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...
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