Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto is among the best-known, best-loved, and best-crafted novels of the gothic genre in English. It is also one of the first. Gothic fiction was representative of the late eighteenth century rejection of the rational, realistic creed of neoclassicism, which asserted the superiority of the familiar and contemporary for literary purposes. This reaction was but a phase of the revival of interest in the recondite past, an interest that focused on medieval life and manifested itself in pseudoscholarly antiquarianism, imitation Gothic castles, artificial ruins, balladry, and contrived narratives.
These narratives, permeated with fashionable melancholy, attempted to portray human conduct and sentiment with psychological realism while setting the action in remote and mysterious places and times. The emotional thrills of adventure provided the reader an escape from humdrum existence; hence, the villain was characteristically somber and restless, and the heroine—beautiful, innocent, young, and sensitively perceptive—waited dutifully to be rescued by a brave and courageous lover. The obligatory setting was a haunted castle, a cloister, or a ruined abbey, fortuitously furnished with underground passages, secret doors, and locked and unused rooms, and surrounded by wild and desolate landscape. The action inevitably included strange and deliberate crimes (often accompanied by rattling chains and other inexplicable phenomena), incidents of physical violence, and emotional anguish orchestrated with supernatural manifestations. A strong erotic element usually underscored the plot, and comic relief, following William Shakespeare’s model, was confined to servants. In a bogus historical setting, chronologically and geographically remote, novels of mystery and passionate emotion depicted the trials and misfortunes of sentimental love with an overlay of ghosts, prescience, and preternatural forces, as well as the titillating horror of violence and crime.
The author of The Castle of Otranto, which stood at the very forefront of this gothic revival, seemed personally ideally suited to his book (rather than the more usual obverse). Walpole was a nobleman who was respected for his antiquarian scholarship, and he was a fussy bachelor in precarious health, unable to join his peers in hunting, tippling, and wenching. He escaped the demands of this world by psychologically and physically retreating into the past. He built himself a pseudo-Gothic retreat at Strawberry Hill, and there he displayed his collection of antiques and led an active fantasy life, imagining himself at one time a feudal lord and at another time a learned monk. One evening, he reportedly climbed his narrow Gothic staircase to his library so that he could dream—possibly with the aid of opium—of the romantic past.
The Castle of Otranto , spawned out of dreams, illustrates two major themes of the gothic genre. The story unites a baroque view of architecture and sentiment and a repudiation of neoclassical ideals of proportion, balance, and harmony. The physical appearance of the Castle of Otranto, therefore, is an exaggeration of genuine Gothic style, carrying the visual image to such excessive lengths that the structure bears hardly any resemblance to authentic examples of medieval Gothic architecture. Yet the effectiveness of the description in the novel is undeniable. Similarly, the emotional overreaction of the characters—in defiance of all neoclassical canons of moderation—serve to transcend the mundane realities of common life on the wings of fancy. In the very uncommon life of this story, Walpole sought to liberate imagination and allow it to rove freely in what he characterized as “the boundless realms of invention . . . creating more interesting situations.” Simultaneously (and without any sense of contradiction), Walpole claimed to strive for naturalness and probability in his character development. Nevertheless, fanciful setting and untrammeled emotion were the hallmarks of his as...
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well as many other gothic novels.
Walpole employs supernatural devices to create his interesting situations, and the totally immersed reader can become so wrapped up in the plot that inconsistencies escape notice. The plot is actually plausible, but the events that surround and to some extent precipitate it are more than a little suspect. The story opens with the ambiguous prophecy that “the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it.” Intrigue thickens with Conrad’s peculiar death and Manfred’s frantic attempts to sire another heir. In due course, other supernatural manifestations intervene: Two menservants see a strange apparition, which also appears to Bianca, Matilda’s maid. Manfred’s reasonable objections notwithstanding, these events very nearly unseat his reason; but even as Manfred argues with Hippolita to annul their marriage so that he can marry Isabella and produce an heir, three drops of blood fall from the nose of the statue of Alfonso, the original prince of Otranto who won the principality through fraud and deceit. Manfred is thus given supernatural warning to desist from his wicked plan. He is still undeterred, but his intended father-in-law also sees an apparition when he goes to the chapel to pray for guidance. In the end, after many such scenes of terror, violence, and bewilderment, the true heir of Otranto is unexpectedly discovered amid a thunderclap, a rattling of armor, and a disembodied pronouncement about legitimate succession.
Although in retrospect these contrivances may strain the credulity of today’s reader, the chain of events is so engrossing that the reader’s normal skepticism is effectively held at bay. It is only after the fact that the reader begins to examine the logic and question the veracity of Walpole’s highly convincing tale. Therein lies the art of the story.