115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Evident Emotion: The Visuality of Feeling in The Monk

Elizabeth Mathews, University of California, Irvine

My presentation looks to visual expressions of emotion in Matthew Lewis’s 1796 novel The Monk order to explain how it evokes a wide range of responses. I will analyze the visual influences, text, and illustrations of The Monk to show how the novel creates emotion.

Proposal: 

My presentation looks to visual expressions of emotion in Matthew Lewis’s 1796 novel The Monk order to explain how it evokes a wide range of responses. Critics repeatedly evaluate the work using ocular language: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a prominent early reader, complains about Lewis’s “gaudy” style and shows concern about the corrupting potential of his “voluptuous images,” while twentieth-century scholar Christopher MacLachlan introduces a 1999 edition of the novel by calling it “a showy piece of fiction.” Despite these judgments, The Monk seems to resonate with diverse readers today because of its voyeuristic qualities. Scholars explore the novel’s engagement with themes of concealment and authenticity, and amateur reviewers appreciate its “heaving bosoms” as well as its “great intelligence and insight.” This recurrent critical attention to the role of the eye in assessments of The Monk is no accident, I will argue, as the novel revels in graphically written scenes and has often been printed with disturbing illustrations and covers that complement them. In my presentation, I will demonstrate how these explicit descriptions and images not only portray sex and violence but more importantly convey the novel’s emotional style, one that can explain the varied responses to the work.

 The novel’s affective mode is visual. Like the sensational German gothic novels that influenced him, Lewis’s writing makes affective reactions apparent, with exaggerated perspiration, breathing, and trembling. Lewis evokes lust, pity, and horror from readers as well by crafting written images that recall the illustrations from Joseph Glanvill’s book on witchcraft, which the young Lewis reportedly obsessed over as a child. Lewis’s word-pictures have inspired the extravagant and horrifying illustrations that have accompanied the many editions of the novel over the years as well as prompting the choice of disturbing cover images by artists like Hieronymus Bosch. This accompanying artwork has been an additional affective influence on readers, as illustrated by an amateur critic who includes no fewer than seven images in his review of the book. Examining the common themes and emotional dynamics of these written and pictorial scenes can reveal specifically how the novel’s emotional world functions, which offers a more nuanced way of understanding its reception. In my presentation, I will analyze the visual influences, text, and illustrations of The Monk to show how the novel creates emotion, and how this visual emotion underlies the wide range of responses from critics. Considering these responses in conjunction with the aestheticized emotion that may have prompted them will shed light on the difference and surprising continuities between The Monk’s visual culture of emotion and our own.

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