The Use of Themes in Horace Walpole's The Castle Of Otranto

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Horace Walpole and "The Castle of Otranto"

Horace Walpole is an author that was published in the eighteen hundreds. Among his literature is the gothic novel entitled “The Castle of Otranto”. This gothic novel was written in the 18th century and is an exploratory of the supernatural events at the time with the use of normal characters to match the teller’s story. This narrative revolves around some of the various themes that were dominant during the eighteenth century. These dominant themes reciprocated in the work of fiction include the themes of power, parental authority, gender roles, and legacy. Other minor themes that are also evident in the story include the theme of horror and tragedy which are utilized in the development of the main stages of the story. By utilizing this narrative, we best understand the proprietary use of themes in the earlier ages. It is through Horace Walpole’s story that we are able to get a clear picture of the themes that were common in the 18th century and how authors communicated their intended messages through these themes.

The Narrative Details

To explain the narrative in detail, the story begins with Walpole, the author who takes the reader through the events of a day where Manfred’s son, Conrad is groomed to marry Isabella. The author changes the atmosphere of the reading by diverting narrative into a horror-filled scene. The wedding never happens because a helmet falling from the sky moments before the wedding could start hits Conrad killing him instantly. Manfred is worried by this occurrence as he links the death of his son to the prophecy about how the castle will pass from their family. This prompts him to seek to divorce his wife and marry his bereaved son’s wife who would bear him a stronger heir to the throne and the castle unlike his frail son Conrad. However, this does not happen because upon knowing Manfred’s intentions, Isabella escapes with the help of Theodor who in the narrative is deemed to be the heir to Manfred’s properties.

Themes of Power and Authority

Power and authority are themes that are perceived to be dominant in this novel. The character such as Manfred and Father Jerome are examples in the story that portrays the use of power and authority bestowed on them to influence their subjects. To elaborate further on this, Manfred uses his authority to arrange for his son’s marriage to one of his citizens. Conrad is expected to marry Isabella so as to prevent the prophecy a broken lineage from being fulfilled. Since Manfred has parental authority over Conrad, the son is obliged to seek Isabella’s hand in marriage without hesitation and meets his death on their wedding day. The theme of power can be seen as Manfred the overruling body makes decisions for the son and also his future wife without any disobedience being uttered.

After Conrad's death, the father uses his power and authority to try and force his deceased son’s wife, Isabella into marrying him. This forces Isabella to run away from the Castle and seek refuge in the church. This is evidenced in the following lines “Heaven nor Hell shall impede my designs,” says Manfred, advancing again to seize the Princess” (Walpole 587). Here the narrator highlights how Manfred assumes his power to great to be determined by anyone. By forcefully marrying Isabella he may prove his superiority that not even the gods would stop his decisions. The theme of power here depicts the superiority of the character over all other beings.

Another theme of power seen in the tale is where Manfred uses his power and authority to ensure the prophecy of how the throne will pass on from his family to another family does not happen. He uses his authority to order for Father Jerome to kill Theodore who is the real owner of the lordship of the Castle of Otranto. The power of fear of loss is seen in this part of the narrative explaining the character’s behavior in the book.

The Quest for Legacy

The main narrative depicts characters who are trying to either conform to or avoid the fulfillment of the prophecy. Manfred and his son Conrad try to avoid the fulfillment of the prophecy when Conrad tries to marry Isabella but dies on the day he was supposed to marry her. Manfred attempts to marry his deceased son’s wife but just like his son, his efforts are in vain. Both the characters are seen to be trying to maintain the family legacy of retaining the title of the castle and all their actions are therefore aimed at ensuring nothing ruins the family legacy. The prophecy that the story is built upon states “That the castle and Lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it” which insinuates that the family of Manfred may not the real inhabitants of the throne (Kareem 16). Later in the story, it emerges that the family of Father Jerome was the real owner of the castle and lordship of Otranto. When Manfred tries to have Theodore killed after suspecting him with the death of his son, Father Jerome who is ordered by Manfred to kill Theodore discovers a mark near Theodore’s shoulder which identifies him as his son. This meant that Theodore was the real owner of the throne as prophesized. In order to ensure Father Jerome’s family legacy is maintained and the prophecy is fulfilled, Father Jerome begs Manfred to spare the life of Theodore. The theme of power is seen in the power of the words prophesied. The whole contexts of actions are all predetermined by this prophesy as everyone works towards or against it.

Genders and Power

Another theme of power is where Walpole uses Manfred’s wife Hippolita to show how the female gender was made to be inferior especially in the eighteenth century. Manfred seeks to divorce Hippolita due to the fact that she cannot bear him an heir to inherit the throne of the lordship of Otranto as portrayed in the following words from the story "Hippolyta is no longer my wife; I divorce her from this hour. Too long has she cursed me by her unfruitfulness"(Walpole 587) where Manfred denounces his wife because she could no longer give birth. It is evident from these lines how gender roles were distinct in the eighteenth century where the sole role of a woman would be to bear children for a man and engage in household chores. Women were not involved in the decision-making process just as Manfred does not seek his wife’s opinion before planning for her divorce. Similarly, he does not involve Isabella in the decision to have him as his wife after Conrad’s death. The power of gender is thus seen in this part of the novel. In the early ages, men were given more power over the women.


In conclusion, while the Romantic period offers many themes in literature, power is the primary genre of Horace Walpole’s work in Castle of Otranto.

Works Cited


Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed., vol. 2, W.W. Norton, 2012.

Kareem, Sarah T. Eighteenth-century Fiction and the Reinvention of Wonder. Oxford UP, 2014. Accessed 2 Nov. 2018, pp 94-98.

Walpole, Horace. “From The Castle of Otranto.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, general editor, W.W Norton & Company, 2012, pp. 586-589.

November 24, 2023



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