The Monk by Matthew Lewis and Vathek by William Beckford both feature a number of characters with ambiguous gender roles. Moreover, in both novels there are female characters who step outside the pattern of their gender roles and become more empowered than the men. In The Monk by Matthew Lewis there are a number of characters whose gender roles seem to be reversed. First of all there is the main character Ambrosio, 'the monk' who takes up a female role in letting Matilda dominate him. Matilda herself literally undergoes a gender change as she starts of as the male Rosario but throws off her disguise after having confessed her love for Ambrosio. Later on, she undergoes a second transformation and starts to behave more and more like a man. Ambrosio is connected to the character of Antonia, who is an unambiguous female who in the end will die because of her innocence. Apart from Ambrosio and Matilda, there are more characters whose behavior is not always consistent with their gender. In the secondary story of Raymond and Agnes, there are three more interesting female characters. There is Margaret, who is the victim of her husband's criminality, the Baroness Lindenberg, whose love for Raymond remains unanswered and the Bleeding Nun, in front of whom Raymond seems to lose his manliness. Another interesting female character is the cruel Prioress who tries to compensate the weakness of her sex through the sadistic way in which she treats Agnes. Agnes is the female character which suffers the most when she is punished for having broken her vows of chastity but she nevertheless ends up happy. She is an important character being a female who takes her life in her own hands just like Matilda. In Vathek, gender reversal is also present in the main characters. First of all there is Nouronihar and Gulchenrouz, who both seem to behave against their gender roles. On the other hand, there is Vathek and his mother Carathis, who takes up an authoritative male role towards the needy and childish Vathek. The similarities between Matilda and Carathis are striking as they are both empowered females who step outside their appointed gender roles. In this essay I will investigate all these ambiguous characters and look at what they signify.
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The first ambiguous character in The Monk is Ambrosio, who is admired throughout Madrid for his famous and inspiring sermons. Ambrosio is described as someone who "knows not in what consists the difference of man and woman"  , just like Antonia who, according to Leonella, "should not seem to remember, that there is such a thing as a man in the world" (17). There is a connection between Ambrosio and Antonia, who is an unambiguous female with the typical characteristics of being beautiful, innocent and naÃ¯ve. Ambrosio is as female as Antonia is as he takes up a "virginal, feminine position" as stated by Steven Blakemore  . As Ambrosio was raised in the abbey by monks who encouraged him to repress his natural instincts, he is ignorant of all temptations in the outside world. Being a monk, he has to protect his vows of chastity, like a virtuous woman who cannot have sex before marriage  . Moreover, throughout the novel, Ambrosio is represented through a gendered vocabulary which usually distinguishes the female sex, with words as 'innocence', 'virtue', 'honour' and 'shame'  . Ambrosio, in all his femininity, is extremely fond of Rosario, a young novitiate who is careful not to show his face. There is a clear homoerotic tension between Ambrosio and Rosario  as Ambrosio is flattered by the interest that the young man shows in him. The homoerotic tension turns into fear when Rosario reveals that he is a woman.
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Rosario/Matilda is the second character that displays the confusion of gender roles in the novel. When she is disguised as the male Rosario, she seems an educated and kind young man whom Ambrosio loves with all his heart: "From the moment in which I first beheld you, I perceived sensations in my bosom, till then unknown to me; I found a delight in your society which no one's else could afford" (58). When he first discovers that she is a woman, he is afraid of her and the temptation that she represents, but it does not take long for him to decide that she can stay when he catches a glimpse of her "beauteous orb" (65) as she threatens to stab herself. Ambrosio cannot yield to the temptation because of his ignorance and innocence. Matilda on the other hand is not innocent at all and she knows how to manipulate Ambrosio. At first, she swears that all she wants from him is his friendship: "I sigh to be possessor of your heart, not lust for the enjoyment of your person" (59), but she quickly changes her mind and turns into a true femme fatale: "Either I must die at present, or expire by the lingering torments of unsatisfied desire" (89) she cries on her death bed after she has saved Ambrosio by sucking the venom from a snake bite. Ambrosio who is "in the full vigour of manhood" (91) quickly gives in to the temptation and "sank upon her bosom" murmuring "Thine, ever thine!" (91). With these words, Ambrosio symbolically gives himself up to Matilda and from this moment on, she will start to gain more power over him. After "the burst of transport was past" (223), Ambrosio is angry with Matilda and he blames her for seducing him: "Wretched woman, you have destroyed my quiet forever" (223). His reaction is like that of a "fallen woman who regrets her seduction"  .
Matilda, who started off as a feminine male, undergoes a second transformation and turns into a seductive woman and finally becomes a dominant, possessive, manly lover. Ambrosio is aware of this change: "Now she assumed a sort of courage and manliness in her manners and discourse (â€¦), she spoke no longer to insinuate, but command" (231), but he cannot help that he becomes more submissive and follows her orders. With his desires fulfilled, Ambrosio grows tired of Matilda and he even starts to resent her: "when the moment of passion was over, he quitted her with disgust" (235). When the innocent Antonia comes to visit him to ask for his help, he immediately falls in love with her and he compares her to Matilda: "oh! Sweeter must one kiss be snatched from the rosy lips of the first (Antonia), than all the full and lustful favours bestowed so freely by the second (Matilda)" (243). Ambrosio rejects Matilda because she enjoys their sex and he goes on to look for something else.  Matilda notices Ambrosio's changed behavior but she reacts in an unfeminine way when she states: "Fear not the little jealousy, which taints the generality of women" (266). She refuses to continue to sleep with him but she decides to help him to get to Antonia. Ambrosio is horrified when Matilda tells him about her education in witchcraft. He is afraid to "employ hell's agency" (270) and decides that "Antonia shall be mine, but mine by human means" (270). Again, it does not take long for Matilda to persuade Ambrosio when she shows him a magic mirror in which he sees Antonia bathing. In the scene that follows, Ambrosio follows Matilda to the cemetery where she quits her religious garment and dresses like a witch: "her whole demeanour was calculated to inspire the beholder with awe and admiration" (275). Matilda is the one who is in control and Ambrosio can only follow her orders while she laughs at his pusillanimity: "His limbs trembled, while he obeyed her" (275). While she is performing the ritual to summon the demon, all he can do is watch her:
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The monk beheld her with anxious curiosity. Suddenly she uttered a loud and piercing shriek. She appeared to be seized with an access of delirium; She tore her hair, beat her bosom, used the momst frantic gestures, and drawing the poignard from her girdle plunged it into her left arm. (276)
The demon obeys Matilda, just like Ambrosio. She receives the magic myrtle which will open all doors to Antonia and hands it over to Ambrosio.
Unlike Matilda and Ambrosio who are both gender ambiguous, Antonia is a true female. She is described as beautiful, innocent and naÃ¯ve. Lorenzo, who wants to marry her but has to wait for his father's permission, occasionally gives a serenade at her bedroom window but she does not realize that this is meant for her: "she was too modest to think herself worthy such attentions" (297) Antonia does not know what love is and she certainly does not realize what Ambrosio wants from her when he comes to visit her. From the moment she first sees him, she notices something familiar about him and she "felt a pleasure fluttering in her bosom" (18). When Ambrosio asks her if she ever loved, she answers him that he is the only one she loves which he feels gives him the permission to jump her. Even when he has tried to rape her, she still believes in his good intentions and she is disappointed because her mother has told him not to return. She becomes afraid of him when they are alone together in the tomb and he rapes her. Antonia's innocence encourages Ambrosio's desire up until the point that he has what he wants: "Scarcely had he succeeded in his design, than he shuddered at himself, and the means by which it was effected" (368). When he finally kills Antonia, he metaphorically kills the last bit of innocence that was left in him. Antonia, the only truly innocent and female character dies, being 'too good for this world'.
While the clearest instance of transgendering in The Monk can be seen in the Rosario/Matilda character, there are other instances of confused gender roles. In the secondary narrative of Raymond and Agnes, Raymond is on one of his travels when his chaise breaks down and he is forced to stay the night in the house of Baptiste. Raymond first thinks that Baptiste's wife Marguerite is rude and unkind but when she warns him about Baptiste's evil intentions, he realizes that he was wrong: "How different did she now appear to me!" (111). Marguerite later tells her story of how she fell in love with a bandit and eloped with him. She turns out to be one of the 'fallen women' which appear in The Monk. In the house of Baptiste, Raymond also meets the baroness of Lindenberg on his travels. The baroness is Agnes's aunt and because he wants to look good in front of her, Raymond does everything to please the baroness which causes her to fall in love with him. She turns out to be a vindictive woman as she cannot accept that Raymond is in love with Agnes, her niece. The stories of both Marguerite and the Baroness Lindenberg show similarities with that of the Bleeding Nun. Agnes tells the story of the Bleeding Nun, a ghost haunting the castle of Lindenberg. Raymond gets into a close encounter with this ghost as he accidently elopes with her instead of Agnes. Ambrosio's words of surrender to Matilda are echoed when Raymond embraces the Bleeding Nun, thinking he is holding Agnes, and speaks the words: "Agnes! Agnes! Thou art mine! Agnes Agnes! I am thine!" (155). These words could be seen as a ritualistic wedding vow that keeps returning throughout the story.  Every following night the ghost appears to Raymond and she repeats the vow "Raymond! Raymond! Thou art mine!" (160), kissing him and taking possession of him. Raymond, the brave knight who was planning to elope with his beloved Agnes is reduced to a terrified "metaphoric bride"  , promised to a possessive "animated corse" (160). When Raymond is assisted by the Wandering Jew to get rid of the ghost, he gets a chance to regain his manliness and he returns to Madrid to look for Agnes. When he finds Agnes pregnant, she is furious with him and blames him for having harmed her female honour, just like Ambrosio blamed Matilda for taking his virginity. Before Raymond can get Agnes out of the convent, she is imprisoned by the prioress.
Looking at Vathek, there are some examples to be found of reversed gender roles. First of all, there is Gulchenrouz, who is being described as "the most delicate and lovely creature in the world"  . He is described as 'beautiful' a term that is usually used for describing females, "his sweet voice accompanied the lute in the most enchanting manner" and "his dancing was light as the gossamer waved by the zephyrs of spring" (65) and even though he is thirteen years old, he is still living with the women in the harem. Gulchenrouz is engaged to his cousin Nouronihar who looks quite like himself, but more feminine: "when Gulchenrouz appeared in the dress of his cousin, he seemed to be more feminine than even herself" (66).
Nouronihar on the other hand is not a typical girl, but often acts like a young boy who is always up for some mischief, like when she takes the lead in the teasing game that is played with Bababalouk in the harem: "the young Nouronihar, daughter of the emir, who was as sprightly as an antelope, and full of wanton gaiety" (57). Vathek, who is in love with Nouronihar, detests Gulchenrouz because of his femininity and he does not understand why Nouronihar would marry him: "would you surrender this divine beauty to a husband more womanish than herself?" (66). At first, Nouronihar does not like the idea of Vathek taking her away from Gulchenrouz, but when she realizes what possibilities this implies for her, she quickly forgets about Gulchenrouz and decides to go with the caliph. She is not as innocent and pure as she is being described, while Gulchenrouz does possess all these virtues.
The reason why Vathek does not like Gulchenrouz could be because he is not that masculine himself. Although he believes he has his life in his own hands, it is really his mother Carathis who takes all the decisions. Vathek wants to marry Nouronihar to establish his own masculinity and distance himself from effeminate men like Gulchenrouz.
Another character that illustrates transgenderism is Carathis. She has total control over Vathek, just like Matilda has over Ambrosio. Her decisive nature makes her look more like a man than a woman. Her goal in life is to come closer to the infernal powers that inspire her. Her ritual to summon the gouls, calls to mind Matilda's ritual: "At length darkness approached, and Carathis, having stripped herself to her inmost garment, clapped her hands in an impulse of ecstacy" (32)
It quickly becomes clear that Carathis and Matilda can be paralleled as they are both more male than female. Both women are empowered females but at the same time they are witches consorting with demons and devils. In The Monk, Matilda is the only female character who is not tortured or dies, but at the same time we do not know if she is really a human, female character or a demon. Even though she is represented in quite a negative way, she is the only female in the story who knows and gets what she wants. As Watkins states: "it is possible to see Matilda as a sort of inadvertent heroine, one who achieves her particular status despite the obvious misogynist character of the plot" and "when Ambrosio is depicted as spineless, weeping, feminine, doomed to hell, Matilda flies to freedom"  .