The Castle of Otranto Summary

Horace Walpole

The Castle of Otranto

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The Castle of Otranto Summary

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The Castle of Otranto is a 1764 novel by British novelist Horace Walpole. Generally regarded as the first Gothic novel, it is credited with inspiring the entire genre and the works of future authors including Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe, and Daphne du Maurier. Set in a distant medieval realm, a kingdom is ruled by an arrogant and evil prince named Manfred. He rules with an iron first, and has banished his wife to the castle dungeon. He has designs to marry Isabella, the fiancée of his recently deceased son. However, his plans are foiled by a peasant who helps Isabella escape. The book is filled with dark supernatural events, mysterious prophecy, and karmic downfalls. All these elements would become common tropes in Gothic novels for the length of the genre’s strength. Considered a classic and still taught extensively in college courses focusing on genre writing, it was adapted into a 1979 short film by Czech director Jan Svankmajer.

The Castle of Otrantos villainous protagonist is Manfred, a cruel lord of the castle, who treats his family with as much contempt as he does his kingdom. The story begins on the wedding day of his son Conrad and his intended, Isabella. Shortly before the wedding, Conrad – who was always a sickly boy – is crushed to death by a massive helmet that falls on him. Tragic as this event is on its own, Manfred is especially worried by an ancient prophecy that states “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”. Manfred becomes paranoid that Conrad’s death signals the beginning of the prophecy and spells the coming end of his family line. He hatches a scheme to avoid his destruction by marrying Isabella himself. He divorces his current wife, Hippolita, and locks her in the dungeon for the supposed crime of failing to bear him a proper heir.

Isabella is horrified by the idea of being forced to marry Manfred. Before he can force her into the wedding, she flees to a nearby church with the help of a kind peasant named Theodore. Manfred marches on the church and orders the Friar, Jerome, to turn over Theodore for execution. However, when Theodore removes his shirt to be executed, Jerome notices a birthmark on the peasant boy’s shoulder and realizes that Theodore is in fact his own son. Jerome begs for his son’s life, but Manfred is unmoved. He orders the Friar to either surrender the princess or his son. Before Jerome can make his decision, they are interrupted by the arrival of knights from another kingdom. Manfred’s offer of a bounty to retrieve Isabella has attracted the attention of other Kingdoms, each of whom are seeking the mad king’s favor. Isabella flees in the chaos, and the knights and Manfred go in pursuit of her.

Theodore is captured and locked up in a tower by Manfred to await his death. However, he is soon freed by Manfred’s daughter Matilda. He races to a secret underground church, where he finds Isabella. Hiding Isabella in a cave that he’s blocked up to protect her, he fights the mysterious knights. When he stabs one, he is horrified to discover that it’s actually Isabella’s father Frederic, from the neighboring kingdom. He takes the wounded man up to the castle to help resolve the situation, hoping that Frederic’s presence will make Manfred see sanity. When Frederic sees Matilda, he falls in love with her immediately. He and Manfred begin to make a deal about each other’s daughters, but Manfred has not forgotten Isabella. He plans to kill her, and attacks her in the darkened church. However, he is horrified to discover that he has stabbed his own daughter. As Manfred grieves, a broken man, the prophecy is revealed and an image of Theodore is shown. It reveals that he is actually the kidnapped son of the previous lord of Otranto, Alfonso. Thus, Theodore is in fact that true heir, not Manfred. Manfred abdicates the throne in his grief, and he and Hippolita retreat to a convent to spend out the rest of their days. Isabella and Theodore are married, understanding each other’s grief but finding comfort in each other.

Horace Walpole was an English art historian, man of letters, antiquarian, and politician for the Whig party. In addition to The Castle of Otranto, he is best known for his Letters, a series of commentary on the culture of the time. The majority of his additional writing was on subjects such as history, gardening, architecture, and ancient mythology. In addition to his writing, he had a distinguished Parliamentary career, serving from 1751 to 1768. In his later years, he was more focused on his writing, and many were published after his death. Today, among his most lasting legacies is the Walpole Society, which is dedicated to promoting the study of the history of British Art.