The Monk

The Monk Literary Elements


Literature, Gothic Novel

Setting and Context

17th-Century Spain

Narrator and Point of View

The novel is written in the third person, and the narrative focuses on the perspectives of several different main characters: principally, Lorenzo, Ambrosio, and Raymond.

Tone and Mood

The novel is written in an antiquated style of English resembling that of Shakespeare. The mood is ominous and foreboding, creating a sense of dread in the reader.

Protagonist and Antagonist

The primary protagonists are Lorenzo, Raymond, Antonia, and Agnes. The primary antagonist is the Prioress. Ambrosio and Matilda are also introduced as main characters; at first they read as protagonists, but come to resemble antagonists in the latter parts of the novel.

Major Conflict

The major conflict in the novel is sexual desire. The good monk Ambrosio is roused from his celibacy by Matilda, a woman disguised as a novice. He struggles to keep his sexual transgressions a secret while seeking out yet more opportunities to indulge his desires, resorting to truly wicked acts to keep his secret.

Sexual desire contributes to the conflicts facing other characters as well. Raymond is in love with Agnes, but they cannot fulfill their feelings for each other because of Agnes' vows to become a nun. When Agnes becomes pregnant, she endures terrible punishments from the Prioress, and Raymond must find a way to rescue her. Additionally, Lorenzo struggles to convince Antonia's mother to allow him to marry her daughter; however, Elvira is convinced that Lorenzo is not a good match for Antonia. Each of the characters struggles to find love and fulfillment of desire, some more successfully than others.


The parade during the Feast of St. Clare marks the climax of the novel. Lorenzo and Raymond are able to arrest the Prioress, and Mother St. Ursula explains the crimes she has committed against Agnes. The crowd attacks the monastery, which plunges our heroes into the crypt where they find Agnes imprisoned in a dark room and Ambrosio murdering Antonia. Each character's storyline is resolved: Raymond, Agnes, Lorenzo, and Virginia (a newly introduced character) are happily married; Antonia dies tragically but with the knowledge of Lorenzo's love for her; and Ambrosio is given to the Inquisition for torture and execution.


Agnes' final remark to Ambrosio as the Prioress is dragging her away is an example of foreshadowing. Ambrosio was Agnes' last chance for mercy; he could have decided not to show the letter to the Prioress, and instead allowed Agnes to escape with her child and reunite with her beloved Raymond. She screams out at him: "Man of a hard heart! Hear me, proud, stern, and cruel! You could have saved me; you could have restored me to happiness and virtue, but would not! [...] Insolent in your yet-unshakeable virtue, you disdained the prayers of a penitent; but God will show mercy, though you show none. And where is the merit of your boasted virtue? What temptations have you vanquished? Coward! You have fled from it, not opposed seduction. But the day of trail will arrive! Oh! Then when you yield to impetuous passions! When you feel that man is weak, and born to err; when shuddering you look back upon your crimes, and solicit with terror the mercy of your God, oh! aIn that fearful moment, think upon me! Think upon your cruelty! Think upon Agnes, and despair of pardon!" (Pg. 48.)

Ambrosio is deeply shaken by these words, which foreshadow his seduction by Matilda, a beautiful woman who has disguised herself as a monk. Eventually, the two break their vows of chastity, leading to consequences far more terrible than those faced by Agnes.


In describing her motivation to sponsor a portrait of herself as the Virgin Mary, Matilda notes, "Crowds of admirers had persuaded me that I possessed some beauty" (pg. 84). Despite the "crowds" of admirers, Matilda attempts to understate her beauty (which is detailed at length elsewhere in the book). Does she do this out of humility or modesty? Or is she attempting to make herself seem less dangerous than she really is?


The mysterious stranger who helps Raymond rid himself of the Bleeding Nun reveals a peculiar mark on his forehead, and proclaims, "God has set his seal upon me, and all his creatures respect this fatal mark!" (Pg. 180.) This is a reference to Genesis 4:15, in which God sets a mark upon Cain, the first murderer. This mark singles out Cain as a sinner, but it also demonstrates that no one other than God can punish Cain; he is forced to wander the earth forever, and no one can harm him. Like Cain, the mysterious stranger is revealed as the Wandering Jew, an immortal wanderer with special powers.


See ClassicNote section on Imagery.


After she reveals her true identity as a woman, Matilda is so gentle and sweet that Ambrosio cannot help but trust her. However, as she tempts him into greater and greater crimes, it becomes clear that she is not so sweet after all.


The author frequently draws parallels between characters. In the beginning of the novel, Ambrosio and Antonia are both said to be so innocent of sexual temptation that they are unaware of the differences between men and women. Later, both Antonia and Agnes are imprisoned in the dungeons for reasons related to sexual desire; however, Agnes has been imprisoned in this place as punishment for her sexual transgressions, whereas Antonia is imprisoned here in order to fulfill the sexual desires of another.

Metonymy and Synecdoche

In response to Christoval’s rather insensitive comment that it is unfortunate that Lorenzo's beautiful sister Agnes lives her life as a celibate nun (and also how oddly fortunate this turned out to be for Lorenzo, who inherited her fortune), Lorenzo fiercely defends his sister's choice to take vows. He says "You are conscious that she took the veil by her own desire and that particular circumstances made her wish for a seclusion from the world" (pg. 24). The veil (a garment worn by nuns after they take their vows) stands in for the whole monastic life, making this an example of metonymy.


At the beginning of the novel, the church is so crowded with people who have come to hear Ambrosio speak that some of them must climb up onto the statues of the saints in order to see and hear him. "St. Francis and St. Mark bore each a spectator on his shoulders; and St. Agatha found herself under the necessity of carrying double" (pg. 8). In this passage, inanimate statues are said to "bear" and "find themselves under necessity." This adds a humorous element to the story.