The Castle of Otranto
The Clash of the Romantics and the Gothic
From the late-eighteenth to the early-nineteenth century, known as the Romantic period, there existed a shift in some cultural and artistic elements that leaned towards a revival of the Gothic. As well as a revival of the Gothic through architectural adaptations in England, writers in particular began to enjoy incorporating elements of the Gothic aesthetic into their works, thus beginning a mergence of the two styles. The imagery associated with the Gothic was seen to be so distinct and carried a certain essence that its use, whether inspired politically, socially, architecturally, culturally, or spiritually, made for an interesting and unique collection of literary works.
In order to better understand the correlation between the Romantic and the Gothic, it is first necessary to understand the basics and the complexes of defining both of these terms. In the simplest of terms, the Oxford Companion to English Literature defines Romanticism as “the triumph of the values of spontaneity, visionary originality, wonder, and emotional self-expression over the classical standards of balance, order, restraint, proportion, and objectivity…[it] derives from ‘romance’, the literary form in which desires and dreams prevail over everyday realities” (Oxford Companion to English Literature). Such prominent authors of the Romantic period include William Wordsworth, William Blake, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
To attempt to define the Gothic aesthetic, one must first define what is actually Gothic. The Oxford Companion to English Literature defines the Gothic literary tradition as “a distinct modern development in which the characteristic theme is the stranglehold of the past upon the present, or the encroachment of the ‘dark’ ages of oppression upon the ‘enlightened’ modern era…embodied typically in enclosed and haunted settings such as castle, crypts, convents, or gloomy mansions, in images of ruin and decay, and in episodes of imprisonment, cruelty, and persecution” (Oxford Companion to English Literature). It defines the term Gothic itself to mean ‘medieval, and by implication barbaric” (The Oxford Companion to English Literature). The Gothic revival includes that which reminisces or reminds of the past, socially, culturally, architecturally, and spiritually. It simultaneously allowed for a clashing of the old with the new in the creation of contemporary works, combining the historic with the modern, for a new ‘vintage’. Concepts, ideas, fears, emotions, opinions and morals that existed in the more medieval Gothic ages still existed in the Romantic period, so writers of the new gothic could take these traditional topics and find a new way to retell them to the readers. Ideals commonly associated with the Gothic revival are medeivalism, barbarism, and supernaturalism. Instituted largely with the use of the supernatural, or that which seemed supernatural but would later be found to me natural, people were reminded of their God-fearing and superstitious feelings, and of the presence of the ‘other’. As David Hume puts it, the Gothic novel “can be seen as one symptom of a widespread shift away from neoclassical ideals of order and reason, toward romantic belief in emotion and imagination” (Hume 282). Some Gothic works, which are to be discussed further, include Samuel Colderidge’s “Christabel”, John Keats’ “The Eve of St Agnes”, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, is considered to be the first Gothic novel, pioneering the way for other modern additions to the Romantic genre. Walpole himself, a staunch enthusiast of the Gothic revival, even had his own medieval-style castle constructed, following the inspiration of the Gothic architecture.
The relationship between the Romantic period and the Gothic revival can be discussed through the ways in which one inspired or interacted with the other. However, much difficulty arises in attempting to distinctly distinguish the connections between the Gothic influence on the Romantic and as Michael Gamer explains “what we have, then, are borrowings that cannot be explained exclusively in terms of influence, whether passive or active, individual or cultural…the relation of Gothic to Romantic ideology is itself a Gothic one, since Gothic’s presence in Romantic writing is characterized by ‘multiple interpretations…[of] multiple modes of consumption and production, [of] dangerous consumptions and excessive productivity, and [of] economies of meaning” (Gamer 28). Everything is subject to interpretation. Though it is difficult to distinguish where exactly the influence is, it is still possible to see the connections and assess the relationship that way. The presence of the Gothic, whether architectural, spiritual, cultural, social, or political is unmistakable within some romantic works, so it is an explorable subject.
The Romantic writers wanted to recognize growth and life and beauty, strike up emotions with readers, make them feel something new or something old. It didn’t necessarily matter as long as they were stimulated to feel or to react or to respond. David Hume discusses their relationship by suggesting that “gothic and romantic writing spring alike from a recognition of the insufficiency of reason or religious faith to explain and make comprehensible the complexities of life” (Hume 290). People are always looking for reasons and explanations to life’s questions and problems, and that which is inexplicable arouses feelings of resentment and anger. In having the Gothic influence their Romantic writing, authors were able to provide readers with the possibility of relief from these feelings. Hume further notes that while “Romantic writing reconciles the discordant elements it faces, resolving their apparent contradictions imaginatively in the creation of a higher order…Gothic writing, the product of serious fancy, has no such answers and can only leave the ‘opposites’ contradictory and paradoxical. In its highest forms romantic writing claims the existence of higher answers where Gothic can find only unresolvable moral and emotional ambiguity” (Hume 290). What better way to evoke religious presence in a reader than with a supernatural entity, hauntingly invisible yet so fearfully real. Just as with religion, one cannot visibly see it, but its presence is felt indefinitely.
In regards to the reception of the Gothic aesthetic within the Romantic period, attitudes towards the style varied. Some thought it to be too into the past, reminiscent of the barbaric and dark times of history. It represented decay and destruction, ignorance, cruelty and persecution. Some believed looking back didn’t allow forward movement. For others, the Gothic was “a vehicle for the transmission of a forward-looking mentality through the unenlightened middle ages” (Dugget 59). Some accepted these images of decay and destruction and used them towards seeing a new and brighter future; it was map of how far society had come. In moving forward, one must remember where they came from to know how far they’ve come. Either way it was a reminder of the medieval and more archaic times in English history, but whether that reminder provided one with a positive outlook for the future, or with profoundly negative memories of the past depended upon the individual. Michael Gamer acknowledges that “it is gothic’s ease of dispersal and ability not to stay within the confines of prose romance- its habit of collapsing disciplinary and social categories, however gendered or polarized- that constituted one of the primary threats to the reviewers who condemned it” (Gamer 4). In regards to Walpole’s reception in particular, E.J. Clery notes that Walpole’s “contemporaries [viewed] the Gothic age [as] a long period of barbarism, superstition, and anarchy [that] dimly stretched from the fifth century AD…to the Renaissance and the revival of classical learning…[and that] ‘Gothic’ also signified anything obsolete, old-fashioned, or outlandish” (Clery 21). People wanted to read new material and the idea that Walpole had written a Gothic story begged the question of its modernity. People have always had an obsession with ‘newness’ and originality, and the assumptions and associations that accompanied the term “Gothic”, especially when used in his title The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story, generated a feeling of aversion towards the idea of Gothic literature. If one can assume that “only if a fiction is true to life can it become the vehicle of useful instruction or moral improvement”, than some wondered at what would be the benefit in reading a story where the moral is learned with the use of supernatural interference from some unknown entity (Clery 22).
Since the medieval Gothic is associated with a period of anarchy, its revival caused political concern and disapproval because of the fear of some form of political dissent. Coupled with the then-current political issues in England, “Gothic fiction and drama were perceived as threats to political and social order” (Gamer 31). Nonetheless, though this discouraged some from accepting it, its cultural, architectural, and spiritual influences were easier to receive.
Samuel T. Coleridge’s “Christabel” was written in two parts, written in 1797 and 1800, respectively. The poem is an exemplar of the Gothic’s influence of the Romantic. In the poem, Christabel is a maiden wandering through the woods in the middle of the night when she comes upon Geraldine laying tied up on the ground, claiming to have been a victim of kidnapping. Christabel brings Geraldine to her father Sir Leoline’s castle to give her sanctuary,whereupon they discover Geraldine to be the daughter of Leoline’s old enemy Roland. When Christabel begins to suspect Geraldine of trickery and deceit, before she is able to alert her father, she finds herself under a spell of Geraldine’s that won’t allow her to inform her father. Eventually Christabel breaks free of the spell, but upon informing her father, finds he refuses to believe her, accepting Geraldine and shutting out Christabel.
The poem employs traditional Gothic elements, from setting to psychology. The speaker notes that “Tis middle of night by the castle clock” and that “The night is chilly, but not dark/ The thin gray cloud is spread on high,/ it covers but not hides the sky./ The moon is behind, and at the full” (Colerdige 1,14-18). The very beginning of the poem occurs in the dark woods, setting up an eerily haunting setting where the reader can predict some forthcoming event. It creates an atmosphere of apprehension as Christabel is depicted wandering through foggy mists and shadowy moonlight. The tension builds as the reader waits in anticipation, expecting something as the narrator asks “Is it the wind that moaneth bleak?/There is not wind enough in the air…Hush beating heart of Christabel!/ Jesu, Maria, shield her well!” (Coleridge 45-57). This seemingly unearthly presence invokes the fear of the supernatural, questioning what type of existence is near. Upon the initial discovery of Geraldine by the tree, it appears the source was a victimized maiden, but as the poem advances Geraldine’s own corporeal reality is questioned and she becomes the source of the seemingly supernatural activity.
The reader becomes further suspect of Geraldine as she begs Christabel to “Have pity on my sore distress/ I scarce can speak for weariness:/Stretch forth thy hand, and have no fear!” (Coleridge 73-76). As Geraldine recounts the strange details of her kidnapping to Christabel something comes off awry, though what exactly that is, is difficult to tell. Geraldine seems suspicious and contradictory in her stories, and though it seems it could be a result of her distress, it instills a feeling of distrust in the reader. Something is off about the woman and her story. The supernatural is again suggested when the two women go to sleep together and Geraldine almost gives off the appearance of being a seductress of sorts as she settles in to lay beside Christabel and tells her “In the touch of this bosom there worketh a spell,/ Which is lord of they utterance, Christabel!/ Thou knowest to-night, and wilt know to-morrow,/ This mark of my shame, this seal of my sorrow” (Coleridge 257-260). There already seemed some sort of sorcery surrounding Geraldine, so hearing her mention it to Christabel arouses more fear in her intentions with the innocent maiden. The supernatural element is constantly mentioned or suggested, but never flat out revealed. When Christabel awakes and “Gathers herself from out her trance”, and later becomes aware of Geraldine’s serpentine traits as “A snake’s small eye blinks dull and shy/ And the lady’s eyes they shrunk in her head/ Each shrunk up to a serpent’s eye/ And with somewhat of malice, and more of dread/ At Christabel she looked askance!” (Coleridge 573-577). Even the way the Leoline seems so readily enraptured by Geraldine suggests her to be of the supernatural, a siren of some sort. The notion that she could be supernatural, but the fact that it is never stated in the poem is even more frightening. It would be less frightening to know for sure if she is an evil unearthly entity, or just appears as such. Such a haunted setting, the supernatural Geraldine with her deceit, Christabel’s imprisonment under the spell, and the castle are all typical characteristics of the Gothic aesthetic.
Using similar characteristics of the Gothic aesthetic as “Christabel”, John Keats’ “The Eve of St Agnes” is a romance story of two young lovers. The poem uses strong Gothic imagery to create an atmosphere for the poem. Madeline is a young maiden who is in love with Porphyro, the son of her family’s enemy. Before retiring to bed one night, Madeline decides try a ritual on St Agnes’ Eve whereby a young virgin’s lover will come to her while she is sleeping. That same night, Porphyro, with the reluctant help of Angela (at her own perilous cost), sneaks into Madeline’s room in order to watch her beauty as she sleeps. When Porphyro awakes Madeline from her dream, she become confused at the sudden change in Porphyro between Madeline’s dream version of him and him in reality. He then convinces her to run away with him, and they never see her family again.
Again there is the presence of superstition and of the appearance of the supernatural with the St Agnes’ Eve tradition and the knights visiting in dreams. With high hopes of receiving a visit from their lover, a virgin will go to bed without supper, be naked, and lie face up towards heaven. Madeline, as well as the other girls readily follow this superstition since they are so eager and desperate for interaction with their lovers. The atmosphere is also set up for the Gothic aesthetic as the narrator describes “The sculptur’d dead, on each side, seem to freeze,/ Emprison’d in black, purgatorial rails:/…To think how they may ache in icy hoods and mails” (Keats 14-18). Gloom, ruin, and decay are represented by the worn down statues, frozen in time and place, blackened and cursed. This draws upon the gothic as an image the medieval. As with before, the presence of the supernatural is questionable, not absolute but enough to ponder it’s existence. Madeline does end up dreaming of Porphyro, so it is really superstition or was there really some intervention on behalf of St Agnes? It is even questionable with Angela, who reluctantly allows Porphyro into Madeline’s chambers, against her better judgements and wishes. She regrets having allowed him in, and in the end of the poem she ends up dead. Is this possibly some supernatural intervention punishing her for allowing a male into a naked virgin’s room whilst she dreams? It is enough to beg the question of the possibility of the supernatural. The narrator even suggests a supernatural element to Madeline and Porphyro themselves as “They glide, like phantoms, into the wide hall;/ Like phantoms, to the iron porch, they glide” where the repeated use of ‘phantoms’ suggests they really have passed into the supernatural, leaving the natural world entirely (Keats 361-362). One could even argue that they have actually become phantoms, unearthly creatures, suggesting some psychological repercussions of their pre-marital encounter. Perhaps Madeline has run off in her mind with the dream version of Porphyro, or perhaps Porphyro and she have passed into an otherworldly existence. Such psychological features, questioning sanity are also part of the Gothic’s aesthetic.
Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, more commonly associated with being a feminist text because of its timing and influence in that area, has a storyline which revolves around the possibility of the existence of the supernatural. When Jane Eyre is hired as the new governess for Edward Rochester’s ward she begins falling in love with him, and strange happenings occur in the house. Since the story is told from Jane’s point of view, the reader is only aware of what she knows. A few times in the night Jane awakes to the feeling that someone is in her room, watching her; she even catches a glimpse at one point but is unsure of who or what she witnessed. In certain parts of the castle, Jane hears “the last sound I expected to hear in so still a region, a laugh, struck my ear. It was a curious laugh; distinct, formal, mirthless. I stopped: the sound ceased, only for an instant; it began again, louder: for at first, though distinct, it was very low. It passed off in a clamorous peal that seemed to wake an echo in every lonely chamber” (Bronte 158). The eerie laugh follows Jane throughout the house, occasionally appearing at moments when it seems wrong and suspicious. The reader becomes aware of some unsettling feeling associated with its presence. Jane eventually believes this to be the the laughter of Grace Poole, a women she believes “possessed with a devil” (Bronte 221). As soon as Jane thinks it, the reader wonders at it too. Is she possessed by some unearthly monster? The story continues with feelings of apprehension and fear every time Jane enters certain parts of the house. Things become even more frightening when Rochester’s room is lit on fire, and Jane believes it to be the work of Grace. The ‘demon’ now has proven to be some sort of evil, and the rest of the novel leaves the reader in fear over what demonic crime will be next. The reader shares Jane’s fear and apprehension, not knowing for certain who or what is the cause of the violence. Even more so at the possibility that a worse attack is in the near future.
Further in the novel, a visitor is attacked in the night, stabbed and near death. Jane obediently helps as Rochester requests, and it becomes evident that Rochester doesn’t find such violent occurrences suspicious, suggesting he has something to hide. Suspicion of him grows until it turns out the culprit is not Grace Poole, but Rochester’s own demented wife, a hidden secret from the world. Having gone mad years earlier, Rochester chose to hide her from the world, and hired Grace Poole to look after her within the castle. The illusion of a supernatural element is shattered, but the fear remains with this individual who is so dangerous and violent. Thus, this is one of the moments where the seemingly supernatural turns out to be the natural.
Having been the first true Gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto encompasses a great deal of what is considered to be the Gothic’s aesthetic, from the imagery, to the architecture, to the psychological, to the supernatural, to the terror. As a Gothic novel it “is part of the new ‘literature of process’ which reflects its creator’s mind” and it “attempts to rouse the reader’s imaginative sympathies” (Hume 282). Manfred is owner of the castle and the master of the land and his son is killed on his wedding day when a gigantic helmet falls on him from the sky. In an attempt to maintain control over his land Manfred tries to divorce his faithful wife Hippolita for his late son’s fiancée Isabella. Isabella flees to a church for safety from the abominable idea of marrying her dead fiancé’s married father, and receives the aide of a prisoner named Theodore. The Castle of Otranto begins with the ominous prophecy “That the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it” (Walpole 17). Straight off from the beginning the novel seems prepared to proceed in a predetermined state of events, though they are yet unknown. The reader is hinted at the direction the novel will take. The curiosity surrounding the bizarre prophecy brings an element of mystery to the novel. What does the prophecy mean? Where did it come from? Will it come true? Does it come from divine or supernatural intervention? Mystery and uncertainty produce feelings of apprehension and fear, all of which aid to the construction of the Gothic aesthetic. That which is unknown prompts wonder and begs for answers. These questions have the reader wondering throughout the course of the novel.
The atmosphere and setting for the novel also encompass elements that form a Gothic aesthetic. The Gothic is “embodied typically in enclosed and haunted settings such as castle, crypts, [and] convents” (Oxford Companion to English Literature). Titled after the location, the Castle of Otranto is the most blatant use of the Gothic for the presence of the castle. When the townspeople are attempting to figure out what happened to Manfred’s son, they establish Theodore “has stolen the helmet from good Alfonso’s tomb, and dashed the brains of our young prince with it” thus bringing in the crypt. The place of sanctuary for the characters on the run, naturally, becomes the church; Isabella and Theodore both use it to escape the wrath of Manfred. All three structural elements that represent the Gothic aesthetic are used by Walpole in Otranto. Since his was the pioneering work for the genre, it is evident that his examples of these three are what later writers drew inspiration from.
Manfred himself encompasses the archaic notions of the Gothic since he ruled the land with the hand of tyranny, controlling everything, retaining power for himself and for his legacy. Alfred Longuiel’s definition applies perfectly to Manfred in that “the adjective ‘Gothic’ is employed as a definite and recognized synonym for barbarous. Most often this usage is in connection with ignorance, cruelty, or savageness, qualities associated with the inherited Renaissance view of the middle ages” (455). Manfred is a cruel and selfish ruler, concerned only with preserving his family’s name upon the throne. He cares not what the cost of power is or the consequences of his actions for others. He is the embodiment of barbaric rule. It is because of his tyrannic ways that the story unfolds as it does, as the consequences of all his actions finally catching up. Manfred had even imprinted Isabella’s “mind with terror, from his causeless rigor to such amiable princesses as Hippolita and Matilda” (Walpole 19). Terror is a common element of the Gothic aesthetic, used as an attempt to invoke morals. Manfred wrongfully imprison’s Theodore and sentences him to death, blaming him for the crushing death of his son. Such imprisonment is another common element of the Gothic. Such “terror dependent on suspense or dread is the modus operandi of the novels of Walpole…[it] holds the reader’s attention through dread of a series of terrible possibilities” (Hume 285).
The Gothic images of ruin and decay are portrayed through the collapse of Manfred’s power. His years of greed and tyrannical rule have returned for justice. The image of decay would not be complete however if it was only Manfred himself who suffers. After the loss of his only male heir, Manfred goes on to accidentally kill his own daughter, mistaking her for Isabella and stabbing her in a fit of jealous rage. This is the final piece of the collapse and after Manfred has lost everything, power is restored to the rightful person, Theodore. The prophecy had stated that when “the real owner should be grown to large” for the lordship, the new ruler would gain possession. The irony lies in that it is when Manfred has nothing left and lost his children that he has grown “too large” (Walpole 17).
Walpole’s Otranto “aimed at a medieval atmosphere by means of medieval background, -lonely castles, haunted towers, subterranean passages, knights in armor, magic. But to the reading public the outstanding feature of these stories appears to have been, not their gothic setting, but their supernatural incident” (Longeil 458). Walpole’s use of the supernatural is principally in the form of the frequently reappearing large parts of armor. His son is crushed by a giant helmet. One of the servants claims he witnessed a giant foot in the gallery chamber, while another, Bianca, sees a giant hand appear in another part of the castle. These gigantic pieces of body and armor have caused fear and unrest among the castle’s household. Multiple occupants have seen it, but no one can identify it. The mystery of it remains one of the main mysteries of the novel.
Other moments also suggest the supernatural; earlier Bianca claims to hear voices in the hallways and determines the castle to be haunted. At one point the “plumes on the enchanted helmet, which still remained at the other end of the court, were tempestuously agitated, and nodded thrice, as if bowed by some invisible wearer” (Walpole 53). Manfred’s fear of Theodore arises out of his uncanny similarities to the hanging portrait of Alfonso in the gallery, and Manfred himself even initially took Theodore for a specter. Even though it is discovered later that he is in fact a descendant of Alfonso, there is still an element of the supernatural carried within Theodore for the entirety of the novel. One wonder’s how it happened to be that even though he hadn’t a clue as to who his relations are, by some work of fate he manages to make his way to his rightful throne. The supernatural works with destiny in placing him there.
David Hume notes that the “prime feature of the Gothic novel…is its attempt to involve the reader in special circumstances” (Hume 286). It manages a striking new literary form, taking the Romantic period ideals and themes and incorporating the Gothic aesthetic for a profoundly unique style of literature. The gothic revival explored old elements in a new way. Revolving primarily around the creation of a brooding, dark, supernatural, and medieval atmosphere, the Gothic aesthetic worked its way into the Romantic period. Its classical yet somewhat archaic elements proved to be challenging in its overall reception. What did it really make people feel? Was the medieval a concept to be left behind, with the barbaric and tyrannical notions associated with it, or was it a concept to be remembered and drawn from, a reminder of forward steps. With distinct associations socially, politically, culturally, architecturally, and spiritually, the mere idea of the Gothic aesthetic worked towards what the Gothic aesthetic itself did: it got people to react, to feel, to respond. Prior to Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, there didn’t even exist the concept of a Gothic novel. His accomplishments with that novel paved the way for other Romantic writer’s to draw inspiration for new stories from the medieval ages, allowing for a reminder of what the medieval times were like, and how far England has come as a nation of growth.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London: Service & Paton, 1897. Print.
Clery, E.J. “The genesis of ‘Gothic’ fiction.” Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Ed. Jerrold E. Hogle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 21-39. Print.
Colerdige, Samuel Taylor. “Christabel.” The New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse. Ed. Jerome J. McGann. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. 376-393. Print.
Duggett, Tom. Gothic Romanticism: Architecture, Politics, and Literary Form. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Print.
Gamer, Michael. Romanticism and the Gothic: Genre Reception, and Canon Formation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.
“Gothic Fiction.” The Oxford Companion to English Literature. 2007. eBook.
Hume, Robert D. “Gothic Versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel.” PMLA 84.2 (1969): 282-290. JSTOR. Web. 21 Dec 2011.
Keats, John. “The Eve of St Agnes.” The New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse. Ed. Jerome J. McGann. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. 376-393. Print.
Longueil, Alfred E. “The Word ‘Gothic’ in Eighteenth Century Criticism.” Modern Language Notes 38.8 (1923): 453-460. JSTOR. Web. 3 Jan 2012.
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Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto. London: Penguin Books, 2001. Print.
Gothic as a means of Social Critique
When Horace Walpole wrote the first ever Gothic novel in 1764, the world had never seen anything quite like it before. In an age we now call the enlightenment, where knowledge, science and philosophy had made huge leaps forward, this book dared to be openly absurd; to feature magic, weird curses, phantoms and prophecies. But despite its incongruence with the era, Not only did Walpole’s Castle of Otronto, sell countless copies, but it spawned an entire genre of imitators, who tried to evoke this same sense of mystery and gloom. From “Wuthering Heights” to “Frankenstein,” “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to “The Maltese Falcon,” books across the literary spectrum can trace their roots to gothic novels of the mid to late 18th century, or to literature from the “Gothic revival” era, which is more directly based on the Gothic. It may seem odd to find such a love of the supernatural and inexplicable emerge during times of enlightenment, when people were learning of Magic’s irrelevance, but it makes sense in a weird way. Even when the world began to make more sense, and belief in the weird and unknown was waning, there is, perhaps, an innately human desire to be fooled, to have something which is beyond comprehension.
Horace Walpole writes on this in a third-person preface to Castle of Otronto: “Even as such, some apology for it is necessary. Miracles, visions, necromancy, dreams, and other preternatural events, are exploded now even from romances. That was not the case when our author wrote; much less when the story itself is supposed to have happened. Belief in every kind of prodigy was so established in those dark ages, that an author would not be faithful to the manners of the times, who should omit all mention of them. He is not bound to believe them himself, but he must represent his actors as believing them. If this air of the miraculous is excused, the reader will find nothing else unworthy of his perusal. Allow the possibility of the facts, and all the actors comport themselves as persons would do in their situation. ” When the mystery had been sucked from the world, when people’s gods and monsters had been banished from the realms of reality, the one place where mystery, terror, and the unknown could exist unfettered by cold and aromantic logic was in the pages of novels. Walpole understood this, and thus began to fashion a narrative and a genre out of both the real as well as the fanciful ad the absurd.
However, there is a rather unpleasant side effect to this conception. While readers and writers of the time admitted the books were unabashed fun, modern readers often assume the stories are nothing but archaic pulp, devoid of literary value or meaningful interpretation. This could not in fact be further from the truth. While the fantastic elements of gothic storytelling made it more compelling for the 18th century reader, they had another, equally important effect. By being so unabashedly phantasmagorical and strange, Gothic writers were able to conceal unpopular or controversial opinions and ideas.
It is not such an impossible idea. Today, we have talk show hosts like John Oliver and comedians like George Carlin who make potent points enjoyable to hear by fusing them with humor. A century ago, early science fiction writers made political and social arguments through dystopic allegory. That isn’t so different from using enchanted weapons or lost kings to satirize issues of the day. But while some effort has already been made to draw attention to the political implications of some specific Gothic texts, this is not sufficient. It is my intent with this essay to prove Gothic novels to be not only one of the first forms of literary social critique, but texts whose messages and ideas are still incredibly relevant today.
The first text I will examine is The Rime of The Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The poem is perhaps the quintessential Gothic tale. It features strange supernatural horrors of the unknown, a narrative within a narrative, meditation on death, and excessive violence. In it, a thoughtless mariner kills an albatross who was supposedly bringing good luck to the ship, and as a result, bad waters keep the vessel trapped at sea. The crew all perish, save the one sailor who killed the bird. He begs for forgiveness, and as a result, sea serpents stir the waters again, and the crew are reanimated as corpses to man the boat back to port. Once there, the mariner disembarks, and is compelled to tell anyone he meets of his ordeals, to keep them from making the same mistakes.
While it may seem a simple and fantastic tale, numerous interpretations of the story have appeared throughout the years. To fully understand these, however, we must first learn a little more about the poet who wrote the Rime. Coleridge was a close friend of Abolitionist Robert Southey, who wrote several popular works—including the poem “The sailor who served in the slave trade.” Coleridge himself shared some of this anti-slavery sentiments, and did little to hide them. Thus, there are many who read this story as an interpretation of the nightmarish journey of a slave to the decrepitude of the new world. In her essay “Yellow Fever and the Slave Trade,” Debbie Lee examines the possible symbolic connection: “The poem, in fact, has frequently and convincingly been interpreted as a poem about the slave trade by writers who, in the tradition of John Livingston Lowes, contextualize the poem’s major tropes using Coleridge’s material, concerns with travel literature, colonialism, and the slave trade. J.R. Ebbotson is just one of a number of readers to view the poem as an indictment of maritime expansion where, ‘the central act of the ancient mariner, the shooting of the albatross, may be a symbolic rehearsal of the crux of colonial expansion, the enslavement of native peoples,’” (Lee 676). The poem goes on to also innumerate the symptoms of yellow fever, a disease which plagued British sailors as they went about their journey enslaving Africans. Many of the symptoms bear a striking resemblance to the ailments that plague the sailors in the poem. The Mariner’s shipmates die of gross diseases bleeding and vomiting, and their cadavers are forced into a sick parody of servitude, in order to ferry the weakened old man to shore and to force him to go about doing a set task, where he behaves like a madman and lives in abject poverty. It’s not hard to see the parallels to someone involved in human trafficking who caught the disease and lost their sanity and health. Despite, or perhaps due to the fact it takes place so firmly in the realms of the absurd and surreal, the Rime of the Ancient Mariner operates as a critique of the rampant exchange of human lives and labor for coin.
Others have found a different meaning in Coleridge’s lines. They see it as a call for economic upheaval, complete financial reform and an end to poverty. To see this perspective in full, one must go to Coleridge’s other works—specifically his poem “To a Young Ass.” The poem itself is not nearly as psychedelic as “Rime of the ancient mariner,” pertaining merely to a sad young donkey, whose mother is chained to a post and cannot reach the tasty green grass, and is instead stuck eating the dried, brown, chewed roots. The poet lauds the Donkey’s suffering, calling it “brother,” which at the time was unheard of. This sort of brotherhood was felt only with other humans, not animals. While a streak of sympathy for animals may be what one takes from this poem—it is present in Coleridge’s Rime as well, as the killing of a bird is what brings on the lurid hellish torments—this sense of fellowship with beasts can be interpreted in an even more radical context. They view Coleridge’s ass as a symbol of the economically oppressed: struggling to survive, chained to a post, while the better off gorge themselves on whatever they please. David Perkins writes on the political implications of this in an essay on Coleridge’s incendiary word choice. “Of all English poems that sympathize with animals, this has been thought the most extreme. The term brother encoded a revolutionary ideal—Liberte, egalite, fraternite,” (Perkins 929).
Perhaps because it is a longer poem, or perhaps because it was Coleridge’s intention in writing it, but there is perhaps even more of a case for “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to be considered a criticism of 18th century capitalism. In fact, if we accept, as Perkins does, the theme of animals representing humans or the oppressed in Coleridge’s poems, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” may be a warning of some sort of Marxist revolution. The story begins with a poor, discheveled sailor taking aside someone who is about to attend a wedding. Weddings were often joyful affairs with decadent shows of wealth, and to this day are generally associated with happiness, celebration, and excess. But before the wedding guest can enter and join the ceremony, he is pulled aside by this maddened mariner. The mariner is not rich: working on a ship as crew member was not and is not a profitable career. Nor can he said to be happy, now that he is compelled to travel the land telling strangers of his adventure for God knows how long. Said adventure regards him slaying a well-meaning animal whose presence was bringing the ship and crew good luck. As a result, the seas go flat, and the other sailors all die. If the albatross is indeed indicative of the working class, Coleridge seems to be saying that should we as a society harm or refuse to care for the poor and the working class, it will end in our destruction. If the intent of the storyteller was to get this point across to the wedding guest, he succeeded. The guest misses the entire wedding celebration, and wakes up “A sadder and a wiser man,” the next day, implying he has changed from the day before, when he sought the joy of big festivities (Coleridge).
Were Coleridge merely to write something to this effect, especially in the 18th century, backlash would have been astronomical. There had not been a Karl Mark, a Lenin or even a Bentham when the Rime was written. Therefore the idea of valuing the poor over the rich would have seemed not only absurd but dangerous. After all, the rich kings and monarchs who controlled most of Europe at that time might have felt attacked or offended by these sentiments, and ordered the poet’s death. But by hiding his subtexts with the supernatural, Coleridge still manages to present a biting attack on the casually cruelty of the rich and the power held by the poor. The Gothic genre, then, makes an ample vehicle for such thoughts—coherent enough to make points about society at large, yet abstract enough to provide the writer with protection from possible blowback.
Another example of the Gothic novel being used as a social critique is Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel The Castle of Otronto. Considered by many to be the first Gothic novel, the story is a complete flight of fantasy. Characters are killed by falling helmets, a mad old man endeavors to marry a girl half his age, pictures move, men who resemble long dead heirs to said castle suddenly reappear, and so on. Yet as with the previous text, this mask of fantasy hides an important attack upon the society of the time, particularly, the system of male inheritance. To fully understand the nuances of the work, we must first examine Walpole himself. Horace Walpole was a member of the British Parliament, and 10 years prior had become ensconsed in a fiery debate over the semantics of “Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage act” a bill which would nullify all marriages which had been conducted covertly without announcement or the consent of the parents, even if both parties being married did consent. Particularly, the parliament was concerned with what would become of the family lands and titles should the family patriarch die. Should the bill be passed, wealthy men of England would be able to monopolize most of the wealth and nobility through clever marriages, and would have a great amount of say in whom their children, particularly daughters, could marry. Where as before, when clandestine marriages were held valid by the church, a daughter who had married against her father’s wishes would inherit his wealth despite the fact she no longer bore his name or furthered his lineage. Now, however, a daughter who did not publicly announce her wedding with the support of her father would be considered unmarried, and because of how common it was for women to inherit their father’s titles and lands at this time, it gave the patriarchy unprecedented power.
Walpole voted against this act, and tried frequently to prevent it. He even went so far as to call it “…the bane of society.” (Clemens 32). Then, a mere ten years after this loathed act was made law, Walpole produces The Castle of Otronto, a tale that chronicles a mad and bloodthirsty prince chasing a young woman around a castle with the intent of marrying her and furthering his family name, but in the process killing his innocent daughter. The feminist critique of 18th century England is an active presence throughout the narrative.
And it is not only I who have found this parallel to be interesting. The gender relations in Gothic works have remained one of the defining traits of the genre. Feminist and psychoanalytic critic Claire Kahane takes note of this, when she examines several repetitive gothic tropes: “Within an imprisoning structure, the protagonist, typically a young woman whose mother has died, is compelled to seek out a center of mystery, while vague and usually sexual threats to her person from some powerful male figure hover on the periphery of her consciousness,” (Kahane 45). This center of mystery, almost always a Freudian womb-like structure, reveals an uncertainty regarding life and death, some mystery, and finally, an understanding of her identity as it pertains to the story. While lacking in Coleridge’s poem, these are huge themes in Otronto, and were picked up by future gothic novelists, who along with the surreal atmosphere and violence, lifted the feminist critique from the premier gothic writer, Walpole.
Yet despite how clear the attack on the patriarchy is to the modern reader, at the time it may have seemed somewhat cleverly disguised. At that point in history, speaking out against the government was still a very bad idea if you valued your continued existence. Thus the medieval setting, the fantastic plot, and the odd alien atmosphere are evoked. At first glance, no reader could possibly think that this work was anchored in reality, when it features falling helmets and ancient prophecies coming true. And yet at its hart, Castle of Otronto is a very real story, a story of controlling men who break and twist the women around them to further their needs, a narrative as true now as it was then. While at this point it is hopefully difficult to deny that gothic literature was often a powerful form of social critique, the question now is why? Why not satire or comic works, or fantasy or tragedy? While the idea of substitution, or hiding real concepts and ideas behind the symbolic presence of something else, does provide the Gothic with an edge over these other genres, it is still fairly easy to hide a controversial social critique in a tragedy say, as Shakespeare did in Othello, or in a Satire, as Swift did in Gulliver’s Travels. As mentioned earlier in this essay, most social commentary today takes different forms, and just as effectively. Why bother with the gothic, which is surreal and often shocking. Was it merely to appease a beligerent monarchy, or were their other reasons? There is one, and it has to do with the issues that gothic texts frequently deal with. To my knowledge, there are no works of Gothic horror whose main focus is the high price of turnips, or the weird shoe stores that seem to be everywhere these days. They always seem to deal with other issues: the poor treatment of women by men, the poor treatment of blacks by whites, the frightful treatment of the poor by the rich. In short, imbalances of power. And isn’t this the basis of any Gothic story?
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. London: Routledge and K. Paul, 1969. 371+. Print.
Perkins, David. “Compassion for Animals and Radical Politics: Coleridge’s “To a Young Ass”.” Elh 65.4 (1998): 929-44. [JSTOR]. Web. 4 May 2015.
Williams, Anne. “An I for an Eye: “Spectral Persecution” in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” PMLA 108.5 (1993): 1114-127. JSTOR. Web. 04 May 2015.
Lee, Debbie. “Yellow Fever and the Slave Trade: Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Elh 65.3 (1998): 675-700. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 4 May 2015.
Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otronto. 1st ed. Vol. 1. Dover: Dover Publications, 2004. Dover Thrift Edition. Amazon.com. 19 Mar. 2009. Web. 04 May 2015.
Clemens, Valdine. “Sexual Violence and Woman’s Place.” The Return of the Repressed: Gothic Horror from The Castle of Otranto to Alien. By Valdine Clemens. 1st ed. Vol. 1. Albany: State U of New York, 1999. 29-40. Print.
Kahane, Claire. “Gothic mirrors and the feminine identity.” The Centennial Review 24.1 (1980): 43-64. JSTOR. Web. 04 May 2015.
Gothic Features in Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto
Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto was the first gothic novel, and thus was the originator of many of the distinctive features that have pertained throughout the history of the genre. Early gothic was characterized by the rejection of enlightenment thinking in favor of the intense emotion and the supernatural, expressed in this extract particularly through the drama of a chase sequence. While the passage mainly uses third person narration, Walpole utilizes free indirect discourse to provide an insight into the princess’s consciousness. This is shown through the multiple rhetorical questions such as “Yet where conceal herself?”. Providing a voice for the consciousness of the princess helps to articulate a sense of intense anxiety, fitting the character neatly into the gothic trope of the damsel in distress. Indeed, the thoughts that passed “rapidly through her mind”, reflect the urgency of the ‘chase’ sequence, a characteristic of the gothic – reflected even today in modern slasher movies – where the persecuted female flees the persecutor. Indeed, these roles also reflect the established social order, as the aristocratic “princess” is the heroine, whereas Manfred and his “domestics” – likened almost to property – are demonized. This reflects context of early gothic literature and the strict societal hierarchies that were in place. Religious symbolism is also used within the extract, as the princess seeks respite with the “holy virgins” who will supposedly protect her. Walpole is reflecting the idea of virginity equating to purity, which is juxtaposed to the predatory and sexually charged nature of the chase. By sanctifying the princess, he presents her as a morally pure victim in need of rescue from the deviant Manfred. Religion is also addressed through the alliterated ‘c’s in the line “whose convent was contiguous to the cathedral”, which induces an almost rhythmic quality. Arguably this emphasizes the connotations to Catholicism; indeed, an obsession with Catholic practices is characteristic of many early English gothic novels, for example, The Monk, which follows a murderous catholic monk who preys on young women, or Ann Radcliffe’s “The Mysteries of Udulpho”. Walpole is no exception to this trend, and the extract makes use of these contemporary fears. Perhaps the most characteristically gothic feature is the setting, including the eponymous castle itself, which dominates almost every line in the passage. The majority of the passage takes place in the “subterraneous regions” of the castle, built up of “intricate cloisters”, typical of gothic architecture. Indeed, the early gothic coincided with a revival of such architecture, and indeed The Castle of Otranto was inspired by a nightmare in Walpole’s own faux-gothic house (Strawberry Hill House). Within the narrative of the gothic novel, these structures often are externalizations of the owners themselves, thus Manfred’s almost anthropomorphized castle takes on a predatory nature. In the extract this is reflected in the “grating” of the “rusty” hinges, emphasizing the imagery of decay and the archaic. Moreover, the fluctuations in sound from “awful silence” to the pathetic fallacy of the “blasts of wind”, suggest that nature itself has taken an antagonistic role. One could also interpret the exploration of the “long labyrinth of darkness” from a psychological perspective, as the external setting becomes a way of exploring the dark recesses of the mind. The final line “she was ready to sink under her apprehensions” certainly lends itself to this interpretation, as the princess’s interior mind is almost externalized within the claustrophobic and labyrinthine setting. Thus the first gothic novel begins a long trend of seeing gothic settings as a reflection for the psychological, where characters have to go deep into the recesses of the castle to explore their own deep rooted fears, captured perhaps most famously in the exploration of the Counts castle in Dracula. Indeed, in this passage the deep rooted fears – bordering on melodrama – are succinctly expressed in the sentence “words cannot paint the horror of the princess’s situation”. As mid-18th literature was characterized by long sentences, Warpole use this short simple sentence to add dramatic effect. Not even the narrator is capable of articulating the fear of the situation. To conclude, this passage has a great deal of familiar tropes that are quintessential of early gothic, from the distinct presence of Catholicism and societal hierarchy. It also maintains tropes that remain in later gothic literature, such as the damsel in distress (seen in the 21st century via contemporary horror movies) and the gothic castle setting. However, the passage is unique in that it is arguably the originator of these very tropes that eventually became staples of the genre, and is thus crucial to the history of the genre as a whole.
Horace Walpole and Samuel Johnson, Champions of Women’s Rights
Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and Samuel Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia both make excellent examples of the roles of women in the eighteenth century, including what those roles were supposed to be and what they actually were. Both texts treat women as generally fearful or timid with some acts of bravery or intelligence. However, of the two, Otranto treats women as incapable and depicts them without any rights while Rasselas treats women as intellectual equals for much of the book. However, when reading fictional tales such as these, one must remember that everything the characters do is a reflection on the author’s thoughts, feelings or intentions. Unlike real life, things are not said or done by chance. Every action is a deliberate intention of the author. Therefore it is possible that Johnson’s female characters were exemplifying to their female readers how beneficial it is to use their intelligence in life. Walpole’s work, although it presents a stereotypical view of women on the surface, could have an ulterior motive as well. Perhaps it was excessively stereotypical so as to satirize society’s expectations for women in the eighteenth century. It was at a time when women were expected to be submissive, timid, and obedient to husbands and fathers. But at this time certain feminist issues were coming to light. Women were becoming more involved in work outside the home, either directly or by helping their husbands. They were looking for equal rights in education, the workforce, and in the public sphere. However, since women’s equality was a controversial subject, many authors such as Walpole and Johnson portray women to be weak, timid, fearful, and incapable of surviving without men on the surface. The out-of-character acts of courage or intelligence show an undercurrent of feminism reflective of what was going on in Eighteenth Century English culture. Women were supposed to be weak, timid and helpless, and they were not supposed to break out of the roles of wife and daughter. This was starting to change, and the authors’ work reflected that.
To a certain extent, both Otranto and Rasselas portray women as mothers, nurturers, wives, and as helpless, silly creatures in need of masculine protection, which were the typical roles women were supposed to play at the time. Nekayah and Pekuah of Rasselas are often shown as fearful throughout their adventures. This behaviour is contrasted several times to the valiant nature of the male characters. When the characters leave their Utopia for the first time, “The princess and her maid… considered themselves as in danger of being lost in a dreary vacuity…. The prince felt nearly the same emotions, though he thought it more manly to conceal them” (Johnson, 2700). Johnson again highlights the fearfulness of women when the group is about to enter the pyramids. Pekuah is too afraid to enter them, and because of this she is kidnapped by Arab robbers (2719-20). Here Pekuah’s timidity costs her her freedom. Walpole also portrays women as weak and fearful at several times throughout The Castle of Otranto. The character of Bianca perfectly embodies this. She is superstitious, anxious, and ineffectual. When talking with her lady Matilda on page 37, she is interrupted by a noise and becomes so frightened that she begins swearing to St. Nicholas. Matilda assures her, “It is the wind… you have heard it a thousand times” (Walpole, 37). Bianca is eventually driven from the castle by her fear of the supernatural occurrences. Matilda also expresses fear when she faints upon learning that Theodore was to be executed (Walpole, 49).
The female characters of these two works did not only represent feminine fear, but also their dependency on men. Matilda, always cast aside and mistreated by her father, still acts as the dutiful daughter. Ferguson Ellis notes in the excerpt from Otranto Feminized, “Earlier in the novel, and again on her deathbed, [Matilda] is a picture of obedience, declaring that “a child ought not to have to ears or eyes, but as a parent directs” (59). This characterization reflects the most important role of the eighteenth century woman: to marry and bear children. After this task, women held little interest for their male counterparts. A woman had to consider very carefully how her actions would affect her father or husband before doing anything. Bianca also encourages the stereotyped roles of women and counsels Matilda to take a husband because “A bad husband is better than no husband at all” (37), propagating the idea that every woman needs a man in order to survive, even if he is cruel to her. A woman in 2012 reading this might ask why a woman, subject to the authority of a cruel man, should be better off than supporting herself and living as she desires. However, the culture of the eighteenth century was such that it was not economically or socially possible for a woman to support herself and live on her own. Therefore it was expected and often necessary for a woman to take a husband, however uncaring. Isabella epitomizes the powerlessness of Eighteenth Century women. Throughout the novel she is barely treated as a human, and more like a business transaction. Her marriage situation is negotiated time and again, starting with Manfred usurping her for a wife to his son, and then trading his own daughter in marriage to Isabella’s father so that he may possess her himself. Though unhappy about her circumstances, Isabella will obey her father’s demands.
Hippolita has the weaker qualities of the other female characters in the extreme. When Manfred wants to divorce her for another woman, though she has been nothing but faithful to him their entire lives, she willingly accepts, saying “It is not ours to make election for ourselves; heaven, our fathers, and our husbands, must decide for us” (80), even though her acquiescence will force her daughter-in-law into an unfavourable position. Ferguson Ellis quotes Hippolita saying “It is my duty to hear nothing that it pleases not my lord that I should hear” (58). Hippolita acts very similar to Matilda in this respect. She has no eyes or ears but what Manfred would want her to have. This is an exaggerated version of the position of every wife and daughter in the eighteenth century. All of these female characters have an unquestioning acceptance of the way things should be, which leads them to be submissive and passive about their situation in life. This is the role that women had to play. The exaggerated sillyness of Hippolita and other Otranto women makes one wonder, what is the author trying to illustrate? Walpole might be of a misogynist mindset. Or he might be satirizing the cultural norm by exaggerating this behaviour in the characters of Hippolita, Bianca, and some instances of Isabella and Matilda. Readers know that women are not really like this. To assume that women agreed to the roles put upon them by men and society is to assume that women were fundamentally different in the eighteenth century from how they are today, and that is just not possible.
If the Gothic heroine was supposed to be more feminist than other ladies of literature, Otranto fails in that respect. Hippolita is not a strong character at all, Bianca is overpowered by her timidity, and while Matilda and Isabella show instances of bravery, their actions are overall subject to the will of the men in their lives. Rasselas has a theme with more equality between the sexes. Johnson argues that women of his time were taking on the roles prescribed to them by society, obedience, passivity, deference et cetera; but that their circumstances would greatly improve if they could throw off these shackles and use their independence and intelligence to their advantage. Both Nekayah and Pekuah are quite fearful and cowardly in the beginning of their adventure from the Happy Valley, but their characters evolve drastically. This is exemplified in the women’s interactions with the astronomer. He is originally disinclined to talk to Nekayah and Pekuah, but he turns out to be impressed by their knowledge and wit. “She told her tale with ease and elegance, and her conversation took possession of his heart… He looked upon her as a prodigy of genius… They came again and again, and were every time more welcome than before. The sage endeavored to amuse them, that they might prolong their visits, for he found his thoughts grow brighter in their company” (Johnson, 2737). In fact, both he and Pekuah’s kidnapper value the women’s conversation so much that they are unwilling to see them go. Here Johnson again demonstrates how women can use their intelligence to their advantage in the world. It’s not that the Eighteenth Century woman is not smart, it is that she has been trained not to show her knowledge, especially publicly. When Imlac says that the astronomer will think her too stupid to converse with, Pekuah defends herself by saying, “My knowledge is perhaps more than you imagine it … by concurring always with his opinions I shall make him think it greater than it is” (Johnson, 2737). Not only is Pekuah smart, but she is manipulative enough to deceive a learned man. This is the kind of intelligence women were not supposed to have let alone display in the company of men. By giving this to Pekuah, Johnson is asserting that women are capable of this level of intelligence and can benefit from its use. Education for women was also a priority for this author. At the end of Rasselas, Nekayah expresses a desire to start a college for women. This is an astounding inference to make at a time where women only went to college to secure husbands or learn to be good housekeepers. Johnson was advocating for women to be educated, intelligent and virtuous, and he argued that these women made better wives and mothers and contributed more to society.
Walpole’s female characters are not nearly as emancipated as Johnson’s. However they display the odd moment of bravery and sense. Isabella, when threatened by Manfred with a proposal, does not acquiesce and flees through the castle to avoid the disastrous fate. This effort to escape shows a determination and self-possessiveness that the other females lack. However, Matilda’s courage surpasses Isabella’s when she frees Theodore: “Though filial duty and womanly modesty condemn the step I am taking, yet holy charity, surmounting all other ties, justifies this act. Fly; the doors of thy prison are open” (Walpole, 64). Even in her moment of courage, Matilda is concerned with how she is betraying her father despite his lifelong mistreatment of her. So why does Walpole bother to give his female characters any bravery when he’s made them helpless in the rest of the novel? Women have always been smart, capable creatures, and yet they have been portrayed otherwise in art and literature. Around this time women were starting to stand up for themselves and speak up for their rights. But it was still uncomfortable for authors to portray and people to read about women as fully put-together, independent people. Perhaps this is why you see them portrayed as mainly helpless with these few instances of cleverness.
The role of women in eighteenth century England was a limited one. It included high expectations for behaviour, restrictions on intelligence and opinion. However, it is hard to believe that women accepted these roles without contention. Women have always been as strong and intelligent as they are today, but in the Eighteenth Century this fact was just coming to light. It is clear from these arguments that while both texts illustrate women as useless and dependent, it is not without a purpose. Johnson does so briefly and only to show how much the women’s lives improve once they change this behaviour as an example to the women of his time. Walpole does so excessively so as to mock and criticize the roles women were supposed to carry out in eighteenth century society. At this point in history it was becoming more and more apparent that these roles were not practical nor fair, and authors like Samuel Johnson and Horace Walpole were beginning to speak out against them in this implicit manner. One must keep in mind the historical context while reading novels of this time. When doing this, one has a better view of eighteenth century literature and history as a whole.
Johnson, Samuel. “The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.” The Norton Anthology of
English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt and M. H. Abrams. 8th Ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. 2680-2743. Print.
Tinkham, Audrey. “Notes on Samuel Johnson (1709-84), Rasselas (1759).” University of Arizona. N.p.. Web. 4 Nov 2012.
Robertson, Julia. ““No Woman is the Worst For Sense and Knowledge” : Samuel Johnson and Women.” University of Maryland. N.p.. Web. 4 Nov 2012.
Cengage, Gale . “Feminism in Literature.” eNotes. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Nov 2012.
“Depiction of Women: A Review of “The Castle of Otranto”.” Bookstove. N.p., 14 2008. Web. 4 Nov 2012.
Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto. London: Penguin Books, 2001. Print.
Ferguson Ellis, Kate. Excerpt from “Otranto Femminized.” The Contested Castle. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1989. 58-61
The Burden of Inheritance: An Analysis of Generational Sin in The Castle of Otranto
The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole is hailed as the first novel of the Gothic genre. Accordingly, the novel contains many tropes found in gothic literature, such as the pious princess and the evil prince. In the novel, male characters do appear to have a more odious disposition than female characters do, but by observing the character development of Theodore and Isabella, we discover that male characters are in fact victims of the corruptive effects of inheriting power, which affect both male and female characters and reflect the repetitive nature of generational sin.
In the novel, female characters mostly display positive qualities, such as sympathy, piety, and obedience. For example, Isabella, “treated by Hippolita like a daughter,” gratefully returns her “tenderness with equal duty and affection” (17). Further, even after Manfred fatally wounds Matilda, not only does she readily forgive him, she also urges her mother to do the same: “Forgive him, dearest mother—forgive him my death—it was an error” (107). Throughout the novel, the visible ease with which female characters seem to forgive offenses, endure suffering, and obey commands establishes their superior moral character.
While mothers and daughters seem equally virtuous, fathers, on the other hand, are excluded from this innocence, and instead they seem equally corrupt. Manfred intends to divorce Hippolita and marry Isabella to further his lineage, which requires him to perjure himself about why he wants his marriage annulled, concealing his true motive, which is “founded on lust or policy” (48). Regardless of his purposes, Manfred’s actions are immoral: his marriage to Isabella is incest, because she is betrothed to Conrad, making her Manfred’s future daughter-in-law. Moreover, Isabella’s father, Frederic, at first charged with rescuing his daughter, lusts for Matilda and quickly gives his daughter away in exchange for marrying Matilda; and he only resumes his original objective after the hermit’s ghost reminds him that he is not “delivered from bondage… to pursue carnal delights” (102). Jerome, another father figure, in both biological and religious terms, initially appears as righteous when he condemns Manfred’s attempt to divorce Hippolita and as loving when he pleads for Theodore, his son. However, as the story progresses, even Jerome becomes a vengeful character, driven by his hatred for Manfred, which he disguises with his position as a servant of God. His malignity extends not only towards Manfred, but also towards his innocent children, “whom heaven has doomed to destruction. A tyrant’s race must be swept from the earth to the third and fourth generation” (91). Jerome poses his own selfish desires as “sacred vengeance” and fails to live out the virtue of mercy (91). Fathers, unlike mothers, are spurred by lust and vengeance; and this repetition of fathers fulfilling their own egotistical ambitions at the expense of the children of others, or even at the expense of their own children, indicates that they tend to act evilly more than female characters do.
But a son is not his father: Theodore, Jerome’s son, seems an exception as the one good male character. Both physically and spiritually, Theodore resembles Alfonso, who exemplifies goodness in the novel. Tangibly, Theodore is in the physical likeness of Alfonso: “with large black eyes, a smooth white forehead, and manly curling locks like jet… resembling the picture of the good Alfonso” (38). More intangibly, Theodore is similar to Alfonso, because according to Matilda, Alfonso is a “virtuous prince” (39), and Theodore is also “virtuous and frank” (41). His intrinsic nobility and relation to Alfonso seem to give him an innate authority: “His person was noble, handsome, and commanding” (52). Theodore further exhibits courage and righteousness when he facilitates Isabella’s escape from the castle, saying that he “will die in (her) defence” (27), and offers to protect her in the caverns. Before Theodore comes into power, his virtuous qualities abound and demonstrate his resemblance to Alfonso the Good.
However, though Theodore assumes Alfonso’s virtue, he also parallels Manfred’s sin: after Theodore becomes prince, he marries Isabella, the same bride Manfred seeks for himself. Because Frederic is related to Alfonso, Theodore, directly descending from Alfonso, is related to Isabella how Manfred is related to Hippolita; and Hippolita is betrothed to another before Manfred how Isabella is betrothed to Conrad before Theodore. Under these circumstances, the marriage of Theodore and Isabella replicates the marriage of Manfred and Hippolita. What is more, Theodore is not Alfonso’s lawful grandson, because “deeming this amour incongruous with the holy vow of arms by which [Alfonso] was bound, he was determined to conceal their nuptials until his return” (110), so Theodore’s grandmother, Victoria, is never acknowledged as Alfonso’s lawful wife, because Alfonso never returns from the Crusade. Later, “The daughter of which Victoria was delivered, was at her maturity bestowed in marriage on [Jerome]” (110). Therefore, Theodore is related to Alfonso through an illegitimate maternal line, which violates the proper rules of succession, disputing Theodore’s claim on the principality of Otranto. Theodore’s incestuous marriage and questionable legitimacy render him almost identical to Manfred: both engage in sin to maintain power, and Theodore repeats Manfred’s course of action. By examining Theodore’s character development, we see that he imitates Alfonso, who symbolizes virtue in the novel; but, corrupted by power, he also mirrors Manfred, who personifies evil.
As demonstrated, sons are also susceptible to the fathers’ vices, but what about daughters? Although daughters seem to merely assume the role of victims in the novel, there is one exception among female characters: Isabella, whom Walpole presents as the innocent damsel in distress, threatened by an incestuous and non-consensual marriage. Yet, there are subtle distinctions between the characters of Isabella and Matilda, another daughter in the novel. Compared to Matilda, who “thought of nothing but assisting and comforting her afflicted parent” after her brother’s death (17), Isabella is much more concerned for her own wellbeing, which “could not help finding its place in her thoughts” (18). The disparity between the two points out that while Isabella is aware of the suffering of others, she lacks Matilda’s empathy, because she “was not sorry” for Conrad’s death (18). Even though Hippolita mothers Isabella in every way but biological, Isabella fixates on her own welfare, unaffected by Hippolita’s pain from her son’s gruesome death.
Notably, Matilda is detached from the world, whereas Walpole describes Isabella as worldlier. Matilda “was born to be a saint… [she] will end in a convent at last” (39), and she is unconcerned about men, except to pray at Alfonso’s tomb. On the other hand, talking of “young men” entertains Isabella (39), and “she wished… Conrad resembled” “a handsome cavalier” (39). Isabella’s vanity is unseen in Matilda, who “would rather take the veil” than marry “a handsome young prince” (38), further magnifying their differences. So predictably, when Isabella falls in love with Theodore, she “resented Theodore’s warmth, which she perceived was dictated by his sentiments for Matilda” and calls Theodore “a peasant” (79), exposing the jealous facets of her character.
Though Matilda and Isabella soon reconcile, the fact is they have conflicting predilections, despite their similar age, upbringing, and “friendship” (18). This is due to Isabella’s status as her father’s successor. Because the house of Vicenza carries a legitimacy which others can only access through Isabella, her position associates her with an implicit power over the male characters who wish to marry her for power. In this way, Isabella possesses the power from inheritance; unlike Matilda, who values religion over marriage and retreats from the world, thereby distancing herself from all forms of power. Since inheritance is materialistic by nature, unsurprisingly, the receivers of inheritance are also more materialistic. However, Isabella is an anomaly among female characters, who are generally denied inheritance, since fathers often view daughters as secondary to sons. Even after Conrad dies, Manfred yells at Matilda “I do not want a daughter” (21), but for the women in the novel, their perceived inferiority to men actually frees them from the corruptive effects of power. Isabella’s example emphasizes that inheriting power is the source of corruption and that female characters are not inherently immune to corruption; rather, they enjoy the luxury of being spared from inheritance.
Conversely, male characters enjoy no such luxury, and inheritance corrupts them more than it does female characters, because ruling requires them to perpetrate atrocities to hold onto their power. For instance, Manfred commits bribery to contract Isabella to Conrad in marriage, because he “proposed to unite the claims of the two houses,” strengthening his house with Vicenza’s legitimacy (59). However, “this motive, on Conrad’s death, had co-operated to make him so suddenly resolve on espousing her himself” (59). Only by committing incest, may Manfred further his lineage and ensure his family’s position; and marrying Isabella, however abominable, is undoubtedly a rational method that accomplishes his original purpose and gives him a male heir; just as Theodore’s rational decision to marry Isabella stabilizes his own rule.
Since Theodore loves Matilda and his “grief was too fresh to admit the thought of another love” (110), his apparently easy replacement of Matilda horrifies the reader, but in reality, his marriage with Isabella is prompted by practicality rather than out of Theodore’s own volition. It is true that Theodore never wants to marry Isabella, and only accepts to “forever indulge in the melancholy that had taken possession of his soul” (110). Yet, inspected from a practical point of view, the marriage is a logical option that prevents conflict with Frederic’s house, making Isabella Theodore’s best choice for a wife: she already loves him and can give him the necessary heir for his lineage to remain in power. Indeed, Theodore surpasses Manfred when he achieves what Manfred has only planned: marrying Isabella.
Arguably, power seems to motivate Theodore less than it motivates Manfred, since Theodore is given power when Alfonso pronounces Theodore as his rightful heir, whereas Manfred appears to grasp onto power by force. However, in truth, both characters’ power comes from inheritance. Manfred says, “I enjoy the principality of Otranto from my father, Don Manuel, as he received it from his father, Don Ricardo” (64). Just as Theodore is “the true heir of Alfonso” (108), Manfred is the true heir of Ricardo and Manuel, so they both inherit power, and both willingly sin to maintain that power. Male characters must receive inheritance, which subjects them to its corruptive effects. Although Theodore seems innocent at first, he inherits such corruption, thus he is not exempt from the impure inclinations shown by other male characters in the novel.
By the nature of inheritance, this corruptive process repeats for each and every generation, until eventually, the ramifications of the fathers’ immorality fall upon their children. Manfred inherits the repercussions of Ricardo poisoning Alfonso, but it is Conrad’s death that pays for this crime: the death of an heir ends Manfred’s grasp on power the same way Alfonso’s death ends his reign. Nevertheless, instead of accepting his fate, Manfred plots to elude retribution by producing another heir with Isabella.
In Manfred’s case, generational sin is not only repetitive, but also cyclical, in that the death of Conrad, which is punishment for Alfonso’s murder, compels Manfred to perform more sinful actions of his own to escape that punishment, which culminates to Matilda’s murder and extinguishes his own bloodline definitively. Matilda’s death also literalizes her ultimate distance from the world and from power, and she remains incorrupt forever. At the end of the novel, Manfred laments that “nor male nor female, except myself, remains of all his wretched race!” (109), and Ricardo’s and Manfred’s endeavours to gain and maintain power prove futile. Ironically, ancestors act wickedly, intending to preserve their family through holding onto power, which essentially diminishes the succeeding generations’ prospects, as they suffer for their ancestors’ transgressions, leading to the inevitable downfall of their entire house.
Throughout the novel, though male characters may victimize others with their power, they, in turn, are victimized by generational sin and inheriting that power. Ultimately, the fault lies with the brokenness of the entire system of inheritance, and the corruptive effects of power result in generational sin. However, by the end of the novel, the characters seem to forget the consequences of the preceding events, with Theodore echoing Manfred’s behavior. Even Walpole, under the guise of translator William Marshal, comments that generational sin is an insignificant moral, but I read this as verbal irony, which contrasts the translator’s opinion with the novel’s grim ending, admonishing the reader to heed the moral of the story. By revealing the severity of generational sin, Walpole exhorts the reader to acquit themselves with consideration to how the consequences of their actions may affect their own future generations.
Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto. Oxford University Press, 1964.