Horace Walpole: The Castle of Otranto

The Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole's "Gothic Story" published in 1764, purports to be an Italian tale dating from the time of the crusades, and is the earliest and most influential example of the genre. The son of a Prime minister, Walpole had a taste for Medievalism that was indulged in the house he turned into a little Gothic castle of his own and named Strawberry Hill. He delighted in his jeu d'esprit as an eccentric distraction from the world of public responsibility. He declared in his preface to the second edition that his aim was "to blend the two kinds of romance: the ancient and the modern", attempting to justify the novel's move away from the enlightenment neo-classical aesthetic to a composite of medieval romance and the emerging realistic novel. Thus, full reign was to be given to "the boundless realms of the imagination"; while at the same time the characters would "think, speak and act, as it might be supposed mere men and women would do in extraordinary positions".

Manfred, the tyrannical prince of Otranto, suffers the loss of his son Manfred on the eve of his wedding to Isabella of Vincenza, through a bizarre supernatural occurrence. A giant helmet, assumed to be from a statue of the old prince Alfonso the Good, crushes him to death. A young peasant named Theodore at the scene of this occurrence incurs the wrath of Manfred for suggesting the helmet's origin and is imprisoned. Distraught at the loss of his heir and mindful of a family prophecy, the prince decides to divorce his virtuous wife Hippolita in order to marry Isabella himself and so continue his line. When this is proclaimed, the portrait of his grandfather descends from the wall, beckons him away, and then vanishes. Meanwhile Isabella escapes to claim sanctuary, aided by the young peasant who is revealed to be the long lost son of the friar Jerome, alias the Count of Falconara. Frederic of Vicenza arrives at the court and demands the return of his daughter, who has fled the convent and must be rescued by Theodore. Both Manfred's daughter and Isabella have fallen in love with Theodore, who Jerome admits to being the son of the daughter of Alfonso. The statue of Alfonso bleeds and real blood is shed when Manfred kills his daughter, mistaking her for Isabella. Grief-stricken, he reveals that his grandfather poisoned Alfonso to gain the throne and retires to a monastic life along with Hippolita. Isabella is left to marry Theodore and the rightful line is re-established.

The Castle of Otranto was undoubtedly the key template for Gothic themes and features, although it is questionable whether Walpole quite succeeded in creating the blend of romance and realism he desired. The preface suggests a certain unease and awareness of the transgression of normal aesthetic norms, and aims to demonstrate a compromise in this "new species of romance". There is also a wish to distance the writer from any hint of impropriety. Novels were not yet wholly accepted as acceptable features of polite society, and it was only after the success of the anonymously published first edition that Walpole acknowledged authorship. The ambivalent blend of subversion and conformity that became one of the genre's defining characteristics was established in The Castle of Otranto. The novel ends in the restoration of the social status quo, with the correct aristocratic primogeniture restored and the virtuous Theodore in power. However, there is a larger framework of supernatural power, the manifestations of which are violent and sublime, vindicating the superstitions of the servants in the novel in a distinctly anti-enlightenment way. Walpole claimed that the novel had been inspired by a dream, and his rejection of rational explanation is reflected in the novel's appeal to the emotions rather than rational understanding. The Castle of Otranto leaves the reader unsure of its moral purpose in its modulation between serious and comic modes and ambivalent moral nature, and as such is representative of a wider uncertainty in the period of society's relation to the Gothic past and the function of literature.

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