The Castle of Otranto

by Horace Walpole

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 569

The Castle of Otranto is a 1764 gothic horror novel written by the 4th Earl of Oxford, Horace Walpole. It is considered the first Gothic story ever written, and as such, it influenced various poems, novels, plays, and many other literary works that came after its publication. The novel tells the story of Manfred, the evil lord of Otranto, who decides to marry his late son’s fiancée, the kind princess Isabella, in order to secure the continuation of his bloodline in the face of a dangerous and mysterious curse.

The novel incorporates many typical themes found in old and modern gothic tales, such as love, sorrow, death, supernatural beings, justice, tyranny, bravery, and revenge. It follows the story of three typical main characters. First, there is the classical hero of the story—the handsome and brave peasant Theodore, who is the rightful heir to the throne of Otranto. He is down on his luck yet clearly the justified heir. Then, we have the classical damsel in distress—the kind and beautiful princess Isabella, who was initially set to marry the evil lord’s son, Prince Conrad (their wedding was tragically interrupted when a giant helmet fell on Connor's head and crushed him to death). The evil lord decides to marry her, but she falls in love with Theodore and tries to escape from Manfred.

Finally, there’s the classical antagonist—the tyrannical lord of the castle of Otranto—Manfred, who is afraid that his son’s untimely death marks the beginning of a curse that will terminate his bloodline. Thus, he decides to divorce his wife, Hippolita, and marry Princess Isabella. Naturally, she refuses and escapes, with the help of Theodore, as Manfred vows to find them and kill them both. Blinded by rage and revenge, he mistakes his own daughter, Matilda, for Isabella and stabs her. The novel ends with the marriage between Theodore and Isabella, who become the new rulers of Otranto, as Manfred is left to beg for forgiveness.

It is also important to consider the character of Matilda. She, like Isabella, is pure and beautiful, thus making her highly sought after. She is a figure of desire in the novel. The Marquis of Vicenza, though he is old enough to be her father or uncle, in enamored by Matilda and seeks to marry her. Theodore also harbors emotions for her, but before either man can marry her, she is stabbed by her father. This is very much a patriarchal symbol. She is punished for her chaste and virginal nature just as much as she is desired for it. Unfortunately, the character of Matilda is in good company within the gothic fiction genre. In a time where women primarily have value through marriageability, Matilda still ends up losing her life. 

The Castle of Otranto was described as a perfect mix of realistic fiction and supernatural elements. It received a lot of praise in its time, especially for its edgy, suspenseful, and exciting narrative. The book was considered a translation of a 1529 Italian manuscript written in Naples, until Walpole revealed that it was actually his own fictional novel. This turned out to be a mistake on his part—after his revelation, the people started to turn on the book, criticizing it for its frivolous storytelling and one-dimensional characters. Nonetheless, The Castle of Otranto remains to be one of the most influential works of fiction in literature.

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