Friday, January 15, 2010

Close Reading Questions for Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (Chs.3-5)

(above: a possible portrait of Manfred (or how I imagine him to be) courtesy of Jean Fouquet's potrait of Charles VII of France, circa 1400's). 

Answer TWO of the following for Tuesday's class (if you choose to do these; otherwise wait for Thursday's questions)

1. In the Introduction to Otranto by Michael Gamer, he writes that many readers pick up on the “camp” qualities of the book. As he writes, “They occur in the book’s superfluous details (as when Bianca notes that no one has slept in the chamber below them ‘since the great astrologer that was your brother’s tutor drowned himself’ (p.38)), in its habit of setting conventions against one another (as when the chivalry-mad Theodore unchivalriously pledges himself both to Matilda and to Isabella because he cannot tell the two heroines apart), and in its crucial scenes (as when the statue of Alphonso the Good ludicrously bleeds from its nose)” (xxix). How do you read/interpret these moments of “camp” or seeming absurdity? Is he laughing at the characters, the gothic elements, or the novel itself? 

2. Toward the end of the work, Jerome (the friar) berates Manfred for his evil deeds, remarking: “behold the completion of woe fulfilled on thy impious and devoted head! The blood of Alfonso cried to heaven for vengeance; and heaven has permitted its altar to be polluted by assassination, that thou mightest shed thy own blood at the foot of that prince’s sepulcher!” (95-96). This view suggests that Manfred was merely a chess piece to be manipulated by God/Fate to atone for the sins of his ancestors (“the sins of the fathers are visited on their children to the third and fourth generation”). Is Jerome the moral voice of the novel (and therefore is telling us how to "read" it)?  Was Manfred acted upon or did he create the evil that he must now atone for?

3. In his essay, The First English Gothic Novel: The Castle of Otranto, James Norton suggests that “Walpole, who was deeply involved in politics, uses Gothic discourse to critique the English political structure that was created and perpetuated a system of privilege that protected and sustained male corruption and oppression.” How might we read the novel as a political allegory—what passages or events might seem to underline this quality of “male corruption and oppression”?

4. Some contemporary reviews attacked Otranto for its “Gothic devilism,” finding it disturbingly atheistic (after all, the ghosts and spirits are real in the context of the book). However, most Gothic works invoke the spirituality of a distant age in order to contrast it with the Enlightenment ethos. What do you think was Walpole’s intention in Otranto—to satirize the church and its doctrines, or to reaffirm a more orthodox spirituality?


  1. 1.
    I think Mr. Gamer is missing the point of these 'superfluous details.' Take a look at the examples he uses. Each of these details are either a part of the story or help set up other parts. Throughout the story Walpole sets up moments of suspense, the story about the suicide of the astrologer helps to build the sense of fear of the unknown that predominates the beginning of the conversation the two young women have with Theodore. As for not being able to tell the girls apart, when he pledged himself to Isabella, Theodore was in a dark tunnel with not but an “imperfect ray of clouded moonshine” (27) for light. However, story wise this mistake of identity is a common ploy in fiction, even 200 years ago when the story was written. Such an error is used to set up an internal battle in the antagonist.

    Then there is the 'ludicrous' incidents, not just the one Gamer mentions but also, the appearance of ghostly body parts; giant helmets falling from the sky; painted figures stepping off the canvas and walking away; skeletal apparitions of dead monks commanding Frederic to 'forget Matilda'; and the mysterious plumes of feathers from the helmet that seem to react to the story's event. These are elements from the ancient romances that Walpole desired to marry with modern fiction. It is these mysterious events that drive the story and give it purpose.

    It is how he uses these elements (not the elements themselves) that brings humor to the story. Suspense and terror is repeatedly built (As in the conversation with Matilda and Bianca already mentioned), only to never come to fruition. Nothing terrible or horrifying, excepting the death of Conrad, comes from these mysterious happenings. If Walpole is mocking anything, it is the nature of humanity that he finds laughable. We need codes of honor and strict behavioral guidelines in order to do what is right; even in the face of the supernatural and divine. Yet, as in this case, even these are often not enough.

    I see some spiritual elements that are not necessarily part of mainstream Christianity, however, as handled in this story it is all connected. The ghosts, prophecies, plumes and crying statues are all acting to promote the will of god, as presented by St. Nicholas. This is similar to the modern belief that 'all things work towards the will of god,” even the superstitions of '12th century' Italy.

    With that in mind, I think Walpole was reaffirming spirituality. Even in an enlightened society there are events that are unexplainable and miraculous. Science might have an answer for many things but not everything. The supernatural and unexplained and even the scientifically understood phenomena must be part of god's design. This is something I believe Walpole understood and that the church has forgotten. He is using these elements in his story to remind the reader of this.

  2. Patricia Anderson:
    I got to thinking on those giant helmets and feet etc, as I was working on the typed comments for this close reading and came up with what I felt was an interesting way of viewing these. Perhaps the 'statement' being made was that Judge and Victor were too large to belong to either the church or the nobility but that nature decides matters many times. The natural elements of the lightning, groaning of the castle etc.. could then likewise be seen as nature taking care of things...all by itself, in due time and course.

    On the question of spirituality as satire or reaffirmation of traditional values I think that when one looks at the historical place that the church and nobility had (with all of its nepotism and buying of graces and Prince(s) installed by the church and the nobility having a say in the election of the Pontiff, etc..)I think that what really is being done here is to shine a light in on the situations and how for the cost of a coin, salvation could be obtained in the medieval and renaissance times. If one goes with the traditional 'religious' view, then yes...Walpole would be thumbing his nose at it all--however, if we consider an even more traditional view of spirituality (fate/karma) then we see that the events in the story were the due fate for the behaviors and the children were caught in the cross-fire (not unlike Romeo and Juliette)

  3. 2. To answer both parts of this question:

    - Jerome does seem to be the moral voice of the story from our perspective as readers. (He is always there to comment on the chaos going on around him, and he also has that whole being a Minister of the Lord thing going on).

    -Manfred does seem to be purely acted upon, fated for a downfall because of his grandfather Ricardo’s usurping ways. (But really, the question here boils down to either fate or free will, and you could argue for either. He was fated to fall, but his action as a turdhat equally lead to his destruction. Effectively, the true answer to the question is “both”. His grand pappy was a turdhat usurper and Manfred himself was a turdhat in general ).

    With these two ideas together, I would argue that Jerome is just as much a pawn of “fate” compared to Manfred – rendering him less a moral looking glass and more of a guy in the wrong place at the right time. First, in way of evidence, the entire plot falls together in a way that feels “fated” – and luckily we have that family curse to make that unbelievable pill easier to swallow. Also, if you look back to Jerome’s first few actions in the story, you see that even the pious make some unbelievable (therefore probably fated) choices. In his words to his son Theodore (the peasant guy who escaped from the giant helmet and commenced to saving all the damsels in distress): “Oh! Wretched youth! How canst though bear the sight of me with patience? I am they murderer! It is I have brought this dismal hour upon thee!” Jerome unknowingly directed the testosterone driven hatred of Manfred on to his peasant son to protect Isabella. In a way, he suffered a very small version of Manfred’s fate and in a similar manner. Jerome indirectly has his son almost beheaded – Manfred directly stabs someone he doesn’t know is his daughter. Then a giant knight-ghost breaks through a wall and ascends into heaven signifying the end of a curse and the release of the rightful heir. They’re all pawns.

    3. A short list of male corruption and oppression in Walpole’s “The Castle of Otronto”:

    -Manfred spoils the sickly son and farts on the beautiful daughter repeatedly – to the point of killing her.

    -Manfred sets his loins on a one way train to divorcing his wife and marrying his almost-daughter-in-law in order to produce children.

    +In short, Manfred manhandles three women repeatedly (four if you count Bianca the house worker) in order to get his manly duties done.

    Reading the story as a political allegory:
    In addition to using the females in the story as mere items for personal gain, Manfred places himself on top in a few other ways. He is in a sort of feud with “the church” which can be seen with his relationship with Jerome. More than once, Jerome warns Manfred against actions informing him of their immoral ways – Manfred ignores the advice and does what he wants. Sounds a bit like a stab at the leaders of the time, eh? The cutthroat nature of a political family or system is also present, looking at the actions of the Grandfather Ricardo and then the immovable and unfeeling Manfred himself. Think of a dirt-flinging contest for an election, but to the degree of killing people.

  4. I am attempting to access the essay you mentioned in your directing question on Walpole's The Castle of Otranto - “The First English Gothic Novel: The Castle of Otranto,” by James Norton. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find it anywhere. Could you give some more info re: where one could access this source?