Monks, Scientists, and Demons… Oh My!

A Present Day Interpretation of Two Gothic Literature Classics. Mary Shelley and Mathew Lewis, both well known authors, expose horrors of the 18th century. Gothic Literature at It’s Very Finest: A Comparison of Real World and Make-Believe Monsters

Religion and science finally collide to portray two very different and horrific interpretations of the super natural and what it means to be obsessed with the temptation of the unknown. Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, and Matthew Lewis, the author of The Monk, both capture the horror of temptation and the pursuit of uncovering the unknown in their 18th century gothic literature classics. Amongst embarking on a literary exploration in an effort to expose the stakes of gothic literature in present day, this paper will compare and contrast Victor, from Frankenstein, and Ambrosio, from The Monk, to illustrate how gothic literature represents obsession and temptation through the frameworks of science and religion.

Victor Frankenstein, a scientist of natural philosophy from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, takes a particular interest in the “structure of the human frame, and, indeed, any animal endued with life” (Shelley 39). This interest in natural philosophy began with the reading of an ancient scientist, Cornelius Agrippa. With the reading of Agrippa his attention to science grew larger, “But the latter obtained my most undivided attention: wealth was an inferior object; but what glory would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!” (Shelley 28). This introduction to the unknown, the trophy of ‘glory’ being displayed in reach, and the death of his beloved mother caused Victor to ask one bold scientific question. This question begins to tease him and eventually completely devours him while he attempts to pursue the answer, “Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed?” (Shelley 39). This temptation to know what is unknown to his occupation, and even his species, drives him mad with an obsession to attain glory. Victor, growing up, had been sheltered, by his father, from the horrors of the supernatural but the efforts of Victor’s father had proved an opposite outcome: it only increased his curiosity, “I do not ever remember to have trembled at a tale of superstition, or to have feared the apparition of a spirit. Darkness had no effect upon my fancy; and a church-yard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life, which, from being the seat of beauty and strength, has become food for the worm” (Shelley 40). The clear insensitivity to the dead seems to be the result of the sheltering from the supernatural. When one has been sheltered from the sublimity and fear of the supernatural how is that same subject to feel the fear that is inclined to someone who may know the mysteries of the supernatural? The life long shelter and temptation to embark on a mission of discovery for the hopeful result of glory causes the creation of the Frankenstein’s “demon.” Once the demon is created, Frankenstein is struck by the evil of his actions and immediately rejects the “demon” as ugly, “but now that I finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room…” (Shelley 45). The rejection of the demon after obsessing long over the glory that would come once the finish line was reached, provided a “the grass isn’t always greener on the other side” kind of ending. In other words, the temptation to solve the unknown, that was driven by the obsession to achieve glory, had proven to be unknown for a reason; to Frankenstein the result was ugly and could only be compared to a “demon.”

Ambrosio, the greatly respected abbot of the monastery from Matthew Lewis’s The Monk, began his life confined to the walls of the abbey; sheltered from all outside influences. The monk was an orphan who had been left on the monastery door steps to be cared for by the church, “The late superior of the Capuchins found him while yet an infant at the abbey-door: all attempts to discover who had left him there were vain, and the child himself could give no account of his parents. He was educated in the monastery, where he has remained ever since” (Lewis 7). The early admission to the church gave Ambrosio a ‘saint-like’ quality because of his limited education only pertaining to the Catholic religion. The ‘saint-like’ quality that Ambrosio holds provides him with a glorious reputation that makes him admirable to all that encounter him. The sheltered life that Ambrosio had lived made him more vulnerable to the temptations of the world. Ambrosio, at first, declines the temptations and the act of giving into temptations with extreme severity and anger, “As soon as he has finished, Ambrosio bent an eye stern and angry upon the imprudent nun. ‘This letter must to the prioress,’ said he, and passed her” (Lewis 27). When you are not exposed to the nature of the world you cannot be expected to fear or be tempted by the unknowable, this temptation to experience the unknown began with the unveiling of Matilda. Matilda posed as Rosario in order to gain access to the life of the monks, and ‘he’ had befriended Ambrosio. When Matilda exposed her true form she was no longer, in the eyes of the monk, the loving and devoted friend that he had previously known, “The friar’s eyes followed with dread the course of the dagger. She had torn open her habit, and her bosom was half exposed. The weapon’s point rested upon her left breast—and, oh! That was such a breast!—the moonbeams darting full upon it enabled the monk to observe its dazzling whiteness. His eye dwelt with insatiable avidity upon the beauteous orb: a sensation till then unknown filled his heart with a mixture of anxiety and delight; a raging fire shot through every limb: the blood boiled in his veins, and a through wild wishes bewildered his imagination” (Lewis 40). The temptation building for Matilda is first blamed on the curse given to him by Agnes but as he gives in to his temptation he begins to see Matilda, not as the beautiful object he had previously described, but as unwanted or ugly. As his attention shifted from Matilda to Antonia, the former ‘saint-like’ monk became careless, violent, aggressive, and desperate: forcing the most glorious and “angelic” man to murder Antonia’s mother and make a deal with Satan in pursuit of his obsession. But just like Matilda, once the mission to “dishonor” Antonia had succeeded he looked at her as unwanted.

The two men illustrate two very different representations of obsession, temptation, and the supernatural yet they also share some similarities. Victor becomes obsessed on the pursuit of glory where Ambrosio begins as glorious then as his ignorance of the world, and more specifically sex, is broken he gives in to temptation and begins obsessing over his pursuit for lust. The two novels were published over twenty years apart and, although they share similarities, the horrific acts committed by each character are significantly different. The Monk’s focus was primarily on religion so the supernatural beings presented were created by religion: such as demons and Satan. Frankenstein focused on science rather than religion so the supernatural being present in this text is that created by science: Frankenstein’s ‘demon.’ Although the focus of Frankenstein is primarily on science, the text also crosses over into aspects of religion. The creation of the demon is what Frankenstein coined “the cure to the disease of death” and is portrayed as “God-like.” The demon, created by Frankenstein also often refers to himself as ‘Adam’ because there’s not other being like him, “Like Adam, I was created apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but hi state was far different from mine in every other respect” (121). The demon continues to state that he often considers his condition to be attributed to that of Satan; Frankenstein’s heartless rejection awards him the title of Satan and his creation the title of ‘demon.’ As well as the presence of supernatural beings, there is a certain degree of ignorance illustrated through both Ambrosio and Victor. Ambrosio displays ignorance to the temptations of the outside world and this ignorance leads him down a dark path of adultery, murder, rape, and incest. He is portrayed as the villain because he is committing sins that go against his religion, the vows he took when he became a monk, and to fulfill his mission he ‘works’ with Satan and his demon, Matilda. Victor illustrates an ignorance to the fear of the supernatural, he buries himself in science on the pursuit of a cure to the “disease of death:” this scientific exploration allows him to play ‘God’ as he creates a being, compiled of various corpses, of supernatural ability that is later referred to as a ‘demon.’ Throughout both of the stories, the two men become obsessed on their pursuits and as they both reach the finale they are left feeling empty and disgusted by what they have created. Although initially they feel disgusted they also take little to no responsibility for their actions and blame their misfortune on the events that transpired in their lives or the acts of others. Victor blames the lack of knowledge of the supernatural on the sheltering deemed appropriate by his father, when his mother passed away it only heightened his curiosity in life after death, he reads ancient scientists works that discuss life after death and the rising of ghosts, then he allows Justine to take the blame for William’s death when he knows she is innocent. Ambrosio blames every sin and horrific act he committed on the temptation revealed to him by Matilda. The obsession that drives these two men to horrific incidents would have been avoidable, however, the acts portrayed by both of these men are no one else’s fault but their own. The ignorance they gained from the sheltering from the supernatural and outside world influences caused them both to fall into the trap that is temptation and curiosity. The years between these two literary works indicate that gothic authors, such as Mary Shelley, still heavily emphasize the perils of glory, reputation, sheltering, and obsession and temptation. As the years move forward our society is able to reflect on these misfortunes and acts of obsession and learn from the mistakes and the evil portrayed.

To conclude this literary exploration in an effort to expose the stakes of gothic literature in present day, this paper compared and contrasted Victor, from Frankenstein, and Ambrosio, from The Monk. This comparison helped to illustrate how gothic literature has previously portrayed obsession and temptation through the frameworks of science and religion. These frameworks allow the reader to see two different variations of how obsession and temptation is depicted through two men’s pursuit to maintain and obtain glory. The different forms of supernatural beings created by science and religion reveal the dangers of obsession and temptation and reveal one of the true stakes of gothic literature: nothing is as it seems.

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