The Magazine

The Horror! The Horror!

"Monk" Lewis's Gothic masterpiece.

Feb 3, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 20 • By ALAN JACOBS
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Likewise, the rapidly progressing degradation of Ambrosio--who, as King points out, is both the villain and the protagonist of this story--makes a powerful impression. Long before I read the novel, I was aware of the depths to which Ambrosio would sink, but even halfway through the book I couldn't imagine how Lewis would deliver him to those depths. Yet the descent, when described, was convincing; I saw how someone able to achieve, even temporarily, a seemingly plausible justification for an evil act can then progress to more and more serious ones; and as long as the faculty of self-justification holds out, the descent can continue until there is no depravity left to sink to.

What is most remarkable is Lewis's ability to trace this descent without ever making Ambrosio into a mere monster; he is recognizably human throughout, and his conscience never falls silent, though its voice grows weaker and weaker. When he pays the price for his sins, one is shocked for a moment at the horror of it--until one pauses to catalogue his crimes, which have proliferated malignantly; then it all makes sense. Who knows what Matthew Lewis really thought of the moral world he created? Such a shockingly profound retribution for Ambrosio may well be the familiar tribute that vice pays to virtue; but it's a tribute well paid. No one in "Animal House" had to come face to face with Satan.

Alan Jacobs teaches English at Wheaton College in Illinois. His most recent book is "A Theology of Reading: the Hermeneutics of Love" (Westview, 2002).