Notes for The Castle of Otranto (1764)
Robert Harris
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, Shakespeare's plays.

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.

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.

Plot Propulsion

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.

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.

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:

Work Cited

Dorsch, T. S. tr. Classical Literary Criticism. Baltimore: Penguin, 1965.

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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