The Gothic Phenomenon In The Castle Of Otranto: A Critical Essay

by Clifford J. Kurkowski

Gothic novel or Gothic romance: a story of terror and suspense, usually set in a gloomy old castle or monastery (hence "Gothic," a term applied to medieval architecture and thus associated in the 18th century with superstition). from The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms

Part I: What Does The Word Gothic Really Mean?

During my childhood I remember watching many horror films. I used to sneak into movie theaters with false proof of identification, saying I was sixteen so I could watch movies like: Dawn of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead, Mother's Day, Faces of Death, and many others. The first horror movie I watched, which also scared the hell out of me, was The Exorcist, with Linda Blair. As I remember those days, I try to recall what it actually was that really scared me about those movies . Was it the historical backdrop of the bible and the real true meaning of Satan that scared me? Or maybe was it watching Linda Blair's head do a three hundred and sixty degree turn... In any case, if I were to categorize these films as Gothic and if I borrowed a definition from Chris Baldick's book on Literary Terms then I would have to assume that I was expected to be frightened because they were, "stories of terror and suspense."

Nowadays, there aren't many movies or books that frighten me. In fact, now when I watch The Exorcist, I laugh at it, I don't know why it seems funny to me but it is. What I find suspenseful is a different kind of story. For example, a writer like Dean Koontz sends a chill down my spine every time I read a book of his, and a movie that still makes me break out in a cold sweat whenever I watch it is Halloween, directed by John Carpenter.

As American filmgoers and book readers, we are fascinated by the sublime, the imaginary horrors of humanity, and the fictitious nature of monsters, demons and ghosts. If we weren't, movies like Hellraiser, television shows like the X-Files and books by author Stephen King wouldn't be part of our everyday culture. Both Stephen King and Dean Koontz are fine examples of storytellers who bring horror writing into the mainstream. Each year these authors put out a book that sells over a million copies. The public willingly shells out twenty dollars a book while the authors make fortunes, not only on book sales but through screenplays, and movie rights as well.

Recently there has been a revival of Gothic writing, Gothic music and other Gothic themes, such as: stark black clothing, crosses and other religious relics, and Renaissance festivals. Some of the impetus for this revival springs from vampire serial author, Anne Rice. Interview With A Vampire, her most famous "chapter" in a series of vampire books, in all of which appear the character, Lestat.

Because of its fame, Interview With A Vampire was made into a movie. There was much publicity done on the movie for two reasons: one, because it was mainstream enough to attract mass media attention and two, because it had many controversial aspects. The film's popularity fueled a "new" trend in Gothic fascination. It wasn't so much a play on "terror and suspense" in the movie which brought out the Gothic revival. On the contrary, this revival was based more in the androgyny which characterized the erotic rapport between the vampires, Louis and Lestat. As we will soon see, the word Gothic, can encompasses a wide range of definitions. There is "female and male Gothic", "sublime Gothic" and "romantic Gothic." In short, both characterizations of eroticism, and Gothic history play a part in the word Gothic.

Though recent trends have opened up new avenues on how the word Gothic should be defined, we mustn't forget the history of where all this started. In the following pages I will look at the different analytical interpretations held by critics who have explored the Gothic genre. In part two of this paper I will then look at the critical exegeses on The Castle Of Otranto to find out why this book by Horace Walpole is considered to be the first Gothic novel.

In my years of being an English major I never explored the concept of the word Gothic because I didn't encounter it in the academic novels I read. But if I were to create a definition of the word Gothic I would have to define it as: the dark and treacherous undertone of human existence. To this definition I would further add, that supernatural entities are a necessary presence for a tale to be authentically Gothic. Somewhere in the thick of a Gothic plot, the reader should be confronted with ghosts, demons, vampires, or other inhuman existences. There should be androgynous romance, religious and mythical beliefs, and taboo subjects as well. And finally the events of the story should transmit to the reader the desire to explore what might exist outside our material world. Of course, this definition far exceeds Chris Baldick's interpretation, but I feel that Gothic can no longer just be about "terror and suspense," it must also include more of a characterization, or to say the least, an expanded theory which would embody our current contemporary setting.

However, my definition would still seem narrow in the eyes of more expansive critics who treat "Gothic" as entire world unto itself. In his book Gothic Writing 1750-1820: A Genealogy, author Robert Miles takes the word Gothic and defines it in this manner:

What is Gothic? My short answer is that the Gothic is a discursive site, a carnivalesque mode for representations of the fragmented subject. Both the generic multiplicity of the Gothic, and one might call its discursive primacy, effectively detach the Gothic from the tidy implicity of thinking of it as so many predictable, fictional conventions. This may end up making Gothic a more ambiguous, shifting term, but then the textual phenomena to which it points are shifting and ambiguous (28).

So, what is Miles really saying about the word Gothic? Nothing really so earth-shattering that he couldn't have put into simpler terms. If I simply strain the meaning from Miles' definition, we shall see that what he is really saying is that Gothic includes a wide variety of terms or meanings, with a very "generic" or plain formula that can change at any time because there are no limits or boundaries in the word Gothic. Miles' definition is simple and sweet but way too general for my taste. At least my definition contains concrete characterizations of what I felt the word Gothic should include, Miles' characterization of the word Gothic on the other hand has only a vague "generic multiplicity" to it.

Later on in his book, Miles adds to his general definition of the word Gothic, as he uses an intertextual approach to outline the changes which occur in the word Gothic as writers in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century expanded the parameters of Gothic writing. Miles' deeper characterization of the word Gothic does use an historical setting to say that: "Gothic arises as a result of some historical, seismic shift in the deep structure of the self, or in the culture that may or may not have produced it" (214). I believe that Miles' statement makes some sort of conclusion that Gothic writing proceeded from some kind of social phenomena in the Eighteenth Century. My guess would be that the breakdown of hierarchy and structure, so prevalent in Eighteenth Century writing finally distilled and condensed in what today we call Gothic literature.

In any case, Miles' interpretation is still too general for my liking. It defines the word Gothic but does not go any deeper to characterize it's meaning. In continuing my search for the definition of the word Gothic I came across a book by Elizabeth MacAndrew called, The Gothic Tradition in Fiction which seems to define the word Gothic in a very subtle yet informative way. In chapter one of her book, MacAndrew states that Gothic fiction came about in the Eighteenth Century as a "new literary form" and was closely associated with the Sentimental novel to "help educate a reader's feelings through his identification with the feelings of the characters; to arouse sympathy as the aesthetics of Sensibility demanded" (3-4).

The "aesthetics" that MacAndrew writes about was to "evoke pity and fear; explore the mind of man and the causes of evil in it, so that evil might be avoided and virtue fostered" (4). In order to accurately comprehend MacAndrew's statement, we must realize that MacAndrew supports the belief that writing in the Eighteenth Century was beginning to take on a psychological stance. I gather that earlier Eighteenth Century books were not effective in provoking emotions in their readers. In other words, an Eighteenth Century reader gained different information about character in the early part of the century based more on a rational response, whereas the Gothic novel with its new aesthetics or "literary form" helped to enhance the characters and at the same time "evoke sympathy" or feelings from the reader.

In MacAndrew's general statement about the word Gothic she describes it as:

a literature of nightmare. Among its conventions are found dream landscapes and figures of the subconscious imagination. Its fictional world gives form to amorphous fears and impulses common to all mankind, using an amalgam of materials, some torn from the authors own subconscious mind and some the stuff of myth, folklore, fairy tale, and romance. It conjures up beings--mad monks, vampires, and demons--and settings--forbidding cliffs and glowering buildings, stormy seas and the dizzying abyss--that have literary significance and the properties of dream symbolism as well. Gothic fiction gives shape to concepts of the place of evil in the human mind (3).

MacAndrew's definition of the word Gothic is comprehensive in it's characterization. Her examples of "demons, forbidding cliffs, and dizzying abysses" help to conjure up the myths of a "fictional world" that the word Gothic represents. Outside our material world as I explained in my definition of the word Gothic, there are things that cannot be explained in our real world. In fact, to some this would be considered supernatural, but as MacAndrew has stated, these "concepts of the place of evil in the human mind" are thoughts to keep the reader interested in the characters and the surrounding environment and to "evoke" a sort of "sympathy" towards the characters.

The difference between Miles' and MacAndrew's definition is that Miles generalizes his statement and does not get to the inner core of the word. In fact, from my point of view, his definition still leaves the reader empty about what the word Gothic really means. Whereas MacAndrew defines the word, characterizes it, and concludes that it is from a psychological standpoint to get the Eighteenth Century reader to become more involved with the characters and less involved with the traditions from which the story and the "Gothic" genre emerge.

Now that we have a basic definition of the word Gothic, the question is, where do subcategories like male and female sublime, Gothic romance, history, and eroticism fit in? A quick etching of sublime, using MacAndrew's viewpoint, means that "it is in accordance with the late Eighteenth Century's aesthetic concept of the sublime as evoking pity and terror to draw the reader out of him or her self" (10).

Drawing "pity and terror" out of the reader or to bring the reader down to the level of the character which might be suffering from a particular predicament, helps the reader understand the process of the narrative. To feel, emotionalize, or to be one with the character helps elevate the reader to a higher spiritual, moral, and intellectual plane, thus bringing a different view towards the characters from which, the reader can draw a conclusion of whether the character is good or evil. The other subcategories like Gothic romance, history, and eroticism all help fuel the movement of the narration. Gothic history helps provide a background for how, when, and where the novel will be set.

In Otranto, which is set in the Twelfth Century, Walpole's editor, in the preface of the book, writes that the original transcript comes from an unknown origin, and that there is speculation about the date it was written. This type of introduction prepares the reader for an entrance into a mystical world, something totally unknown to them, and for the Eighteenth Century reader this fragment of information helps to fuel the imagination. In the course of reading the book there is chivalry, knights, swords, castles, and a medieval romance all of which set the tone and backdrop in Otranto. Of course there are other elements but the basics are put in place to set the characteristics of the book--to tell the reader that they have now embarked on a dark Gothic tale of adventure.

Part 2: The Castle of Otranto: The First Gothic Novel?!!

When Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto in 1764 he gave birth to a new literary form of writing called the Gothic novel. In many of the critical essays I have read, no one doubts the fact that it is the first Gothic novel. But there is a question I need to ask, why is The Castle of Otranto considered the first Gothic novel? In the remainder of this essay I will examine what the critics have said about the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto and pick out the most important elements in their discussions in order to determine why it was the first Gothic novel.

The Castle of Otranto is relatively simple story. Set in Italy in the Twelfth Century, our tale begins with Manfred, a arrogant prince determined to find a successor to his throne after his only son Conrad mysteriously dies from a helmet falling on him in the castle courtyard. While Manfred's wife, Hippolita, is thrown into the dungeon, Manfred intends to trap Conrad's bride to be, Isabella. He keeps her locked away in the bowels of the castle, while he plots away to make her his wife. However, Manfred's plan falls to pieces, as a well meaning pheasant named Theodore helps Isabella escape through a series of underground passages. This dramatic and plot turning introduction of Theodore foreshadows the important role he will play at the end of the story, when he will be recognized as a descendant of the great Alfonso, a lord who ruled the castle before Manfred.

While the action unfolds, the castle itself seems to have a haunted presence lurking about. All sorts of strange phenomena begin taking place: pieces of an enormous suit of armor suddenly appear in various parts of the castle, a painting comes to life, and lightning strikes, destroying that part of the castle where Lord Alofonso's suit of armor is kept. The armor eerily rises from the ruins and ascends to the heavens.

As Theodore gradually reveals himself to Isabella she finds out that he really loved Manfred's daughter, Matilda. Matilda represents Theodore's one true love and her love is proven when considering how she tragically died due to her father, Manfred's reckless behavior. Furthermore we find out that Theodore is the rightful heir to Manfred's estate. The story climaxes with a positive ending, with Theodore marrying Isabella and both of them living happily ever after. Manfred gives up his estate to Theodore and exiles himself to a monastery where he does penance for his sins against his son Conrad and Theodore. And Manfred's wife, Hippolita, also seeks asylum in a convent.

Thus is the tale of The Castle of Otranto, a simple story with an underlying plot set in a medieval context with ghosts, knights, damsels in distress, a questionable hierarchy, and a battle for the love of a woman. Of course, I do not do the story justice by summarizing the whole plot in a nutshell like this, but I wanted to reveal the story and give some examples of the mysterious happenings that occurred in the castle. The examples of a painting coming to life, or a suit of armor rising from the ruins of a natural disaster are, of course, mysterious phenomena that do not happen in everyday life. Nevertheless one wonders why Walpole employed such a course of action when constructing this tale. Are we, the readers, supposed to feel sorry for Theodore and his dilemma of not being able to acquire the throne after his father's passing, or are the readers suppose to pity Manfred for the sins he has brought upon himself by coveting the throne and thus causing the unnatural death of his only son Conrad.

Critics like MacAndrew believe that the sympathy we feel for the characters are part of the Gothic novel process. We feel for them therefore we can pass a judgment of whether or not the character is good or evil. The sympathy elicited from the reader can serve to test our skills, or the skills of the readers in the Eighteenth Century, of whether we can determine what is morally right and wrong. Nevertheless this sympathy comes at a rather high price, because the very thing that makes these characters sympathetic are their stilted, wooden, and almost caricatured weaknesses. In the eyes of a modern reader, such characters appear ridiculous and unconvincing; they are as lifeless personifications of symbolic morals of good and evil. Such books usually become oppressive only after a few chapters yet, Castle achieved great success. Perhaps it was the new Gothic genre which caused Castle to transcend all of its literary flaws.

A book written by Howard Philips Lovecraft titled Supernatural Horror in Literature, examined Eighteenth Century philosophy and came up with a conclusion to why a book like Castle succeeded as it did:

Such is the tale; flat, stilted, and altogether devoid of true cosmic horror which makes real literature. Yet such was the thirst of the age for those touches of strangeness and spectral antiquity which reflects, that it was seriously received by the soundest readers and raised in spite of its intrinsic ineptness to a pedestal of lofty importance in literary history. What it did above all else was to create a novel type of scene, puppet-characters, and incidents; which, handled to better advantage by writers more naturally adapted to weird creation, stimulated the growth of an imitative Gothic school which in turn inspired the real weavers of cosmic--terror the line of actual artists beginning with Poe (25).

While Lovecraft doesn't feel that Castle deserves the recognition he does feel that Walpole succeeded in beginning a new trend in literary history. Within this negative critical remark, Lovecraft does point out that Castle was "the thirst of the age," because of a new focus in literature. Though Lovecraft believes that Walpole sets the conventions of literature, he still feels that it was modified through the century with other authors like Radcliffe, Lewis, and Poe. The element in the novel that Lovecraft feels is missing from text is the "cosmic--terror" which provides more depth, and realization to the story instead of the "puppet-characters" and "incidents" Walpole created.

Though Lovecraft feels that other authors later in the century accomplished more than Walpole, another critic, Linda Bayer-Berenbaum writes in her book The Gothic Imagination that Castle was something more than a new trend. In fact, she believes that both Walpole and Radcliffe, with her novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho, set up the conventional codes in which the gothic novel was written later in the century:

The traditional Gothic paraphernalia, now familiar to any school child, was established in Walpole's The Castle of Otranto and Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho, the prototypes of the early Gothic novel (21).

Bayer-Berenbaum continues by saying that items such as, "graveyards, dungeons, ancestral curses, tolling bells, and drawbridges" were all early "trademarks" of the Gothic novel. From these "trademarks" as Bayer-Berenbaum points out, the reader gets a foreshadowing of a upcoming event in the story. Whether it be a ghostly apparition, or a moral dilemma, these "gothic gimmicks" were the essential elements in "expanding the consciousness and reality that is basic to every aspect of the Gothic, from the setting to metaphysical claims."

Indeed, as Bayer-Berenbaum points out, certain "trademarks" are very prevalent in the Castle as well as Udolpho, but there are additional elements that were fueling their popularity in the Eighteenth Century. Bayer-Berenbaum also points to, "the romantic qualities of yearning, aspiration, mystery, and wonder as all nourishing the roots of the Gothic movement." These so-called "romantic qualities" Bayer-Berenbaum speaks of are, "sensualism, sensationalism, sadism, and satanisms all of which nurtured an orgy of emotions" (20). Though it seems as an odd combination for these senses to bring about a Gothic romance for the reader, yet taboo subjects as these were part of the Eighteenth Century imagination. As long as the readers fantasized about it and did not partake in the pleasure, morally it could not be held against them.

In summing up what Lovecraft and Bayer-Berenbaum have concluded about the elements in Castle that make it a Gothic novel, author Montague Summers states in his book, The Gothic Quest that:

To The Castle of Otranto we owe nothing less than a revolution in public taste, and its influence is strong even at present day. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that to Walpole's romance is due the ghost story and the novel, containing so much of the supernatural and occult, than which no forms of literature are now more common and applauded. The Castle of Otranto is, in fine, a notable landmark in the history of English taste and English literature.

In his statement, Summers uses the phrase "revolution in public taste" in order to define the fact that Walpole's novel went against the public norm of what a novel should be. Discussed earlier in this essay, MacAndrew also stated that the Gothic novel came about in order to "evoke sympathy" from the reader. A "sympathy" that the Sentimental novel was trying to do but only but succeeded in slightly doing. The Gothic novel on the other hand took it one step further by giving depth to the characters and therefore also to the reader, thickening the plot of the story by adding a supernatural flair. Yes, Castle did go against the norm of what was being published in the Eighteenth Century. Castle brought about a "revolution in public taste" by adding the darker elements of humanity but staying within the parameters of Eighteenth Century sublime aesthetics thus producing a different kind of novel.

By using the sublime aesthetics of the Eighteenth Century, I believe Walpole was able to encompass a feeling of what readers wanted to experience but couldn't because of the high moral ideals that they held. In fact, one of these moral ideals can be seen at the end of the story when Manfred goes off to the convent after his confession:

"In the morning Manfred signed his abdication of his principality, with the approbation of Hippolita, and each took on them the habit of religion, in neighboring convents" (105 Castle).

Here we see that Walpole keeps the vision of the Eighteenth Century's aesthetic sublime to come full circle with the character, Manfred. The Catholic Church absorbs the evil that Manfred commits throughout the novel when he confesses and commits himself to a life of servitude to God. Giving yourself to God was often the moral thing to do in the Eighteenth Century as well as the Twelfth Century in which the book is set.

MacAndrew also feels that Eighteenth Century sublime aesthetics helped to fuel the movement of the Gothic novel. In this statement, MacAndrew believes that Walpole produced this work because Eighteenth Century readers were ready to examine their inner selves and to judge their own consciousness:

Thus personal reasons account for Walpole's having been the one to produce the tale that began the whole tradition, while the age he lived in accounts for the genre's having appeared when it did. No such work, after all, appeared from the pens of authors under similar personal pressures in earlier times. The late Eighteenth Century was an era of interested inquiry in the nature of the human mind and of a interest in the inner self that was also manifested in other new genres appearing at the time which probe and reveal the psyche. Walpole was able to present his age's concept of human evil--pride, hatred, violence, cruelty, incest--as part of man's psychology. The one kind of romance enabled him to delve into his own subconscious, the other helped him to relate what he found there to the human condition in general. The characters are not very convincingly real, of course, but they are recognizably Eighteenth Century figures embodying current ideas about the human mind (18-19 Gothic).

As MacAndrew has stated, "the late Eighteenth Century was an era of interested inquiry into the human mind," thus Walpole created Castle in order to explore and reveal subjects that had always been on the collective subconscious mind of Eighteenth Century people but were not talked about until the creation of the Gothic novel. So far we have explored the many different facets of what makes up the word Gothic. From the sublime aesthetics of the Eighteenth Century to ghosts, goblins, and scary castles the range of characterizations are too numerous to mention to contain the word's definition within concise parameters. But in either case, we now know that the Gothic novel came about intentionally to evoke emotion, sympathy, and to explore the inner mind of either the reader or the characters in this book. Whether it was a rebellious effort on the part of Walpole to create a book that went against the constraints of Eighteenth Century writing or if it was Walpole's way of creating a new philosophy in the way books were written, there is no doubt that The Castle of Otranto is the first Gothic novel.

In our age where words such as "gothic" tend to have a multiplicity of meanings, I found it pertinent to explore the range of possibilities this concept gained in the different readings of Castle.

Many of the critics mentioned have acknowledged that Castle was the beginning of this new literary trend in what we now call the gothic novel. In fact, it changed the shape of how authors wrote for centuries to come. Castle broke new ground by creating a genre that captivated its readers, made them think about the characters, and explored their inner selves through the characters. The elements that Walpole provided like ghosts, creepy crypts, and other supernatural forces were all part of this new genre which enhanced the imagination and at the same time revealed the dark side of humanity.

In closing, I leave you, the reader, a closing comment from Sir Walter Scott's introduction to The Castle of Otranto. I feel that this quote sums up my intentions for creating an investigation of the word gothic while rounding out what critics have said about Walpole and the first gothic novel.

We have only to add, in conclusion to these desultory remarks, that if Horace Walpole, who led the way in this new species of literary composition, has been surpassed by some of his followers in diffuse brilliancy of description, and perhaps in the art of detaining the mind of the reader in a state of feverish and anxious suspense, through a protracted and complicated narrative, more will yet remain with him than the single merit of originality and invention. The applause due to chastity and precision of style, to a happy combination of supernatural agency with human interests, to a tone of feudal manners and language, sustained by characters strongly drawn and well discriminated, and to unity of action producing scenes alternately of interest and of grandeur--the applause, in fine, which cannot be denied to him who can excite the passions of fear and of pity, must be awarded to the author of The Castle of Otranto.

--Sir Walter's Scott's Introduction to The Castle of Otranto

Works Cited

Baldick, Chris. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991.

Bayer-Berenbaum, Linda. The Gothic Imagination. Teaneck: Associated UP, 1982.

Birkhead, Edith. The Tale of Terror: A Study in the Gothic Romance. New York: Russell & Russell, 1963.

Carter, Margaret L. Specter or Delusion: The Supernatural in Gothic Fiction. Ann Arbor: UM Research P, 1987.

DeLamotte, Eugenia C. Perils of the Night. New York: Oxford UP, 1990.

Ellis, Kate Ferguson. The Contested Castle: Gothic Novels and The Subversion of Domestic Ideology. Chicago, U of Illinois P, 1989.

Karpinski, Joanne B. Mogen, David., and Sanders, Scott P. Frontier Gothic: Terror and Wonder at the Frontier in American Literature. London: Associated UP, 1993
Lovecraft, Howard P. Supernatural Horror in Literature. New York: Dover P, 1973

MacAndrew, Elizabeth. The Gothic Tradition in Fiction. New York: Columbia UP, 1979.

Miles, Robert. Gothic Writing 1750-1820: A Genealogy. London: Routledge, 1993.

Probyn, Clive T. English Fiction of the Eighteenth Century 1700-1789. London: Longman, 1987.

Rice, Anne. Interview with the Vampire. New York: Ballantine, 1976.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky, The Coherence of Gothic Conventions. New York: Arno P, 1980.

Summers, Montague. The Gothic Quest. New York: Russell & Russell, 1964.

Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1964.