Considered the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto is everything wonderfully ludicrous about Gothic literature: A prophecy seems to be coming true about the end of the current rulers of Otranto when a helmet falls from the sky for no reason at all, killing the only son of the lord. Manfred, lord of Otranto, pursues a deemed incestuous relationship with his intended daughter-in-law, forcing her to flee to the church. He then, upon learning that it was the friar’s son who helped Isabella, his daughter-in-law, to escape, imposes his will upon the friar. He will kill Theodore, the friar’s son, if Isabella is not returned. In the end, Theodore was imprisoned but set free by Manfred’s daughter Matilda. Manfred comes to a misunderstanding that Isabella fancies Theodore and plans to kill her for it, however he is mistaken in that belief. It is his daughter, Matilda, who Theodore is meeting. And Manfred’s plan to kill Isabella brings his ruin when he stabs his own daughter and she dies. Oh, and all of this takes place among a castle full of terrified servants because there is a ghost in their midst.
If Castle of Otranto has a fault it is that it is almost unbearably melodramatic. It does, however, have an almost slapstick quality to it in Manfred’s search for Isabella and the servants panic about the ghost. And the swooning women with their almost ridiculous devotion to Manfred are aggravating. With the exception of Matilda’s servant, I think that Isabella is the most interesting female character. She is not necessarily lovable, however she is also willing to take action on her own to avoid an unwanted marriage to Manfred, who she sees as the truly horrible man that he is. She does not escape herself, however, as she has help from Theodore and a divide assistance in both the giant statue of Alfonso, and in the useful appearances of the moon. Matilda, too, was most enjoyable when she was disobeying her father and setting Theodore free.
Another potential title for this novel could have been Manfred of Otranto and the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. Ghosts and giant statues aside, Otranto is really a morality tale: those who behave closest to the teachings of God will be rewarded while those who do not will come to ruin. Melodramatic though it may be, I understand why Horace Walpole’s novel is still read today.