The Castle of Otranto

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Humor, the Gothic, and the Supernatural Theme Analysis

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Humor, the Gothic, and the Supernatural Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Castle of Otranto, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Humor, the Gothic, and the Supernatural Theme Icon

Much of what characterizes Gothic literature has to do with setting. As what might be described as the “grandfather” of Gothic literature, Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto displays many of the features that would become stereotypically Gothic. For example, the story takes place in a foreign country, in a medieval castle with towers and secret passageways. The castle is eerie and ominous, plagued by creaking hinges, trap doors clanging shut, the wailing of the wind, and the life-like quality of people in paintings.

Supernatural elements like ghosts, visions, mysterious suits of armor, and prophecies run through the novel. Though Walpole is often credited as the first Gothic novelist, such fanciful elements were in fact drawn from medieval romance, heroic tales in which knights often encountered marvels or supernatural phenomena on their adventures. Though the Gothic novel was always considered lowbrow literature even during the height of its popularity, before Walpole, “gothic” was looked down upon even more, and associated with barbarism. Walpole’s novel helped to change that, and his unfettered enthusiasm for the Middle Ages was extraordinary. One of many accomplishments he is well known for is Strawberry Hill, a faux-medieval castle Walpole built for himself and on which he based The Castle of Otranto.

Though many of the literary devices found in Otranto are now recognized as archetypically “Gothic,” Walpole’s novel indulged in humor in a way that later Gothic works such as Dracula and Frankenstein did not. Part of this is achieved merely by his presentation of Gothic and supernatural elements. For example, Conrad’s death by giant helmet, while tragic to the story’s characters, is completely absurd. The setting itself, often merely eerie in later Gothic works, is also occasionally humorous. The castle’s “deep and hollow groan” is “the effect of pent-up vapours” — in other words, the castle is farting.

Another aspect of Walpole’s humor is the way he claims that the story, in fact, was written by a 16th century Catholic priest and then was translated by a man named “William Marshal, Gent.” This claim about the origin of the text is fairly obviously false, and funny in its own right. At the same time, it allows Walpole in his first preface to the novel to masquerade self-praise as self-deprecation, and includes tongue-in-cheek hints at the novel’s true authorship. More generally, Walpole seems to revel in the story’s “Gothicness” while also poking fun at it in the first preface. In the first preface, Walpole claims the novel is merely entertainment while in his preface to the second edition, he claims that it was “an attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern,” that is, to find a happy medium between the fanciful character of medieval romance and the realism of the modern novel. The apparently contradictory aims professed by Walpole have made readers question to what extend the book should be interpreted at face value or as a spoof of medieval literature.

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Humor, the Gothic, and the Supernatural ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Humor, the Gothic, and the Supernatural appears in each Chapter of The Castle of Otranto. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Humor, the Gothic, and the Supernatural Quotes in The Castle of Otranto

Below you will find the important quotes in The Castle of Otranto related to the theme of Humor, the Gothic, and the Supernatural.
First Edition Preface Quotes

Letters were then in their most flourishing state in Italy, and contributed to dispel the empire of superstition, at that time so forcibly attacked by the reformers. It is not unlikely, that an artful priest might endeavor to turn their own arms on the innovators; and might avail himself of his abilities as an author to confirm the populace in their ancient errors and superstitions.

Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

In the first preface to the novel, Walpole, writing as the fictional translator William Marshall, Gent., has just dated the story to the Crusades and is now discussing the historical period of the fictional Italian author of the “original” story, Onuphrio Muralto. Gent speculates that Muralto, a Catholic priest writing during the Renaissance and after the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, may have been using his writing talents to reinforce Catholic beliefs among the general population and to combat Protestant skepticism of “superstitions.” Walpole’s first preface serves to undermine the story’s class distinctions, its implicit advocation of the divine right of kings, and the Catholic church’s conflicting moral messages.

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Chapter 1 Quotes

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

Related Characters: Manfred, Theodore, Alfonso
Related Symbols: Castle of Otranto, The Giant Suit of Armor
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

These words are a prophecy about rulership of Otranto. At the beginning of the novel, Manfred is rushing his son Conrad’s wedding in order to avoid the prophecy, which foretells the end of Manfred’s reign. It is this prophecy that drives the entirety of the plot, from Manfred’s arrangement of Conrad’s wedding to his own pursuit of Isabella, to the gigantic pieces of armor that mysteriously appear around the castle. By the end of the novel, it is revealed that these pieces of oversized armor belong to Alfonso, the last true ruler of Otranto. Though Manfred spends almost the entirety of the novel committing sins to fight against this prophecy, which was originally delivered by St. Nicholas to Manfred’s grandfather, Manfred allows the prophecy to pass after he accidentally kills his daughter, finally repenting and seeking atonement as a monk.

Manfred rose to pursue her; when the moon, which was now up, and gleamed in at the opposite casement, presented to his sight the plumes of the fatal helmet, which rose to the height of the windows, waving backwards and forwards in a tempestuous manner, and accompanied with a hollow and rustling sound…. “Heaven nor hell shall impede my designed!” said Manfred, advancing again to seize the princess. At that instant, the portrait of his grandfather, which hung over the bench where they had been sitting, uttered a deep sigh, and heaved its breast.

Related Characters: Manfred (speaker), Isabella, Ricardo
Related Symbols: The Giant Suit of Armor
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

Manfred, having had the light taken away by his servant, has just cornered Isabella in the dark gallery of the castle and declared his intention to rape and marry her. Now, Isabella has just begun to run away, and though Manfred tries to follow her, he is stopped by the light of the moon, a symbol of goodness and chastity, and by the movement of the giant helmet’s feathers, which wave from side to side as if shaking their heads.

Manfred is thwarted time and again by manifestations of divine will. When he declares that neither heaven nor hell will stop him, he is immediately distracted by his grandfather’s moving portrait, which leads him only to a slammed door. The implication seems to be both that heaven stands against Manfred’s plans, and that the legacy passed down to him by his grandfather – the rulership of Otranto – leads to a dead end. Yet instead of taking these hints and ceasing his efforts, Manfred instead refuses to stand down. He is working against heaven and fate.

That excellent lady, who no more than Manfred doubted the reality of the vision, yet affected to treat it as a delirium of the servant. Willing, however, to save her lord from any additional shock, and prepared by a series of grief not to tremble at any accession to it, she determined to make herself the first sacrifice, if fate had marked the present hour for their destruction.

Related Characters: Manfred, Hippolita, Diego
Related Symbols: The Giant Suit of Armor
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:

Though both are sure of its reality, Hippolita and Manfred dismiss the servants’ report of a giant leg in armor as superstition. However, as they will soon learn, they are wrong to do so, as the armor represents the end of Manfred’s rule. Hippolita’s decision to offer herself up as a sacrifice leads her to anticipate disaster throughout the novel, and as a result, she is all too ready to consent to a divorce from Manfred when he asks her to do so. Constantly putting Manfred’s needs before her own, Hippolita’s willingness to sacrifice herself for her husband’s sake is a sign of her selflessness and wifely submission, but at the same time it involves placing her husband’s authority above the authority of God, which is a sin.

Chapter 3 Quotes

Arriving there, he sought the gloomiest shades, as best suited to the pleasing melancholy that reigned in his mind. In this mood he roved insensibly to the caves which had formerly served as a retreat to hermits, and were now reported round the country to be haunted by evil spirits. He recollected to have heard this tradition; and being of a brave and adventurous disposition, he willingly indulged his curiosity in exploring the secret recesses of this labyrinth…He thought the place more likely to be infested by robbers than by those infernal agents who are reported to molest and bewilder travelers.

Related Characters: Theodore
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

After being freed by Matilda and set on a path towards a labyrinth of hidden caves, Theodore is searching for Isabella, eager to prove himself. Now with his set of armor from Matilda, Theodore’s bravery and desire for “adventure” make him the typical heroic knight, situating the reader firmly in a story of medieval romance. Theodore’s “insensible” roving is not unlike the tendency of knights in chivalric tales to wander aimlessly through forests or the countryside, only to stumble upon adventure.

Despite reports of evil spirits haunting the caves, Theodore pushes onward, believing that the stories are untrue. Like Matilda and other nobles in the story, Theodore dismisses such reports as superstition, further distinguishing himself as a noble (as opposed to a superstitious peasant).

Chapter 4 Quotes

Where’er a casque that suits this sword is found,
With perils is thy daughter compass’ed round;
Alfonso’s blood alone can save the maid,
And quiet a long restless prince’s shade.

Related Characters: Frederic (speaker), Theodore, Isabella, Alfonso
Related Symbols: The Giant Suit of Armor
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:

At the beginning of Chapter 4, after Theodore mistakenly injures Frederic and brings him to the castle with Isabella, Frederic reveals a prophecy inscribed on a giant sword led him to Otranto. This is the second prophecy of the novel, and it claims that near the helmet matching the sword, Frederic’s daughter Isabella will be in danger, and that only “Alfonso’s blood,” can save her and free Alfonso’s ghost.

That Isabella is the “maid” to be “saved” reinforces gender stereotypes of women as damsels in distress, especially if “Alfonso’s blood” is Theodore, her future husband, or Frederic, her father. In both cases, the prophecy would affirm the idea that women must always be under their fathers’ or husbands’ authority and protection. This is similar to the legal doctrine known as coverture, which originated in the Middle Ages and which decreed that married women had no legal rights, as their legal status was “covered” under that of their husbands. However, one possible positive feminist reading of the prophecy is that Isabella, who is also related to Alfonso, saves herself by escaping Manfred’s clutches.

Just as the first prophecy (that the current ruler of Otranto shall be supplanted when “the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it”) motivates many of Manfred’s decisions and actions, the second prophecy also plays an important role in the story’s plot. The second prophecy provides Frederic with a mission, leading to his arrival at Otranto and his search for Isabella, both of which hinder Manfred’s plans to execute Theodore, who becomes the ruler of Otranto.

Chapter 5 Quotes

The moment Theodore appeared, the walls of the castle behind Manfred were thrown down with a mighty force, and the form of Alfonso, dilated to an immense magnitude, appeared in the centre of the ruins. “Behold in Theodore the true heir of Alfonso!” said the vision: and having pronounced these words, accompanied by a clap of thunder, it ascended solemnly towards Heaven, where, the clouds parting asunder, the form of St. Nicholas was seen, and receiving Alfonso’s shade, they were soon wrapt from mortal eyes in a blaze of glory.

Related Characters: Alfonso (speaker), Manfred, Theodore
Related Symbols: Castle of Otranto, The Giant Suit of Armor
Page Number: 104
Explanation and Analysis:

After Manfred kills Matilda’s (thinking she was Isabella), the castle is beset by an earthquake that drives out its inhabitants. As soon as Theodore goes out into the court, the walls behind Manfred come crashing down, indicating that Manfred’s power, residing in the castle walls, is now destroyed.

In the ruins’ place appears the giant ghost of Alfonso, fulfilling the ancient prophecy Manfred feared. Alfonso’s likeness to Theodore bolsters the ghost’s message that Theodore is the rightful ruler of Otranto. Though the other supernatural phenomena in the story are hinted or speculated by the characters to be of divine will, the appearance of Alfonso’s ghost, the story’s last supernatural phenomenon, is clearly divinely ordained, as the ghost rises to heaven and as St. Nicholas appears “in a blaze of glory.” This final divine intervention pushes Manfred, Hippolita, and Frederic to suppress their worldly desires for the sake of their faith, and establishes that with the rise of Theodore to the rulership of Otranto that the order of things ordained by heaven has been set right.