Manfred, the prince of Otranto, has two children, a beautiful, virginal 18-year-old daughter Matilda, whom he ignores, and a sickly, unaccomplished 15-year-old son Conrad, whom he favors. At the beginning of the story, Manfred is impatiently waiting for the marriage between his son and Isabella, the daughter of the Marquis of Vincenza. Hippolita, Manfred’s wife, previously noted several times the danger of an early marriage for their son, but Manfred only ever responded by blaming her for her supposed sterility. Though Manfred’s friends attribute his impatience to the poor health of his son, they are afraid to comment because of Manfred’s temper. In contrast, the servants gossip widely that Manfred is trying to avoid an ancient 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”), despite their inability to see how the prophecy could be connected to Conrad’s marriage.
The narrator’s description of Matilda as a young, beautiful virgin points to the economic value assigned to virginity — whose associated qualities of marriageability and reproductive utility motivate Manfred’s interest in Isabella and his disinterest in his wife Hippolita, who is sterile. However, Manfred still favors his son over his daughter, a sign of his sexism even within an already patriarchal system in which Matilda would be considered valuable currency. Though the peasants are correct in guessing Manfred’s motivations for the early marriage, they have no evidence to support their assumption, showing that even if they have a kind of instinctual sense of the truth they are also simple and superstitious in comparison to the nobles, who attribute kinder reasons to Manfred’s impatience.
The wedding is set for Conrad’s birthday, and on the day of the event, everyone but Conrad is at the chapel. A servant sent to retrieve the young groom rushes back to the chapel in fear and points wordlessly to the court. Everyone is in terror; Hippolita faints, and Matilda and Isabella take care of her, while Manfred goes out to the court, only to discover that a giant helmet with black feathers had fallen from the sky and crushed Conrad to death.
As Walpole pointed out in his prefaces, terror drives the story forward. Without knowing what made the servant fearful, everyone in the chapel is in terror. Hippolita even swoons, an act that overwhelmed noblewomen often do in Gothic literature. The cruel irony is that Conrad dies on both his birthday and the day he was to be married, but the manner in which he dies also makes this irony humorous: that he is killed by a giant helmet falling from the sky is utterly absurd. The helmet, the story’s first supernatural appearance, also triggers the fulfillment of the prophecy feared by Manfred. The appearance of the giant helmet, combined with the prophecy that the real ruler of Otranto would be “too large” to fit in a castle, suggests that true ruler was the owner of the armor.
Manfred, at first speechless, seems less upset by the death of his favorite child and more interested in the giant helmet. Utterly unconcerned for his wife and daughter, his first words are an order to “take care of the Lady Isabella.” The servants bring a shocked and distraught Hippolita to her room. Matilda assists her, as does Isabella, who regards Hippolita as a mother and who is secretly relieved not to have to marry Conrad – both because she does not love Conrad and because Manfred’s temper toward Matilda and Hippolita terrifies her, despite his unusual kindness towards her.
Though Conrad was his favorite child, Manfred’s lack of concern for him suggests that his interest in Conrad was linked more to his marriage with Isabella, which will cement Manfred’s family’s claim to the throne, than to Conrad himself. Manfred’s ominous order to “take care of the Lady Isabella” foreshadows his later sexual advances on Isabella. That Isabella views Hippolita as a mother implicitly poses Manfred as a father figure, albeit one that terrifies her. This de facto father-daughter relationship between Manfred and Isabella makes Manfred’s sexual interest in her doubly incestuous, as she was also meant to be his daughter-in-law.
In the court, all of Manfred’s attention is on the giant helmet. When a young peasant observes its similarity to the helmet on the statue of Alfonso the Good in the church of St. Nicholas, Manfred flies into a rage, grabs the peasant, accuses him of treason, and threatens to kill him. Surprised yet remaining dignified, the peasant easily removes himself from Manfred’s grasp and humbly asks what he did wrong. Without responding, Manfred orders his servants to seize him.
The contrast between Manfred’s and the peasant’s behavior seems at first to contradict the dichotomy that Walpole has set up between the naïve and superstitious peasants and the dignified and refined nobility. That the peasant is observant, dignified, strong, and humble, especially in comparison to Manfred’s unwarranted rage, reveals their true natures (spoiler alert): the peasant as Otranto’s rightful ruler and Manfred as a usurper who stole the throne.
At that moment, a few peasants returned from the church, confirming that Alfonso’s statue was missing its helmet. Panicked and enraged, Manfred accuses the young peasant of killing Conrad through witchcraft and orders his men to imprison the peasant underneath the giant helmet. While the other peasants form a mob, cheering Manfred’s vilification of the young peasant, Manfred’s friends urge him, unsuccessfully, not to pass such a severe and unwarranted punishment.
After the peasant is proved right, Manfred is even more unreasonably angry. His order to have the peasant imprisoned shows that he is not a just ruler, and is more like a peasant than a nobleman – a fact emphasized by the contrast in the other peasants’ and noble’s reactions. While the other peasants (and Manfred) accuse the young peasant of witchcraft, the nobles recognize how illogical and unfounded their accusation is.
Hippolita, who has regained her consciousness, is now entirely focused on Manfred’s wellbeing and orders Matilda to watch over him. Matilda, ever the dutiful daughter, obeys, despite her fear of her father. However, when Manfred opens the door, he is unable to recognize Matilda, asking who she is. When Matilda responds that she is his daughter, Manfred yells at her to leave, saying “I do not want a daughter.”
Despite Manfred’s cruelty towards her and her sterility, Hippolita is completely devoted to her husband. When she sends Matilda to comfort him, Manfred’s inability to recognize his own daughter foreshadows two things: his inability to recognize Isabella as a daughter (and desire to marry her) and another instance later in the book when Manfred will fail to recognize Matilda, with deadly consequences. His declaration that he does not want a daughter suggests both that he wants a son (i.e. a male heir) instead and that he wants Isabella as a wife rather than as a daughter (in order to produce sons).
Not wanting to upset her mother, Matilda returns to Hippolita with news that Manfred is well. A servant arrives, summoning Isabella to speak with Manfred in the gallery. When Isabella arrives, Manfred orders his servant to take away the light. Forgetting Isabella’s name, he is at first confused but soon regains his focus, telling Isabella that his son was unworthy of her, renouncing his fondness for his son, and claiming that “the line of Manfred calls for numerous supports.”
That Manfred has the light taken away, leaving himself and Isabella in darkness, represents the nefariousness of his plans. Manfred’s forgetting of Isabella’s name suggests how his mind is overwhelmed by his desires (and also how for him all women are just means to an end). That Manfred forgets Isabella not long after forgetting Matilda also suggests that for Manfred the two of them are connected: that for Manfred Isabella might be a proxy for Matilda, and his desire for Isabella is therefore a stand-in for an even more incestuous desire for his own biological daughter. Manfred’s insistence that he requires “numerous supports” – a euphemism for multiple women producing multiple heirs – is sinful both because of his desire for bigamy and because of the incest that would result from such a marriage.
Surprised, Isabella believes that Manfred suspects her lack of love towards Conrad. Isabella tells him not to worry, that she would have been faithful to Conrad had they married and that she will always view Manfred and Hippolita as her parents. Cursing Hippolita, Manfred insinuates that he will be a better husband for her than Conrad, but Isabella, forsaking marriage until her father arrives to arrange another engagement, does not understand until Manfred declares outright his intention to marry her. Despite Isabella’s protests that he is her father-in-law and Hippolita’s husband, Manfred claims that he is divorcing his wife in order to produce more sons through Isabella. Grabbing a horrified Isabella, he proclaims his intention to have sex with her that night.
At first unsuspecting of Manfred’s motives, Isabella’s loyalty toward Manfred and Hippolita as parents shows that she is a dutiful daughter and would have been a dutiful wife. Unlike Manfred, Isabella is able to recognize that a marriage between herself and Manfred would not only be incestuous and sinful but also a betrayal of Hippolita. However, Manfred is intent on producing male heirs to extend his family’s rule, regardless of the sinful means by which he will try to reach his goals. His desire for power outweighs any care about morality.
Screaming in fear, Isabella runs away but is followed by Manfred, who is momentarily distracted by moonlight shining on the giant helmet through the window. Though Isabella claims that Manfred’s intentions are against heaven’s will, Manfred claims that neither heaven nor hell will stop him. At that moment, while Isabella escapes, a painting of Manfred’s grandfather moves out of its portrait and leads Manfred to a room, only to have the door slam shut before he can enter.
As Isabella tries to reason with him that Manfred’s attempt to rape her is against divine will, Manfred’s pride and worldly desires make him unable to see that he is not as powerful as God. Yet as soon as he declares his superiority to heaven, he is hindered by supernatural phenomena.
Meanwhile, a frightened Isabella is thinking frantically about where to go. Despite her initial instinct, she decides not to go to Hippolita, as she suspects both that Manfred would find her there and that he would kill Hippolita. Remembering an underground passage leading away from the castle, she decides to seek sanctuary at the church of St. Nicholas. Her journey to the secret passage is haunted by an eerie silence, howling winds, and the sounds of creaking doors. At the door of the passageway, her lamp is suddenly blown out by the wind and she sees a mysterious figure, whom she fears is the ghost of Conrad.
Isabella’s flight from Manfred is fraught with what became typical features of the Gothic novel – these features were inspired by Otranto itself. Secret passageways, silences, eerie winds and noises, and lights suddenly going out, proliferated not only in Gothic novels but also remain as elements of what might be described as the descendants of Gothic novels: modern horror novels and films.
However, the figure is a stranger, whose kind voice offers to help Isabella and to protect her from Manfred with his life. Together, Isabella and the stranger open a trap-door, but soon hear the voices of Manfred and his servants. Isabella goes down the stairs before Manfred arrives, but the trap-door slams shut between herself and the stranger. Manfred, believing he will find Isabella, discovers instead the young peasant, who had escaped from the giant helmet. Manfred questions the peasant, who spins the truth in order to protect Isabella.
In helping Isabella escape through the trap door (another Gothic staple), the peasant, who was wrongfully imprisoned by Manfred, shows that he is kind and chivalrous. When he helps Isabella escape, his character begins to emerge as the story’s hero.
While Manfred contemplates pardoning the peasant, two servants, Diego and Jaquez, arrive in fear. With some difficulty because of their rambling and inarticulate speech, Manfred learns that during the servants’ search for Isabella, they encountered a giant leg in armor in the court. The peasant expresses interest in pursuing the “adventure,” and Manfred, impressed that his bravery is “above [his] seeming,” allows the peasant, along with a few servants, to accompany him to Hippolita’s apartment.
Once again, Manfred’s hunt for Isabella is thwarted by the supernatural, this time in the form of a giant leg in armor. The peasant’s bravery, uncharacteristic of a peasant’s stature, hints that he is not a peasant at all, but rather a noble. The peasant’s interest in “adventure” was typical of medieval knights in chivalric literature.
The narrator then flashes back to Manfred in the moments immediately after Isabella escaped him. Manfred, searching for Isabella in Hippolita’s room, rejects his wife’s affection, asking only for Isabella. He accuses a confused Hippolita of jealousy, ominously declaring that she will soon understand, and orders her to send him her chaplain before leaving the room.
Back in the present, Manfred meets Hippolita and her chaplain in the gallery. Hippolita, who had been informed by Diego of the giant leg in armor, assures him that it was merely a story, though secretly, both Hippolita and Manfred believe it was real. Calmed by Hippolita’s kindness, Manfred begins to feel remorse and shame for his treatment of Hippolita and Isabella. However, emboldened by the thought of his wife’s submission, he is unable to maintain this state of mind and turns back to “exquisite villainy,” now convinced that Hippolita will not only agree to a divorce but convince Isabella to marry him. He then orders his men to guard every exit and orders the peasant to remain in one of the castle’s rooms to be questioned further the next day.
Hippolita, concerned about her husband, tries to reassure Manfred by denying the supernatural events recounted by the servants. However, by doing so, Hippolita is placing her love for her husband above what is presented in the story as divine will. Emotionally fickle, Manfred almost repents his crimes, but is unable to relinquish his sinful desires. Note how it is his wife’s own submissiveness – her behavior as a “model” subservient wife – that pushes Manfred to further sin. In treating Manfred as the ultimate authority, Hippolita enables his sinning.