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Themes of Innocence and Experience in Lewis’s The Monk

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            The novel is one popularly classified as a graphic novel born in the 1800s. Matthew Lewis made this novel even more popular as he wrote it at the young age of nineteen and completed in the span of only ten weeks. The tale revolves around lust, murder, betrayal, incest and demonic pacts thus guaranteeing the fame it garnered. The novel is also the first to set a priest as the villain of the story. The villain is a monk in Spain, Ambrosio, and the story focuses on his decline from saintly reverence from his parishioners to dastardly enslavement by the devil himself.

Ambrosio is a man who has pledged his life to God’s service and consequently sworn off the pleasures of the flesh. However, his character reveals that this man of God is, in the end, only a man and is incapable of overcoming the lustful bequests of his body. The priest has a pupil serving under him, Matilda. In truth, Matilda is a woman but she disguises herself as a man to work as the priest’s assistant. She reveals her licentious character when she tempts the priest to forget his vows and engage in a lascivious affair with her.

Having been satisfied by Matilda, Ambrosio finds himself far from being content. Instead of forgetting his libidinous urges, Ambrosio begins to plan the satisfaction of his lust for the naïve Antonia. Ambrosio is at first foiled in his attempt to ravage Antonia when the girl’s mother catches him in the act of undressing Antonia. This scene ends in Ambrosio’s first act of murder as he kills Elvira, Antonia’s mother, by smothering her to death in a frantic attempt to be exculpated from the scandal. Ambrosio’s guilt from the murderous act does not overcome his lust however and he soon attempts again to rape Antonia. This time he succeeds, but the ensuing struggle between the two ends with Ambrosio stabbing Antonia with a knife, leading to her death and his second murder.

It can be seen that the story plainly puts before the reader the interplay of innocence and experience; the former’s loss heralded by the entry of the latter and the latter’s tendency to abuse the former. Lewis depicts the actual nature of the virtue of innocence and the characterization of the personas in the story reflects the delineation between innocence and experience.

What is Innocence?

Lewis draws out two portraits of innocence in his novel. However, only one form triumphs in the end. Ambrosio is the classic stereotype of purity and innocence by virtue of his religious office and vocation. Ambrosio is innocent of the pleasures of sexual trysts as he has never engaged in any such behavior. His inexperience and stature therefore garner him the title of innocent.

On the other hand, there is Antonia who was explicitly labeled innocent. This label was earned in part by her naivete. In the same manner that Ambrosio was innocent because of his lack of experience, so was Antonia innocent. However, Antonia’s innocence takes on an added aspect as she was also completely ignorant of sexual matters and other such mature discussions. Lewis himself showed that Elvira submerged Antonia in the learning of the Bible and did not permit her to learn anything else. Thus, Antonia was blissfully unaware of the matters which Ambrosio, though inexperienced, wished for.

It is thus seen that although both are inexperienced, Ambrosio is knowledgeable. His knowledge of the nature and consequences of love-making mar his innocence therefore as he persistently desired to renege on his religious vows in order to satisfy his sexual urges. Antonia on the other hand remains inviolate as she is completely ignorant of the issue and thus holds no capacity to desire it or to merely speculate on the same. Antonia is thus secluded in a fortress where such desires are completely inexistent. It is the latter’s innocence which may truly be considered as valid.

Ambrosio’s innocence is merely a mask designed to hide the impure intentions of his heart. Ambrosio’s innocence which is presumed by virtue of his religuos office holds no water as he is seen to exalt in his own excellence after sermons. This reveals that he is not after the dedicated sheperding of his flock rather, he is devoted to acting and speaking in a manner that would garner him respect from his neighbors and esteem from his superiors – both self-centered and selfish motivations. Moreso, even his priestly vows to chastity are rendered nugatory as he looks upon women lustfully, particularly those women who place their trust in him as their religious leader.

Ambrosio’s Attraction to Innocence

Ambrosio, therefore is not truly innocent merely inexperienced. Lewis continues the theme by portraying Ambrosio’s attraction to two women who are legitimately innocent. The first woman Ambrosio lusted after was the Virgin Mary himself. In a sacrilegious moment, Ambrosio shows himself ready to satisfy his lust with the portrait of the Holy Virgin. Ambrosio reflected on the beauty of the Virgin and her physical traits which rendered him hard put to deny his lust. It is seen however that drawing from Ambrosio’s revelation of the Virgin’s desirable features it is more than physical attraction that tempts him to fulfill the act. The delicacy of the Virgin’s features reflects her innocence and her freedom from violation. The softness of her skin and the whiteness of her bosom show that she has yet to know the pleasure of a man’s touch. Moreso, it cannot be denied that the very person of the Virgin Mary is one who is inviolate and chaste. She was chosen to bear the Son of God precisely because of her innocence and purity. This Ambrosio knew as he himself taught this to his parishioners. It can thus be reasonably inferred that Ambrosio’s desire for the Virgin resulted from both the physical attributes of the woman in question and her characteristics as a chaste and honor-bound woman.

In the same manner, he was also attracted to Antonia who herself had been shielded from the knowledge of sexual discussions. Antonia was the Virgin Mother’s translation in Ambrosio’s reality. It is more clearly seen in Antonia that Ambrosio was attracted to her innocence and not merely her looks. While Antonia was depicted as a beautiful girl with a full and attractive body, she was also an innocent child with no consciousness regarding the goings-on in the society and culture around her. When Ambrosio was drawn to Antonia he was said to have been drawn by her innocence and not to her well-developed figure.

It is seen therefore that Ambrosio’s inviolate thoughts about the Virgin Mary and his rape of Antonia were acts of exploitation. There was a desire in him to unravel the innocence which kept both the Holy Virgin and Antonia tied. It was not mere sexual gratification that Ambrosio was after but the power to manipulate his matters. The rape of Antonia was more an act of power than one of lust. It was his knowledge of the act which made him superior to her and her lack of capability to stop him was attractive to him.

The Relationship of Experience and Innocence

It was earlier discussed that Ambrosio held some semblance of innocence although his form of innocence was marred by his selfish and lustful desires. Lewis shows in his story that experience affects innocence directly. Ambrosio’s innocence, albeit tarnished, was completely broken when Matilda arrived to permit him to release his pent up urges by consummating sexual congress with her. Matilda is the epitome of experience as regards the sexual theme. It cannot be denied that she has had previous exploits with other men and her forward proposal to Ambrosio evidences this. Certainly a lady who has had no prior sexual relationship would not have the boldness to tempt a man, a priest no less, to have his way with her. A certain form of timidity or trepidation would present itself to an inexperienced woman desirous of an illicit affair with another man. Matilda’s experience permitted her to guide Ambrosio through the dance of soliciting his advances.

Furthermore, it was Ambrosio’s experience with Matilda which empowered his desires to take advantage of Antonia. Because of the impartation from Matilda, Ambrosio found himself capable of pursuing the goals of his libidinous urges. Thus, it is experience which gave Ambrosio the impression that he was superior to Antonia and thus capable of exploiting her. The aid which Matilda gave Ambrosio by providing him with her enchanted materials was quite symbolic of the power which she gave him by sharing with him her sexual knowledge. Experience therefore cannot coexist with innocence.

Experience Is What Leads to the Loss of Innocence

It can therefore be concluded that innocence is a virtue reflective not of the lack of experience of particular circumstance rather it is the absence of knowledge pertaining to these same circumstances. The mere lack of experience does not render a person innocent as it only serves to strengthen the tendency of such person to fall for temptations which would offer the experience he or she lacks. The same can be seen in the instance of Ambrosio who was knowledgeable of sexual matters yet had never before experienced sexual satisfaction. His knowledge only spurred him to desire the completion of the same through the experience of the event. This made him more vulnerable to the temptation which Matilda presented.

This is unlike the case of Antonia who was completely innocent of both experience and knowledge. It is this combination which renders a person utterly oblivious of the opportunities to learn that surrounds him or her. This combination may be more dangerous than the first as there is no means for the person to guard against possible exploiters of his or her innocence. When experience enters into this picture therefore, it brings with it knowledge of the act. This is what happened with the rape of Antonia. She became aware of her sexuality and the capacity of others to violate it when she herself experienced being ravished by her parish priest.

In both of the above instances mentioned it can be seen that innocence cannot stand where experience enters. Once a person is led through an experience of an event then he or she loses her innocence and cannot regain it any longer. Lewis clearly portrays the change that overcomes Ambrosio after he experiences making love to Matilda. One crime after another is committed and even the priestly virtues that Ambrosio once held were shorn without care. The same change occurred in Antonia who discarded her refined composure to strike back at Ambrosio who had violated her innocence. Knowledge is therefore not a precursor to experience. But experience is clearly a means to rob one of innocence.

Works Cited

Irwin, Joseph James. “Monk” Lewis. Boston: Twayne. 1976.

Lewis, Matthew. The Monk:A Romance. Ed. Howard Anderson. London: Oxford University Press. 1973.

“The Romantic Period: Matthew Gregory Lewis, from The Monk.” 2003-2008. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 10 April, 2008. <http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/romantic/topic_2/monk.htm>.

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