A major theme prevalent in gothic novels contemporaneous to The Monk is that of the morality tale juxtaposed onto a horrific and often violent plot, laden with real or perceived supernaturalism. The morality tale is a work of literature designed to inculcate the reader with the author’s ethical precepts by outlining the experiences of the protagonist and showing how his or her virtuous decisions lead to favorable denouements, and, in contrast, their iniquitous actions contribute to their downfalls. Frequently, impious demons attempt to lead the hero into dissipation and vice, while sacrosanct angels try to secure the main character’s passage into heaven via the resistance of temptation. Lewis utilizes many of these conventions, but also modifies some of the common aspects and incorporates new elements of his own. Ultimately, Lewis’ thematic usage of the morality tale is conventional in that it shows the downfall of the depraved, yet also innovative because it has an overall lack of divine intercession and incorporates the unfortunate sacrifice of innocent characters in the course of its narrative. In doing so, The Monk displays similarities to gothic novels both antecedent and subsequent to its publication.
In its essence, The Monk’s plot is not completely unpredictable or revolutionary. Ambrosio displays traces of hubris and lust very early in the novel. It is explained that “he [Ambrosio] dismissed them [the monks] with an air of conscious superiority, in which humility’s semblance combated with the reality of pride. Similarly, “he fixed his eyes on the Virgin…Gracious God, should I then resist the temptation? Should I not barter for a single embrace the reward of my sufferings for thirty years?” Both passages explicitly show the conflicting forces, that is, the moral choices that rage within Ambrosio. His nature instructs him to exult himself above others and lust for the Virgin Mary, while his religious inclinations, or at least his awareness of his position within the church, command him to humility and chastity. Ambrosio begins to deviate from his holy conduct when he encounters Matilda, a character revealed at the end of the novel to be an emissary of Satan. All of these circumstances are consistent with the classic model of the morality tale, and, true to form, once Ambrosio is tempted into sin he enters into a tailspin of increasing desire, which leads him to transgression and culminates in the loss of his eternal salvation and his grisly murder at the hands of the devil.
This pattern of wicked actions leading to ill consequences is exactly what is expected in a morality tale and is reflected in other Gothic novels. For example, Lewis’ work is often discussed in conjunction with that of Ann Radcliffe’s. Robert Miles writes that “Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis were the two most significant Gothic novelists of the 1790s, an estimate of their importance shared by their contemporaries.”. Indeed, the repercussions of malevolent and self-serving actions are represented extraordinarily well in Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest. The Marquis in the story was driven to murder for “the title of his brother…and riches which would enable him to indulge his voluptuous inclinations.”. Similar to Ambrosio, the Marquis was tempted and succumbed to sin, which sets him on a wicked path leading to his public shame and suicide.
However, despite its outcome, The Monk does have some very marked discrepancies from the normal morality tale setup used in gothic novels. In most morality tales, both vice and virtue are represented equally, but in Lewis’ work, the powers of evil are disproportionately represented. Technically speaking, Ambrosio is surrounded by virtue in the sense that he is always conscious that what he is doing is wrong and, until the end of the novel, never believes that he cannot repent. In fact, he tells Matilda that “the consequences [of witchcraft] are too horrible: I…am not so blinded by lust as to sacrifice for her enjoyment my existence both in this world and the next.” However, this general sense of right and wrong is a feeble, inefficacious defense for Ambrosio when he is confronted by the physical presence and influence of demons. There are no corresponding angels who appear before Ambrosio to counter the influence of the devil and try to dissuade him from his path of destruction. As a result, his depravity is accelerated and magnified from the minor character foibles that are congenital to him to the egregious evils that possess him by the end of the novel. The only apparition that is potentially heaven-sent is that of Elvira’s ghost. She comes back from the grave to caution her daughter, Antonia that “yet three days, and we shall meet again!” While the apparition may seem to be trying to warn Antonia of her impending death, the ghost’s appearance causes Jacintha to fetch Ambrosio to dispel the spirit, allowing him to drug Antonia and take her under his power, a chain of events ultimately leading to the demise of Antonia, which the ghost foretold. As a result of the ghost’s intrusion, Antonia is put directly into harm’s way, an action much more apropos for a demonic presence rather than a heavenly one.
This lack of divinity is, however, not unique to The Monk. John Moore’s Zeluco focuses on the nefarious plots of a single man who cannot control his passions. Like Ambrosio, Zeluco’s disposition is shown very early in the novel to be disagreeable. In his youth Zeluco “seized it [his pet sparrow] with his hand, and while it struggled to get free, with a curse he squeezed the little animal to death.” Zeluco continually gratifies his vices much to his discredit and dishonor, and, as in The Monk, his sins compound upon themselves culminating in the infanticide of his only son. Unlike Ambrosio, however, Zeluco has no physical demons spurring him onwards, but rather his insatiable appetite for sin.
Lewis also deviates from what is typically expected from morality tales when he includes the sacrifice of innocent people in the latter chapters of the novel. As a result of Ambrosio’s personal vices, both Elvira and Antonia are slain. Elvira finds Ambrosio, “the man whom Madrid esteems a saint…at this late hour near the couch of my unhappy child)” on the verge of committing rape, and Ambrosio murders her to prevent her from revealing his crimes. Elvira was guilty of no crime and throughout the novel was committed to the welfare of her family, and her daughter in particular. Likewise, Antonia is murdered to prevent her from alerting Officers of the Inquisition of Ambrosio’s crimes. Antonia is also undeserving of her fate as she was always a loyal daughter and honest woman throughout the novel. Another gothic novel in which one individual’s quest for a gratification of the senses leads to the ruin of others is Vathek. In the novel, Vathek attempts to sacrifice fifty children to a demon in order to gain his favor. Without mercy he “pushed the poor innocent into the gulph [open to hell].” Similarly, in The Necromancer, an entire village is sacrificed to a troop of banditti who are angered at their hideout being revealed. The leader of group explaining that “the villagers are not yet punished …for having assisted them, but they shall not escape their doom.”  Admittedly, Vathek can be more readily identified as a morality tale, but The Necromancer warns against the pernicious effects of a legal system that is bereft of mercy. A criminal declares during his confession that his life “will afford a useful lesson to judges, and teach the guardians of the people to be careful how they inflict punishments if they will not make a complete rogue of many a hapless wretch… .”