The Birth of Gothic

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole is often named as the first Gothic Novel. ‘Gothic’ is not always a very clearly defined label, and can mean different things to different people. But broadly, it implies a dark story, exploring uncomfortable themes, often delving into subconscious fears, and not necessarily having a happy ending.

The Castle of Otranto was written before the art of the novel was perfected, so the structure is rather chaotic, and the descriptions of the characters and world are rather patchy. It almost has the feel of an oral story told to a child, that has simply been recorded. Having said that, it is an easy read. There is an exciting or curious event in each scene, and many of the occurrences are deliberately ridiculous. This often happens in Gothic pieces, perhaps because the author understands that they are treading the fine line between comedy and tragedy.

As in many Gothic tales, there is an anti-Catholic strand to the plot. It is important to remember when reading these pieces that the Catholic Church was for many years a huge (and often hypocritical) authority in Europe and beyond. Catholicism now in England is a minority religion, mostly practiced by people of Italian, Irish, Spanish or Eastern European descent, so it is easy to forget how powerful and sinister the papacy was. The modern Protestant churches are descended from groups who (understandably) broke away from the old Roman church.

I think that the Catholic Church for many Gothic writers symbolises and old, corrupt and decaying authority figure. Often trying to maintain a hold by grasping at people’s fears, superstitions and sense of conscience.

Death is, as in many Gothic stories, an important player in the cast at Otranto. The story opens with the weedy son of the prince being crushed to death by a giant helmet. This is explained later, but it is such a ridiculous idea, that it sets a certain tone, and did make it difficult to take in the more subtle themes that run through the book. Which is a shame, because the author does also explore some very challenging ideas about ambition, dynasties, chauvinism, deceit, which all potentially make for quite a profound piece of writing.

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