Gregory Lewis's The Monk, written
in ten weeks when the author was nineteen
and published in 1796 when he was twenty,
is the most lurid of the Gothic novels and,
at the same time, one of the most vividly
written (a combination guaranteed to produce
a best-seller). Ambrosio, abbot of the Capuchin
monastery in Madrid, goes from a pinnacle
of self-satisfied saintliness to become one
of the most depraved villains in all fiction.
After being seduced by Matilda, a diabolical
woman who has entered the monastery disguised
as a novice named Rosario, the monk, with
the help of a talisman provided by Matilda,
plots the rape of one of his penitents, Antonia.
His first attempt is foiled at the last minute
by Antonia's mother, Elvira, whom Ambrosio
strangles. His second attempt, in which he
succeeds, culminates in the fatal stabbing
of Antonia. As it turns out, Antonia is his
sister and Elvira their mother; thus he has,
among his crimes, the rape and murder of
his sister and the murder of his mother.
His punishment at the end, when the Devil
reneges on a pact that would have allowed
Ambrosio to escape, is gratifyingly spectacular.
Reviewing The Monk in
the February 1797 issue of the Critical
Review, Coleridge commented:
Situations of torment, and
images of naked horror, are easily conceived;
and a writer in whose works they abound
deserves our gratitude almost equally with
him who should drag us by way of sport
through a military hospital, or force us
to sit at the dissecting table of a natural
philosopher. . . . The romance
writer possesses an unlimited power over
situations; but he must scrupulously make
his characters act in congruity with them.
Let him work physical wonders only,
and we will be content to dream with
him for a while; but the first moral miracle
which he attempts, he disgusts and awakens
In the first of the two extracts
given here, from chapter 2, Ambrosio exults
in his cell after having delivered a spellbinding
sermon to a packed church in Madrid. The
second extract, from chapter 8, recounts
the first assault on Antonia and the murder
The monks having attended their abbot to
the door of his cell, he dismissed them with
an air of conscious superiority, in which
humility's semblance combated with the
reality of pride.
He was no sooner alone, than he gave free
loose to the indulgence of his vanity. When
he remembered the enthusiasm which his discourse
had excited, his heart swelled with rapture,
and his imagination presented him with splendid
visions of aggrandizement. He looked round
him with exultation; and pride told him loudly
that he was superior to the rest of his fellow-creatures.
"Who," thought he, "who but
myself has passed the ordeal of youth, yet
sees no single stain upon his conscience?
Who else has subdued the violence of strong
passions and an impetuous temperament, and
submitted even from the dawn of life to voluntary
retirement? I seek for such a man in vain.
I see no one but myself possessed of such
resolution. Religion cannot boast Ambrosio's
equal! How powerful an effect did my discourse
produce upon its auditors! How they crowded
round me! How they loaded me with benedictions,
and pronounced me the sole uncorrupted pillar
of the church! What then now is left for
me to do? Nothing, but to watch as carefully
over the conduct of my brethren, as I have
hitherto watched over my own. Yet hold! May
I not be tempted from those paths which till
now I have pursued without one moment's
wandering? Am I not a man whose nature is
frail and prone to error? I must now abandon
the solitude of my retreat; the fairest and
noblest dames of Madrid continually present
themselves at the abbey, and will use no
other confessor. I must accustom my eyes
to objects of temptation, and expose myself
to the seduction of luxury and desire. Should
I meet in that world which I am constrained
to enter, some lovely female — lovely
as you — Madona — !"
As he said this, he fixed his eyes upon
a picture of the Virgin, which was suspended
opposite to him: this for two years had been
the object of his increasing wonder and adoration.
He paused, and gazed upon it with delight.
"What beauty in that countenance!" he
continued after a silence of some minutes; "how
graceful is the turn of that head! what sweetness,
yet what majesty in her divine eyes! how
softly her cheek reclines upon her hand!
Can the rose vie with the blush of that cheek?
can the lily rival the whiteness of that
hand? 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 for
ever lost to me. Never was mortal formed
so perfect as this picture. But even did
such exist, the trial might be too mighty
for a common virtue; but Ambrosio's is
proof against temptation. Temptation, did
I say? To me it would be none. What charms
me, when ideal and considered as a superior
being, would disgust me, become woman and
tainted with all the failings of mortality.
It is not the woman's beauty that fills
me with such enthusiasm: it is the painter's
skill that I admire; it is the Divinity that
I adore. Are not the passions dead in my
bosom? have I not freed myself from the frailty
of mankind? Fear not, Ambrosio! Take confidence
in the strength of your virtue. Enter boldly
into the world, to whose failings you are
superior; reflect that you are now exempted
from humanity's defects, and defy all
the arts of the spirits of darkness. They
shall know you for what you are!"
Here his reverie was interrupted by three
soft knocks at the door of his cell. With
difficulty did the abbot awake from his delirium.
The knocking was repeated.
"Who is there?" said Ambrosio
"It is only Rosario," replied
a gentle voice.
It was almost two o'clock before the
lustful monk ventured to bend his steps towards
Antonia's dwelling. It has been already
mentioned that the abbey was at no great
distance from the strada di San Iago. He
reached the house unobserved. Here he stopped,
and hesitated for a moment. He reflected
on the enormity of the crime, the consequences
of a discovery, and the probability, after
what had passed, of Elvira's suspecting
him to be her daughter's ravisher. On
the other hand it was suggested that she
could do no more than suspect; that no proofs
of his guilt could be produced; that it would
seem impossible for the rape to have been
committed without Antonia's knowing when,
where, or by whom; and finally, he believed
that his fame was too firmly established
to be shaken by the unsupported accusations
of two unknown women. This latter argument
was perfectly false. He knew not how uncertain
is the air of popular applause, and that
a moment suffices to make him to-day the
detestation of the world, who yesterday was
its idol. The result of the monk's deliberations
was that he should proceed in his enterprise.
He ascended the steps leading to the house.
No sooner did he touch the door with the
silver myrtle than it flew open, and presented
him with a free passage. He entered, and
the door closed after him of its own accord.
Guided by the moon-beams, he proceeded up
the stair-case with slow and cautious steps.
He looked round him every moment with apprehension
and anxiety. He saw a spy in every shadow,
and heard a voice in every murmur of the
night-breeze. Consciousness of the guilty
business on which he was employed appalled
his heart, and rendered it more timid than
a woman's. Yet still he proceeded. He
reached the door of Antonia's chamber.
He stopped, and listened. All was hushed
within. The total silence persuaded him that
his intended victim was retired to rest,
and he ventured to lift up the latch. The
door was fastened, and resisted his efforts.
But no sooner was it touched by the talisman
than the bolt flew back. The ravisher stepped
on, and found himself in the chamber where
slept the innocent girl, unconscious how
dangerous a visitor was drawing near her
couch. The door closed after him, and the
bolt shot again into its fastening.
Ambrosio advanced with precaution. He took
care that not a board should creak under
his foot, and held in his breath as he approached
the bed. His first attention was to perform
the magic ceremony, as Matilda had charged
him: he breathed thrice upon the silver myrtle,
pronounced over it Antonia's name, and
laid it upon her pillow. The effects which
it had already produced permitted not his
doubting its success in prolonging the slumbers
of his devoted mistress. No sooner was the
enchantment performed than he considered
her to be absolutely in his power, and his
eyes flashed with lust and impatience. He
now ventured to cast a glance upon the sleeping
beauty. A single lamp, burning before the
statue of St. Rosolia, shed a faint light
through the room, and permitted him to examine
all the charms of the lovely object before
him. The heat of the weather had obliged
her to throw off part of the bed-clothes.
Those which still covered her Ambrosio's
insolent hand hastened to remove. She lay
with her cheek reclining upon one ivory arm:
the other rested on the side of the bed with
graceful indolence. A few tresses of her
hair had escaped from beneath the muslin
which confined the rest, and fell carelessly
over her bosom, as it heaved with slow and
regular suspiration. The warm air had spread
her cheek with a higher colour than usual.
A smile inexpressibly sweet played round
her ripe and coral lips, from which every
now and then escaped a gentle sigh, or an
half-pronounced sentence. An air of enchanting
innocence and candour pervaded her whole
form; and there was a sort of modesty in
her very nakedness, which added fresh stings
to the desires of the lustful monk.
He remained for some moments devouring those
charms with his eyes which soon were to be
subjected to his ill-regulated passions.
Her mouth half-opened seem to solicit a kiss:
he bent over her: he joined his lips to hers,
and drew in the fragrance of her breath with
rapture. This momentary pleasure increased
his longing for still greater. His desires
were raised to that frantic height by which
brutes are agitated. He resolved not to delay
for one instant longer the accomplishment
of his wishes, and hastily proceeded to tear
off those garments which impeded the gratification
of his lust.
"Gracious God!" exclaimed a voice
behind him: "Am I not deceived? Is not
this an illusion?"
Terror, confusion, and disappointment accompanied
these words, as they struck Ambrosio's
hearing. He started, and turned towards it.
Elvira stood at the door of the chamber,
and regarded the monk with looks of surprise
A frightful dream had represented to her
Antonia on the verge of a precipice. She
saw her trembling on the brink: every moment
seemed to threaten her fall, and she heard
her exclaim with shrieks, "Save me,
mother! save me! — Yet a moment, and
it will be too late." Elvira woke in
terror. The vision had made too strong an
impression upon her mind to permit her resting
till assured of her daughter's safety.
She hastily started from her bed, threw on
a loose night-gown, and, passing through
the closet in which slept the waiting-woman,
reached Antonia's chamber just in time
to rescue her from the grasp of the ravisher.
His shame and her amazement seemed to have
petrified into statues both Elvira and the
monk. They remained gazing upon each other
in silence. The lady was the first to recover
"It is no dream," she cried: "it
is really Ambrosio who stands before me.
It is the man whom Madrid esteems a saint
that I find at this late hour near the couch
of my unhappy child. Monster of hypocrisy!
I already suspected your designs, but forbore
your accusation in pity to human frailty.
Silence would now be criminal. The whole
city shall be informed of your incontinence.
I will unmask you, villain, and convince
the church what a viper she cherishes in
Pale and confused, the baffled culprit stood
trembling before her. He would fain have
extenuated his offence, but could find no
apology for his conduct. He could produce
nothing but broken sentences, and excuses
which contradicted each other. Elvira was
too justly incensed to grant the pardon which
he requested. She protested that she would
raise the neighbourhood, and make him an
example to all future hypocrites. Then hastening
to the bed, she called to Antonia to wake;
and finding that her voice had no effect,
she took her arm, and raised her forcibly
from the pillow. The charm operated too powerfully.
Antonia remained insensible; and, on being
released by her mother, sank back upon the
"This slumber cannot be natural," cried
the amazed Elvira, whose indignation increased
with every moment: "some mystery is
concealed in it. But tremble, hypocrite!
All your villainy shall soon be unravelled.
Help! help!" she exclaimed aloud: "Within
there! Flora! Flora!"
"Hear me for one moment, lady!" cried
the monk, restored to himself by the urgency
of the danger: "by all that is sacred
and holy, I swear that your daughter's
honour is still unviolated. Forgive my transgression!
Spare me the shame of a discovery, and permit
me to regain the abbey undisturbed. Grant
me this request in mercy! I promise not only
that Antonia shall be secure from me in future,
but that the rest of my life shall prove — "
Elvira interrupted him abruptly.
"Antonia secure from you? I will
secure her. You shall betray no longer the
confidence of parents. Your iniquity shall
be unveiled to the public eye. All Madrid
shall shudder at your perfidy, your hypocrisy,
and incontinence. What ho! there! Flora!
Flora! I say."
While she spoke thus, the remembrance of
Agnes struck upon his mind. Thus had she
sued to him for mercy, and thus had he refused
her prayer! It was now his turn to suffer,
and he could not but acknowledge that his
punishment was just. In the mean while Elvira
continued to call Flora to her assistance;
but her voice was so choaked with passion,
that the servant, who was buried in profound
slumber, was insensible to all her cries:
Elvira dared not go towards the closet in
which Flora slept, lest the monk should take
that opportunity to escape. Such indeed was
his intention: he trusted that, could he
reach the abbey unobserved by any other than
Elvira, her single testimony would not suffice
to ruin a reputation so well established
as his was in Madrid. With this idea he gathered
up such garments as he had already thrown
off, and hastened towards the door. Elvira
was aware of his design: she followed him,
and, ere he could draw back the bolt, seized
him by the arm, and detained him.
"Attempt not to fly!" said she: "you
quit not this room without witnesses of your
struggled in vain to disengage himself. Elvira
quitted not her hold, but redoubled her cries
for succour. The friar's danger grew
more urgent. He expected every moment to
hear people assembling at her voice; and,
worked up to madness by the approach of ruin,
he adopted a resolution equally desperate
and savage. Turning round suddenly, with
one hand he grasped Elvira's throat so
as to prevent her continuing her clamour,
and with the other, dashing her violently
upon the ground, he dragged her towards the
bed. Confused by this unexpected attack,
she scarcely had power to strive at forcing
herself from his grasp: while the monk, snatching
the pillow from beneath her daughter's
head, covering with it Elvira's face,
and pressing his knee upon her stomach with
all his strength, endeavoured to put an end
to her existence. He succeeded but too well.
Her natural strength increased by the excess
of anguish, long did the sufferer struggle
to disengage herself, but in vain. 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.
Those agonies at length were over. She ceased
to struggle for life. The monk took off the
pillow, and gazed upon her. Her face was
covered with a frightful blackness: her limbs
moved no more: the blood was chilled in her
veins: her heart had forgotten to beat; and
her hands were stiff and frozen. Ambrosio
beheld before him that once noble and majestic
form, now become a corse, cold, senseless,
This horrible act was no sooner perpetrated,
than the friar beheld the enormity of his
crime. A cold dew flowed over his limbs:
his eyes closed: he staggered to a chair,
and sank into it almost as lifeless as the
unfortunate who lay extended at his feet.
From this state he was roused by the necessity
of flight, and the danger of being found
in Antonia's apartment. He had no desire
to profit by the execution of his crime.
Antonia now appeared to him an object of
disgust. A deadly cold had usurped the place
of that warmth which glowed in his bosom.
No ideas offered themselves to his mind but
those of death and guilt, of present shame
and future punishment. Agitated by remorse
and fear, he prepared for flight: yet his
terrors did not so completely master his
recollection as to prevent his taking the
precautions necessary for his safety. He
replaced the pillow upon the bed, gathered
up his garments, and, with the fatal talisman
in his hand, bent his unsteady steps towards
the door. Bewildered by fear, he fancied
that his flight was opposed by legions of
phantoms. Wherever he turned, the disfigured
corse seemed to lie in his passage, and it
was long before he succeeded in reaching
the door. The enchanted myrtle produced its
former effect. The door opened, and he hastened
down the stair-case. He entered the abbey
unobserved; and having shut himself into
his cell, he abandoned his soul to the tortures
of unavailing remorse, and terrors of impending