Chapter Four: Dreaming up monsters: the later gothic nightmare.

 
FREE EXCERPT

Demonic Dreams

The dreamers of Matthew Gregory Lewis's The Monk (1796) seem to labor under the misguided notion that they are the characters of a very different novel. They expect their dreams to confer either a revelation from a beneficent source or, at the very least, a benign concoction of idle fancies. But Monk marks a drastic departure from the literary dreams of its Gothic predecessors. A dream occursus initiates the transformation of Ambrosio, a monk widely admired for his purity, into a monstrous sexual predator. He has this fateful dream on the night after a beautiful woman named Matilda, who has disguised herself as a fellow monk to gain access to the abbey, professes her love for him (50-51). This dream has a decisive influence on his imminent corruption because through the course of it, he "[riots] in joys" that "till then" had been completely "unknown to him." This revelatory dream is not divine, but astonishingly worldly for the monk. The principal characteristic of it is Ambrosio's affective response; the dream leaves him "heated and unrefreshed." During the dream, his "inflamed imagination" overcomes his capacity for reason or self-control, presenting to him "none but the most voluptuous objects." The space of the dream is ideal for affecting the imagination, since nineteenth-century dream studies associate the imagination with the dreaming state, as I establish in the first chapter. Although the dream may stem from an outside influence, Ambrosio's "inflamed imagination" remains complicit in its malevolent power (51).

Since Matilda's disguise has prevented Ambrosio from fully viewing her face, the dream combines the idea of Matilda with the image of the Madonna in the painting above his bed (51). Later, after he has awakened, Matilda's cowl drops to reveal her face, and he is amazed to behold "the exact resemblance of his admired Madona [sic]" (62). This resemblance affects him with great intensity, rendering him even more receptive to Matilda's seductive charms and leading him to cross a certain threshold. By the end of the chapter, the pure monk has undergone a change of assemblage, "[clasping] her rapturously in his arms" and "[forgetting] his vows, his sanctity, and his fame" (70). Only later does he discover that a monstrous demon has been orchestrating his corruption, commissioning the painting, arranging for it to be hung in his room, and planting Matilda in the abbey (350).

After the corrupted monk, "intoxicated with pleasure," has indulged his passions with Matilda, he eventually grows weary of her. At this point, the seductress shifts his focus to Antonia, a young virgin currently residing in the abbey (178). As a consequence of his increasingly corrupted state, Ambrosio attempts to rape Antonia while she is asleep. Recalling Manfred's position of status in Otranto, Ambrosio holds a position of religious authority in his area. By underscoring the extent to which passions can corrupt this powerful man, Lewis emulates the power dynamics and the issue of potential from Walpole's Gothic paradigm. Lewis's text emphasizes the vulnerability of the sleeping Antonia, as the monk is aided by a demonic charm that will prevent her from awakening. The "ravisher" enters the chamber "where slept the innocent girl, unconscious how dangerous a visitor was drawing near her couch" (240). But Ambrosio is interrupted by Antonia's mother, Elvira, who has just had a "frightful dream" in which Antonia appeared to her, crying for help from "the verge of a precipice." Like Ambrosio's revelatory dream, the affective power of this nightmare precludes Elvira from calmly reasoning that her daughter is most likely safe within the walls of an abbey. Because the dream is "frightful," Elvira immediately rushes to Antonia's chamber (241).

When Elvira finds Ambrosio leaning lecherously over her sleeping daughter, she exclaims, "It is no dream ... Monster of hypocrisy!" The blurring of the dream and the waking reality suggests a transgression of the dream into reality. (42) Elvira recognizes that her "dream" is revelatory; she has not dreamt up this "monster." Unfortunately, interrupting Ambrosio only leads to greater tragedy. The frantic monk murders her to prevent any disclosure of his true nature (241); and later, he rapes and murders Antonia in a more violent manner than he had originally intended (304-06). Although Ambrosio ultimately violates Antonia while she is awake, the sleeping state still factors into the assault. In fact, the young woman is only "in [his] power" as a result of ingesting a drug that has induced a deathlike slumber. Once people believe her to be dead, Ambrosio imprisons her in the labyrinthine depths of the abbey (264). (43)

At the denouement, the reader discovers that the demon who has been orchestrating Ambrosio's corruption is responsible not only for triggering the erotic dream about Matilda, but also for generating Elvira's "frightful" premonitory dream (350, 241). This performs a perverse variation of the conventional Gothic dream, the source of which tends to be not only reliable, but purely good. The dream functions as a beneficial resource for the virtuous, disempowered protagonists of Otranto, Old English Baron, Romance, and Italian. But as demonic devices of manipulation, these two dreams in Monk privilege passion over revelation or premonition. This executes a startling digression from the characters' dry, accurate reports of their revelatory dreams in Walpole's original Gothic story. In Lewis's novel, the vulnerability of the sleeper undermines the potential of the revelatory dream for good. These demonic dreams exploit the imagination and the affective intensity of the dream in order to manipulate the...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP