Notes for The Castle of Otranto (1764)
Version Date: May 29, 2000
Horace Walpole (1717-1797), in his attempt to blend the wildness and
imagination of the old romances with the probability required of the new
fiction, invented the Gothic novel in one step with the Castle of Otranto.
Influences or inspirations behind the book include a dream Walpole had,
Gothic architecture, castles, old things in general, Aristotle's Poetics
(and the idea of pity and fear purging), Horace's Art of Poetry,
Preface to the First Edition
This preface serves as a frame in which Walpole pretends to be an objective,
third party translator. The title page to the first edition reads, "The
Castle of Otranto, A Story. Translated by William Marshal, Gent. From the
Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St. Nicholas
at Otranto." Many novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries contain
frames similar to this because of the benefits they provide. These include:
Paragraphs 1-2. The manner and tone of the "translator" clearly indicate
that this book is clearly worth studying, even though the reader "is not
bound to believe" the supernatural events described.
authenticity. For many years, fiction was distrusted. Why read a
book that was not true? people would ask. True stories are somehow more
compelling than fiction because "they really happened." Thus, a common
pose for novelists was to claim that the story was really true. Some explanation
of the origin of the story or manuscript is given (its provenance). In
the case of this preface, the "translator" fusses over the date of composition,
the probable author, his motives, and so forth to create the impression
that we are holding a genuine translation of a genuine document.
authority. The "translator" supplies his own ethos (character and
hence credibility) by revealing the characteristics of a careful scholar.
He names the city of original publication, notes that the book was printed
in "black letter," and adds many other details that make him sound like
a scholar. The use of details is one indicator of factuality and of carefulness.
Vague or general accounts are usually deemed unreliable, while specific
accounts are judged to be more credible and accurate. That is why journalists
adopt the "journalistic pose," giving many details in their accounts--the
age of the victim, the caliber of the gun, the number of shots fired, and
so forth. Thus, this detailed preface provides both a sense of authority
for the supposed translator and an air of authenticity to the claim for
antiquity. The eighteenth century reader of the first edition is
told that the book was first printed in 1529, while internal evidence in
the story might place its writing "between 1095, the aera of the first
crusade, and 1243, the date of the last, or not long afterwards." The "translator,"
however, rejects such an early date and asserts that stylistic evidence
indicates a date "little antecedent to that of the impression." This is
a clever ploy. The generous reader will think the story perhaps as old
as seven hundred years, while the reader who is cautiously conservative
will still think the work two hundred years older than it really is. In
the eighteenth century, just as today, there is value bias toward the old,
the antique, the ancient story.
artistic value. If you have ever read a review of a book before
you bought it, you know the value of getting a third-party opinion. The
author obviously thinks the work valuable, but that does not tell us much.
If a third party recommends a work, that is of some use. Consequently,
in some old novels the frames use "editors" of "found manuscripts" to produce
a sense of third-party valuation of a work, whereas Walpole here shrewdly
uses the pose of a translator. If someone valued a work enough to translate
every word from one language to another, why then, perhaps it is worth
Paragraph 3. Terror is "the author's principal engine" for propelling
the plot, while it is often "contrasted by pity." See Aristotle's Poetics:
Tragedy uses pity and fear to purge those very emotions (Chapter 6).
Paragraph 5. The book is argued to be morally useful: "The piety that
reigns throughout, the lessons of virtue that are inculcated, and the rigid
purity of the sentiments, exempt this work from the censure to which romances
are but too liable." Compare Horace's Art of Poetry: "Poets aim at giving
either profit or delight, or at combining the giving of pleasure with some
useful precepts for life" (Dorsch 90).
Paragraph 6. One last attempt is made to authenticate the narrative:
"I cannot but believe that the groundwork of the story is founded on truth."
Preface to the Second Edition
This might be called the literary preface, because in it Walpole not only
admits the imposture of the first preface, but goes on explain his purpose.
He says that he wanted to blend ancient and modern romance styles, to create
a blending of imagination and probability, of mystery and nature. The remainder
of the preface defends his use of comic scenes within the work. Walpole
appeals to Shakespeare as justification. The contrast between serious and
comic should heighten the serious scenes.
The plot of a novel is the mechanism of movement that connects all the
description, characterization, conversations, and even authorial intrusions.
Plot or story might be called the nexus generator of the novel. But why,
when we read The Castle of Otranto, do we get a sense of wildness
to the plot, a sense of jet propulsion? What makes the book "a page turner"?
The simple answer might be "suspense" or "mystery," and that is correct,
of course. But there are two other techniques Walpole uses.
energizing diction. Otranto provides a wonderful text for
studying how diction (choice of words) can affect many different facets
of the reading experience. If you look at the article "Elements
of the Gothic Novel," you will see a number of word categories that
contribute to various "Gothic" effects. Similarly, Walpole uses a set of
energizing words to create a sense of speed and movement in the plot, even
when the actual movement is small. These words include, among others:
interrupted events. Often a new event or crisis will arrive before
the current one is resolved, creating the effect of plot elements crashing
hurriedly into each other. For example, Theodore's conversation at the
trap door with Isabella is interrupted by the arrival of Manfred; the conversation
between Bianca and Matilda about Theodore is interrupted by news of Isabella;
Theodore's execution is stopped suddenly by Bianca's screams; Manfred is
cut off by a trumpet sound during an argument with Theodore.
Elements of Mystery
Within the first ten pages of the novel, we note the following inexplicable
(and hence mysterious) behaviors on the part of Manfred:
Several other mysterious events (the vague prophecy, the sighing portrait,
and supernaturally waving plumes) are also connected with Manfred.
He dotes on his homely, poorly disposed son and does not care for his beautiful
He is impatient for his young son to be married.
He is more meditative than grieving over the death of his son.
His first words after seeing his son crushed to death are "Take care of
the lady Isabella."
He bursts into a "tempest of rage" at the suggestion that the giant helmet
resembled the helmet on the statue of Alfonso the Good.
He tells Isabella that he hopes "in a few years to have reason to rejoice
at the death of Conrad" his son.
He offers to marry Isabella immediately after his son is killed.
He tells Isabella that his "fate depends on having sons."
When some of the mysteries in the book are resolved (near the beginning
of Chapter III), Walpole immediately introduces several new ones to keep
the pages turning. Within a few pages the following events occur:
Hippolita is rumored to be dead.
Isabella is missing.
A hundred men carry in an enormous sword.
The plumes on the giant helmet agitate.
The mysterious, silent knight prays in front of the giant helmet.
The giant sword falls to the ground of its own accord.
Dorsch, T. S. tr. Classical Literary Criticism. Baltimore: Penguin,
2000 by Robert Harris | How to cite this page
w w . v i r t u a l s a l t . c o m
About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer
and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college
and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com