Do you like Gothic literature? If you answered yes, you’ll love The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole because it’s the start of the genre.
In a hurry?
Below, you’ll find my thoughts on The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole.
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Introduction to The Castle of Otranto
Is The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole a timeless classic? It has stood the test of time, and continues to be of interest to readers because of its historic importance. It is an important book, primarily because it is the founding text of the Gothic genre, which branched off into sub genres – historical romance, science fiction and detective fiction. The book was published in 1764, the year after the Seven Years War (1756–1763) ended.
The reader may miss this point in the book because it is very subtle, but the building, the castle, plays a very important role in the story – the gothic castle is the protagonist in the book. This is another instance where the “History of Architecture” course is beneficial because I got some backstory about Horace Walpole, who was the son of Sir Robert Walpole, a British Prime Minister. The author was very much interested in architecture, and in fact, went on The Grand Tour for a couple of years. Because he spent a lot of time in Italy, The Castle of Otranto is set there.
Where the Idea for The Castle of Otranto Came From
His home, Strawberry Hill, a Gothic castle, which he reconstructed, prompted him to write The Castle of Otranto – there is a relationship between the two. In his life, he often made connections between the novel and architecture. In architecture, proportion is very important, as is the case with The Castle of Otranto. Horace Walpole’s intent is to over-stimulate the reader and overwhelm her using scale and proportion – a gigantic helmet, a giant with large hands and feet. He also uses the surreal to give the reader a jolt.
When reading The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, the reader has to keep in mind that it was written in a different historical era. Once again, digesting information from another perspective, that of architecture, makes the story, and the review, more colourful and lively.
Summary of The Castle of Otranto
The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole is absurd, yet you won’t put it down. The story starts off with Manfred, Prince of Otranto discovering that his only son, 15 year old Conrad, has been killed on his wedding day. His ripped apart body is found under a gigantic helmet. Isabella, his son’s fiancée is not unhappy about Conrad’s untimely parting because she didn’t have any romantic feelings for him and didn’t want to marry him in the first place. Manfred blames the death of his son on a young peasant boy, Theodore, from a nearby village.
Manfred is a tyrant, who rules by fear, which is no surprise. He doesn’t treat his loving wife, Hippolita, and daughter, Matilda with respect or show any form of tenderness. In fact, he blames his wife for not being able to give him more than one son. When he realizes that his ancestral line will end because of Conrad’s death, he hashes out a plan to divorce his wife and marry Isabella instead. When he makes his intention known to Isabella, she flees to a nearby church using a subterranean tunnel in the castle, and Theodore helps her to escape.
There are many bizarre events taking place in the story. For instance, a picture comes out of its panel, and stalks through the room, to dissuade Manfred from marrying Isabella. His servants, Diego and Juarez see the foot of a giant clad in armor, and another servant, Bianca, sees the arm of the giant at a later date. The parish priest, Father Jerome, from the church that Isabel is seeking refuge, claims Theodore as his son. We learn that Theodore is not a poor peasant, but a knight. The reader is now wondering, how could this be so? Did Father Jerome break his vow?
Frederic, the Marquis of Vicenza, and father of Isabella, shows up, and the reader is now wondering who the rightful owner of Otranto is, is it Manfred or Frederic? It is neither, we learn that the rightful owner of the castle is Theodore. In The Castle of Otranto, Walpole uses supernatural means, to restore the castle to its rightful owner, Theodore, and expel Manfred. Manfred finally admits how his grandfather had poisoned Theodore’s grandfather to claim the castle. We also learn how Father Jerome came to have a son.
In later Gothic works, authors have followed suit, replacing the natural with the supernatural to delight and sometimes overwhelm readers.
About Horace Walpole
Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford (September 24, 1717 – March 2, 1797), was the son of Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s longest-serving prime minister. He learned about trade early in life, and was a Patron of the Arts. He spent a lot of time in Italy. Walpole was one of the young elites who went on the Grand Tour, and in fact, was carried across the Swiss Alps in a sedan chair. While being carried through the Alps, he was able to experience the sublime and the splendor of nature. He went on the Grand Tour in 1739, two years after the death of his mother, and it was his rite of passage into manhood. His Tour lasted until September 1741.
At the age of 24, he was elected as a Member of Parliament while he was still on the Grand Tour – shortly before he returned home. His stint in parliament lasted 27 years.
Harold Walpole was a promoter of the Gothic in architecture. In 1748, he bought a small home in Twickenham, which he reconstructed to create a gothic castle. The home was later known as Strawberry Hill, which was a home, art gallery, major artistic creation, and library, which housed his extensive collection of books and manuscripts. The gothic style of architecture was already widespread, but architects now consider Strawberry Hill as a fake revival for the Gothic style of architecture. He wrote Castle of Otranto, set in Italy, dated 1765, but published as a regular trade edition at the end of 1764. The book was very well received and had many print runs.