Gothic Fiction and Its Revelations

In Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk and Anne Radcliffe’s The Italian, each writer seeks to shock the audience by revealing a mystifying secret unknown to the main characters. Radcliffe and Lewis unleash familial secrets in order to put their readers into a state of astonishment. This element of surprise is essential to Gothic fiction, in which that it changes the course of the plot. Lewis manages to give his revelation about Ambrosio at the vital moment in his book. Radcliffe, without placing revelations in crucial moments, lacks the ability to horrify her audience. Through the analysis of each book’s revelations and the style in which they were composed, it is apparent that Lewis and Radcliffe both look to horrify their audiences.

Lewis’s device to mortify his audience was not what happens to Ambrosio in his final hours, but the unveiling of the monk’s crimes before his death. By revealing that he was misled and his crimes were greater than those previously shown, Lewis, in the essence of Gothic fiction, horrifies his audience by presenting unknown truths to the fearful monk.

“Carry you to Matilda?” he continued, repeating Ambrosios’s words: “Wretch! you shall soon be with her! You well deserve a place near her, for hell boasts no miscreant more guilty than yourself. Hark, Ambrosio, while I unveil your crimes! You have shed the blood of two innocents; Antonia and Elvira perished by your hand. That Antonia whom you violated, was your sister! that Elvira whom you murdered, gave you birth! Tremble, abandoned hypocrite! inhuman parricide! incestuous ravisher! tremble at the extent of your offences! And you it was who thought yourself proof against temptation, absolved from human frailties, and free from error and vice! Is pride then a virtue?” (361)

These revelations were solely a device to horrify an audience that was already bewildered with the unrighteous path of a holy man. The demon saw Ambrosio was “virtuous from vanity, not principle,” (361) which was part of Ambrosio’s fault. He did not have the faith he needed to withstand temptation, the temptation of lust and of being free of punishment, because he was not a truly pious man.

Lewis had focused so much on the body throughout the book that he needed to make his audience feel psychologically erred. Wanting his readers to sympathize with the fallen monk, Lewis revealed that Ambrosio had been deceived into a contract for his soul. The psychological effect worked well because it was unexpected, given Lewis’s style of horror.

“Hear, hear, Ambrosio! Had you resisted me one minute longer, you had saved your body and soul. The guards whom you heard at your prison-door, came to signify your pardon. But I had already triumphed: my plots had already succeeded. Scarcely could I propose crimes so quick as you performed them. You are mine, and Heaven itself cannot rescue you from my power. Hope not that your penitence will make void our contract. Here is your bond signed with your blood; you have given up your claim to mercy, and nothing can restore to you the rights which you have foolishly resigned.” (362)

Lewis had to make his audience feel compassionate towards a man who could no longer earn a position in Heaven. It is easy to identify with Ambrosio, because now, he becomes more human. He is not high on a pedestal lacking temptation, he is before God with all his faults revealed. The demon makes Ambrosio realize that he is human by revealing these errors. “He sank upon his knees, and raised his hands towards heaven.” (362) Ambrosio, near his final moments, realized that he was neither a perfect man nor a man of God; yet he was human. Part of being human is having faults and asking forgiveness from God to gain access into Heaven. Even in a place created by God Satan still influences men and it is a great victory for him to lead a religious one into devastation.

As such in the mindset of Lewis, Radcliffe reveals the most stimulating turn of events in The Italian’s plot with a shocking familial revelation. The exchange between Schedoni and Ellena illustrates that Radcliffe can write Gothic fiction as well as Lewis by mortifying her audience. Revealing this connection between the two characters changed the course of the book, and effectively led approaching events to an elevated degree of terror.

Ellena trembled, was silent, and with supplicating looks implored him to desist from enquiry, but he urged the question more irresistibly. ‘His name then,’ said she, ‘was Marinella.’…At length he yielded to the fulness of his heart, and Schedoni, the stern Schedoni, wept and sighed! He seated himself on the mattress beside Ellena, took her hand, which she affrighted attempted to withdraw, and when he could command his voice, said, ‘Unhappy child!––behold your more unhappy father!’ (236)

Radcliffe pursues the true nature of the Gothic — to shock. However, this evidence was too early in the book to have the same effect as Ambrosio’s secrets in The Monk. This paternal evidence only made Schedoni more evil, plotting his next move up towards his own fortune. His scheming nature pushed the plot of the book into a position of anticipation.

Radcliffe lost her darkness when she placed Olivia and Ellena together for a second time. It had been in this moment when her novel loses its continual state of tension. Discrediting Schedoni’s false indications without much suspense, he is now a defeated villain. He is defeated since his secrets are no longer hidden, which in turn, remove the threat of him encumbering Vivaldi and Ellena’s nuptials.

‘What new discovery is this?’ said Ellena, fearfully to the nun. ‘It is but lately that I have found my father! O tell me by what tender name I am to call you?’

‘Your father!’ exclaimed Olivia.

‘Your father, lady!’ echoed Beatrice.

Ellena, betrayed by strong emotion into this premature mention of Schedoni, was embarrassed and remained silent.

‘No my child!’ said Olivia, softening from amazement into tones of ineffable sorrow, while she again pressed Ellena to her heart—‘No!—thy father is in the grave!’

Ellena no longer returned her caresses; surprise and doubt suspended every tender emotion; she gazed upon Olivia with an intenseness that partook of wildness. At length she said slowly—‘It is my mother, then, whom I see! When will these discoveries end!’ (378)

This revelation was neither shocking nor mortifying. Giving Ellena to a benevolent mother such as Olivia takes away the horror of the wicked Schedoni being her father. Ellena’s character becomes complete, and is no longer in danger of falling into evil with Schedoni. Keeping the evil monk as the bearer of the seed would have let the book keep its Gothic tone. Olivia being the mother of Ellena reveals Radcliffe’s reluctance to be dark, and take the easy route out of a suspenseful plot.

Radcliffe lacks the edge to appall her readers. She turns a suspenseful novel, with a style much keener on keeping a consistent mood of terror than Lewis, into a romance. In touch with the emotions of her characters, she did not have the ability to move them into a state of horror and destroy them psychologically nor physically. Lewis’s characters seemed less human because he strayed from writing their emotions, which kept his tone away from a constant state of terror; but the revelations he put forth allowed him to horrify his readers. Through the revelations revealed throughout the two books, it is apparent that Lewis is much darker than Radcliffe, which allows him to write better Gothic fiction.