With its depictions of demonic rites and illicit sexuality, The Monk ignited a firestorm of controversy. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote an impassioned but very mixed review of the novel; though he thought that some elements (such the characterization and plot) were genius, he found the novel to be uneven and disturbing. He concluded his review by declaring that The Monk is "a romance, which if a parent saw in the hands of a son or daughter, he might reasonably turn pale.”
Despite controversy and bad reviews by literary elites, The Monk was a massive popular success. However, the novel largely ceased to be read by the mid-nineteenth century, before being rediscovered by scholars in the 1970s and 80s eager to analyze its complex gender dynamics and contributions to gothic literature.
The novel was shaped by the rampant anti-Catholicism of late eighteenth century England, which was fueled by an intense preoccupation with creating a robust Protestant national identity. This led to depictions of Catholicism as a perversion of religion, and of the Catholic emphasis on celibacy as a smokescreen for the worst sexual abuses. The Monk is particularly rife with such negative depictions of Catholicism: Ambrosio the renowned monk falls victim to sexual temptation with the first woman he meets, which spurs him on to even more wicked acts; the pure-hearted Agnes is ruthlessly punished by the cruel Prioress; the demon Matilda easily finds a place for herself within the monastery. In Lewis’ novel, the Catholic emphasis on celibacy creates the very monster it supposedly despises, and Catholic religious belief is equated with base superstition.
The Monk was written at a time when the French Revolution was inverting the “natural” order of things, and Lewis encapsulates some of the chaos of the times by his contradictory characters and critique of social institutions. Masculine women, feminine men, pitiable aristocrats, evil monks, and lovable scoundrels populate his work. Some scholars argue that this historical context has driven Lewis to create a world where morality is not objective by psychologized, and God is entirely absent from religion.