Matthew Lewis, The Monk (1796), p. 78

While She sung, Ambrosio listened with delight: Never had He heard a voice more harmonious; and He wondered, how such heavenly sounds could be produced by any but Angels. But though He indulged the sense of hearing; a single look convinced him, that He must not trust to that of sight. The Songstress sat at a little distance from his Bed. The attitude in which she sat bent over her harp, was easy and graceful: Her Cowl had fallen backwarder than usual: Two coral lips were visible, ripe, fresh, and melting, and a Chin in whose dimples seemed to lurk a thousand Cupids. Her Habit's long sleeve would have swept along the chords of the Instrument: To prevent this inconvenience She had drawn it above her elbow, and by this means an arm was discovered formed in the most perfect symmetry, the delicacy of whose skin might have contended with snow in whiteness. Ambrosio dared to look on her but once: That glance sufficed to convince him, how dangerous was the presence of this seducing Object. He closed his eyes, but strove in vain to banish her from his thoughts. There She still moved before him, adorned with all those charms which his heated imagination could supply: Every beauty which He had seen, appeared embellished, and those still concealed Fancy represented to him in glowing colours. Still, however, his vows and the necessity of keeping to them were present to his memory. He struggled with desire, and shuddered when He beheld, how deep was the precipice before him.

The eighteenth-century reliance on the body as a legible text has everything to do with the assumption of the text's literality. The body expresses itself involuntarily-- in the formation of limbs and features, symptoms of illness or good health, and uncontrolled responses, such as blushes, tears, sighs, and coughs. These communications are trusted, in part, because they are accepted to be beyond the control of the person whose body speaks for him/her, in place of of his/her words. This passage complicates these assumptions for a number of reasons. The immediate interpreter of the physical signs, Ambrosio, does not trust the senses he must rely on for a thorough reading of the text that is Matilda. The optic sense, which is most traditionally associated with the search for and acquisition of true knowledge, is rejected by Ambrosio, who fears that looking at this "seducing Object" will lead him straight out of control and straight into the precipice before him. Unfortunately, closing his eyes doesn't seem to help; his imagination is a dangerous supplement to his physical senses which sees even more vividly than do his eyes. Matilda's body is a hermeneutic puzzle to Ambrosio, but also, and especially, to the readers who cannot see her for themselves, and must, therefore, trust this vision which they receive second-hand. But can they trust it? Are her lips ripe and melting? Does Cupid reside in the dimples of her chin? Or does Ambrosio simply ascribe these "seducing" features to her? These are questions for the reader of The Monk who has not progressed to the second volume of the novel. For the reader who has dared to go further and who has been stripped of his/her innocence... How is the issue of physiognomic interpretation complicated by the body of Matilda? Her body is not a literal or natural text, but a cryptic and artificial one, which initially confounds all attempts at deciphering. Her physical beauty does not stand for a spiritual goodness as does Clarissa's or Antonia's: it is an optical illusion perpetrated by the forces of evil. What does this "fact" do to our self-confidence as readers-- of bodies, of texts?

Related terms:

a dictionary of sensibility
term list
source bibliography
critical bibliography