Ancient prophecies and spectacular revelations frequently play significant roles in Gothic fiction. Horace Walpole's seminal 1764 novel, The Castle of Otranto, utilizes troubling predictions and shocking disclosures as important features within its narrative architecture. The following analysis explores Walpole's handling of these literary devices; the excerpts are from the Oxford World's Classics 1998 edition of the text.
Manfred's desire for an heir is primarily motivated by the prophecy “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" (p.17). This prophecy originated in a dream experienced by Manfred's grandfather Don Ricardo. When Manfred discovers that his only son has been crushed to death under a gigantic helmet, the boy's mangled remains fail to divert the prince's mind from this portent. The prophecy is related to other themes in the book, such as the injustice of providence, illustrated when Theodore remarks to Jerome “Will heaven visit the innocent for the crimes of the guilty" (p.94). In the first preface to the novel, Walpole's fictitious translator also notes this theme when he states that “the sins of fathers are visited on their children" (p.7).
A frequently encountered character in romance narrative is the figure of the dispossessed nobleman. The major revelation of Walpole's novel is the true identity of Theodore. Introduced as a young peasant, it transpires that he is in fact a nobleman and the rightful heir to Otranto. Theodore is a descendant of Alfonso the Good, the ancestral owner of the castle. Theodore's noble birth is foreshadowed when the servant girl Bianca remarks to Matilda that “this stranger may be some prince in disguise" (p.45) and Manfred's daughter adds that Theodore's “phrases were becoming a man of gentle birth" (p.46). His relation to Alfonso is also anticipated when Matilda observes that Theodore resembles the man in Alfonso's picture in the castle gallery.
Theodore's true identity is revealed in the scene when he is about to be executed. On observing ‘the mark of a bloody arrow’ on Theodore's back Jerome realises the youth is his son: “Gracious heaven! cried the holy man starting, what do I see? It is my child! my Theodore!" (p.57). It is then revealed that Jerome actually belongs to an ancient Sicilian house and is in fact the Count of Falconara. On hearing these startling revelations Manfred subsequently pardons Theodore.
Property and inheritance are central themes of Otranto and a final resolution regarding the castle's rightful ownership comprise the novel's dramatic conclusion. After Manfred has accidentally stabbed Matilda, Frederic of Vicenza observes that the prince has forfeited his right to the lordship of Otranto. Theodore then proclaims himself to be the rightful heir - despite rival claims from the House of Vicenza - and asks Jerome to conduct a marriage ceremony between himself and Manfred's dying daughter. Walpole utilizes the supernatural to reveal the lawfulness of Theodore's ascendancy. The spectral figure of Alfonso the Good, “dilated to an immense magnitude" (p.112) rises up from the castle walls and proclaims Theodore his true heir.
It transpires that Manfred's grandfather wasn't the honourable man his grandson had described to the knights of Vicenza earlier in the story but instead a murderer who had poisoned Alfonso and forged a will which declared him the heir of Otranto. The theme of the living being punished for the crimes of their ancestors is foregrounded when Manfred states that “I pay the price of usurpation for all!", going on to recall the ancient prophecy. Jerome then reveals that the daughter of Alfonso the Good was bestowed in marriage to him, thus consolidating Theodore's descendance from Alfonso.
For a discussion of romance and realism in The Castle of Otranto .
Ben Wright is an independent scholar and researcher.