In 1764, the son and heir of a successful politician, Horace Walpole, launched his and humanity’s first attempt at Gothic fiction with his remarkable novel, The Castle of Otranto. Due to several elements that are present throughout the book, it is widely considered to be the initiating spark of a new branch in literature, and in arts generally. Despite the book’s publication in the eighteenth century, the new form of fiction could not manage to fit until the Victorian period, where it started to gain popularity among readers.
In eighteenth’s century England, the people’s collective consensus was strongly established and well constructed when it came to regarding several issues. Simultaneously, other notions were undergoing sheer deconstruction. The scientific revolution implemented novel ways of considering and thinking, which is one of the consequences of the Enlightenment. Accordingly, there was a general tendency towards believing that everything was within the diameter of man’s ability to analyze and explain; this notion flourished explicitly in the eighteenth century, supported by the accelerating technological advancement and England’s extravagant exploration of the surrounding world. It seemed like nothing was impossible to penetrate, and not a thing was out of science’s continually expanding reach. England stood on a solid ground of new discoveries, beliefs and deeply rooted social norms.
This was the historical context that shrouded the emergence of Gothic fiction, which as expected, was looked upon with confusion of the sort, combined with a sense of admiration.
Walpole’s Castle of Otranto: A Gothic View of Humanity
When it comes to The Castle of Otranto, the plot of the book revolves around a castle that is inhabited by a family, consisting of Manfred, the father, his children Conrad and Matilda, and his wife Hippolita. Manfred’s son is set to marry the Marquis of Vicenza’s daughter Isabella. In the first chapter, a curse is mentioned that forebodes an ominous fate for perhaps all the members of the family.
“…the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it.”
As soon as the reader is confronted with the curse, the instinctive gloomy anticipation is met with the sudden death of Conrad, who is crushed by a giant helmet that falls from the sky.
Instead of grieving the death of his only son, the accident weaves a thought in Manfred’s head to divorce his wife and marry Isabella himself, so that he would not bear the risk of having no male heirs. The perverted design of the father petrifies Isabella and she attempts to escape with the help of a young peasant named Theodore, initiating one of Gothic fiction’s most prominent themes. When Isabella’s father, Frederic, shows up in the timeline of the novel, Manfred tries to reach an agreement with him in order to be allowed to be married to Isabella, and in return, he would allow Frederic to marry his own daughter, Matilda.
Manfred builds a conviction of his own that Theodore and Isabella are lovers. Enraged by his illusion, he attacks Theodore and a woman that was with him. Tragically, the woman dies and she is exposed to be Matilda, Manfred’s own daughter. In the end, it is revealed to the reader that the young peasant, Theodore, is in fact the rightful heir to the castle of Otranto. He and Isabella marry eventually while Manfred and his wife isolate themselves by moving into a remote monastery.
The importance of Walpole’s Castle of Otranto lies within the fact that it introduces new elements, literary as well as intellectual, starting from the mere setting of the events, the castle. As it is put explicitly clear in the book, the newly founded form of fiction aims mainly at exploring the most secretive, hidden aspects of humanity and delving into the dark, gloomy labyrinth of desires within the psychology of human beings. Thus, due to their appearance, the use of Gothic architecture seemed to be the perfect method to artistically reflect the quintessential ominous essence of every work of Gothic fiction. To a great degree, the originally religious buildings stand on their own in Gothic stories as mirrors, on which a reflection of the plot’s and characters’ darkness appears.
This combination of delving into deserted territories of the human psychology and the use of vast, dark and full of maze-like corridors castles demonstrate a possible desire within the writer to defy the superb form of knowledge claimed by his contemporary realm, a world where everything is subdued to the power of science and experimental observation. It is arguably a battle set by the writer to present his “Age of reason” with non-reasonable events and manners of behavior, which stand in Walpole’s novel as an opposition to its era’s social and intellectual norms.
Another element that is featured in the book, and which will exist later on in most Gothic works, is Matilda, Manfred’s daughter. The name itself would later be exploited by other authors for the figure of the forbidden woman in their works, and eventually it would become a sort of tradition for Gothic fiction. The name appears in Mathew Lewis’s The Monk (1796) to refer to demoniacal, forbidden woman who drags the protagonist into the abyss of his downfall; it is also used by Percy Shelley for the female protagonist in his Gothic novella, Zastrozzi: A Romance (1810). However, this is not the only reason why Matilda is an essential Gothic element. As previously mentioned in the plot, Isabella tries to flee after Manfred decides to marry her. Simultaneously, Matilda does not approve her father’s design to give her to Isabella’s father, Frederic. This image of women being put in torturous situations caused by heinous male figures is perhaps one of Walpole’s most important contributions, for Gothic fiction would later often include a female figure trying to escape the cage of a tyrannical male, which in Otranto’s case, is portrayed by the villainous Manfred.
In the eighteenth century culture, women’s disposition was to an extent critical, as it was a necessity amidst the society back then for a woman to be virtuous and distant from any behavior that would stain her reputation with shame. Women had to bear severe cultural and social oppression of their feelings in order to gain acceptance within society, and in order to appear morally attractive to men so that they would receive suitable suitors. This extreme sensitivity of women’s place in eighteenth century’s England is argued by many critics to be the original image of what female figures suffer in Gothic works of art.
On the other hand, this tyrannical male figure, Manfred, constructs a classic villain who is not merely innately good or bad, but an ordinary human being with a common human flaw, which is, not being able to master or control his passions and desires. The sub plot of Manfred’s ancestors brings to the surface another theme that Walpole inserts as a robust foundation for Gothic fiction, which is the past haunting the present. As the story proceeds towards its end, the reader learns about Manfred’s ancestor, Ricardo, who murdered the original owner of the castle, Alfonso the good. Ricardo then forged a will that allowed him to take over the castle and pass it to his children, which is the reason behind the curse in chapter one. Even though Manfred is a villainous figure, he still does not own a choice for his fate is haunted by the hideous deed of his murderous grandfather, which in a sense renders him to eventually be bestowed with some sympathy by the reader.