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Male and Female Chastity in The Monk
Before you read here...
- The Chaste, The Gothic, and Formal Realism in Eighteenth Century Literature
The first in this series of hubs from my essay.
- The Monk: Eighteenth Century Gothic Novel, Formal Realism, and Chastity
The second part.
- Eighteenth Century Male Chastity, As Seen Through Ambrosio and Joseph Andrews
The third part in this series.
- Eighteenth Century Female Chastity, As Seen Through Antonia and Pamela Andrews
The fourth part of this series that is intended to be read before this one.
The body is essential to preserving both male and female chastity in Matthew Gregory Lewis’s characters. Ambrosio is unable to control his body when aroused, which leads him to become obsessed with the temptation revealed with Matilda’s breast. This is furthered with his interactions with and exposure to Antonia. As long as temptations are within sight, he cannot keep power over himself. This is why Antonia’s body must be protected in order for her to preserve her chastity effectively.
Both characters come to a point where they cannot completely manage their body. Once they lose this physical control, both characters lose their chastity. At that point, it does not matter what kind of mindset they had previously maintained in the necessity of preserving themselves. Men are attracted to women who are chaste and modest, like Antonia is at the novel’s beginning. Once their chastity is lost, these same women become less attractive. Men do not want to marry a woman who is not pure.
Lewis suggests here that both male and female chastity involve protecting the body. For men, this is done by removing temptations so that they cannot be aroused. For women, this is achieved by keeping their body shrouded so that they cannot arouse. Once the body becomes vulnerable, preservation of their chastity becomes impossible. By preserving their body and chastity, both sexes can maintain a more respectable place in society.
Although both characters lose their chastity despite efforts for its protection, Antonia suffers for it more than Ambrosio. In the end, the Devil reveals to Ambrosio that Matilda was his servant that he sent to seduce the monk out of his beloved chastity. In this way, he is tricked out of his virtue just like Antonia. Antonia was tricked into believing a monk could help her sick mother recover through prayer and that she could trust a holy official despite warnings from her loved ones that he may have alternate motives for seeing her.
However, once his chastity is lost, Ambrosio does not suffer socially for his loss like Antonia would have. He is able to maintain the position of monk and keep up the image of his chastity effectively so that he is never discovered to have lost it. Once it is lost, his chastity is not missed. It only becomes an image that he sexualizes and seeks to conquer.
Eventually, Ambrosio finds the desired image of chastity he searches for in Antonia. Once her chastity is stolen from her, Antonia suffers more than Ambrosio. She immediately realizes that her honor is so ruined that she will be completely cut off from society. He has destroyed her mentally and physically and there is no way for her to hide it.
Lewis suggests here that for men, chastity is important but not essential to maintaining their reputation. However, for women, it affects body, soul, and reputation. Men can lose their chastity and suffer the consequences behind closed doors but women become exposed and trashed by society.
Both the formal realism novels of Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding and the Gothic novel of Lewis portray the key features of chastity in eighteenth century England, although they differ in how they do it. Formal realism focuses on the form as being the realistic feature of the novel to make it as realistic as possible for their audience. The Gothic novel, however, focuses more on making real characters that are set in supernatural situations but deal with realistic issues.
Pamela and Joseph Andrews both show readers that maintaining chastity is rewarded. Their heroine and hero are not realistic because they only stand to symbolize the chaste female and male that the readers are supposed to aspire to. They also are shown in an unrealistic story where the servants become noblemen and they persevere over challenges that are not really that difficult. This is because the writers wished to show efforts for preserving chastity as being rewarded in order for it to be something for readers to aspire to.
Lewis, however, provides his readers with more probable characters because they are complicated. They are chaste but their chastity comes to be questioned as they are accused of being hypocritical or manipulative. By putting his characters in situations where their chastity is really challenged and bringing both characters to failure, he shows his readers how and why to preserve their chastity.
Ambrosio failed because of his vanity and Antonia failed because she could not protect her body. Therefore, this suggests males should keep their minds focused and females should try to prevent themselves from being a temptation for men.
Both the formal realism novels discussed and Lewis’s gothic novel show us the ideals of chastity as a respectable feature for both sexes but Lewis succeeds in teaching readers something more than what Richardson and Fielding show. To Lewis, it is not about reward, but about protecting oneself from pain and torment both physically and mentally.
Maintaining chastity for both men and women is also a way of maintaining mental and physical well-being. They are not consumed with guilt or the desire for sexual pleasures that constantly nag at their mind. They are also not tainted and destroyed to the point of having to hide out from society.
For men, losing their chastity is not as big a deal as it is for women but it is more difficult for them to maintain. A man’s body, reflected through Ambrosio, does not follow what the mind wants and they become enflamed with passion despite the desire to remain chaste. Women lose control over the powers of their body when it is exposed, which is shown with Antonia. Once they are exposed, they arouse desires that make them have to fight for their chastity. Weaker physically, it is easy for a man to overpower them.
Although it uses the classic gothic devices of the supernatural,The Monk, clearly reflects the power of the genre in mixing the real and the unreal in order to make a statement on major social issues like male and female chastity. The ideal chaste figure represented in his novel agrees with what is suggested in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews and reflects the ideals of eighteenth century England.
In the end, Ambrosio and Antonia’s efforts for preserving their chastity are futile. In some ways, this suggests that protecting this virtue is done in vain since men cannot control their bodily functions in reactions to sexual exposures and women are not physically strong enough to fight off men. However, this also shows readers just where their weaknesses are by having the hero and heroine fail.
By doing this, Lewis goes beyond the formal realism of Richardson and Fielding’s novels. This is because he does not reward them but gives a more realistic ending to the story of two naïve virgins. Instead of learning from a story about reward and victory, the readers are supposed to learn from loss and failure. Ambrosio and Antonia do not know where their weakness lies and so their own chastity is conquered by others.
Lewis’s novel suggests that preserving chastity is more than just about a reward, it is about protecting oneself against the evils of this world that would try to take it away. It is easy to overlook the depth of the novel because of its supernatural features but when comparing its development of chaste characters compared to those seen in formal realism it is easy to see how The Monk reflects eighteenth century ideals of chastity and how it teaches its readers how and why to preserve it.
Thank you to those who took the time to read this far. I know this is long but it was a lot of work and it's something I'm proud to have put together to this day. I hope that the changes I made to shorten it somewhat and cut the paragraphs up, as well as divide the paper into multiple hubs helped make it a little easier to follow and less overbearing.
Again, thank you for reading.
© 2012 LisaKoski