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Chastity, the Gothic, and Formal Realism in Eighteenth Century Literature

Updated on May 24, 2013
M.G. Lewis
M.G. Lewis

A Brief Explanation

This article is intended as part of a series of articles based on my Capstone paper, entitled "Male Versus Female Chastity in M.G. Lewis's The Monk" that I wrote in order to graduate from Pacific Lutheran University. This is an essay that centers around Matthew Gregory Lewis's The Monk (1796) but still revolves around two other novels: Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) by Samuel Richardson and Joseph Andrews (1742) by Henry Fielding.

Here, I explain briefly what is Gothic and Formal Realism in literature as well as give a brief overview of both Pamela and Joseph Andrews using somewhat edited excerpts from that paper. The link to the next part of the essay is at the bottom.

The Gothic, Chastity, and Formal Realism

Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews each portray male and female chastity. In both novels, the central figures are rewarded for preserving their chastity from the sexual advances of their social superiors. Although in Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk, the protagonists, Ambrosio and Antonia, struggle throughout their lives to preserve their chastity, the conclusion of the novel suggests that their efforts were futile.

Therefore, at first glance, Lewis’s novel appears to propose that chastity might not be worth preserving. It completely undoes the plots, tropes, and principles of Richardson and Fielding’s formal realism, not only through its use of superstition and other Gothic elements, but also in the development and resolution of each of these character’s stories.

As a Gothic novel, The Monk is able to take the stories of male and female chaste figures further and, instead of providing a positive example, gives a horrifying one to instill fear in its readership to preserve the same virtue that is promoted in Pamela and Joseph Andrews.

Lewis shows how the body is essential for the preservation of both male and female chastity. Men must avoid temptation because of their lack in controlling bodily functions and women must veil themselves in order to avoid being the temptation. Both sexes must make these efforts to preserve their chastity and respect. In many ways, Lewis’s novel proves that the Gothic genre is more than just superstition and entertainment and is more essential to promoting eighteenth century social standards than is commonly believed.

Henry Fielding
Henry Fielding

What is a Gothic novel?

It is important, when studying this novel, to examine what defines a Gothic novel in relation to eighteenth-century definitions of novel-writing. When one understands where this genre falls in the history of the novel as it began to take form, one may also learn its place in society at that time as a response to some of the more promoted types of writing, such as novels that are now categorized under the title of formal realism, which will be better defined further on.

Both Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding are significant to understand when looking at formal realism because they are known as the founders of this genre. This genre is also important to understand since the Gothic is a direct response to it. It is also critical to note how the characters Ambrosio and Antonia in The Monk embody male and female chastity and their downfall after efforts for its preservation fail. By doing this, one discovers how Lewis’s novel suggests that chastity is worth fighting for. One also discovers how this relates to British society in eighteenth-century England in terms of their ideals of chastity.

Antonia and Ambrosio are both created as examples of ideal chaste figures of their sex but are ruined instead of rewarded for their efforts to preserve themselves. The reasons for why the preservation of chastity is so essential differ for each gender. In understanding these reasons and differences, it is also possible to understand how the novel fits into the eighteenth-century Gothic genre.

Pamela being married to Mr. B
Pamela being married to Mr. B

Pamela Andrews

Understanding Samuel Richardson’s Pamela is crucial to understanding Lewis’s The Monk because it set the standard for female chastity during eighteenth century England. The heroines of both novels, Pamela in Richardson's and Antonia in Lewis's, share many of the same features as they are meant to portray the ideal chaste woman.

Richardson’s work is a series of letters written by his heroine whose chastity is threatened by her master, Mr. B. She never gives in, which turns his desire for her to admiration and ends with their marriage.

In his study of Richardson’s novel as a “media event” and example of formal realism, William Warner provides a great basic summary of the novel, saying simply that “Pamela recounts how a young girl imbued with prudential paternal warnings and innocent of novel reading nonetheless finds herself within a novel.” Warner points out that the simplistic style of this work reflects Richardson’s desire to move away from the pompous and elaborate into a style reflective of everyday life. This way, his novel could educate readers both in how to read and how to behave.

Warner says that “by casting his narrative as an edited collection of real letters, Richardson deflects the accusation of trivial fictionality, and the critical worry about repeating overworn generic conventions.” In other words, he makes his own rules and in doing so makes his novel realistic by making its contents unquestionable for audiences, which changed how novels were written and read. Richardson's work is an example of how doubt becomes acceptable for authors to allow and audiences to hold. He provides his audiences with a character that tells her story in a language that is easily understood for them but is also questionable in its truthfulness.

This brings more of the real into the work and makes it into an easy conversation between the reader and the writer in which the reader can ask questions and engage with the text. Richardson shows that novels can be simple and easy for every reader to comprehend. In the end, his novel Pamela shows readers how a story can be told that carries as much truth and doubt as the real world but also how a virtuous woman can overcome seduction and be rewarded for maintaining her chastity.

Joseph Andrews

Although it was written as a satirical knockoff of Pamela, Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews is also crucial to understand as it holds the same significance in formal realism but provides us with an understanding of the society’s ideal for male chastity. This is important in connection with The Monk since some of the same characteristics of his hero are shared by Lewis’s Ambrosio to develop him as an ideal chaste man, even though he fails in preserving himself whereas Joseph does not.

Fielding’s take on novel-writing is the same as Richardson’s in that he believes that the reader should be taken into account when producing a novel and that it should be as close to real life as possible. In his “An Essay on the New Species of Writing,” the anonymous author, commonly believed to be Francis Coventry, says that a novel is a “Journey, in which [the author] and his Readers are Fellow Travelers.” Fielding’s novel follows this same belief as he keeps an open conversation with his reader to guide him through the text.

In Joseph Andrews, Fielding’s hero is Pamela’s brother whose chastity is threatened by his mistress (a relation of Mr. B’s). Like his sister, he overcomes the challenge and his story ends with marriage to a girl just as chaste as him. He also discovers that he is of noble blood, even though he has been raised as a servant.

Fielding focuses on the real in writing his novel. In their essay, the anonymous writer says “it is the common Business of both Writers to make as deep Researches into Nature as they can, and cull from that ample Field whatever is to their Purpose.” Fielding uses the novel as an exploration of the relationship between author and reader and between reality and fiction. Joseph Andrews also shows how a male chaste figure in formal realism, just like the female, is rewarded for preserving their chastity at all costs with marriage and an elevation in class.

Formal Realism Versus the Gothic Novel

Both Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews are essential to understanding formal realism because these two authors and their novels are known as two of the founders of realism in the development of novel-writing. The Gothic genre was a direct response to formal realism and so also understanding that genre is essential when studying the Gothic.

One chief proponent of formal realism is Ian Watt, author of The Rise of the Novel, who claims that the writings of Richardson, Fielding, and Defoe are the beginnings of the rise of the novel form and realism in eighteenth-century England. He points out that both Richardson and Fielding viewed themselves as originators of new forms of writing as a break from old-fashioned romances. Most importantly, Watt recognizes that the novel differs from genres before it because of the way in which it depicts reality:

"if the novel were realistic merely because it saw life from the seamy side, it would only be an inverted romance; but in fact it surely attempts to portray all the varieties of human experience, and not merely those suited to one particular literary perspective: the novel’s realism does not reside in the kind of life it presents but in the way it presents it."

In this way, the Gothic genre can be seen as an inverted romance since stories like Lewis’s The Monk are very much on the seamy side of life. Formal realism, on the other hand, is a reflection of everyday life, with a focus on real life aspects that are relevant to the novel’s story. Even if the life of the character is not completely realistic, the way in which it is presented to its audience brings it closer to reality.

Richardson’s Pamela does this by being written as a series of letters with censored or missing information (her master is only ever known as Mr. B) so that the reader can believe the correspondences are actually true. Fielding’s Joseph Andrews also does this by keeping a conversation between the author/narrator and the reader in which the narrator makes it seem as though the story is based on research that he has done. He gains the reader’s trust by providing him/her with information Richardson did not. For example, he gives us Mr. B’s full name through his relation, Lady Booby, who tries to seduce the hero.

Therefore, formal realism, as seen in Richardson and Fielding’s works, is all about how the story is told in order to make it as close to real life as possible as well as trustworthy for its readership. For novels like Samuel Richardson’s, for example, the focus is more on the form than on the actual development of characters or plots. Both Richardson and Fielding’s novel take their readership into account when writing their novels in a way that is so believable as to convince their readers that it could be true.

© 2012 LisaKoski


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    • Marie Gail profile image

      Marie Gail Stratford 5 years ago from Olathe, KS

      You've riveted me. Time to pick up copies of Pamela and Joseph Andrews, neither of which I've read yet.

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 5 years ago from Taos, NM

      What a well-written and researched article. I enjoyed reading this and have not read the novels you mention here: The Monk, Pamela, or Joseph Andrews. I will definitely have to read them as the topics are timeless and classic. Voted up! and interesting!

    • Doudounette profile image

      Doudounette 5 years ago from Tunisia

      This helped me in my exam. Thanks !! :)

    • LisaKoski profile image

      LisaKoski 5 years ago from WA

      Glad I could help!

    • profile image

      IntegrityYes 4 years ago

      That is so useful and cool. Rock on,Lisa! I voted up!

    • profile image

      sabah 8 months ago

      plz if you have an example about symbolism thx

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