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Eighteenth Century Male Chastity, As Seen Through Ambrosio and Joseph Andrews

Updated on May 14, 2013

Male Chastity in Eighteenth Century Literature

As the main focus of Matthew Gregory Lewis’s novel, Ambrosio and his chastity are brought to light as having features distinctly opposite as well as similar to Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews that give him greater depth. One distinct difference between the two characters is in their development. Fielding provides a detailed description of his hero, while Lewis does not. Fielding describes how:

"Mr. Joseph Andrews was now in the one-and-twentieth year of his age. He was of the highest degree of middle stature; his limbs were put together with great elegance, and no less strength; his legs and thighs were formed in the exactest proportion […] he had all the symptoms of strength without the least clumsiness […] add to this the most perfect neatness in his dress, and an air which, to those who have not seen many noblemen, would give an idea of nobility."

Lewis’s novel greatly contrasts this with his portrayal of the monk, Ambrosio. Instead of focusing on the body as just a reflection of chastity and nobility, Lewis provides a description that connects the monk’s history and personality. He was left as an infant at the monastery and raised as a monk without a choice. This leaves him tormented once he is faced with a challenge for his chastity since perhaps if he were not left there as an infant he would not have been a monk. Without being too minute in detail, Lewis describes how

"he was a man of noble port and commanding presence. His stature was lofty, and his features uncommonly handsome […] Study and watching had entirely deprived his cheek of colour. Tranquility reigned upon his smooth unwrinkled forehead; and Content, expressed upon every feature, seemed to announce the Man equally unacquainted with cares and crimes […] still there was a certain severity in his look and manner that inspired universal awe, and few could sustain the glance of his eye at once fiery and penetrating."

Looking at Fielding’s description out of context, one would not be able to distinguish Joseph from any other stereotypical nobleman. However, Lewis’s description of Ambrosio is much more specific as both a reflection of his past and a hint to his future. His stature has being “lofty” with a “commanding presence” reinforces Ambrosio’s standing as a religious official as well as hints to nobility, which the reader finds out at the novel’s conclusion. In this way, Lewis’s description mirrors Fielding’s because they both allude to nobility that is later discovered, but Lewis’s still reflects the monk’s current standings.

Ambrosio’s appearance also conjures feelings of both fear and awe, whereas Joseph’s is just pleasing. This reflects how Joseph is merely an image of natural chastity to aspire to while Ambrosio is a man who is forced into it by being raised as a monk and then has it challenged. This makes the genuineness of Ambrosio’s chastity more questionable than Joseph Andrew’s which makes this character much more complicated. Fielding’s description is as flat as his character, no matter how detailed it is, while Lewis’s goes beyond the obvious to show contradictions in Ambrosio’s character that make him more human, believable, and individual.

To be sure, like Joseph Andrews, Ambrosio initially reflects the ideal male chaste figure of eighteenth-century England, whose main characteristics can basically be summarized as self-respect. Being able to maintain one’s chastity at all costs and despite whatever temptations shows that that individual has a higher power than most other men. Although it is a satire, Henry Fielding never mocks Joseph’s efforts at preserving his chastity and rewards it by the end of his novel.

Howard D. Weinbrot argues that the act of protecting himself is rewarded in the novel, since its protection is an act of self-respect in the comic world that surrounds him. It is a self-respecting act because the difference between Joseph and Pamela is that Joseph “is not trying to sell himself for a good price, but is acting the way Pamela should have acted.” His chastity is not won over for a price because he does not marry for an elevation in class. Joseph chooses to marry Fanny because she is chaste and pure like him and not because she is rich or of noble birth.

Ambrosio also finds honor in protecting his chastity, before he lets it go. He declares that because of his chastity he is able to “enter boldly into a world, to whose failings [he is] superior” that that he is “exempted from Humanity’s defects, and defy all the arts of the Spirits of Darkness.” This vanity turns into his greatest challenge, which he fails to overcome. Both Joseph and Ambrosio act out what is expected of a chaste man by having dignity in its preservation, something that Ambrosio loses once his chastity is gone.

Yet another major difference between Fielding’s Joseph and Lewis’s Ambrosio is the severity with which they are tempted to forgo their chastity, which brings to question whether or not a man under cruel circumstances can maintain his resolve.

Joseph Andrew’s mistress, Lady Booby offers herself in a manner that is indirect and therefore overlooked by her naïve servant. The only reaction she seems to get from him is when he “discovered one of the whitest necks that ever was seen; at which Joseph blushed” when Booby rises from her bed. This is pathetic because of the comedy that Fielding is providing here.

Joseph’s story is much less serious and so situations that would normally not be very significant are somewhat exaggerated. It would be more likely that he would blush at being called to speak to her while she lie in bed more than in seeing her neck exposed, since that seems more sexually suggestive. It is no surprise, then, that he finds it easy to deny her.

In Ambrosio’s case, however, he is tempted with more than just words or a neck. Once Matilda finds that she cannot convince Ambrosio to allow her to stay in the monastery, she tears open her habit and exposes her breast as she threatens to stab herself. The monk is overthrown as “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 thousand wild wishes bewildered his imagination.” Here, Ambrosio’s chastity is more vulnerable because he cannot control his bodily functions, as much as he has been adamant at maintaining his abstinence.

Lewis’s monk, therefore, is challenged much more than Fielding’s hero because he is confronted with more sexually explicit doings of a woman that go beyond just the mind and affect his body uncontrollably. Ambrosio even dreams about Matilda’s breast that night, unable to get it out of his mind. Lewis brings to question through Ambrosio’s story whether a man can maintain abstinence in the face of temptations that affect the body and consume the mind.

Matilda is a complicated character who plays a major role in the stories of both Ambrosio and Antonia, the victim of Ambrosio’s growing sexual addiction, as the truth about who Matilda is unravels as the story continues. She initially appears as Rosario, a monk who keeps himself hidden but attends to Ambrosio everyday with obvious admiration. The scene in which she exposes herself is her last ditch effort to remain at the monastery after admitting to Ambrosio that she is actually a female named Matilda.

Later, she is fully revealed and the monk realizes that she is the very same woman that he has seen in the portrait of the Madonna. Previous to this, the reader has been exposed to scenes in which Ambrosio lusts over the Madonna, claiming that “what charms me, when ideal and considered a superior Being, would disgust me, become Woman and tainted with all the failings of Mortality” and that “it is the Divinity that I adore!” Just like the portrait, Matilda is chaste, modest, and beautiful. Where before he had seen a saintly female that is above all the trappings of humanity and beyond his reach, he now sees this same woman incarnate in Matilda.

In his dreams, the two women become one. He looks upon the figure of the Madonna and finds that the “animated form started from the Canvas, embraced him affectionately, and his senses were unable to support delight so exquisite.” In many ways, Matilda is the woman of Ambrosio’s dreams but in the end he finds that she was sent to him not by the divine but by the Devil.

The fact that Matilda is the servant of the Devil is key to understanding the truth about Ambrosio’s chastity, which is that it was not as genuine as Ambrosio would have others believe. Once he has signed his soul over to Satan, the demon gloats in his victory over the monk and declares that “I long have marked you for my prey: I watched the movements of your heart; I saw that you were virtuous from vanity, not principle, and I seized the fit moment of seduction.” The Devil claims that the key to Ambrosio’s fall was his idolatry for the portrait of the Madonna, which is why he crafted a spirit in her image to tempt the monk.

The Madonna is the ultimate virgin and is admired and worshipped for it, just like the monk. Because of his chastity, Ambrosio was viewed as a saint by the people. He was not chaste as a means of being pure and honest but as a means for power over his fellow man. His power lay in being able to vanquish temptations other men fall prey to.

However, Agnes, a nun who becomes pregnant and is banned by her nunnery and Ambrosio, questions him early on, asking “where is the merit of your boasted virtue? What temptations have you vanquished? Coward! you have fled from it, not opposed seduction.” The Devil, through Matilda, finally gives Ambrosio the ultimate challenge, using his pride as a power against his chastity, and wins him over. This proves that ultimately Ambrosio’s chastity was all about power and not as genuine since it is thrown aside for the sake of his vanity.

Matilda turns Ambrosio’s world upside down, as her exposure poisons his mind and leads him to depend solely upon her for the protection of his chastity. The day after viewing her breast, Ambrosio begs her to “preserve me from losing the reward of thirty years of sufferings! Go, and you bear with you my warmest prayers […] Stay, and become to me the source of danger.” Lewis suggests here that the preservation of male chastity depends upon a woman’s consent not to give up hers and to remove her self as the temptation. If Matilda had followed Ambrosio’s wishes and left the convent, he would have been left in peace, without enticement.

However, Ambrosio is poisoned when he is bitten by a snake in plucking a rose as a farewell memento for Matilda. She sucks the venom to save him, putting her life in danger for his. This near-death experience completely changes his viewpoint and makes him realize that he “was in the full vigour of Manhood. He saw before him a young and beautiful Woman, the preserver of his life, the Adorer of his person, and whom affection for him had reduced to the brink of the Grave.” The poison, even though it was sucked out of him, still contaminated his resolve.

In saving his life, Matilda became a figure of love instead of temptation and Ambrosio finally gives in. The monk depends upon Matilda’s consent to leave in order for him to maintain his chastity. In staying and saving his life, which gains his romantic love, Matilda seals his fate and he cannot resist her since, on the brink of death, she does not deny him.

In losing his chastity, Ambrosio comes to new realizations on chastity and its value in maintaining a balanced life. Over time, he tires of Matilda, reflecting on how much more desirable his lover was before she gave herself to him. Now that she gives herself freely, he is bored. In realizing this, he comes to terms with the fact he may never find another lover.

The difficulty lies in the absolute secretiveness of the act because of his station as a religious official. Ambrosio declares “Modesty, how irresistibly it enthralls the heart of Man, how firmly it chains him to the Throne of Beauty.” Chastity and modesty, therefore, have become more sexualized instead of being recognized as a virtue to be preserved. He wishes Matilda was virginal again so that he can have the challenge of trying to conquer her. He also wishes for his chastity to be restored since his position as monk has become a façade for a life focused on physical pleasures.

Ambrosio realizes that “since He had lost the reality of virtue, it appeared as if its semblance was become more valuable.” He did not realize the worth of his chastity until it was gone. As a man, chastity is now something sexualized as a difficulty to overcome. As a male religious official, it is an element of truth that he has lost and can never retrieve. Now chastity has become more of an abstract than a reality since he has lost it forever.

Lewis suggests here that even though it is not easy to preserve, chastity is still something essential to living a more peaceful, less complicated life.

© 2012 LisaKoski


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