Review: The Castle of Otranto

Gothic Reading Challenge

As I work my way through the Gothic Reading Challenge, I find myself getting more comfortable with this admittedly bizarre genre. So this month I thought I’d test my appreciation by reading the genre’s progenitor, The Castle of Otranto.

The plot

The story begins on the wedding day of the sickly Conrad to the princess Isabella. When Conrad is crushed to death by a gigantic helmet, his father Manfred is terrified that the ancient prophecy of his family is coming true:

The castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it.

Desperate to retain his home, lands, and riches, Manfred declares that he will divorce his wife Hippolita and marry Isabella, who he believes will give him a proper heir. Isabella is horrified by Manfred’s callousness, and with the help of a young man named Theodore, escapes to a nearby monastery.

Torn between his anger at Theodore and his fear of the knights who have appeared to recover Isabella, Manfred careens toward complete insanity — and soon commits the ultimate crime.

Quite a ride

I was told that this was a strange little story, and that’s definitely the case. It feels almost like a melodrama, very much in the vein of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

In layman’s terms, it goes to 11. The characters are magnified, stretched and sharpened almost to the point of unbelievability. Same goes for the plot. There’s lots of shouting and clanging of armor and the pounding of waves on the shore, creaking doors, general weeping and gnashing of teeth.

In the end, it came across as a stilted morality play, albeit with a few nicely-described moments and lines. I enjoyed reading it, though, just because it’s so ridiculous.

While I’ve enjoyed the previous Gothic novels I’ve read, I think this one was a bit too much for me — I’m glad that the Gothic writers who came after Walpole toned it down.

The Gothic element

Published in 1764, The Castle of Otranto is considered the first real example of Gothic literature. Author Horace Walpole released the first edition under a pseudonym, claiming that the story was originally written during the Crusades, and had been translated from Italian into English.

At the time there was a great debate over the purpose of literature: should it strive to show life just as it was, or should writers give free rein to their imaginations, and create the wildest and most romantic stories they could conceive? Walpole wrote the book with the intention of blending the ancient and modern modes of storytelling — to take “real” people and pit them against fantastic things like falling helmets and walking portraits, blending them harmoniously into a single tale.

Even today, people are divided on whether or not Walpole was successful in that endeavor. But no matter whether you love or hate it, The Castle of Otranto epitomizes the Gothic genre: spirits, hidden passages, amazing coincidences, and unexpected events.

What do you think of Walpole’s novel? How are you doing in your reading challenges?

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2 thoughts on “Review: The Castle of Otranto

    1. I think you really have to be in the right mood to enjoy this. Fortunately I was on vacation when I picked it up, and was in a ridiculous and relaxed frame of mind. It wasn’t the most awesome story I’ve ever read, but it definitely wasn’t the worst. I appreciated it for all its over-the-top-ness.

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