Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto: The First Gothic Novel

Copyright Timothy Sexton

The birth of the wildly popular and incredibly successful genre known as the Gothic Novel is most often traced back to 1765 and the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. This novel hasn’t had quite the staying power with audiences that other Gothic masterpieces ranging from Wuthering Heights to Dracula have had, but it typically remains required reading on college campuses across the English-speaking world. Readers of the time were much like those who spend all day on You Tube or iFilm, however; the novel today may not seem like much, but neither will most of those videos currently airing on the web in another hundred years. (Or another ten years, for that matter.)

The Gothic novel typically engages in a specific set of conventions in order to explore the subconscious archetypal fears; since many of these fears involved elements associated with both sexuality and violence the familiar trappings of the gothic story was an absolute necessity. Necessary in order to cover up the subtext of what the stories were really concerned with. These gothic conventions—most of which were originated in Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, include things like castles or large mansions, often decaying in order to portray

the decay of humanity; rough, sometimes dangerous landscapes such as jagged cliffs or foggy moors, the introduction of magic or supernatural elements, often involving ghostly apparations; passionate, headstrong men and dangerously curious women. In addition, the other overwhelming tone of a gothic story is one of doom, dread, fear and trembling. Of course, many of these elements were also what made the types of stories known as Romances very popular as well.

One of the things that Horace Walpole tried to do with The Castle of Otranto was to separate and remove it from the realm of Romance because Walpole felt that then-contemporary romantic fiction was much too contrived and unimaginative. Therefore, Walpole felt, Romance fiction was simply a poor imitation of real life. Part of the genesis of The Castle of Otranto was, then an attempt at introducing a new brand of realism that no longer depended on accurate reportage of common life but rather reacting to the regressive realities of an earlier age. Walpole wanted to shift the novel away from the contemporary vogue in which the stories dealt mostly with contemporary realism based on faithful rendering of modern day manners.

There is a preface to Walpole’s novel that tries to trick the reader into thinking that the book he is reading was originally written during the Dark Ages. In this time period, the setting of the The Castle of Otranto, a realistic novel would have included the unquestioned belief in “miracles, visions, necromancy, dreams and other preternatural events”. Walpole goes on to further delineate his intentions whne he writes “if this air of the miraculous is excused, the reader will find nothing else unworthy of his perusal.” What Walpole is doing here is something akin to the marketing campaign undertaken by the makers of The Blair Witch Project. He is staking the claim that realism in the novel is in portraying an accurate reflection of the culture of its time, a culture built upon superstition. Walpole ultimate goal was to create characters that thought, spoke and behaved in ways that the normal, average person would do if faced with the same spectacular situations. There is a certain audaciousness in Walpole in attempting this; he wanted nothing less than to remove realism from the sphere of the purely mimetic and project it onto the imaginative. It is certainly one thing to stake a claim to realism when writing about young women trying to find marriage in the villages surrounding London, but it is something else entirely to stamp the overriding element of realism in a story involving the many supernatural goings-on inside the castle of Otranto. The Castle of Otranto became, then, an exercise in creating a kind of realistic fiction that eschewed the easy trappings of romantic mimesis to which the novelists of Walpole’s day relied upon.

Shirley Jackson and the Literature of Rebellion

<p class="has-drop-cap" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">Shirley Jackson's most enduring literary work, "The Lottery", is in many ways a microcosm of her other works and her life. Jackson the writer and Jackson the human being rebelled against the stifling repression she saw as endemic to American society. "The Lottery" still stands as one of the most perceptive and trenchant observations of how unquestioned authority inculcates a subconscious desire for conformity that in turn sees any expression of individuality as a threat to the system.Shirley Jackson’s most enduring literary work, “The Lottery”, is in many ways a microcosm of her other works and her life. Jackson the writer and Jackson the human being rebelled against the stifling repression she saw as endemic to American society. “The Lottery” still stands as one of the most perceptive and trenchant observations of how unquestioned authority inculcates a subconscious desire for conformity that in turn sees any expression of individuality as a threat to the system.

Shirley Jackson has often been relegated and denigrated to the status of being just a writer of “horror” but to do so is not only to underestimate the importance of horror fiction, but how Jackson expanded beyond the genre. Too often the critical view of Jackson has leaned toward the dismissal of her as merely a gothic writer “who never managed to develop her ‘craft and sullen art’ to the high level” promised in her most famous story. If Jackson can be said to write horror, then it must be admitted and accepted that society is a horrifying concept because her best fiction always managed to hold a mirror up to what was taking place around her. The conflict always at play in Jackson’s work is the struggle between society and the individual and in her work she often personified this struggle by having it take place entirely within the individual. In doing so, she hints at an element of fantasy and role-playing that harkens back to childhood and imaginary friends who often play the role of conscience…or tempter.

It is fitting that an internal relationship not unlike that between a child and an imaginary friend hovers over Jackson’s writing, since so much of her writing bears the stamp of psychological trauma she experienced in childhood. Jackson exhibited signs of withdrawal and detachment as a child that today might earn her a trip to the shrink and concerns about developing a schizoid personality disorder. Jackson preferred her own company to young friends, finding childhood joy not in running wild and free outdoors, but in the acting of writing while secluded in her bedroom. It was in that room that the genesis for the grotesque that she would later write about took place, and it was also one her first acts of rebellion against a repressive conformism.

Shirley Jackson’s first taste of American-style conformity was the same as countless millions of other little girls: the expectation that they should grow up to be pretty and popular. Jackson may have had it slightly worse than some of those other millions of girls in that her mother was wealthier than other mothers and was herself a social butterfly who had fully bought into the conformity and reveled in it, while expecting her daughter to do the same.

The relationship between Shirley Jackson and her mother, already strained by the daughter’s rebellion against expectations, was compounded by the inability of the mother to fully understand her daughter’s expressions of imagination. And in a development that is almost as surreal as some of the stories she would later write, Shirley then committed the truly unpardonable sin of becoming obese. The stark division between mother and daughter seems to be symbolized by Jackson’s almost willful attempt to complete her rebellion by transforming herself into a figure so at odds with the social circle to which her mother wanted her to belong that she is actually forcing her mother to reject those desires. Beyond her relationship with her mother, Shirley Jackson’s obesity also bears the stamp of rebellion against all of society that expects all little girls to dream of growing up to look and act like a doll.

That is one way of looking at Jackson’s obesity; as a rebellion against conformist expectations. But rebellion is never so easy at that because a rebellious personality is formed by anxiety. If Shirley Jackson ate to a state of obesity as a result of anxiety, it would also explain her later dependencies on alcohol and drugs. While engaging in this type of behavior might not be considered rebellious in women now that was certainly not the case when Jackson became addicted. But if anxiety is the engine driving rebellion, there seems little doubt that conformity was the object of that rebellion if one is judge by her most famous works.

Rebellion against conformity can take two paths; in one, the rebel famously has no cause and is simply rebelling to rebel, but in the other the rebel hopes to elucidate what is primally wrong with the institution against which the rebellion is directed. Shirley Jackson is surely no rebel without a cause. Jackson’s stories often read like parables; lessons that her characters may not learn from, but which it is hoped her readers will. Her stories are usually short, peopled by ordinary characters in an ordinary time and place, but faced with extraordinary circumstances or events. Her stories noticeably have a veneer of normalcy to them, taking place in small town America and involving people of no particularly unusual talents. But lying not terribly deep beneath that veneer there is usually an unsettling and grotesque mockery of accepted institutions.

The premiere case, of course, is her masterpiece “The Lottery.” It has been suggested that one of the reasons Shirley Jackson was never embraced by American readers is because she reveals a very disturbing unpleasantness about us: our tendency to only see evil as something outside ourselves and as something that must be destroyed by the devout protectors of all that is good and right in the world. It is a problem that is being expressly manifested today in the way in which the war on terror has been taken outside the shores of the country despite the fact that the second worst terrorist attack was committed not only by a homegrown boy, but a crew-cutted, God-loving soldier. It is a particularly insidious and dangerous sort of conformity that so many Americans believe with all their heart that if it is being done by us, it must be right.

Shirley Jackson takes that mistaken assumption to task in “The Lottery” by asking a question that needs to be asked more today than ever: when does silent acquiescence to tradition and majority opinion cross the line from preserving culture to destroying it? “The Lottery” takes place in a small town that could be anywhere in America and it is at first a portrayal of how a certain level of conformity is a necessity for any society. People must obey certain rules, laws, and conventions or else the result would be anarchy. But at what point does adherence to this conformity stop being a necessity and instead become a danger to the very ideal of individuality?

For Shirley Jackson, it occurs at the moment when people no longer stop to ask why? The stoning of an innocent woman that is the climax of “The Lottery” is not the real horror for Jackson; it is the fact that nobody remembers how it started or questions why it should continue. That horror, which seems so grotesquely detached from reality and which serves to make the story palatable, is enacted every day. “The Lottery” is a reminder that we as a society are outraged by the horrific and barbaric human sacrifices of ancient civilizations, while turning a blind eye to state-sanctioned murder in the form of criminal executions. But one can go further than that and extend the analogy to the almost utter lack of outcry from Americans when Pres. Bush launched a massive attack against a country that had not attacked our shores, that was incapable of winning a war against its neighbor Iran, and that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. Those who urgently and insistently cry out even today that it doesn’t matter whether any WMDs were found in Iraq or not might be very welcome in that town holding that lottery every year. Old Man Warner’s reply when it has been mentioned that other towns have quit holding their lotteries succinctly encapsulates Jackson’s point. “There’s always been a lottery,” he says, as if that is reason enough to continue it. One might as well say, there’s always been unnecessary wars in order to justify the latest one as well as the next one.

The theme of this story and many other of Jackson’s stories is not that certain institutions or beliefs are necessarily or inherently wrong, but that as societies adopt them and naturalize them no one dares question when it becomes clear they are becoming outdated or obsolete. Conformity isn’t merely about containing society and holding it together, of course, it is also about control and domination. It is to the benefit of those at the top of the power structure that individualization be repressed or else the questioning of authority might extend beyond the traditions and to the executors of those traditions. Shirley Jackson’s writings in general and “The Lottery” in particular speaks directly to that fear. Genuine and authentic nonconformity is rare in America; too often, what passes for nonconformity is nothing more rebellious than a taste in clothing or art. Jackson proves herself to be an authentic nonconformist by rejecting the traditional path to literary acceptance and embracing her outsider status by writing far more profoundly in the horror genre than such contemporaries as Hemingway and Norman Mailer did in so-called acceptably literary endeavors.

What can be learned from the legacy of Shirley Jackson is that truly simple writing about complex societies can permeate into the American consciousness far deeper than literary pseudo-simple writing that don’t achieve nearly the level of complexity as Jackson’s so-called low level of Gothic writing. One can also learn the value of standing up against the repression of a conformity that survives by inculcating an atmosphere of complacency.

Emily: The Greatest Bronte of All

Emily Bronte is arguably the most famous of the Bronte sisters; certainly only Charlotte gives her any serious competition. Her fame, like Charlotte’s, rests primarily upon one single work of fiction, her gothic novel Wuthering Heights. But why should that novel serve to elevate Emily to more fame than Charlotte when her sister’s own novel Jane Eyre has retained its popularity alongside Emily’s book? Interestingly, the key to Emily’s ascension to the near-unanimous acclaim as the premier woman of letters in her family may be found in the keen observation made by Charlotte that Emily had in Wuthering Heights created a novel that was both disturbing and fascinating to the reader simultaneously.

This dichotomy in the novel may also be viewed as being part of the reason that Emily Bronte the person—as opposed to the novelist—has come to have such a firm grasp on the consciousness of her readers. If the reader is fascinated by her novel because there is a certain unpleasant element contained within, might there not also be that typical fascination the public has with the tragic artist who dies quickly following the creation of her signature work. Emily Bronte died in 1848, just one year after the publication of Wuthering Heights. Her early death leaves readers with the always unanswered question of what more might she have accomplished? Much in the way that contemporary readers of A Confederacy of Dunces cannot help but wonder what brilliance might have followed this novel by John Kennedy Toole if he had not committed suicide before it was even published, or how fans of James Dean cannot help but watch one of his movies without wondering what he might have done had he not died in a car crash, the readers of Wuthering Heights have had a shadow peering over their shoulder every time the book has ever been cracked open. Just as there is a significant unpleasantness to the character of Heathcliff while there is also an unrelenting interest in him, so is there a natural conflict while reading Emily’s novel between a gripping interest in her story and a subdued, almost melancholy sense of loss.


The Man Who Could Work Miracles

Because so little about Emily Bronte is known, readers have naturally tried to find something autobiographical in her only novel and that disturbing quality that Charlotte mentioned has led many to extrapolate an equally disturbing interest in Emily. In fact, reading Wuthering Heights for many is perhaps not unlike listening to the music of Joy Division or Nirvana before the lead singers of those bands committed suicide; searching for clues about artists about whom fans may know little else.

But just how much validity is there to such an extrapolation? Can the listeners of the music of songwriters who kill themselves really get a true glimpse into the psychological depths of a suicidal person? Obviously, in the case of Emily Bronte this analogy isn’t perfect; after all, she didn’t kill herself. On the other hand, a novel typically contains more possibility for autobiographical efforts to slip in whether consciously or not due to the nature of the media. Clearly, many academics have looked to textual clues in Wuthering Heights to give some
sort of insight into Emily Bronte herself. Just as clearly, it is human nature to expect that artists reveal themselves through their work. Several critics assert that not just Emily’s masterpiece, but all the novels of the Bronte sisters can be read as subconscious attempts to come to terms with the repression enforced upon the family by an authoritarian father. This reading of the novel also touches, once again, upon that disturbing quality in the novel first expressed by Charlotte Bronte. Indeed, perhaps it was Charlotte’s own repressed feelings toward her father that she found so peculiarly distressing and familiar in her sister’s novel.

An equally possible explanation for why both Emily Bronte and her novel have risen to a higher level of interest among readers than those of her sisters might lie in the fact that both are subjects of stark contrasts. Even accepting that subconscious autobiography naturally slips into every creative work, there is still no denying that nothing in her novel even remotely resembles the facts of Emily’s life. The circumstances surrounding Emily’s life bear no relation to the story she tells, yet clearly there must have been violent emotions at play within her. Equally so, the novel itself ranges unsettlingly between scenes of utter calm and scenes of almost frightening intensity.

Could it be the contrast that draws readers to Emily Bronte? Obviously, her sisters experienced the same outward circumstances as Emily, yet although there an intensity in the character of Rochester in Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, for the most part is an even-tempered book. Emily’s novel, on the other hand, is anything but even-tempered. Readers, of course, are often drawn to fiction for the opportunity to safely enter a world that isn’t safe and cozy, and the events that unfold in Wuthering Heights more than satisfy that desire. When combined with the possibility that reading her novel offers a glimpse into the soul of Emily Bronte, there may be little wonder that she is the Bronte sister who most seems to captivate readers throughout history.

And yet there may be one more reason for Emily’s enduring fame that once again harkens back to her sister’s discomfort with her novel. If it can be assumed an element of the autobiographical is at work in the novel, that disturbing element may be located specifically within the character of Heathcliff. Although it is surely pure coincidence that Emily died so quickly upon the publication of her novel, it is also sure that the average life expectancy for women during Emily’s life was atrociously short. In fact, the average life expectancy for a woman in England born at the time Emily Bronte died was just over 43 years. Early death and tragically short lives were the norm. Contrast this fact with Heathcliff’s death in Wuthering Heights which seems less an end than a beginning. There is a definitely disturbing element to the death of Heathcliff which may lead the reader to suspect that it is not meant to be taken as a tragic end to one story, but more as an optimistic beginning to another; to another story Emily chooses not to tell. Again, the contrast is between the characters in the novel and the author herself. If the shadow of what Emily Bronte was not able to accomplish due to her tragic death hangs over the every reader of her novel, then it is also true that the shadow of what happens to Heathcliff and Cathy after death hangs over their tale. The suggestion is certainly that death is not meant to be seen in terms of absolute finality.

And perhaps that is why Emily Bronte continues to haunt the consciousness of readers more so than her sisters. The reason for Emily Bronte’s lasting fame may be that there is a sense that her story did not experience absolute finality with her own death.

Dostoevsky’s Dream of a Ridiculous Man Why Man Should do Good

When Albert Camus wrote his classic essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” he was attempting to portray the banal absurdity of human existence by comparing it to eternally struggling to push a rock to the top of the hill complete in the knowledge that it would always roll back down before he could push it over. It is this ridiculous aspect of existence that is at the very heart of the philosophical school of thought known as existentialism. How ridiculous it might seem to an alien observer that we attach such importance to the daily events in our lives despite our full knowledge that we will die.

Of couse, there is also the hope of an afterlife. But what will form will that afterlife take? Eternal paradise or damnation? Or reincarnation? When you take the time to think about it, from our first moment of consciousness that our time here is borrowed to the our last breath, every single action we undertake is really nothing more than whistling past the graveyard, convincing ourselves that what we’re doing is important. Hope for an afterlife obviously is widespread and certainly must be considered a major motivating foractor for choosing to do good rather than ill in this world. Regardless, the simple fact is that every action you took today and will take tomorrow that doesn’t benefit your own self-interests is completely and utterly ridiculous.

No matter how deep your faith, no one can truthfully deny that there is absolutely no evidence of an afterlife. So then, why isn’t crime running rampant in the streets? What is it that makes people put the needs of others ahead of their own? Why do the overwhelming majority of us behave daily in such totally ridiculous ways when the one single certainty we have in life is that we are going to be here for a very short time and most of us will never get everything we really want simply by working hard and following the rules? Fyodor Dostoevsky submits his answer to these questions in his short story “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.”

The short story is really just an extended monologue; a mode of expression at which nobody has ever been better than Dostoevsky. The monologue begins with an acknowledgment by the narrator that he has “always been ridiculous, and I have known it.” Clearly, he is comparing himself to other people, but there is also the suggesting that he is making a comparison between humanity and lesser species. As far as we know, man is the only species who knows his ultimate fate. That is what makes him so much more absurd than other animals. This knowledge of his own destruction is the key point in existential thought. Dostoevsky’s ridiculous man questions the validity of existence and the purpose and so is rude to people and angry. Then he proceeds even further away from absurdity toward a spiritual void.

The ridiculous man listens in on the conversation of some of his friends and comes to a realization that we’ve probably all experienced: they don’t even care about what they are arguing about. As continues to listen to them, he attunes himself to the fact that they are completely alienated from the topic they argue about; they are no longer capable of authentically feeling the emotions they profess to fee, it’s simply a pretense. Although Dostoevsky was writing in the 19th century, he may as well have written it last year. Alienation seems to be a conditional aspect of modern life. If contemporary man wasn’t alienated from so much, why would so much money be spent by so many people on entertainment that is nothing more than a simulation of reality? The story itself takes place during the period when the industrial revolution was in the process of dehumanizing society at an alarming pace, but it could well have been written now when technology is further distancing people from each other. The ridiculous man reaches a crisis point; he realizes and accepts that no evidence exists to suggest that life is worth living.

The ridiculous man slide into despair, utterly enthralled by his alienation. At this point, a young girl appears and begs him to help save the life of a stranger. His response is to send her away. After all, the person is going to die at some point, whether he intervenes or not. If not now, then later. He turns his back on humanity. As he continues his monologue, the ridiculous man says that he can experience pain and pity for his fellow humans. Even so, he remains steadfast in his refusal to intervene. At the moment of his deepest and darkest despaire, the ridiculous man does something even more ridiculous. He falls asleep and into a deep dream.

Or is a dream? Perhaps it is a vision. What is the difference? The ridiculous man believes it is a vision that mirros the Fall of Man. In his vision, the ridiculous man is presented with an eden free from shame or fighting or jealousy or evil. It is idyllic, a site where everyone is happy. But as with all utopias, a price must be paid. The ridiculous man momentarily considers keeping to himself the rest of the story, but realizes that it is rest of the vision that contains the real lesson of the vision.

It was the ridiculous man who was responsible for corrupting this new eden. How did he manage this feat, this ridiculous man, this ordinary human being? Clearly, he is not a fallen angel; a serpent in the garden looking to bring about the fall of perfection. And yet, he does exact that which the serpent did: he brings knowledge. After doing so, this new eden follows the course previously followed on earth: loss of innocence, sexual debauchery, competition, nationalism, war. But with the acquisition of knowledge comes such things as ethics and laws that creates a false sense of morality detached from the natural state in which man is born. Indeed, the savage being knows no laws, lives as an animal. But men are not animals, right? Men have created laws and rules and we follow them either through choice or coercion or force. Lacking knowledge, lacking ethics, these people were really nothing more than savages themselves, animals following instinct without thought or consciousness. The ridiculous man brings knowledge and corrupts them, but in doing so he also brings them humanity. And from this devastation of paradise, the ridiculous man is reborn. Not only is he reborn, he is in ecstasy. Why?

Why is knowledge forbidden? Why is the acquisition of knowledge the beginning of the downfall of both the biblical eden and the paradise the ridiculous man sees in his dream? What is so wrong with knowledge? As can be seen throughout history, knowledge has a duality about it. The same knowledge which can be utilized for good can also be utilized for evil. The same knowledge which can create power from the atom to generate electricity for thousands can also be harnessed to instantly obliterate millions. The ridiculous man comes to understand that knowledge is better than life. To merely exist as instinctual creature with no ability to reason or to choose is not life at all. Given the possibility of living in a paradise in which there is no choice but to do good, or living in a word in which you lead a good life because you choose to, the ridiculous man makes the choice that any existentialist would make. The ecstasy that the ridiculous man feels is the awakening of his consciousness, the awakening of his understanding of both the greatest and the most horrible truth of existence: morality is a choice devoid of anything mitigating circumstances.

What could be more ridiculous than to choose to lead a moral life when there is no guarantee of a payoff? Mimicking the Bible, the ridiculous man states “the chief thing is to love others like yourself, that’s the chief thing.” But what, really is to be gained by doing this? The ridiculous man fails to mention God or Jesus or an afterlife. In fact, he promises, “Suppose that this paradise will never come to pass (that I understand), yet I shall go on preaching it.”

And that is exactly the existential choice. The choice to be good, to be moral, to understand that morality is a choice. Up to this moment, the ridiculous man has been alienated and indifferent to the world around him. He has been indifferent because he has questioned the validity of expectations. Remember, from the beginning he has seen himself as ridiculous. He describes others as calling him ridiculous. He was educated and knowledge revealed his inability to understand. As he says, “the more I learned, the more thoroughly I understood that I was ridiculous.” A disconnect has always run through the ridiculous man. He has always been distanced from those around him and this is the mark of an existential hero. An existential hero must always be apart from those around him because there is always the nagging question about reality. It is not coincidental that the ridiculous man comes to understand because of a vision. His disconnect from what is deemed natural condemns him to a life of questioning what is tossed at him. What seems natural and normal and real must always be considered with suspicion to the existential hero and because of this he will forever be deemed ridiculous.

Why can he not just accept life and go on? Why are there so many who refuse to go along with plan; to take in the images consistently provided them and accept it as reality? Because for the ridiculous man, a person has to want to rise above the dream that we take for reality. It is far too easy to accept the lies and deceit that pass for reality. The ridiculous man saw things in a vision and he is deemed a madman because of it, but wasn’t his vision just a rewriting of the reality that billions of people have followed for centuries. Because it wasn’t introduced to him via the media we deem reality, he is suspect. But his vision captures perfectly the model of morality followed blindly by an entire religion. Knowledge is the key to happiness. The ridiculous man comes to this particular brand of knowledge and realizes that true happiness can be attained in this world only by choosing to be good. It is not enough to be an automaton, blindly following a set of rules that promise happiness, even eternal happiness. Ethics and morality are nothing if we don’t have the ability to choose to say no. (For a cinematic take on this idea, see Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange).

Morality is meaningless if one doesn’t also possess the chance to deny it. The ridiculous man is ridiculous, perhaps even mad, simply because he understands that the real key to happiness is knowledge. The knowledge that at any time, he can choose to forsake ethical laws and morality and he will still end up exactly in the same position as everybody else. The good man and the bad man will both meet the same end. Death is the ultimate equalizer and so far no proof has been offered that choosing to be bad is any worse than choosing to be good. It is absurd to suggest that morality is a necessary component of existence. It isn’t. One can be good, bad or even indifferent to all that goes on around them and they won’t be in any better or worse shape when it’s all over than anyone else. So why choose to be good? Why choose to live a moral life? It is ridiculous to do so. And yet is really the only choice any of us can make.