long accepted by many readers. The standard of virtue which satirists adhered to and which readers were supposed to imbibe is usually termed conservative, the political and social equivalent of the "middle way." The satirist's authoritative tone and control over his verses helped establish his moral superiority over his readers; the terse, highly structured style of verse satire and the selection of appropriate anecdotes displayed the satirist's grasp of history and his ability to order historical examples according to moral precepts. Lewis, a novelist rather than a verse satirist, has difficulty evincing moral and intellectual superiority over his readers. His characters are fictitious, the setting ambiguous, and his style loose and episodic. Satire in his work, then, cannot function as it did in the work of the classical satirists he invokes. The classical satirists and their neoclassical followers dissected social convention and political faction in a controlled manner which appeared to have a clear didactic purpose. In Lewis's sprawling novel, however, when he dismembers the objects of his satire he finds nothing beneath each layer but another layer of corruption.

The many layers of Lewis's novel, as discussed earlier, vary in their relevance to Ambrosio's temptation and fall. The satire displayed during insignificant episodes is unrelated to any moral or political purpose Lewis might have claimed for his novel, and therefore most revealing of the role of satire in the novel as a whole. Two minor episodes are worth examining: the Baptiste episode and Theodore's adventure as a supposed beggar inside the convent walls. In some instances, though a scene is pertinent to the central narrative, Lewis's attention to detail seems excessive. Extraneous dialogue and excessive detail in an important scene constitute another sort of minor scene. For example, Lewis devotes several pages during the opening scene to the interaction between Leonella, the two "Cavaliers"— only one of whom is really important to the plot—and Antonia. [5] Though Lewis records the dialogue between these four characters exactly, he gives only a brief description of the effect Ambrosio's sermon has on its listeners, not even paraphrasing its content. After examining the role of satire in these minor scenes, I will consider two important scenes, Lorenzo's declaration to the crowd at the Festival of St. Clare, and Ambrosio's rape of Antonia. The type of satire displayed in the minor scenes—a gleeful dismemberment with no clear didactic purpose—constitutes a model for the central narrative.

I will begin my analysis where Lewis begins his novel, in the Cathedral where Antonia and Leonella join Madrid's most fashionable to await Ambrosio's sermon. The auditors, as the narrator makes clear, do not attend Ambrosio's sermon out of piety. The narrator's tone is one of urbanity and worldliness, stripping the audience of its pretensions while offering no alternative vision of moral reform or sincere conviction:

Do not encourage the idea that the Crowd was assembled either from motives of piety or thirst of information. ... Very few were influenced by those reasons; and in a city where superstition reigns with such despotic sway as in Madrid, to seek for true devotion would be a fruitless attempt. ... One half of Madrid was brought thither by expecting to meet the other half. The only persons truly anxious to hear the Preacher were a few antiquated devotees, and half a dozen rival Orators, determined to find fault with and ridicule the discourse. As to the remainder of the Audience, the Sermon might have been omitted altogether, certainly without their being disappointed, and very probably without their perceiving the omission. [6]

The narrator catalogues the spectators' despicable motives without condemning them, expressing equal contempt for the naiveté of the "antiquated devotees" and for the others assembled to gawk at and solicit one another. He posits no moral alternative to the "superstition" of Madrid; though the narrator is contemptuous of the audience, he offers neither the possibility of reformation nor any counterexample of virtue, except of course that of the vainglorious and still-untested Ambrosio. The irreligious audience's rapt response to Ambrosio's sermon might be viewed as a concession on the narrator's part that they are still awed by religion, and therefore redeemable. Their pleasure, however, is described in sexually charged terms, suggesting that their "delight" is not incited wholly by the "consoling words of the preacher". [7] However pious the audience appears during Ambrosio's sermon, they return to their former selves as soon as he stops speaking. Lorenzo returns to courting Antonia and Christoval to distracting Leonella with feigned attention. Their levity has been so little disturbed that after the ladies depart Christoval suggests that he and Lorenzo "adjourn to the Comedy". [8]

The attention to veils during the Cathedral scene allows Lewis to explore the metaphorical and psychological exposures with which the novel is preoccupied. Leonella forces her niece to remove her veil at the request of the interesting interlocutors. In this incident Leonella acts impetuously and in her own interest, hoping to impress her potential conquests with her sophistication rather than intending injury to Antonia. Antonia's reluctant "disrobing," however, prefigures other more violent and sinister forms of coercive exposure in the novel which I will consider as forms of satire, including the penultimate example of forcible unveiling, Ambrosio's rape of Antonia:

"And where is the harm, I pray you?" interrupted her Companion somewhat sharply; "Do not you see, that the other Ladies have all laid their veils aside, to do honour no doubt to the holy place in which we are? I have taken off mine already; and surely if I expose my features to general observation, you have no cause to put yourself in such a wonderful alarm! Blessed Maria! Here is a fuss and a bustle about a chit's face! Come, come, Child! Uncover it; I warrant you that nobody will run away with it from you." [9]

Antonia, like the devotees described in derisive terms by the narrator, is unaware of the intentions these men may harbor, and unprepared to assert herself in the rituals of courtship they are enacting against her will. There is nothing beneath her veil, no false motives underlying her actions, for Lewis to expose. She suffers the fate of Lewis's corrupt and hypocritical characters, though; she is exposed simply because she attempts to cover herself, and covers are torn away in the process of dissection performed by Lewis.

The satirist's traditional stance as a reformer with clearly defined moral motives is also challenged by minor characters like Baptiste, a bandit who poses as an hospitable woodcutter in order to prey upon prosperous travelers. Fully initiated into vice and pretending to virtue, Baptiste is a perfect character for Lewis to dissect and expose as an impostor. Marguerite, Baptiste's wife, appears rude and idle to her visitors; she proves otherwise by risking her life to save theirs. Lewis strips away the multiple layers of pretense each character exhibits during this bizarre episode, exposing their presumptions, their disguises, their weaknesses, and the motivations which underlie their actions. Marguerite, the character who seemed most despicable at the outset of the episode, is the only character who does not turn out to be absurd or reprehensible. Even Raymond, one of the few characters in Lewis's novel who might be described as a hero, is shown to be vain and judgmental. The moral purpose of this clever satiric turnabout is called into question by Baptiste. Baptiste, like Lewis, is a skilled satirist. He disabuses Marguerite of her romantic notions about her former husband and exposes her to the viciousness and depravity surrounding her: "Baptiste ... rejoiced in opening my eyes to the cruelties of his profession, and strove to familiarise me with blood and slaughter". [10] Baptiste dissects others neither to warn Marguerite about their disingenuousness nor to encourage her to amend her own behavior, but in order to sink her to his own level of iniquity.

Theodore, Raymond's scampish servant, also performs the role of satirist from somewhat dishonorable motives. He disguises himself as a beggar outside the convent in order to learn what happened to Agnes. The scene has important consequences; though a Papal Bull demanding that the prioress deliver Agnes to Raymond does nothing but provoke her "rage " and "menace," Theodore learns that Agnes has been murdered. [11] Lewis does not focus on the serious business of Theodore's visit, though. The basket containing news of Agnes's fate seems to be thrust into Theodore's hands as an afterthought. The episode is a satire on the nuns and their pretended purity.

Theodore is the satirist, penetrating inside the sheltered convent, probing the nuns' characters, and exposing their sensuality, credulity, and vanity. Theodore's motives are apparently laudable. Only the truth about Agnes's fate can save the languishing Raymond by providing him with a definitive course of action. However, Theodore's behavior while inside the convent seems calculated to satirize the nuns as much as to discover Agnes's whereabouts. It is necessary for him to "[feign] timidity" and to "[flatter] the vanity of the nuns" in order to gain access to the convent. [12] It seems excessive and sadistic, however, for him to relate a lengthy series of ludicrous adventures. Theodore elicits ridiculous responses from the nuns, including the porteress's claim to have witnessed the "pea-green" inhabitants of Denmark he describes. [13] This passage serves no possible reformative purpose. Theodore simply indulges his appetite, and of course Lewis's, for derision.

The satire displayed by minor characters in the preceding episodes prefigures how the novel's climactic scenes—the riot incited by Lorenzo and Ambrosio's rape of Antonia—will unfold. The central narrative follows the satiric trajectory set out in miniature in earlier episodes: inwards and penetrating. However, these later episodes are increasingly violent. In earlier scenes, Lewis, via his characters, interrogates, dissects, and exposes the objects of his satire for pleasure. Ridicule is benign in both senses; it doesn't reform but generally alters nothing for the worse. In the central scenes, however, the violence of satire ceases to be rhetorical. Bakhtin's comments about exposure as a mode of social interrogation help explain the escalating carnage. Satire continues to penetrate inwards until it has destroyed its object. The satirist removes the cancer, but kills the patient in the process.

Lorenzo, an aristocratic and heroic figure, publicly descries the convent's antiquated and vindictive practices during the Festival of St. Clare. His declaration incites a riot during which many of the nuns, guilty as well as innocent, are killed, and which ends only with the razing of the convent. Lorenzo justifies his rash actions by claiming that he "only wished for an opportunity to free" his countrymen from the "monkish fetters" of belief in a corrupt institution. [14] Benevolence, however, is a tepid term to describe Lorenzo's monomania. He is so consumed with his project that it keeps him from dying, and once he accomplishes it he believes it will leave him with "'nothing in the world deserving his attention". [15] His passion to reveal the truth about the practices which occur in the convent is likely motivated by his need to "hear that Agnes was revenged," a desire more violent than reformative. [16]

Lorenzo does not foresee and cannot control the way the crowd responds to his verbal satire. Their righteous fury might be described as Juvenalian, but they do not express it through a classical satirist's balanced oratory. This collective group of satirists acts rather than derides. They incite one another to violently expose the corruption hidden behind the convent's sacred walls:

The Populace besieged the Building with perservering rage; they battered the walls, threw lighted torches in at the windows, and swore that by break of day not a Nun of St. Clare's order should be left alive.... The Rioters poured into the interior part of the Building, where they excercised their vengeance upon every thing which found itself in their passage. [17]

The crowd acts sadistically, punishing both the innocent the guilty. They force their way into the convent, penetrating inside the walls which had previously signified the convent's inaccessibility to the outside world. Their violent and forcible movement inwards follows the trajectory of satire. They "dissect" the convent in order to expose the corruption hidden inside it, but their "incisions" are so deep and haphazard that they destroy it.

The climactic scene in the novel, Ambrosio's graphic rape of Antonia, may be read as yet another manifestation of the satirist's desire to violently expose the affectation of society and convention. Satire often addresses itself to readers who, like Antonia, possess the "inexpressible charm of Modesty" which "enthralls the heart of Man". [18] Antonia is forcibly made cognizant of her delusions concerning the sanctity of the church and the romantic ideals she entertains, Even after Ambrosio attacks her in her home, she conjures up excuses for his behavior. Her tenacious desire to retain faith in social convention and religious ideals makes her a poor reader of the satire being enacted on her very body. The "violence" of Ambrosio's "lustful delirium" mirrors the mob's frenzy when they force their way into the convent, and the result is the same. [19] Ambrosio, heedless of the consequences of his action, forces himself upon, or rather into, Antonia. In this scene Lewis shows that satire, when effective, does not reform. The benevolent motives expressed by the novel's verbal satirists are generally pretense. The only successful practitioners of satire act violently and forcibly, dismembering the object of satire rather than simply exposing it.

Potent satire, Lewis suggests, is a destructive force, a disruptive violation of an accepted, or at least understood, order. Lorenzo's speech outside the Abbey, intended only to punish the guilty, incites the mob's frenzied and indiscriminate violence, leading to the massacre of many nuns ignorant of the unsavory activities of their prioress and her followers. In Lewis's world, satire contains the potential for the obliteration of corrupt institutions, but not for their gradual reformation. The pretense of didacticism covers the satirist's insatiable and irrational impulse to destroy what lies before him. An effective satirist punishes rather than purges his object, and that punishment is swift but rarely just.