The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

In The Castle of Otranto, recognized as the first gothic novel, Horace Walpole combines supernatural occurrences and heroic behaviors associated with the Romantic tradition to tell the story of Manfred, prince of Otranto, whose zeal for satisfying his own lusts for power and sexual gratification lead to his downfall. The tale opens on the wedding day of Manfred’s son Conrad, who is betrothed to the countess Isabella. Before the ceremony, a giant helmet falls from a parapet, crushing Conrad. A peasant, Theodore, claims that the helmet is like that on the statue of the good Prince Alonso; angered, Manfred has Theodore imprisoned.

Manfred then concocts a scheme to be divorced from his wife, Hippolita, and marry Isabella himself. Isabella is repulsed by the idea and flees into a passage beneath the castle; there she meets Theodore, who has escaped from imprisonment. He helps Isabella make her way to a nearby church. Manfred recaptures Theodore, but as he accosts him, word comes that a giant is sleeping in the castle.

The next day, Father Jerome comes to inform Manfred that Isabella is safe in the church. Manfred uses the occasion to suggest his divorce and remarriage. Father Jerome is horrified, particularly because he believes Isabella is in love with someone else. Thinking Theodore is his rival, Manfred orders him executed, but when Father Jerome discovers a strange mark on the young man, he announces that Theodore is really his own...

(The entire section is 528 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Otranto. Large estate dominated by a castle in Sicily. The massive details of the medieval castle and the rich surrounding territory, ruled by Manfred, prince of Otranto, represent the haunting presence of the past in modern times. Part of the castle’s armament falls on Manfred’s son, crushing him, and the castle itself crumbles to the ground. Through these actions Walpole dramatizes the inescapable burden of the past. This reveals the pressure of the father on the son and the obligation that the younger generation always assumes to forge something new from what the past generations have done. Moving portraits of ancestors in the castle as well as the dungeons, dark chapels, and other hidden recesses in the Gothic architecture also express this nightmare obligation to prevail, to escape, to make something artistically and culturally meaningful. A new Otranto emerges at the end of the story out of the crush of the old in the same way that Walpole’s invention of the gothic novel is forged out of old materials.

*Strawberry Hill

*Strawberry Hill. Real country estate near London that Walpole himself remodeled into a fake, or forged, “Gothic” castle. His new building looked like the fictional castle, but it was constructed out of modern materials of the time rather than medieval stone. Walpole wrote his story in this house following several nights of haunting nightmares that were probably brought on by...

(The entire section is 441 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Day, William Patrick. In the Circles of Fear and Desire: A Study of Gothic Fantasy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. A study of the themes and conventions of gothic fantasy from the publication of Walpole’s novel up through the twentieth century. Discusses Manfred as an example of the typical gothic male protagonist.

Kallich, Martin. Horace Walpole. New York: Twayne, 1971. Discusses the formal style and period-piece conventions of the novel. Suggests a reading of the story as a version of the Freudian family romance, with such Oedipal themes as desire for the mother, anger toward the father, and fear of punishment.

Mehrotra, K. K. Horace Walpole and the English Novel. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1934. A detailed discussion of the novel that analyzes the work from the perspective of the readers of its time and places the work in the context of the realistic novel and the tale of terror.

Sabor, Peter, ed. Horace Walpole: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987. A valuable collection of reviews, introductions, contemporary discussions, and letters relating to Walpole’s works. Includes eighteen items discussing The Castle of Otranto.

Varma, Devendra. The Gothic Flame. New York: Russell & Russell, 1966. A well-known history of the English gothic novel that discusses both the origins and the influences of the genre. Clarifies the various gothic conventions originated by The Castle of Otranto, particularly its surrealistic style and gothic hero.