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Rationalism Versus Supernatural in Castle of Otranto Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 10th, 2021

The Castle of Otranto is considered the first gothic novel depicting horrors and terrors of human life and existence. Much of the narrative strategy underlying the horrors and terrors of the first Gothic novel is theatrically inspired by the novel’s settings and shadowy interiors, lunar menace and solar absence, lurid acoustics, peregrinating armor, mobile paintings and statues, and other audiovisual contraptions assigned a major role in his notion of the Gothic. Thesis In The Castle of Otranto divine justice (which intervenes through the supernatural) defeats rationalism (prince Manfred).

Walpole portrays that an ancestral crime and curse and a haunted interior crammed with supernatural appliances such as portraits that stare back and music that floats from ghostly instruments attest to the purity and orthodoxy of the novel’s formal Gothic features. The uniqueness of this novel is that Walpole uses unique objects and symbols to depict divine justice (Carso 121). For instance, from the descent of the enormous helmet to the shattering of the castle walls by the immense and reinvigorated supernatural anatomy of Alfonso, Walpole crafted his story so as to achieve a suspension of reason within enclosed settings, where readers might feel as lost and disoriented as the characters entrapped by the supernatural world.

The horror of the spectacle, the ignorance of all around how this misfortune had happened, and above all, the tremendous phenomenon before him, took away the Prince’s speech. Yet his silence lasted longer than even grief could occasion. He fixed his eyes on what he wished in vain to believe a vision (Walpole 18)

Confronted by portraits that come alive and walk, statues that bleed, walls that seem tumescent with some gigantic body seeking egress, and similar objects of sublimity, the characters are given repeated opportunities to test the idea that the gruesome and dreadfully supernatural could be necessary aspects of an object’s beauty, and furthermore that an object’s sublimity was often heightened and intensified by its very gruesomeness and fearfulness.

Manfred, the protagonist of the novel, is depicted as a rational character-driven by personal gain only. Money and royal power are the main things he values and believes in. He says; “Since Hell will not satisfy my curiosity,” said Manfred, “I will use the human means in my power for preserving my race; Isabella shall not; escape me” (Walpole 31). Walpole assigns Manfred the opportunity to fulfill his legacy of evil and sin. The novel’s resolution in favor of the supernatural presents the colossus of Alfonso the Good as the living statue bursts through the castle’s foundation and, in so doing, obliterates the rational security of the reader (Carso 121).

The first ruin created by gathering supernatural forces suggests the shift from reason to feeling, from unity to fragmentation, from stability to collapse, and from natural to supernatural occurring in the period as classic order began to give way to romantic agitation. Walpole writes: “As she uttered those words, a ray of moonshine, streaming through a cranny of the ruin above, shone directly on the lock they sought” (37). The paradoxical construction of devastation, whether in architecture or in literary narrative, evoked a spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling and challenged the norms of the Enlightenment. Like much Romantic art to follow, the novel is also an intensely personal expression of the artist’s buried emotional life, a psychological register of secret and ambivalent sexual tensions (Morgan 745).

A conflict between divine justice and rationalism of Manfred is unveiled by the encounter of Manfred and his ownership of the castle. In further scenes, Walpole portrays the arrival from the sky of Alfonso’s Brobdingnagian helmet that crushes Manfred’s son Conrad. Walpole’s strategy of immediate shock at the outset of the novel was calculated to shatter his reader’s faith in a controllable universe of empirical cause and effect and to stimulate irrational expectations (Morgan 746).

Walpole writes: “Manfred, who hitherto had treated the terror of his servants as an idle panic, was struck at this new circumstance. He recollected the apparition of the portrait and the sudden closing of the door at the end of the gallery” (47). Following Whelan’s interpretation, if the reader can get past the odd compound of the lurid and the ludicrous found in the unidentified-flying-helmet episode of the novel’s opening pages, he is then in a position to enjoy the unremitting series of Gothic shudders and marvels to come. Steward underlines

The narrator often plays upon this by establishing a tension between the range of possibilities for interpretation and the brief span of time available for their resolution: before midnight, before the villain returns or the magic power dissolves, one must arrive at the correct interpretation and proceed (Steward 33).

While the castle has lost none of its power of entrapment, there is no Manfred character operating within, nor are there any strolling portraits or animated armor inhabiting the walls and towers. Walpole focuses instead on the guilty suffering provoked by the Countess’s concealed sexual crime and its gruesome aftermath. It is interesting to note the introspective maturation of Walpole’s vision from the half-risible composition of The Castle of Otranto to the serious and dignified presentation of a family destroyed by one moment of forbidden incestuous pleasure.

Following Stewart, it is Gothic naturalism rather than Gothic supernaturalism that gives the play its tragic power and psychological amplitude, as Walpole dispenses with all ghostly gadgetry and allows no comic relief to intrude upon an atmosphere of gloom, intrigue, and death. The novel points the way toward a higher Gothic or a deeper Gothic that concerns itself with the darkness of the human heart, Hawthorne’s primary subject in his grim sagas of family guilt and moral decay. Walpole’s purpose is expressed in closing speech when he refers to these awful events (Whelan 133).

The harsh contrasts of the novel’s various horror objects and effects, for example, the puniness of the crushed son and heir, Conrad, versus the huge and overwhelming form of Alfonso, and the peculiar affection of Manfred for one child as against his indifference for the other, are among the alluringly psychoanalytic data that seem. to support such readings (Whelan 133). The gadgetry of shock, hectic plotting, and melodramatic dialogue further invite autobiographical approaches to the novel and the play. For a readership accustomed to the neat couplets and graceful closures of the Augustan writers, Walpole’s statement in the second preface to the novel must have held special meaning.

His reference to emotional blockage, that “the great resources of fancy have been dammed up by a strict adherence to common life” (Walpole 43), reverberates with Walpole’s own emotional containment and artistic frustration. To unveil the theme of divine power, Walpole uses images of wanderers, dark and tangled genealogies, portraits and statues, intense and pyrotechnic night scenes, intricately sinister victimization, and regular intrusions of the supernatural into the natural world to impress the reader.

Walpole depicts that punishment is inevitable because of the low morals and false ideals of Manfred, and his greedy nature. The durability of the novel underlines horrors which are also to be seen in Walpole’s ingenious designing of several type scenes that would prove almost indispensable to successful work. An example of inevitable punishment is Frederic of Vicenza’s transforming encounter with the hooded monk in Isabella’s chapel.

The scene demonstrates in a high style that moment of transition from terror to horror or from the mysterious to the baleful when a character is moved from something dreaded to the appalling realization that the horrid thing confronting him is real. Exploring the forbidden chambers of Otranto in search of the missing Hippolita, Frederic comes upon a robed figure kneeling before an altar. The meeting that follows becomes a modular moment in Gothic fiction as the figure slowly turns to reveal a skeletal face. Punishment of Manfred can be seen as the Gothic template for the glare of cosmic defiance mixed with secret regret,

In sum, Walpole uses a conflict between divine justice and rationalism of the prince Manfred to unveil human values and morals. Walpole tests Gothic ideas and creates emotional tension keeping readers in suspense. This novel is saturated with horror effects and devices which unveil the evil nature of the prince and his evil intentions. Demonic or satanic encounters, mirrors that hold images of the dark past, decaying families locked up in decayed houses, haunted minds pursued by friends allow Walpole to underline the role of divine justice in contrast to the cold rationality of Manfred.

Works Cited

  1. Carso, K. D. Diagnosing the “Sir Walter Disease”: American Architecture in the Age of Romantic Literature. Mosaic (Winnipeg), 35 (2002), 121.
  2. Morgan, S. Recent Studies in the Nineteenth Century. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 40 (2000), 745-750.
  3. Stewart, S. Epistemology of the Horror Story. Journal of American Folklore, 95 (1982), 33-41.
  4. Walpole, H. The Castle of Otranto. London, 1987.
  5. Whelan, L. B. Between Worlds: Class Identity and Suburban Ghost Stories, 1850 to 1880. Mosaic (Winnipeg), 35 (2002), 133.
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