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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 427

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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 fiancee, 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. 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 Connor (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 form 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.

The Castle of Otranto was described as a perfect mix of realistic fiction and supernatural elements, and 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.

The Plot

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 528

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 son. The two are actually of noble blood, but circumstances forced Jerome to enter the priesthood when his family was kidnapped years before.

As they are speaking, the Knight of the Gigantic Saber arrives at the castle, bringing with him a giant sword. This knight comes from Isabella’s father, the rightful heir to Otranto. Manfred tries to convince this emissary that a marriage to Isabella would unite the two families, but the knight is unconvinced. Father Jerome arrives to announce that Isabella has fled the church. As the parties scurry to mount a search, Matilda, Manfred’s daughter, meets Theodore and helps him escape. The two instantly fall in love. Fleeing the castle, Theodore stumbles upon Isabella in the forest. Their reunion is cut short when the Knight of the Giant Saber finds them. In attempting to protect Isabella, Theodore wounds the knight. Near death, the emissary reveals that he is really Isabella’s father.

Although grievously hurt, the knight is taken back to the castle to recover. There he reveals that the giant sword he carries with him bears an ominous inscription foretelling doom for Manfred. Manfred tries desperately to convince Isabella’s father to unite them, but he fails. Instead, he learns from a mysterious visitor that Theodore is in the chapel with a woman. He dashes there and stabs the maiden, who turns out to be his daughter Matilda. Into this climactic scene comes the ghost of Prince Alonso, who declares Theodore to be the true heir of Otranto, as grandson of Alonso’s sister. Beaten, Manfred retreats to a convent, as does his neglected wife, Hippolita. Although grieving for Matilda, Theodore marries Isabella and assumes his place as the new Prince of Otranto.

Places Discussed

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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 overwork. His father was the famous prime minister Robert Walpole, so that the weight of the past was felt personally and artistically.

Church of St. Nicolas

Church of St. Nicolas. Otranto church. On the title page of the novel, Walpole identifies this location in the Otranto principality as the place where the original text in Italian was published. This literary hoax, or forgery, is supported by significant front matter written by Walpole about the finding and translation of the medieval story for his English audience. It is all wonderful misplacing, or literary artifice, and as such is a textual equivalent of the artificial and yet genuinely haunting pleasures of the Strawberry Hill estate where, in an adjoining personal printing house, Walpole produced the first edition of the book.

*Holy Land

*Holy Land. Eastern Mediterranean region in which Christianity arose that is the target location for the medieval Crusades. It is also the place where the crushing events that drive the story took place. The exotic East was always of importance in the writing of the eighteenth century.


*Falconara. Sicilian principality that neighbors Otranto in which there is no crushing ancestral pressure. Thus by contrast the civility of this estate expresses the heavy emotionalism of Otranto.


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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.


Critical Essays