The gypsy woman in The Monk

The Bible tells us “do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them” (Leviticus 19:31). Ironically, the medium, or gypsy woman, in Matthew Lewis’s The Monk is one of the most honest characters, as compared to other devout characters of the Christian faith, who should be trustworthy but ultimately fail. In The Monk, Lewis creates a nameless fictional character, the gypsy woman, to challenge the Bible’s disdain of mediums and display a theme of the supernatural being more trustworthy than those of the Christian faith.

In 1 Chronicles 10:13, Saul consults a medium and consequently the Lord puts him to death. Similarly, when Antonia consults a medium in the first chapter of The Monk, the gypsy woman accurately prophesizes her death, which could have saved Antonia’s life if Antonia had listened. When Antonia and her Aunt Leonella first see the gypsy, Leonella is dismissive of the “wicked” gypsy, remarking their kind “should be burnt alive” and “[the gypsy] will tell you nothing but falsehoods” (29). Antonia then begs her aunt to allow her to indulge and get her fortune told, which proves to be gruesome, but not a falsehood:

That destruction o’er you hovers;
Lustful Man and crafty Devil
Will combine to work your evil;
And from earth by sorrows driven,
Soon your Soul must speed to heaven. (30)

Later in the novel, the Devil admits to tempting a lustful man, Ambrosio, into sin, proving the gypsy’s prophecy true. Nevertheless, Antonia soon forgets the gypsy’s frightening forewarning: “The gypsy’s predictions had also considerably affected Antonia; but the impression soon wore off, and in a few hours she had forgotten the adventure as totally as had it never taken place” (31). This proves unfortunate for Antonia, for she seems to have more trust in those of the Christian faith, such as her mother, Elvira, and the monk, Ambrosio. Lewis mocks biblical notions by making the gypsy woman, whose ability is seen as an abomination by Christians, the most trustworthy character in the novel.

Antonia’s mother, Elvira, has good intentions for the well-being of Antonia but her Christian faith plays a large part in the death of her daughter. Thinking it would guard Antonia from evil, Elvira censors parts of the Bible she deemed too inappropriate: “That prudent Mother, while she admired the beauties of the sacred writings, was convinced that, unrestricted, no reading more improper could be permitted a young Woman” (199). Elvira believes children “better remain ignorant,” contrasting the gypsy woman’s conversation with Antonia; the gypsy remains fully candid by not sugar-coating the truth or attempting to censor any unpleasantries in her prediction (199). Ultimately, Elvira’s hopes of keeping Antonia innocent fails, for Elvira is later smothered to death with a pillow by Ambrosio after he attempts to rape Antonia. Even though Elvira had her heart in the right place, if she had not proved dishonest by censoring the more risqué parts of the Bible which could have made Antonia less vulnerable, Antonia could have better prepared to defend herself from sexual predators. In fact, Elvira’s logic of keeping Antonia pure completely backfires, for Antonia’s innocence seems to further provoke Ambrosio. When he asks, “Have you seen no Man, Antonia, whom though never seen before, you seemed long to have sought? …With whom your heart seemed to expand, and in whose bosom with confidence unbounded you reposed the cares of your own? Have you not felt all this, Antonia?”, she ignorantly replies, “Certainly I have: the first time that I saw you, I felt it” (208). The monk’s question has a subtle sexual undertone, evident through his use of the word bosom, but Antonia is oblivious to this since she has never been exposed to this sort of language, at the fault of Elvira. Even though Elvira has good intentions, perhaps if she had been as straightforward as the unreligious gypsy woman, Elvira and Antonia would not have been murdered.

In contrast, Ambrosio should be held to a higher standard than that of Elvira because of his high rank in the Church, yet this seemingly moral character who is “known through all the city by the name of the ‘Man of Holiness’” ends up being the most corrupt, deceitful Christian in the novel. Raised by monks after left at the doorstep of a monastery, Ambrosio’s actions later in life lose the status of being well-intended when he succumbs to temptations such as lust, murder, rape, and sorcery, contradicting his monastic vows. Lewis blames being raised under the Christian faith for Ambrosio’s ethical demise, writing, “The Monks terrified his young mind by placing before him all the horrors with which Superstition could furnish them” (182). Superstition is the belief in supernatural causality, such as astrology, witchcraft, and prophecies, that contradict natural science. Lewis explains the monks used superstition to scare Ambrosio into being a faithful Christian, similar to the Bible’s heavy disdain of mediums—like the gypsy; Lewis’s mention of superstition in this manner further proves his mockery of Christianity in The Monk. It is ironic that although a sin, the gypsy’s supernatural talent revealed by Lewis lead her to give accurate and straightforward predictions of the future, whereas Christianity lead Ambrosio to hell. At the end of the novel, Ambrosio signs his soul to the Devil to get away from the mob of angry people, but he does not specify where. Thus, the Devil seizes Ambrosio, flies him to a mountain, and drops him on a sharp rock, but not before telling Ambrosio that he raped and murdered his sister, Antonia, and killed his mother, Elvira. Ambrosio, the product of being raised in a monastery, then laid on the mountain top for seven days before dying.

The supernatural in The Monk is displayed by Lewis as more trustworthy than those of the Christian faith, shown through his unnamed character, the gypsy woman. Although Lewis seems to be ridiculing those who closely follow the Christian faith, Antonia does end up in the fate predicted by the Bible: “As for the person who turns to mediums and to spiritists, to play the harlot after them, I will also set My face against that person and will cut him off from among his people” (Leviticus 20:6). After turning to a medium, Antonia is stabbed to death by Ambrosio in a secluded cave, far from anyone who could help, just as the Leviticus verse foretold. Though we never hear from the gypsy woman after the first chapter, there is no indication of her death, unlike the fates of the devout, yet untrustworthy Christian characters in The Monk. The well-meaning Elvira is murdered in front of her own daughter as an indirect result of her dishonesty, and the seemingly holiest of all, Ambrosio, dies in the most grisly fashion after seven days of agony after signing his soul to the Devil.

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