Back To CourseCollege English Literature: Help and Review
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Horace Walpole is the author of the first known Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, which was published in 1764. He was a British earl who was also known for creating the word 'serendipity.' It is interesting that Walpole would incorporate into the novel such romantically Gothic elements as the supernatural, cursed lords, monks, princesses, romantic love, and gloomy castles far before Gothic literature had become popular.
Before launching into the tale, let's take a look at the main characters:
This novel is a medieval tale of love, knights, horror, and curses that features several twists and turns along the way. As the story opens, there is to be a wedding between the sickly, young son of Prince Manfred, Conrad, and the lovely Isabella. Isabella's father, Frederick, has been away at the Crusades. He is presumed to be dead, as is Isabella's mother. Manfred persuades her guardians to allow her to marry Conrad, who is just 15 years old. It is not a marriage of love.
On the morning of the wedding, a servant finds the crushed body of Conrad under a plumed helmet large enough to fit a giant. This horrifying, inciting event sets up the action to follow.
There is an ancient prophesy regarding Manfred's family. It is cryptic, and no one really understands it. It says, the castle 'should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it.' Everyone in the kingdom sort of waits to see what will unfold for the prince and his family.
At this point, it appears that either Manfred's true colors show, or he simply loses his mind. Since he now has no sons, he decides to force Isabella - who sees him as a future father - to marry him. She is horrified. However, she escapes with the help of the peasant, Theodore, who has been imprisoned in Manfred's castle for affronting him earlier in the story. Theodore has been accused of murdering Conrad because he noticed that the helmet looks like 'that on the figure in black marble of Alfonso the Good, one of their former princes, in the church of St. Nicholas.' It is noted that the statue's helmet is missing.
Manfred becomes obsessed with finding and marrying Isabella. But, first, he must divorce Hippolita. She is a devout woman who will do as a priest asks her, so Manfred wants the priest, Jerome, to convince her to accept the divorce. Since Isabella has asked for shelter in the church until her father arrives, Jerome is well-aware of Manfred's ill intent toward her. There is some confusion here - some believe the father is dead, but she believes he is alive.
As Manfred and Jerome meet, Manfred decides to execute Theodore, who has proven to be articulate, wise, and resourceful. Just as Theodore is about to be executed, Jerome realizes that Theodore is his son, an awkward thing for a priest to admit. Jerome admits he was the former Count of Falconara who lost his estate, wife, and son due to an enemy attack.
Manfred, though generally evil, seems to have some decency and spares the boy. Theodore is mysteriously in love with Matilda, even before he meets her. In fact, he thinks it is Matilda he is helping when he assists Isabella in escaping. Theodore is knightly, almost worshipping the women in his life and vowing to protect them.
We find out in the end of the story that Manfred is aware of an ugly family secret, and so, as his house begins to show signs of being haunted, he becomes agitated and afraid. Not only has he found his only son crushed to death under a massive helmet that was mysteriously transported from the church to his estate, he sees images protruding from portraits. Members of his household often hear odd noises and have even seen what appears to be a giant roaming the castle halls. There is a gloomy, threatening atmosphere in the castle that affects everyone.
Matilda, the beautiful and good daughter of Manfred, is intrigued by the portrait of the young Alfonso the Good that hangs in her castle. It is clear that she longs for someone like Alfonso in her life. She begins to get to know Theodore when he is imprisoned and realizes that he is a man of quality.
Matilda has never been close to her father and is trying to figure out why he is so intent on bringing Isabella back to the castle. When all of the men leave the castle to find Isabella, Matilda frees Theodore and insists that he leaves the castle to save his life. She has noticed that Theodore resembles the picture of the former prince, Alfonso, and she falls in love with him.
Before Manfred can find Isabella and force her to marry him, a huge entourage of knights and courtiers arrive in search of Isabella. One of the knights, unbeknownst to Manfred, is Frederic, Isabella's father. When Theodore escapes the castle, he goes to a wood, and finds a cave. He accidentally meets up with Isabella and vows to protect her. In the meantime, all of Manfred's men and Vincenza, as well, are looking for Isabella. Vincenza finds the cave, and Theodore fights with him, nearly mortally wounding the man, without realizing that Vincenza is Isabella's father.
Everyone returns to the castle, and then, in a strange turn of events, Manfred convinces Frederic to give him Isabella in exchange for Matilda. It seems that both Manfred and Frederic care more about their own selfish desires than their daughters. At any rate, Hippolita visits Jerome, begging for his help. Then Frederic, driven by the desire for Matilda, seeks Hippolita to convince her to accept the divorce. Instead of finding Hippolita, he finds the ghost who has been haunting the castle. The ghost is dressed as a knight, but his face is a ghastly skull. Frederic is terrified, and the ghost tells him to 'forget Matilda.' Frederic follows his advice in fear of his own life.
Again, Manfred cannot find Isabella, and when he learns that Theodore has escaped, he assumes that Theodore and Isabella have eloped. Manfred races to the church and rashly stabs across the altar, mortally wounding Matilda, who has met Theodore with the intent of marrying him. Manfred is horrified to find that he has stabbed his own daughter. As she is dying, Matilda asks to be returned to the castle so she may be near Hippolita. Theodore is beside himself with grief and begs to be married, anyway, but Matilda dies before the vows can be said.
It is here that Manfred reveals the source of the curse. Manfred's own grandfather, Ricardo, was in the service of Prince Alfonso, and he poisoned him. Ricardo fixed Alfonso's will to state that he would be the next prince. Manfred was well aware of this history. As it turns out, Theodore is the descendant of Alfonso. He is the true owner and ruler of the castle. Theodore is deeply grieved over Matilda's death, but he eventually marries Isabella because she knew Matilda and can understand his grief. Manfred and Hippolita give up the castle to Theodore and join the service of the church.
This is one wild tale, but it has some problems. Although the story has some elements of a strong novel, there are definite inconsistencies and holes in the plot. For instance, we never learn when Theodore first hears about Matilda and how he falls in love with her. We really don't learn enough about the giant ghost or how he moves the helmet from the temple. There is a great deal of action in this story but little plot or character development. Just as we begin to get to know a character, the plot zooms us ahead to another tragic portion of the story.
Although the story keeps our attention, many of its characters are not fully developed. However, for an early Gothic story, the novel starts the beginning of a trend that was more fully realized in the 19th century.
Horace Walpole is the author of the first known Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, which was published in 1764. Walpole incorporated into the novel such romantically Gothic elements as the supernatural, cursed lords, monks, princesses, romantic love, and gloomy castles far before Gothic literature had become popular.
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Back To CourseCollege English Literature: Help and Review
12 chapters | 283 lessons