08 April 2014

Classics Club: The Dirtiest is the Best

Every month The Classics Club posts a question for participants. Here’s the question this month:
Contemplate your favorite classic to date. When was this book written? Why would you say it has been preserved by the ages? Do you think it will still be respected/treasured 100 years from now? If it had been written in our own era, would it be as well received? // Or — ask the same question of a classic you disliked. What didn’t you like about the book, and why do you think history’s readers helped it to be remembered and valued into 2014?

The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis popped into my head immediately when I read the question. Written in ten weeks in 1796 by a not-yet 20 year old, The Monk may be evidence that Lewis was FREAKING INSANE. Ten weeks? He wrote this is ten weeks when he was 19??? That's freaking nuts.

Lewis made quite the splash with this novel as it was dirty, dirty, dirty. The notoriety of the novel transferred to Lewis who was known as "Monk" Lewis, the poor man. Lewis was complained of as "a reckless defiler of the public mind" and a man who "devoted the first fruits of his mind to the propagation of evil". He was also called a genius.

Sexually explicit and quite blasphemous, The Monk was a favorite read of the infamous Marquis de Sade. Of course, the general public was quite the fan as well; "They had been told that the book was horrible, blasphemous, and lewd, and they rushed to put their morality to the test". Who wouldn't?

Abounding with monks, nuns, secret passageways, cold corridors, men who are really women, nasty weather, soul-selling witches, prurient interests, superstition, and the occasional dead body, I just adored this one. Far from a balanced examination of good and evil, this gothic tale is evil and then some more evil, oh and a bit more evil, a teeny smidgeon of good, and BA-BAM, more evil.  

The Monk is deliciously scandalous, and I think this sensationalism and shock value are, in part, the reasons it survived the years. Also, the plot is rather complex, in that intellectually challenging but overall satisfying kind of way; although it must be admitted that the narrative's complexity may be better described as absurdity, but in a super-fun, loving-it kind of way (he wrote it in ten weeks remember). I certainly hope the novel is treasured 100 years from now.

As for the last question, my brain is screaming that no, the book would not be well received if written now. First and foremost, its treatment of women is deplorable. Any woman in the novel who attempts to follow her dreams is sensationally, and violently, denied her success. Unless written with an obvious intent to highlight the horror of this misogyny, a book written today, I like to think, would be harshly criticized.*

Another indicator that this book would not work if written today is the heavy focus on "the Church". Much of this story is a criticism of religion, and while religion is certainly under scrutiny today, our religious practices have so drastically changed as to make these censures not quite apropos. Our ideologic construct of monks and nuns and the such not is practically nil, so stories centered on these characters are a bit difficult to relate to - at least in the same way readers back in the 18th century would have related to them.

Ultimately though, this is a fantastic read, a guilty pleasure of the classics, that I highly recommend.
*Of course, I believe we should criticize the novel - and harshly - for this misogyny despite the time period it was written; however, while I would generally dismiss with disgust a contemporary novel written with such a poor view of women, I quite strongly believe that works must be judged according to era-specific ideology, and as such I make allowances.


  1. I love this book so much. And really, I could totally see it being written now with a few changes. It's not all that far off from something like Angels and Demons. Update it a little, modernize the gender issues, make it clear the church stuff is about corruption of an old institution, and viola! :D

    1. I cannot thank you enough for recommending this one Amanda!

  2. Ok, I know Amanda LOVES this book--enough for me to continue to seek it out (and finally just download the ebook) but I didn't realize all this other stuff! I'm trying to count on my hands all the other books I need to finish first before I can dive into this one (really I just need to finish East of Eden).

    And yes to your footnote.

    1. You should most definitely read this one Trish.

  3. I cannot get enough of books like this -- the ones that were shocking when they came out. I just think it's so fascinating to see what pushed the buttons of all different time periods. Plus, gothic novels are always my fave.

    1. I have to say that this is shocking even for now in my opinion. Ditto to loving gothic novels.

  4. I have never heard of this one! It sound like something pretty unique for this time period.

    1. I can't say how unique it was then but I would be surprised if too many people were publishing such risque books.

  5. I read a few excerpts from this book a few years back and I was shocked. I couldn't believe it got published at the time that it did. I haven't read the whole thing yet, but I'm quite interested to see what the whole novel is like. It sounds like it will definitely be an interesting read. :)

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