The Castle of Otranto

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The Castle of Otranto Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Horace Walpole

Horace Walpole was the fourth earl of Orford and the youngest son of Robert Walpole, the first prime minister of England. As a child, Walpole attended Eton College, where he met figures such as Thomas Ashton, Thomas Gray, and Richard West. The four boys formed a friendship and called themselves the “Quadruple Alliance.” After Eton, Walpole continued his studies at Cambridge. In 1737, Walpole’s mother Catherine, with whom he was very close, died, and he left Cambridge without a degree the following year. As young, well-to-do European men often did, Walpole then embarked on the Grand Tour, exploring Italy and France with his friend Thomas Gray. In 1741, Walpole returned to England, expecting a seat in parliament, only to find that his father’s influence and power had greatly diminished; consequently, he sat at Parliament intermittently and occasionally worked as a pamphleteer. Though he never married, he was a social man, known to be amiable, clever, whimsical, and fixated on the quality of “singularity” or uniqueness in both his writing and his collection of antiquities. He also became known for his remarkable library and art collection as well as his contribution to architecture. As an amateur enthusiast in architecture, he built a medieval-inspired castle in Twickenham from 1749 to 1753, drawing upon whatever Gothic styles suited his imagination. The creation of his home, Strawberry Hill, has been credited for reviving interest in Gothic architecture. Previously, “Gothic” had been associated with barbarism and unrefinement. In 1757, Walpole built a printing press in his home, the Strawberry Hill Press, whose first publication was Thomas Gray’s Odes by Mr. Gray. Though Strawberry Hill was the inspiration for and arguably the setting of The Castle of Otranto, Walpole did not print the novel at his own press, but rather submitted it anonymously for publication to another London publisher. It was met with great popularity, and later editions featured Walpole’s own name. Though The Castle of Otranto remains Walpole’s best known work, he was a prolific writer and wrote a wide array of works, from poems to romances, to histories and catalogues. Throughout his lifetime, he also wrote thousands of letters to friends in France and England, letters that are recognized for their wit and elegance and that were published a year after Walpole’s death in 1797. Horace Walpole died in London at the age of 79.
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Historical Context of The Castle of Otranto

The Castle of Otranto was set somewhere between the 11th and 13th centuries. Two of the novel’s characters, Frederic and Alfonso, fought in the Crusades, religious wars that the Catholic church waged against the Muslim “infidels,” as Frederic calls them, in order to conquer Jerusalem and the Holy Land for Christianity. The first Crusade began in 1095, as Walpole states in the preface, and was followed by a number of other largely unsuccessful and destructive crusades through the 13th century.

Other Books Related to The Castle of Otranto

Though The Castle of Otranto is often said to be the first Gothic novel, earlier works such as Tobias Smollet’s The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom (1753) and Thomas Leland’s Longsword (1762) also contained elements of terror and the supernatural. However, Walpole’s use of literary devices such as secret passageways, prophecies, and haunted castle became archetypal features of Gothic novels and stories by writers such as Anne Radcliffe, Clara Reeve, Bram Stoker (author of Dracula), and Edgar Allen Poe
Key Facts about The Castle of Otranto
  • Full Title: (first edition) The Castle of Otranto: A Story. Translated by William Marshall, Gent. From the Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St. Nicholas at Otranto; (second edition) The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story
  • When Written: 1764
  • Where Written: London
  • When Published: 1764
  • Literary Period: Romanticism
  • Genre: Gothic
  • Setting: The castle of Otranto (somewhere near Naples, Italy), and the nearby church of St. Nicholas
  • Climax: Matilda dies, part of the castle falls down, and a giant image of Alfonso declares Theodore his true heir.
  • Antagonist: Manfred
  • Point of View: Third-person subjective, occasionally with free indirect discourse

Extra Credit for The Castle of Otranto

Double pseudo. In the first edition of Otranto, Walpole wrote under not one but two pseudonyms, claiming in the preface that the story dated back to the Crusades; that the manuscript was written in Italian by “Onuphrio Muralto,” a Catholic priest from the church that appears in the narrative; and that he, “William Marshal, Gent.” found the manuscript in the library of an ancient Catholic family.

Non-political press. After Walpole built Strawberry Hill Press, he decided never to use the press for political means and established a practice of publishing his own political pamphlets elsewhere.