PLOT ACCOUNT, CHARACTERS , GOTHIC ELEMENTS BY HORACE WALPOLE -EDITED BY INSTRUCTOR MGO
The Castle of Otranto tells the story of Manfred, lord of the castle, and his family. The book begins on the wedding-day of his sickly son Conrad and princess Isabella. Shortly before the wedding, however, Conrad is crushed to death by a gigantic helmet that falls on him from above. This inexplicable event is particularly ominous in light of an ancient prophecy, “that the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it”. Manfred, terrified that Conrad’s death signals the beginning of the end for his line, resolves to avert destruction by marrying Isabella himself while divorcing his current wife Hippolita, who he feels has failed to bear him a proper heir.
However, as Manfred attempts to marry Isabella, she escapes to a church with the aid of a peasant named Theodore. Manfred orders Theodore’s death while talking to the friar Jerome, who ensured Isabella’s safety in the church. When Theodore removes his shirt to be killed, Jerome recognizes a marking below his shoulder and identifies Theodore as his own son. Jerome begs for his son’s life, but Manfred says Jerome must either give up the princess or his son’s life. They are interrupted by a trumpet and the entrance of knights from another kingdom who want to deliver Isabella. This leads the knights and Manfred to race to find Isabella.
Theodore, having been locked in a tower by Manfred, is freed by Manfred’s daughter Matilda. He races to the underground church and finds Isabella. He hides her in a cave and blocks it to protect her from Manfred and ends up fighting one of the mysterious knights. Theodore badly wounds the knight, who turns out to be Isabella’s father, Frederic. With that, they all go up to the castle to work things out. Frederic falls in love with Matilda and he and Manfred begin to make a deal about marrying each other’s daughters. Manfred, suspecting that Isabella is meeting Theodore in a tryst in the church, takes a knife into the church, where Matilda is meeting Theodore. Thinking his own daughter is Isabella, he stabs her. Theodore is then revealed to be the true prince of Otranto and Matilda dies, leaving Manfred to repent. Theodore becomes king and eventually marries Isabella because she is the only one who can understand his true sorrow.
Illustration from a 1794 German edition
Manfred — the lord of the Castle of Otranto. He is the father of Conrad and Matilda, and the husband of Hippolita. After his son is killed by the falling helmet, he becomes obsessed with the idea of ending his marriage with Hippolita in pursuit of the much younger Isabella, who was supposed to marry his son. Manfred serves as the prime antagonist of the novel; he is the dictatorial ruler and father that drives the plot forward in a depiction of deranged cruelty visited upon his children.
Hippolita — the wife of Manfred and the mother of Conrad and Matilda. After having lost her son, she is left with just Matilda to combat the tyrannical turn of mind that her husband displays. Manfred intends to divorce her due to her sterility and on the grounds that their marriage is in fact false because they are actually related. Faced with the threat of divorce, Hippolita is mournful yet submissive to the wills of her husband. She acts as a sort of enabler to her husband, putting aside her morals and happiness so that her husband can get what he wants.
Conrad — the fifteen-year-old son of Manfred and Hippolita and the younger brother of Matilda. In the first pages of the novel, he is crushed by a giant helmet on his way to his wedding with Isabella.
Matilda — Matilda is the daughter of Hippolita and the oppressive Manfred. She falls in love with Theodore, much to her chagrin since it is a love unsanctioned by her parents. Upon the appearance of Frederic, things become even more complicated as Frederic lusts after Matilda. She serves as the forbidden woman, a facet of Gothic literature. Frederic and Manfred make plans to swap their daughters in marriage, crushing Matilda’s hope of being with Theodore. At the end of the novel, she is mistakenly stabbed by her father.
Isabella — the daughter of Frederic and the fiancée of Conrad (at the beginning of the novel). After the death of Conrad, she makes it clear that, although she did not love Conrad, she would have far preferred being betrothed to him rather than his father, who pursues her throughout the novel. Isabella and Matilda have a brief argument concerning the fact they both have feelings for Theodore. After the death of Matilda, Theodore settles for Isabella and the two become the lord and lady of the castle.
Theodore — at the beginning of the novel, Theodore appears to be a mere minor character, whose role is purely to point out the significance of the helmet as a link to the fulfillment of the prophecy. However, he emerges as a main character after Manfred orders him to be imprisoned within the helmet for his insolence and he escapes, only to help Isabella escape from the castle through a trapdoor. He is revealed later in the novel to be the lost son of Friar Jerome. Theodore proceeds to protect Isabella from the wanton lust of Manfred. He captures the hearts of both Isabella and Matilda, but settles for Isabella after Matilda’s death. He also later goes on to rule the Castle of Otranto.
Friar Jerome — the friar at the monastery near the Castle of Otranto. Manfred attempts to manipulate him into both supporting his plan to divorce his wife and persuading his wife to go along with this plan. It is later discovered that he is Theodore’s father.
Frederic — the long-lost father of Isabella who appears late into the novel. He opposes Manfred at first, until he settles on a deal to marry Matilda.
Bianca — the servant of Matilda who serves as a comic relief of the otherwise highly melodramatic novel.
Diego and Jaquez — these two, like Bianca, are other servants within the Castle of Otranto.
Literary elements Edit
In the preface of the second edition, Walpole creates a heuristic for reading Castle which irrevocably changes the way readers are to view the novel until its end. He claims to blend the new and old styles of romance. The “old” romance is what we would consider pre-novel prose – a main tenet of such writings is their fantastic nature. There is magic, the supernatural abounds and they are wholly unbelievable. The style of the “new” romance is what the novels of the 18th century, when Walpole was writing, would generally have looked like. These novels were realistic: they purported to depict events and people as they truly were.
Walpole then, by attempting to blend these two genres, creates something new – something truly “novel”. He creates fantastic situations (helmets falling from the sky, walking portraits, etc.) and places supposedly real people into these situations and allows them to act in a “real” manner. In doing so, he effectively allows fiction to evolve in ways that it would otherwise have not been able to. However, readers then may question to what extent did Walpole succeed in his attempt. Do readers view these characters’ reactions as truly realistic, or do they merely seem so because of the heuristic that we are given at the outset of the novel?
Gothic elements Edit
The Castle of Otranto is the first supernatural English novel and one of the most influential works of Gothic fiction. It blends elements of realist fiction with the supernatural and fantastical, establishing many of the plot devices and character-types that would become typical of the Gothic novel: secret passages, clanging trapdoors, pictures beginning to move, and doors closing by themselves. The poet Thomas Gray told Walpole that the novel made “some of us cry a little, and all in general afraid to go to bed o’nights.”