The Castle of Otranto: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:01 Horace Walpole
  • 0:30 The Characters
  • 1:27 The Plot
  • 8:24 Analysis
  • 9:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Debbie Notari
'The Castle of Otranto' is known as the very first Gothic novel, although it was published in 1764, long before the Romantic era. In this lesson, we will both summarize and analyze its fast-moving plot.

Horace Walpole

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.

The Characters

Before launching into the tale, let's take a look at the main characters:

  1. Manfred, Prince of Otranto - an arrogant, unprincipled man who lives in the shadow of a curse
  2. Hippolita, the wife of Manfred - a noble, virtuous and religious woman who loves her husband, although he does not deserve her love
  3. Conrad - the son of Manfred and Hippolita, who dies at age 15
  4. Matilda - the beautiful, sweet daughter of Manfred and Hippolita, who is 18
  5. Isabella - the fiancée of Conrad and daughter of Frederic
  6. Frederic - Marquis of Vicenza, who is the father of Isabella
  7. Jerome - Count of Falconara, who now lives as a friar
  8. Theodore Falconara - son of Jerome, who grew up as a peasant
  9. Bianca - servant of Matilda

The Plot

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.

The Curse

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.

An Evil Prince

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.

Hippolita

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.

Theodore

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.

Supernatural Threats

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

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.

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