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.
Humor, the Gothic, and the Supernatural ThemeTracker
Humor, the Gothic, and the Supernatural Quotes in The Castle of Otranto
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.
The Castle and Lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.