The narrative, structural, and linguistic intricacies in Matthew Lewis' Gothic novel 'The Monk' illustrate a complex network of patterns and sequences that expand and contract the influence of ambiguity as a Gothic convention in the text. The novel's narrative structure can be comprehended through the distinctions between the temporal succession in the story and the pseudo-temporal arrangement in the narrative. The patterns that arise from the rearrangement of the originally linear sequence of events become ultimately fragmented through excess and repetition, yet permeate and transcend levels of form and content. The often consequent convention, ambiguity, can be interpreted as a curiously pervasive screen that obscures many of The Monk's anticipated conclusions. Isolating the layers of narrative voices and aligning fragments in the story can provide some clarity into the Gothic preoccupation with representation; however, the capacities of that inevitable element are also essentially elusive in the realm of the Gothic.
On a structural level, the narrative is presented in a sequence of alternating contiguous subplots, each revolving around a cluster of related primary characters. The continual shifting in narrative focus is aesthetically irregular in comparison to the literal framework of the text; otherwise continuous segments are often disrupted by chapter and volume transitions (and their intertextual epigraphs) that fall seemingly at random. Rather than providing a physical form to complement and reinforce the literary content, these suggestive divisions further fragment the narrative. Consequently, most actual points of subplot alternation are aesthetically transparent, and thus ineffectual in the necessary cognitive differentiation of contiguous boundaries between subplots in the text.
The literal format of the novel, however, is not unsubstantial; composed of twelve chapters divided within three volumes, the surface structure itself illustrates a pattern: the first volume contains three chapters, the second four, and the third five. This incrementally increasing pattern not only mirrors the thematic level of excess, but represents an instance of the highly repetitive use of the number three, which transcends from form to content.
[...] This conclusion is based on the impact of the extensive subordination of the episode's particularly unsupported content. Although this theory is generally supported by Gothic critics, I would suggest that there is at least uncertainty regarding its causal connections. Many Gothic critics have supported the idea of repetition as a narrative principle, in that it “creates the eerie rule that anything that happens once is likely to happen again. Situations and events seem fated to generate exact facsimiles” (Morris 303). [...]
[...] The spatial disruption occurs on two distinct levels and illustrates the multiplicity inherent in the pattern of the rotating subplots; the narrative focus in the opening church scene in the Capuchin Church in Madrid introduces characters from three separate subplots, but then necessarily splits along with their (three-way) physical separation. The narrative follows Ambrosio throughout the second chapter, developing his character and his relationship with Matilda in the isolation of the abbey and in the literal space of forty pages, then basically ‘rewinds' to the split and resumes with Lorenzo and Raymond where their subplot takes them away from the church. [...]
[...] In the beginning of that chapter Ambrosio discovers Raymond's response to Agnes' quoted letter, and consequently her necessary resolution to escape; she explains the desperate circumstances of the “unguarded moment” and pleas dramatically for mercy: Ambrosio rejects her and abandons her to the domina's ruthless penance, inciting Agnes' frantic threat of with her vengeance: on you falls the curse of my death and my unborn infant's! . Oh! when you yield to impetuous passions when, shuddering, you look back upon your crimes, and solicit the mercy of your God, oh! [...]
[...] As the fragmented chronology of The Monk is essentially unavoidable for the traditional reader experiencing its linear projection as a text, it would seem that order, in as far as it relates to cause and effect, is somewhat deconstructed by the repetition of events in the text itself: in the “Gothic vision of history,” past interpenetrates the present time, as if events were never the unique and unrepeated product of human choices but rather the replication of an unknown or buried pattern” (Morris 304) . [...]
[...] Repetition and ambiguity are commonly accepted as conventions in Gothic literature, but the particular narrative structure and its consequent diegetic fragmentation employed by Lewis confuses cause and effect, and multiplies possibilities of interpretation to an extent where even preconceived ‘standards' in Gothic criticism are problematized in their application to The Monk. Early Gothic critic Robert Hume distinguishes four “significant components” of Gothic novels, one of which is the presence of a “moral which allows the reader to be “immersed in an extraordinary world” without feeling psychological bounds” as being “utterly foreign” (Hume 287). [...]
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