Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Close Reading Questions for “Early Responses to The Castle of Otranto (pp.117-143)

NOTE: You don’t have to read all of the Appendix unless you are so inspired. The articles I want you to focus on are #’s 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 11, 12, 13, 14 & 15

Answer TWO of the following for Thursday...

1. A general question: which response do you most agree with as a reader? Does this response seem especially “modern” to you (in other words, is this how most people would read/view it today)? Explain why you are sympathetic to this critique of the book.

2. Many of the reviews decry the “unchristian” or “barbaric” moral of the novel. Consider Robert Jephson’s review of The Count of Narbonne (a play based on Otranto, Review #8): “What conclusion can be drawn from hence, but that oracles, divinations, and prophecies, should be believed and must always be fulfilled? Such notions can only tend to enslave the mind, and must bring us back to the long exploded errors of ignorance and barbarism” (127). Why do you think so many reviews focus on the “moral” of the work, and is this truly the “heart” of the book? Are they missing the point?

3. Sir Walter Scott (Review #12) defends the supernatural elements in Otranto (rather than dismissing them as farce), writing that the “moonlight vision of Alphonso dilated to immense magnitude, the astonished group of spectators in front, and the shattered ruins of the castle in the back-ground, is briefly and sublimely described. We know no passage of similar merit…” (139). Based on your reading of Romantic literature (esp. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, etc.), how are these elements “sublime,” and why might Scott defend them as essential to Walpole’s plan?

4. How does Clara Reeve (Review #7) position her own novel in relation to The Castle of Otranto? Reeve’s novel, The Old English Baron, is a reworking of Otranto in a more modern and English setting. She clearly meant to improve upon the book and make it more “sensible” and less likely to “excite laughter” (125). According to the Preface, what does she acknowledge, modify, or improve?


  1. I forgot to mention: the picture featured on this post is British painter J.M.W. Turner's painting, Dolbadern Castle (1799), contemporary with many of the reviews we're discussing. It's an early "impressionistic" painting of a castle shrouded by clouds and mists. The painting captures a sense of the "sublime" that we will discuss next week with Stevens and Burke.

  2. 1. I found that review 13 spoke the most to me, this man sees behind Walpole's facade in making Otranto seem to be a serious work of ancient fiction. He mentions the great helmet as "a wretched instrument for inspiring supernatural dread", when it does seem to be more comical to imagine within the story. The Monty Python-esque tragedies that befall the characters are perhaps more believable for a society like ours that has the advantage of a visual depiction, like television or film. For the people of Walpole's time a picture in a book could never have done it justice. This critic may be one of the few who views this work to be humorous to both the author and the reader. While the other critics seem to be greatly insulted by Walpole's writing and view it as beneath them and their high scholarly standards.

    4. Clara Reeve has also written a story that straddles both the traditional Romance and the modern novel. Her novel is modeled after the story in Otranto but without the more outspoken characters and the supernatural oddities. Her own novel was perhaps more widely accepted to an English audience than Walpole's. In essence she keeps the bones of Walpole's story but adds a different kind of muscle and skin to it, making it more pliable and believable to a more judgmental crowd of readers.