The Castle of Otranto is yet another novel we read for my Jane Austen class, primarily to give us a glimpse into the kinds Gothic novels Catherine Morland reads in Northanger Abbey. It’s a teeny little novel, less than 100 pages, and for this I was grateful.
Otranto is the tragic story of Manfred, a usurper of the Castle of Otranto, and his family. His initial attempt to marry off his young, frail son to the princess Isabella ends in tragedy when the boy is crushed by a giant helmet falling from the sky (no, seriously). We eventually learn that Isabella is a descendant of the family from whom Manfred usurped the crown, and that Manfred’s plan all along had been to unite the two families so his grandchild could be the rightful heir of Otranto. What follows is disaster after disaster as fate interferes with Manfred’s plans, ending in a rather Shakespearean final tragedy of love lost.
I actually liked this book more than most people in my class did, I think. It was an entertaining story with plenty of plot twists, some more predictable than others. I especially liked the giant limbs showing up all over the place (theintroduction to the book describes them as “disproportionate forces” indicating that “the passage, and metaphorically the will, of the living is blocked by the intentions of the dead”) and terrifying everyone out of their wits.
The worst thing about the book for me was that there were very few paragraph breaks, even with dialogue; there were also no quotation marks to indicate dialogue, so it took a while to be able to easily identify when someone was speaking. It was especially confusing when one person’s dialogue ended and another’s began with no indication until a “s/he said” at the end of the sentence. Eventually, however, I was able to figure out who was saying what with relative fluency: each character had a unique enough voice that this was usually possible, and context helped a lot as well.
I’m not sure that I would read it again, but I’m glad that I did read it and I’m looking forward to reading other Gothic novels (I know at least one by Ann Radcliffe is on The List). If you’re interested in the Gothic and don’t know where to start, I would suggest this one for two reasons: one, it’s “The earliest and most influential of the Gothic novels” (according to the back of my copy); and two, it’s short, so it’ll give you a good idea of whether or not you like the Gothic before you dive into something huge like The Mysteries of Udolpho.