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The Device of the "double" in Gothic Literature

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1965

Perhaps the single most interesting literary device used by Gothic writers is that of the “double.” Generally, the most common form of doubling in literature is the doppelgänger, a German term meaning “double-goer.” A literary doppelgänger often takes the form of an alternate identity of the main character. Sometimes this can be in the physical form of a biological twin; sometimes writers create a demonic character that functions as a representation of another character’s dark side. A famous example of this technique is Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer. In Gothic literature, the doppelgänger is often threatening and a cause for terror. Shelley’s Frankenstein offers one of the best examples of the use of a doppelgänger in Gothic literature. As Aiga Ozolins points out in the article “Dreams and Doctrines: Dual Strands in Frankenstein,” “There is ample evidence in the novel that the creature functions as the scientist’s baser self.” Further, Edgar Allan Poe makes use of the double in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” In this case, Roderick Usher and his sister are biological twins, so closely connected that when the sister appears to die and is buried, Usher realizes too late that she has been buried alive. The horror of premature burial is doubled by this technique. The reader is first horrified by Usher’s proclamation that they have buried her alive; and then even more horrified by Usher’s horror. While the doppelgänger may be the most apparent form of the double in Gothic literature, there are many other, more subtle ways, that writers introduce notions of doubling in their fiction. Through mirrors, artwork, blurred characters, confusion between the dead and alive, the divided hero/villain, and déjà vu, doubles in Gothic literature proliferate like reflections in a funhouse mirror.

So prevalent is the notion of doubling in Gothic literature that it is difficult, if not impossible, to identify Gothic novels that do not use the device in some form. One way that Gothic writers often introduce a double is through the use of literal mirror images. A character gazes into a mirror, for example, and sees not only himself but also his darker side at the same time. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll looks in his mirror to behold the demonic Mr. Hyde.

Less apparent, but no less effective, is the use of a figurative mirror image. In an essay in The New Eighteenth Century discussing Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, critic Terry Castle argues, “Characters in Udolpho mirror or blur into one another. Characters seem uncannily to resemble or replace previous characters.” Castle also points out the inability in this novel for characters and readers to distinguish the dead from the living. Again, death is a mirror image of life; the confusion over who is dead and who is alive created by this mirroring is major point of terror. “The Fall of the House of Usher” makes use of this device in the confusion of the burial of Usher’s sister. Is she dead, or is she alive when placed in the tomb? Is she alive, or is she dead when she suddenly bursts into the room where Usher is in the process of revealing his doubts about her death to the narrator? “One sure sign of the double,” argues critic Margaret Anne Doody in “Desert Ruins and Troubled Waters: Female Dreams in Fiction and the Development of the Gothic Novel,” appearing in the journal Genre, “is his haunting presence.”

Another way that Gothic writers introduce doubling into their work is through the use of artwork. It is a stock device in...

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Gothic fiction that portraits and artwork can come alive at any moment. In Lewis’sThe Monk, the evil Matilda has a portrait of the Madonna painted for The Monk Ambrosio. Unbeknownst to Ambrosio, however, Matilda has had her own image embedded in the picture of the Madonna. Thus, when Ambrosio adores the portrait of the holy Madonna, he also adores the satanic Matilda. This adoration of a doubled portrait leads to violently sexual dreams and Ambrosio’s ultimate destruction.

A much less obvious, but nonetheless potent, use of the double is in the creation of the wanderer, a stock character in Gothic literature, represented by such characters as Maturin’s Melmoth, Shelley’s monster, and Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. These characters are outsiders, the mirror images of the “civilized” men or women. They are alienated from society, solitary, and estranged. In The Adversary Literature: The English Novel in the Eighteenth Century—A Study in Genre, Frederick Karl describes the wanderer as “truly countercultural, an alternate force, almost mystical in his embodiment of the burdens and sins of society.” Thus, the wanderer stands as a double for the character enmeshed in the trappings of society. For example, the Ancient Mariner doubles the Wedding Guest in Coleridge’s poem. The Mariner, a wanderer, is doomed to periodically accost a civilized person and share his story. The confrontation allows brief respite for the Mariner, as he shares his burden with his civilized double.

The self-divided hero/villain, found so often in Gothic fiction, offers yet another way to examine the notion of doubling. In this case, the character is often brave and cowardly, strong and weak, moral and depraved. Certainly, Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein falls into this category. He is a brilliant scientist, so bent on overcoming death that he crosses the boundary that divides the moral from the immoral. He sees himself to be above such petty and bourgeois distinctions, a precursor of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, or “Overman.” However, Frankenstein is both triumphant and repentant, a deeply troubled and deeply divided individual, so deeply divided that the warring sides of his psyche seem to belong to a set of mirror image twins.

Even time and experience become doubled in Gothic fiction through the use of déjà vu, the feeling that one has experienced an event before, and memory, the recollection of a real event. In many ways, this feeling is like a haunting; it is difficult, if not impossible, to identify why one has the feeling. By introducing the sense of déjà vu in their stories, Gothic writers bring both the past and the future into the present. Although a character may only experience an event once in reality, the twin devices of recollection and déjà vu allow the experience to happen again and again and again within the pages of the novel.

Finally, a number of critics identify an important theme in Gothic literature: that the sins of the father will be visited upon the son. In other words, the evil that someone does in his or her lifetime will be repaid in the lives of his or her offspring. Again, while this may not seem like an obvious use of doubling, it allows a Gothic writer to reintroduce the injustice perpetrated by a previous generation on the current generation, until the injustice is righted. Thus, sin is doubled and doubled until it is corrected.

Given that the use of doubling techniques features so heavily in so much Gothic literature, perhaps it is important to identify the roots of the double, as well as critical interpretations of its function in the literature. Most obviously, the use of the double in Gothic literature seems to spring from the duality of the Middle Ages, the era that Gothicists attempt to recreate in their writing. Certainly, medieval romance offers many models of the use of the double: Malory’s story of the twins Balin and Balan who meet each other in combat, unknown to each other, is an excellent example, as is the Guinevere/false Guinevere motif of the Arthurian legend. G. R. Thompson’s chapter, “A Dark Romanticism: In Quest of a Gothic Monomyth,” in Literature of the Occult speaks to the duality of the Middle Ages made graphic by “the evocation of the transcendent, upward thrust of Gothic cathedrals” and “the vision of the dark night of the soul and the nightmare terrors of demons.” That both are so present in the literature and the iconography of the Middle Ages demonstrates at least one channel through which notions of the double find their way to Gothic literature.

Likewise, the eighteenth century was also a time of extreme duality. The Enlightenment emphasis on reason and rationality, so dominant in this time, denies fully one half of human experience, that of passion and emotion. Writers of the eighteenth century were obsessed with distinguishing good from evil, truth from falsehood, and reason from passion. Perhaps the only way, then, for writers to account for both sides of this duality was to separate them in the creation of doubling experiences. And yet, throughout Gothic literature, it is as if what has been divided struggles mightily for reunion, a reunion that often results in death.

There are a variety of critical interpretations of how the double in Gothic literature functions as a response to the dualities discussed above. Frederick Frank in The First Gothics calls the Gothic “the literature of collapsing structures where even the narrative context itself is in a constant state of fall with no possibility of a visionary reordering.” He further quotes Thompson, who argues that Gothic literature “begins with irreconcilable dualities.” Thus, the attempted synthesis or reunion of the divided narrative, the divided psyche, and the divided culture ultimately and inevitably fails.

Botting in The Gothic identifies the use of the double in Gothic literature, along with other stock features, as the “principal embodiments and evocations of cultural anxieties.” The growth of science, for example, with the decline of religion offers such an example of a cultural anxiety. Thus, Frankenstein and his monster are both embodiments of the anxiety caused by the replacement of ultimate meaning with science. Likewise, the French Revolution, with its violent upheaval of social structures, is yet another cultural anxiety.

Finally, many critics turn to psychology for an interpretation of the function of the double in Gothic literature. Freud, in his essay “The Uncanny,” reviewed the work of Otto Rank, who studied “the connections which the ‘double’ has with reflections in mirrors, with shadows, with guardian spirits, with the belief in the soul and with the fear of death.” Freud argues that although the double starts out as a form of ego protection in children, it becomes “the uncanny harbinger of death—a thing of terror.” Certainly, readers in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century would find it difficult to even think about the notion of the double without referencing Freud and perhaps Carl Jung. The double can be seen as a representation of the divided self, personifying the pleasure seeking id, the self-aware ego, and the morality of the super-ego. Likewise, mirror images provide a way that the self can project its own darkness out of itself onto another.

Doubling, then, serves not only as a literary device designed to invoke terror in the reader, or as a complicated narrative maneuver, but also as an impetus for self-reflection and growth. Doody offers that “The most important point regarding the double is the necessity to confront and recognize the dark aspect of one’s personality in order to transform it by an act of conscious choice.” That is, the double allows a character to both confront his or her own darker self and reintegrate that self. Thus, the double, be it as doppelgänger, literal or figurative mirror image, artwork, or déjà vu functions as a means for self-confrontation and selfknowledge not only for the characters in the stories but for the reader of Gothic literature as well.

Source: Diane Andrews Henningfeld, Critical Essay on Gothic Literature, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Introductory Gothic Literature— What It Is and Why

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5643

Gothic fiction is a literature of nightmare. Among its conventions are found dream landscapes and figures of the subconscious imagination. Its fictional world gives form to amorphous fears and impulses common to all mankind, using an amalgam of materials, some torn from the author’s own subconscious mind and some the stuff of myth, folklore, fairy tale, and romance. It conjures up beings—mad monks, vampires, and demons—and settings—forbidding cliffs and glowering buildings, stormy seas and the dizzying abyss—that have literary significance and the properties of dream symbolism as well. Gothic fiction gives shape to concepts of the place of evil in the human mind.

It was a new literary form in the late eighteenth century. At that time, the purpose of Gothic fiction, like that of the Sentimental novel, to which it was closely allied, was to educate the reader’s feelings through his identification with the feelings of the characters; to arouse his “sympathy,” as the aesthetics of Sensibility demanded, by evoking pity and fear; and to explore the mind of man and the causes of evil in it, so that evil might be avoided and virtue fostered. The earliest Gothic romances are literary fantasies embodying, for didactic purposes, ideas about man’s psychology that were the culmination of a century of philosphical speculation on the subject. In them, good and evil are starkly differentiated absolutes, but as succeeding works delved deeper into the idea of evil as psychological, evil quickly began to be seen as relative and, in no time, its pleasures were being explored. All these works were based on accepted views about the human mind. Later authors, employing the same literary devices as the early works, introduced changes that both reflected and developed modifications of these views. As tales of the weird and horrid persisted through the nineteenth century, using the same stock characters and settings again and again, they gradually pieced together among them a picture of evil as a form of psychological monstrosity. The original querying into the origins of evil shifted to ambiguous presentations that questioned the nature of evil itself.

The highly conventionalized nature of the settings and characters, structures and imagery of Gothic fiction has always been recognized. All too frequently, however, these features have been dubbed “Gothic machinery” or “clap-trap” because, like other forms of popular literature, Gothic fiction has been seen as fare for a sensation-seeking audience and not, therefore, worth literary analysis. As a result, the course of the convention has not been traced. Instead, Gothic fiction has been called escape literature, intended to inspire terror for terror’s sake. Such descriptions have concealed the important ideas these tales contain. The view of the early Gothic romances as “just” a form of escape does not adequately explain why they appeared when they did or why their appeal was so immediate and so strong. Descriptions of the genre as a literature of violence reflecting a violent age, or as a literature of sensation needed to perk up a jaded age are circular as well as contradictory. Recent attempts to treat Gothic literature as an aspect of Romanticism also fail to see its significance as a convention. When we see that Gothic tales have continued to appear for two hundred years, and that the convention has been put to use by major writers as different from each other as Emily Brontë and Henry James, it is evident that something more is involved than a continuing taste for a ghoulish kind of bedside reading, and that these works are not confined to a single period of literature.

From Walpole’s maddened and murderous princeling in The Castle of Otranto to the self-tormented scientist in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the same conventional features keep reappearing because ideas of the same kind lie behind these works. That is, these and other writers chose the Gothic tale as a vehicle for ideas about psychological evil—evil not as a force exterior to man, but as a distortion, a warping of his mind. Walpole’s slight romance yields such an interpretation, so does Stevenson’s novel, so do the Gothic tales that appeared in the long stretch of time between them.

This is not to say that Stevenson and Walpole held the same view of evil, or of man’s psychology in general. Indeed, their ideas on the subject form a sharp contrast. The great interest in tracing this literary convention lies in the changes that take place within it, which correspond to the changes in thought on the subject that have occurred since Locke first set forth his theory of the workings of the mind. What seems to have happened is this: following Locke (who was to the eighteenth century what Freud has been to the twentieth), eighteenthcentury thinkers had devoted a great deal of their energies to the study of the mind, the nature of perception, the means to knowledge, expanding, adapting, and modifying Locke’s ideas. It was the first era in which the mind was studied inductively, and the changes in world view, especially in ideas about the moral nature of Man, that such thinking reflected and also helped bring about were given literary expression in a number of different genres, but most directly in the Sentimental fiction of the time, of which Gothic literature is a part. Within this general literary development, Gothic fiction first made its appearance when Horace Walpole, his head full of a romanticized, eighteenth-century medievalism, awakened from a dream of which he could remember only a scrap and, under its influence, turned out The Castle of Otranto, at white heat. Though he himself felt the importance of this slight work, which, to the end of his life remained his favorite among his writings, he expected his fellow literati would scorn it as a “romance.” Instead, his anonymous tale received high praise from literati and reading public alike. He had given fictional treatment to some of the major preoccupations of his time that were also his own concerns, and, after an interval, others began to copy his work—many a castle, many a tyrant, many a hero and heroine of perfect virtue and courage appeared. Naturally, however, Walpole’s successors each took his devices and used them a little differently. Clara Reeve declared Otranto was too extravagant and confined herself wherever possible to the “Natural”; William Beckford, romping off into the Arabian Nights, introduced the grotesque into the genre; Matthew Lewis added the tormented monk who was immediately picked up by Ann Radcliffe, herself the chief among terror-mongers, whose villains had influenced Lewis in the first place.

In this rush of authors making use of and modifying one another’s devices, there is more than a simple desire to share in the latest literary fad. Different though they were as personalities, these writers recognized the possibilities of the new genre for the expression of some of the prevailing views of their age, which they all shared, views not previously given fictional form. Each uncovered the implications of preceding works, recognizing the intuitions behind them. Thus, each delved deeper into the common subject, adding new devices to the convention as they were needed and producing works whose further implications could again be picked up by a successor to add a new round to the developing spiral of the genre. This process continued throughout the nineteenth century, as writers embodied the views of the later age in the same way. Thus, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne added twisted scientists to the mad monks of Lewis and Radcliffe. Among distorted human shapes inherited from the eighteenth century, monsters and demonic animals appeared in the nineteenth. The ghosts and devils of Walpole, Reeve, Lewis, and Radcliffe reappeared considerably modified in Maturin, Le Fanu, Brontë, and James, and to them and Beckford’s Giaour were added vampires and witches. Settings were changed from medieval to contemporary, a man’s house turned out to be still his Gothic castle and his soul, already reflected in paintings and statues, began to look back at him from mirrors and, worse still, from his double, a living, breathing copy of himself.

Gradually, if we follow the course of the convention as it winds through the nineteenth century, feeding its weird tales into the mainstream of realistic fiction, we can trace changes in ideas about the place of evil in the mind. The moral absolutes of eighteenth-century thought crumble before a shifting, relative morality. Soon Edgar Allan Poe is playing with ideas of evil and madness. By midnineteenth century, Emily Brontë has evoked a primitive spiritus loci to confound earlier notions of evil as unnatural; by the 1890s Henry James is placing evil in the eye of the moral arbiter. In tracing the convention, we can see the developing ideas that preoccupied the late eighteenth century and obsessed the nineteenth. In Gothic literature of those years, with its monsters and madmen, we find suggested imaginatively writers intuitive understanding of human evil.

Thus, within this literary convention, as in any other, changes and developments have occurred while it has retained its basically stable and recognizable outlines. Individual works within the convention embody the particularlities of the author’s thought in the devices common to the whole convention and thereby reveal both the ideas of the particular moment and the overall purpose of the convention itself. That common purpose, which ties these works together, emerges from the peculiar form of symbolism found in Gothic tales. In this literature, the entire tale is symbolic. In analyzing it, one has to speak of storms that “stand for” the villain’s anger or heroines that more closely represent a concept of virtue than flesh-and-blood women. Unlike the artfully buried symbols customary to a realistic work, the flagrant, all-pervading symbolism of a Gothic tale is almost, though not quite, allegorical. This literature is not allegory because its referents are deliberately hazy. The surface fiction is full of vague, unexplained horrors designed, not to render a precise meaning, but to evoke the emotion of “terror.” Yet, these effects of “terror” in Gothic tales refer to something beyond the fictional devices that produce them. The quasiallegorical effect derives from what lies behind the terror-inspiring fictional devices. These tales make use of the realization that monsters in fiction frighten because they are already the figments of our dreaming imaginations.

They are the shapes into which our fears are projected and so can be used in literature to explore the subterranean landscape of the mind. Terror is evoked when the ghost, the double, or the lurking assassin correspond to something that is actually feared, known or unknown. The fictional beings of Gothic fiction, whether they be human or animal, or manifestations from the “Beyond,” whether they be universal archetypes or the pettiest of childhood bogies, symbolize real but vague fears that the reader recognizes as his own and all men’s. Beneath the surface fiction there is a probing of humanity’s basic psychological forces, an exploration of the misty realm of the subconscious, and the symbols correspond to psychological phenomena that yield to literary analysis. Yet it is probably this quasi-allegorical nature of Gothic symbolism, with its meaning lying almost entirely outside the fictional surface, that has caused this convention to be read only for its surface fiction, about which, it is true, little more can be said than that it evokes fear for fear’s sake.

The authors of Gothic fiction, in writing their symbolic fantasies, necessarily chose a deliberately artificial form, for which they took their materials from earlier literature. The Castle of Otranto has several immediate antecedents—works that show an early use of historical setting, a ghost here and there, occasional sinister and supernatural happenings, and it has remote ancestors in Shakespeare and medieval romance. These and other predecessors have, of course, been traced. Thorough studies have been made of the relationship of Gothic fiction to the graveyard poets, to Shakespeare and Spenser, and to the combination of antiquarianism and the movement of Sentimentalism that swept the late eighteenth century. But all this is mere learned lumber unless it shows how Gothic fiction does something new. Since Gothic fiction was, as has been generally recognized, a new genre, it follows that it was doing something different with the materials of its predecessors. To discover what that is, it is necessary to uncover the ideas and aesthetic principles that gave rise to these works by analyzing them as symbolic constructs and to trace the convention with all its accretions through time and space. When this is done, the heritage on which Gothic authors drew throws further light on the meaning and purposes of their works.

The source and fountainhead of the entire Gothic tradition, Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, appeared in 1764, twelve years before its first important successor, Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron (1775), twenty-two years before William Beckford’s Vathek (1786), and nearly thirty before the first works of Ann Radcliffe. It is a rather frothy little romance, so crammed with events and relationships that it reads like a plot summary of itself. If Walpole had set out to stock a warehouse of Gothic materials for his successors, he could hardly have done better. Otranto is peopled with two-dimensional characters embodying virtue and vice; its setting constitutes a representation of the villain’s character; it is an indirect narration, a story mediated through two voices before it reaches the reader; and its imagery and supernatural events lead to an interpretation of its meaning as an eighteenthcentury psychological tale. All these features reappear in later works. Thus, an examination of Otranto tells a great deal about the convention to which it gave rise.

The medieval setting, the thunderous villain, the sensitive hero and heroine, the ghosts and other wonders that identify The Castle of Otranto as a Gothic tale were at least supposed to have been adopted from medieval romance. Here and elsewhere the relationship is tenuous at best, as the eighteenth century probably knew. A Gothic novel is to a medieval romance what an artificial ruin in an eighteenth-century garden was to a genuine one, and Walpole’s romance is like his house, consciously fanciful in its medievalism. He himself said of Strawberry Hill, the house he transformed into a “Gothic” mansion: “Every true Goth must perceive” that the early rooms “are more the works of fancy than of imitation.” The medieval setting of Otranto, too, is largely a creation of its author’s imagination. Walpole uses his medieval tale to make a fictional reality of evil as a psychological state; not for historical accuracy, but to appeal to eighteenth-century sensibilities. He employs it in accordance with the late eighteenth century’s aesthetic concept of the sublime as evoking pity and terror to draw the reader out of himself.

The first Gothic characteristic of Otranto is its presentation as an ancient manuscript rediscovered. This produces an indirect, mediated narration that imparts an air of strangeness to the exotic setting. Medieval Italy is already distant from the reader in time and space and, when he is asked to suppose himself imaginatively to be reading a manuscript of shadowy authorship unearthed and presented to him by an unidentified “editor,” a sense is imparted that he is about to delve into a world that will be difficult to understand. In the preface to the first edition, Walpole’s “editor” surmises that the story, the work of an unknown chronicler, is possibly by “an artful priest.” He speculates about the date of composition, establishing a sense of obscurity by preventing the reader from pinpointing the origin of the manuscript and by remarking on the quality of the original Italian of which his “translation,” he says, is a poor rendering. All this puts us on notice that a mysterious world is about to be revealed.

Sentimental and Gothic novelists frequently use fictitious editors of this sort. They are more than just a means for the author to conceal his identity. The statements these “editors” put into their “prefaces” must not be taken at face value. Rather, they are the first of many signals alerting us to the kind of reading required of us. For instance, by setting the “editor” between us and the “chronicler,” who is himelf relaying the story and, besides, is presented as suspect, Walpole guards against our rejecting the story because of its blatant artificiality, by putting us on notice that we must follow it according to its own rules.

Thus alerted, we can see that the “translator” criticism of the writer’s “moral” and his surmise that the suspect monk was attempting to “confirm the populace in their ancient errors and superstititions” is not a straightforward statement but a device of irony designed to attract our attention to that “moral.” The “editor” remarks that the benighted medieval chronicler has erred in basing his work on so flimsy a precept as “that the sins of fathers are visited on their children” (Walpole’s italics). Yet, in fact, the psychological aberration of incest—also a staple item in Gothic tales—is Walpole’s central theme and he is using the editor’s words to attract our attention to it. The plot is, in fact, an unravelling of the effect on children of their fathers’ deeds, good and bad. From the crushing of Manfred’s frail son Conrad under the giant helmet and Manfred’s murder of his daughter to the hero Theodore’s fulfillment of the prophecy, the children’s lives are affected by their fathers’ lives. And Manfred himself is driven by the demon of inherited evil. He is presented as not intrinsically wicked but as ruled by passions aroused by his obsession with the prophecy that his line will not retain its unlawful rule over the princedom. He was, we are told, naturally humane, “when his passion did not obscure his reason,” but it does, in fact, obscure his reason throughout the novel. Like a medieval Oedipus, he tries to prevent the prophecy from coming true and his own evil deeds and his downfall are the result of his desparate effort to maintain the position he holds through his grandfather’s crimes. Thus, the sins of the fathers are visited on the children in his case, too, but not in the sense that Manfred himself or his children have the divine wrath visited upon them. The awareness that his deeds are wrong and the sense that he is forced farther and farther down the path of evil maddens him and is actually the cause of his crimes. Thus, in this first of the Gothic novels, the problem of evil is already presented as a psychological problem created in the ambience of the family.

The characters who must carry the burden of this theme of inherited evil are also typically Gothic, being highly simplified figures useful for the embodiment of ideas. They are eighteenth-century, not medieval, figures, and, like the characters of Sentimental novels, their physical appearance corresponds to their spiritual state. The hero Theodore, his noble nature shining through his peasant’s disguise, represents the Right and the Good. A handsome physical reincarnation of his grandfather Alfonso, the virtuous usurped prince whose giant ghost is haunting the castle, Theodore is nobility itself. The three women, all perfectly virtuous, are also perfectly beautiful. The son and heir is physically weak and puny, representing the weakness of Manfred’s usurping claim in the face of just retribution. Manfred has more substance than they, because he is a figure torn by the conflict of good and evil within himself, but he is still a beetle-browed villain, also drawn without subtlety. These romance characters are like figures in a crowded tapestry. They talk in declamatory, set speeches that make the novel, crammed with action though it is, seem slow-moving, almost static. Hardly effective as a tale of adventure, it envelops the reader, as in a dream, a sort of symbolic nightmare.

Otranto has a considerable stock of stage effects that became typical of Gothic fiction, not just in themselves, but in the way they are used. The portrait of Manfred’s grandfather is not a Gothic device just because it supernaturally steps out of its frame and disgustedly slams a door in Manfred’s face. It is typical of Gothic fiction because its gesture of scorn shows us Manfred’s degeneration. It reveals that he has slipped lower morally than his grandfather. His ancestor’s sins weigh so heavily upon him that they torment him into evil greater than his grandfather’s original usurpation. The portrait serves as a reflection of Manfred, just as the statue of Alfonso reflects Alfonso’s grandson Theodore. Typically, the device that gives us the re- flection of the villain is a distorting mirror, giving the wicked man a monstrous shape, while the hero is mirrored faithfully. The way the statue shows signs of life, bleeds when Manfred stabs Matilda, is an example, like the action of the portrait, of the way the quasi-allegorical aspect of Gothic fiction works. These supernatural happenings are “translatable”; for example, the significance of the statue’s bleeding can be restated as: “the spirit of Goodness (Alfonso) bleeds metaphorically in compassion at the piteous sight of Virtue (Matilda) destroyed.” (It is unfortunate, but beside the point, that Walpole chose to make it a nosebleed.) The other supernatural phenomena in the novel work in the same way.

The central device in Otranto became the most famous of all Gothic devices: the identity of the castle or house with its owner. The castle in Walpole’s novel is Manfred. The wife and daughter he dominates so completely are confined to it almost entirely, as if they lived and breathed and had their being within his personality. The comings and goings of other characters, demanding entrance, fleeing secretively, appearing suddenly, directly reflect their relations with him. And finally, as the novel ends in Manfred’s moral collapse, the castle, disobeying the laws of nature, collapses too, disintegrating into rubble as other such buildings would do in later novels.

The identification of castle and man make the castle a manifestation of Manfred’s mind. In turn, this causes the giant ghost, with which Walpole again risks making the reader laugh, to render its meaning. Appearing in pieces though it does—first the enormous, sable-plumed helmet, then an arm, then a leg—it is the ghost of Alfonso, a manifestation of “the real owner . . . grown too large to inhabit [the castle]” mentioned in the prophecy. Haunting the castle of Manfred’s mind, it is his own awareness of the right and the noble that have been usurped by evil. The animated pieces of the giant suit of armor, unintentionally comic though they are, have a signifiance in relation to the overall meaning of the novel. Thus: the helmet crushes the weakling Conrad; that is, the first sign that Manfred’s unlawful claim is to be wrested from him— the helmet—kills the son through whom that claim was to be maintained. The helmet is too big for ordinary princelings, that is, Manfred’s and Conrad’s heads are figuratively too small to bear their responsibilities as princes. Conrad is too feeble physically to sustain even the first blow of retribution; that is, Manfred’s claim to the castle is too weak to endure. The successive appearances of the giant mailed hand and the leg in armor and, finally, the full armored figure of Alfonso continue this theme.

Conrad’s death renders Manfred more frantic than ever and so more villainous, showing how he continues to spin the web of evil out of himself. Because this event leaves him without an heir he sets in train the other dire events of the novel, all of which ultimately add pieces to the central portrait of Manfred himself. Other features of the tale also serve to characterize him. Theodore, the hero, for instance, embodies not merely nobility in the abstract but that noble sense of honor that Manfred has had to repress in himself to commit his evil deeds. It makes sense, consequently, that the villain should try to imprison the hero under the same giant helmet; that is, the threat of retribution makes Manfred aware of the unlawfulness of his position. This, in turn, awakens his sense of honor (Theodore speaks up from among the bystanders), which he immediately tries to repress. Theodore escapes temporarily through the hole the helmet has made in the paving of the courtyard, bringing him into the subterranean passages. That is, as Manfred’s honor, he is confined in the dark recesses of the castle or Manfred’s mind. And here he helps Isabella, the heroine, to escape from Manfred’s lustful and incestuous pursuit, Manfred’s sense of honor being, indeed, the only impulse that might lead him to spare her. The evil in Manfred, however, is more powerful than his honor, as we see when he angrily imprisons Theodore again, or in other words, again shuts up, represses, his sense of honor.

These correspondences between the characters and abstract qualities give this and other Gothic tales their quasi-allegorical air, but in the scenes that yield this kind of interpretation there is also a great deal of sexual symbolism that adds a rather different dimension, turning the interplay of abstract qualities into an exploration of Manfred’s aberrant psychology. Much of the sexual symbolism revolves around Isabella. The daughter figure, who was to have married Conrad, becomes the object of Manfred’s incestuous lust, and eventually marries the hero. When, fleeing Manfred, she comes upon Theodore in the subterranean passages, Isabella directs Theodore to open a secret lock in a trapdoor leading to a tunnel, although both are strangers to the place and the only light is a single moonbeam. Should we miss the sexual undertones to this scene, we later find her, in that incident frequently cited by critics, refusing out of maidenly modesty to follow Theodore into the depths of the caves, where they may take refuge from imminent danger. This moment in the novel is often pointed out as an example of the ridiculous lengths to which the authors of Gothic tales go to emphasize the “purity” of their heroines. But the whole scene has sexual significance. Isabella’s refusal to go deep into the caves with Theodore can be seen as a refusal of sexual advances rendered symbolically in a tale in which actual sexual advances by these embodiments of Virtue would be impossible.

As a result of her refusal, her father finds the two of them at the mouth of the cave and there is an immediate clash between him and Theodore, who almost kills him—with a sword. Thus, the handsome, youthful hero has been brought into direct conflict with both the father figures in the novel, Manfred and Isabella’s father, who are contending for both Isabella and hegemony over the principality to which Theodore is, in fact, heir. The story reenacts the myth of power wrested from the old king by the young prince. In its association with the incest theme, the conflict over the daughter figure between the boyish hero and the two father figures suggests an Oedipal struggle between son and father for sexual possession of the woman. We should note here that the open conflict between the young and the old man is precipitated by the “overniceness” of the young woman in her relations with the young man. This sort of subtlety pervades the entire Gothic tradition. There are many other features of the novel that have distinct sexual overtones, such as the stabbing of the second daughter figure, Matilda, the giant sword, and more.

The rest of the novel also lends itself to this sort of interpretation. In summary, the cardboard characters of Otranto, moving through improbable supernatural events, tell us that Manfred, a good character at heart, has been driven and twisted into evil in his attempt to maintain his inheritance, which is the character (castle) passed on to him from his grandfather whose enthroned wickedness usurped the place of the Good (Alfonso) within him. Driven wild by his sense of his own impotence (his barren wife Hippolyta and his feeble son who is destroyed), Manfred descends to incest. This sin, which mirrors the self, is presented first explicitly in his attempt to marry Isabella then symbolically when he stabs his daughter Matilda. This is again a self-destructive impulse to repress all goodness within himself, for Matilda, an entirely spiritual being who wished to devote her life to God by entering a convent, represents goodness itself, divorced from the entanglements of worldly life. She recognizes Alfonso in Theodore, instantly loves him (the Good), and so releases him from the prison in which Manfred has confined him. Thus, Manfred’s good daughter, whom he spurns when his evil is upon him, releases his sense of honor again, but it only plagues him the more. As a consequence, after many a complication, Theodore (Manfred’s honor) again rescues Isabella (the object of Manfred’s incestuous lust). Honor, however, is once more negated when Manfred kills Matilda, mistaking her for Isabella as she talks with Theodore before the statue of Alfonso. This murder of his own spiritual being brings about both the collapse and the regeneration of Manfred. When the enormity of the deed bursts upon his consciousness, Manfred and the castle collapse simultaneously. The spirit of Alfonso (Manfred’s spirit of Goodness) is translated into heaven as Manfred recognizes his own evil and the destruction he has brought on himself, and retires to a spiritual life in a monastery.

As the successive generations of Manfred’s line have become increasingly degenerate under the distorting pressure of evil, so the descendants of Alfonso have grown increasingly noble through suffering. The spirit of nobility bursts asunder the walls of the castle, the closed world of Manfred’s evil, and Theodore stands forth, not as the inheritor of a crumbled ruin, but as the personification of triumphant nobility above and greater than the worldly power represented by the principality of Otranto.

Thus, the apparently tragic ending of the novel is symbolically optimistic. The view of good and evil it conveys is consonant with the deistic outlook of Walpole and many of his contemporaries and the otherwise incongruous comic resolution in the final paragraph, in which Theodore and Isabella decide on marriage to be sustained by contemplation of the beloved spirit of Matilda, makes sense as a symbolic rendering of moral order restored.

It may be objected that this sort of interpretation reads more into Walpole’s tale than is really there. Eighteenth-century novelists are not usually thought of as dredging up subconscious sexual images, or writing dream fantasies, or fictionalizing psychological ideas. Yet what we know of the late eighteenth century and of Walpole himself provides evidence to support these possibilities. All Walpole remembered of his dream was the giant hand on the stair rail, but his own feeling that he wrote the novel under the pressure of that dream indicates that he was able to release his imagination and al- low the story to well up in his mind, rather than starting with an idea and a conscious plan. That he should have chosen a medieval setting for it was, he said, natural to a mind afloat in the Gothic atmosphere of Strawberry Hill, and, indeed, he was just the person to invent the device of the identification of the villain and his castle, regarding his own house, as he did, as an expression of his personality, an indulgence of his fancy. At the same time, the sort of personal expression this suggests was quite naturally welded in Walpole’s work with the fictionalization of ideas. His interests lay with the antiquarianism that was part of the Sentimentalist movement of the day, a movement that, in its many aspects, was bent on exploring the emotions. In literature, Sentimentalism was embodying ideas about human nature, and Walpole was part of that movement.

Thus, personal reasons account for Walpole’s having been the one to produce the tale that began the whole tradition, while the age he lived in accounts for the genre’s having appeared when it did. No such work, after all, appeared from the pens of authors under similar personal pressures in earlier times. The late eighteenth century was an era of interested inquiry into the nature of the human mind and of an interest in the inner self that was also manifested in other new genres appearing at the time which probe and reveal the psyche.

Although Walpole and his contemporaries cannot have known his work would establish a literary convention, they were aware of the nature of the work itself. We can already see in the preface to the second edition of Otranto what Walpole saw himself as having achieved in the novel. He states explicitly that when he blended “the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern,” the ancient, which was fantasy, freed his imagination, while the modern, reflecting the real world, lent reality to his characters. The characters are not very convincingly real, of course, but they are recognizably eighteenth-century figures embodying current ideas about the human mind. By placing them in the world of dreams and fairy tales, Walpole was able to present his age’s concept of human evil— pride, hatred, violence, cruelty, incest—as part of man’s psychology. The one kind of romance enabled him to delve into his own subconscious, the other helped him to relate what he found there to the human condition in general.

Source: Elizabeth MacAndrew, “Introductory Gothic Literature— What It Is and Why,” in The Gothic Tradition in Fiction, Columbia University Press, 1979, pp. 3–52.


Gothic Literature: An Overview


Gothic Themes, Settings, and Figures