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Calamitous Catastrophe in The Castle of Otranto

Having just finished a re-read of Frankenstein from a volume titled
Three Gothic Novels,
which had stood undisturbed on my bookshelf since the completion of my master’s degree, I determined to investigate the remaining contents of the book before returning it to its enforced isolation among the lofty and forgotten shelves that line my garret walls. (Yes, I have been reading too much gothic literature.) Since I’d heard a good deal of the
Castle of Otranto,
I endeavored to wade through its brief span of pages before the paperback crumbled in my hands.

Walpole’s little novel is commonly credited as the fountainhead for the vogue of gothic literature that would appear in the half century after its 1765 appearance, a vogue parodied by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey and brought to, perhaps, its highest level in Jane Eyre.

In this novel, we have the story of love gone ridiculously (and speedily) wrong. As the wicked Manfred contrives to solidify his family’s position by marrying his sickly son off to the vulnerable daughter of a rival, that plan is cut short when the boy is smashed by the supernatural appearance of a gigantic helmet. Not to be slowed by the tragedy within his walls, Manfred speedily changes course and determines to gain a divorce from his wife and marry his son’s intended, Isabella, himself. When her father, supposedly dead in the Crusades, makes an appearance, Manfred thickens the plot by offering his daughter’s hand to the newcomer in exchange for a clear title to Isabella. In the end, Manfred mistakenly kills his only remaining child and discovers that the genuine heir to Otranto, which his grandfather had deceitfully usurped, is at hand, ready to take control. All of this convolution would be solid fare for a medieval soap opera were it not for the supernatural elements. Besides the rain of gigantic helmets, we have a bleeding statue, and several sightings of gigantic, armored hands or feet. In the story’s climax, a gigantic figure of Lord Alfonso, the noble from whose family Manfred’s forebears had taken Otranto, appears after smashing some of the castle’s exterior walls.

Even before that dramatic conclusion, my mind saw images of Don Giovanni cowering as the Commendatore burst into the banquet hall. With the significance of the funerary sculpture and the wall-busting appearance of the wronged principal, it seems certain that Mozart (or his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte) drew inspiration from Walpole’s work.

At the same time, the novel evokes the story of the writing on the wall from Daniel. Manfred, it seems, has been weighed in the balance and found wanting like Belshazzar. In both cases, before the first portent, either the ethereal hand writing on the wall in Daniel 5 or the deadly and inexplicable killer helmet in Otranto, the die is cast.  Belshazzar has no opportunity to repent and escape his fate; Manfred has lost his son before he knows anything is afoot. Yet these two stories suggest the justice in each others’ pages. Even when faced with an obviously supernatural event in the death of his son, Manfred continues his machinations and, if anything, delves further into wrongdoing. Given the chance to cut his losses, Manfred doubles down and guarantees his utter ruin and misery. Belshazzar, beyond hope at the time of his feast, can be assumed to have similar lack of resolves. Had he been given an opportunity to limit his destruction, he probably would not have done so.

The Castle of Otranto moves along quickly, without much wasted motion. The characters are a bit “swoonish” and one-dimensional, as befits the genre, but I find them not nearly as irritating as Victor Frankenstein, on whom I will opine next.

Posted in English Literature, Neo-Classicism.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. Something Borrowed by Byron – A Noble Theme linked to this post on February 11, 2012

    […] just read and written about Walpole’s Castle of Otranto sent me to this piece of Byron, a work I hadn’t read since Professor Shannon’s British […]

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