Natural versus Supernatural Agency in The Castle of Otranto

by Damian Shaw

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article.

Abstract: [page 26] Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto is seen as the origin of the genre of gothic fiction. It has spurred continuing debate over how to interpret the role of the supernatural presences in the novel, exemplified by the ghost of Alfonso. Linked to this discussion is the question of whether the novel can ultimately be read as a conservative text supporting traditional values within a patriarchal system, or as a more revolutionary text encouraging the overthrow of this system. Within this context, the widespread interpretation of Horace Walpole’s novel, that it is ultimately conservative because supernatural agents restore ownership of the castle to its so-called legitimate heirs, has generally been accepted. Furthermore, a growing number of critics also argue that the castle is partially destroyed by these supernatural forces, usually by the ghost of Alfonso. My article argues that it is highly unlikely that the castle is damaged by supernatural agents. Nature is responsible for the collapse of the castle’s walls. As such, a more revolutionary reading of the novel is called for.

Keywords: 18th-century novel, Horace Walpole, natural phenomena, supernatural agents, The Castle of Otranto

In the first, anonymous, preface to The Castle of Otranto (1764), Horace Walpole apologizes for the supernatural elements in the novel because they might seem ridiculous to a rational readership in an enlightened age where “miracles, visions, necromancy, dreams, and other preternatural events, are exploded now even from romances” (7). They should, he argues, be indulged, however, because the text, as he asserts, was written in a less rational age. In contrast, in the preface to the second edition, where Walpole does acknowledge his authorship, he famously defines his gothic novel as “an attempt to blend two types of romance, the ancient and the modern” (9)—in other words, an attempt to mix, in a seamless way, the apparently contradictory discourses of supernaturalism and the natural, or superstition and rationality, because both have their defects. Here, Walpole encourages support for the role of “fancy” in literature, if not belief in the supernatural (9). In this way alone, the novel represents a challenge to the dominant rationalist discourses of [page 27] the enlightenment. Walpole claims that he “thought it possible to reconcile the two kinds” and that he was not “entirely unequal to the task” (9). In the second preface, Walpole maintains that the ancient romance was “all imagination and improbability” whereas in the modern romance, if nature has “cramped imagination,” then she has merely “take[n] her revenge” for being excluded from the former (9). We should expect, therefore, that notions of the natural and the supernatural will be brought into opposition in Otranto, where the two types of romance are merged. Whether or not it is indeed possible to reconcile these conflicting world views is, of course, still a (sometimes heated) topic of debate today, especially when science and religion are opposed. Whatever the case, Troy Boone argues persuasively that Walpole’s text “sets up a continuum of belief that criticizes credulity as well as rationalism” (183).2 This seems to be a sensible approach, especially because of the fact that both prefaces were published in the third edition of the novel and subsequent editions, thus encouraging these alternative readings of the text simultaneously. While I endorse Boone’s notion, this article will examine the role of nature in this seminal eighteenth-century novel because of many recent critiques which seem to lay too great a stress on the supernatural forces as the primary agents.

Manfred is the prince of Otranto, but only because his grandfather supposedly murdered a former prince, Alfonso the Good, and usurped the title. Horace Walpole’s foundational gothic novel details the efforts of several male figures, both physical and ghostly, to restore the castle to Alfonso’s bloodline in the shape of Theodore. In these efforts they are successful. This has led several critics to conclude that the message of the novel is ultimately conservative. The “conservative” readings usually suggest that although the novel offers a strong critique of patriarchy, it cannot be seen as “revolutionary” because legitimate succession of a feudal order is ultimately maintained through supernatural agency.3 In his other writings, however, Walpole shows no attachment to the feudal order as such, and his support of the legitimate authority of the monarchy was not absolute. In his memoirs, Walpole describes himself as having republican sympathies, except for the fact that he supports a “most limited monarchy” (377). He styles himself as “a quiet republican who does not dislike to see the shadow of [page 28] monarchy, like Banquo’s ghost, fill the empty chair of state, that the ambitious, the murderer, the tyrant, may not aspire to it” (377). In the world of the novel, set, as it is, between 1095 and 1243, certainly no idea of the limited monarchy favored by Walpole applied. In a letter to Sir Horace Mann dated 17 October 1756, Walpole states that he clearly prefers the “commonwealth” as a form of government rather than “a regular monarchy” or a “tyranny,” which makes it unlikely that the novel would advocate a return to feudal ideals (246-7).

A textual complication for a simple “conservative” reading of the novel is that the castle is partially destroyed at the end of the novel. This raises an important question. If the novel is about the restoration of a legitimate bloodline to the castle, then why is the castle partially destroyed? Before reaching any conclusion, it is also certainly important to ask who, or what, partially destroyed the castle, and why this agent took such measures.4 These questions are even more pertinent if one considers Montague Summers’s well-established argument that the castle itself can be seen as the main protagonist of the novel (xix-xxi).5

Who or What Partially Destroys the Castle?

Most commentators considering the end of the novel do not ask the question above. Typically, the fact that the castle is partially destroyed is either simply stated, or the relevant passage is quoted from the novel without further elaboration, perhaps because the answer to the question is not as clear as one might imagine.6 A growing number of critics, in addition, are reaching the conclusion that the walls of the castle are actually brought down by the ghost of Alfonso, or, in other words, directly through Alfonso’s supernatural agency.7

But is the castle actually damaged by supernatural agents, such as the ghost of Alfonso? Bearing the above interpretations in mind, we should carefully consider the actual description of the event in the novel:

What! is she dead? cried he [Manfred] in wild confusion – A clap of thunder at that instant shook the castle to its foundations; the earth rocked, and the clank of more than [page 29] mortal armour was heard behind. Frederick and Jerome thought the last day was at hand. The latter, forcing Theodore along with them, rushed into the court. The moment Theodore appeared, the walls of the castle were thrown down with a mighty force, and the form of Alfonso, dilated to an immense magnitude, appeared in the centre of the ruins. Behold in Theodore, the true heir of Alfonso! said the vision: and having pronounced these words, accompanied by a clap of thunder, it ascended solemnly towards heaven, where the clouds parting asunder, the form of saint Nicholas was seen; and receiving Alfonso’s shade, they were soon wrapt from mortal eyes in a blaze of glory. The beholders fell prostrate on their faces, acknowledging the divine will. (103)

The description above is a list of sequential and co-temporal events. Firstly, thunder shakes the castle to its foundations. Then, there is an earthquake (“the earth rocked”), and clanking armor is heard. Frederick and others rush into the court (which is understandable during an earthquake). Theodore appears, a “mighty force” knocks down the walls at the same moment, and the “form” of Alfonso appears. After this, the ghost speaks, then is seen rising into heaven towards the “form” of saint Nicholas while there is another clap of thunder. The ghost disappears.

We should note that there is no attribution of the destruction of the castle walls to any supernatural agency in this passage itself. The ghost just happens to appear at the very moment that the “mighty force” knocks down the walls. It is not made clear either what causes the clap of thunder, or what causes the earthquake, or what causes the “mighty force,” if not the earthquake. It is also left open to interpretation whether the two claps of thunder are simply part of a storm or are caused by supernatural forces. The collapse of the walls and the appearance of the form of Alfonso are linked by time (“and”), not by causation. Several of the witnesses do believe that the events are caused by supernatural agency (mistakenly thinking that the “last day” is at hand), and that all the events observed are the expression of “divine will,” but there is no reason for the reader to do so. Indeed, whether from suspension of disbelief or actual belief, if the reader were to attribute these events to supernatural agency, then she or he would be either indulging or indulging in exactly the [page 30] same kind of religious or superstitious thinking which the first preface to the novel disparages. To recap, Walpole wrote in the first preface that even though “miracles, visions, necromancy, dreams, and other preternatural events, are exploded now,” the supposed earlier author “must represent his actors as believing them,” even if “he is not bound to believe them himself,” in order to remain “faithful to the manners of the times” (6).8 The readers of the novel are entitled to believe that if event A occurs (the walls are knocked down), and event B occurs (a ghost appears), then A must cause B, or B must cause A (as the critics do who claim that the ghost of Alfonso has knocked down the walls), but to do so is hardly logical without proof of causation. Indeed, in the first preface, Walpole maintains that the supposed Catholic author was a supporter of the “empire of superstition” which the “reformers” were trying to oppose through the diffusion of learning. As E.J. Clery reminds us, “the trope of the spread of learning driving out superstition is, of course, a ubiquitous feature of the language of enlightenment” (37). Walpole argues, in the first preface, that this fictional author was using “his abilities as an author to confirm the populace in their ancient errors and superstitions” (5) as a counter to the Reformation. If the modern reader, thus, believes in these supernatural events, then she or he has similarly been duped by the skill of this supposed author, not much differently from the credulous characters in the novel. In other words, a superstitious reader is neither rational nor enlightened according to the logic of the first preface.

Even so, critics can justifiably argue that within the logic of the novel itself, it is entirely possible that supernatural agents caused the clap of thunder, the earthquake, and the “mighty force” because these spirits are indeed capable of affecting the material world. When the enormous helmet of Alfonso drops from the sky and dashes the body of Manfred’s son, the hapless Conrad, “to pieces” (18), this is clearly the result of supernatural agency. It can also be argued, as it has been by Watt, that both of the prefaces “sought to confuse or confound their readers” (28). Even if one agrees with Watt on this point, it does not mean that all of the arguments made in either preface are, in consequence, invalid. My response is that apart from the fact that the novel gives no evidence that supernatural forces cause natural events such as lightning and earthquakes (including the [page 31] destruction of the walls of the castle), the text does not supply any motive for them wanting to destroy the castle either. Alfonso, saint Nicholas, and their agents have devoted considerable effort (and an entire novel) to ensuring that Theodore, the man they consider to be the legitimate heir to the principality, succeeds to the position. Why should they attempt to destroy the castle, which represents that position, at exactly the moment of victory? This makes no sense. I would argue, instead, that a plausible reading is that it is the forces of nature, in the form of an earthquake, which topple the castle walls.9

The possibility of such an occurrence was still vivid in the European imagination when the novel was written. The Castle of Otranto was published within a decade of the great Lisbon earthquake, which occurred on All Saints Day, 1 November 1755. At least one modern commentator, John Adkins Richardson, has made a connection between the Lisbon quake and the rise of “horror” in the form of Walpole’s novel (62). More importantly, the earthquake foregrounded key issues which are important to Walpole’s novel. The earthquake led to a crisis of faith in which many questioned a belief in divine providence, which is a form of supernatural agency.10 Perhaps most famously, Voltaire, in his 1755 “Poème sur le Désastre de Lisbonne,” asked why Lisbon deserved divine punishment any more than Paris or London, and whether or not the innocent should suffer, presumably for the transgressions of their parents, a point to which I will return, as that question is an important issue in The Castle of Otranto.11 Walpole also had firsthand experience of the milder earthquakes that rocked London in 1750. In a letter to Sir Horace Mann written shortly afterwards, Walpole recounts what he considered the absurd responses to the event, especially by the clergy. He explains further that even though some people were attributing the events to natural causes in the form of “electrical appearances,” everyone was still taking care “to assure you that still it was nothing less than a judgement” (49). Walpole clearly views this response as ridiculous in his letter.12 In Walpole’s novel, a clap of thunder, presumably caused by a flash of lightning (an electrical event), precedes a violent shaking of the earth, which is interpreted by some of the characters as a sign of judgement day: “the last day was at hand.” There is surely a parallel to be observed here.

[page 32]

Why is the Castle Partially Destroyed?

Given that the supernatural agents have no motive for destroying the walls of the castle which they regard as rightly their own, let us assume that it is nature, in the form of an earthquake, that causes the “mighty force” which destroys the castle walls. I will consider later how nature itself is portrayed in the novel. Firstly, however, I will investigate how the various human and supernatural agents vying for control of the castle are described in the novel.

Manfred’s grandfather, Ricardo, is probably a murderer. The inference is that he poisoned Alfonso the Good, and he definitely fabricated a “fictitious will” in order to usurp the title to the principality (104). Manfred himself is domineering and unfeeling towards his wife, Hippolita, his daughter, Matilda, and his servants. When his son, Conrad, is killed, he tries to force Hippolita to divorce him so that he can marry Conrad’s betrothed, Isabella. Isabella is fiercely opposed to this. He accuses Theodore falsely of Conrad’s murder, and tries to execute him. He is frequently described as a “tyrant” and even admits this himself.13 Finally, he murders his own daughter, Matilda, thinking that she is Isabella (99). Clearly, Manfred and his grandfather can be viewed as villains. If the purpose of the novel were solely to support the re-legitimation of Alfonso’s line, then surely the parties opposed to Manfred should be presented in a more positive light, but this is not the case.

The Marquis of Vicenza, Isabella’s father, is a “weak prince” (88) who almost betrays her when he is tempted by Manfred’s scheme for them to marry each other’s daughters. Father Jerome, who represents the Catholic church, specifically the church of Saint Nicholas, lies to Manfred about Theodore (before he knows that Theodore is actually his son), and, in doing so, is almost indirectly responsible for the death of his own son (49). “I am thy murderer!” he confesses to Theodore (52). He is also sorely tempted to betray Isabella to Manfred in order to protect his son, thus breaking his vows as a priest to afford her sanctuary (54). He is vengeful, and later he advocates the complete extermination of Manfred’s family: “A tyrant’s race must be swept from the earth to the third and fourth generation” (86). This is an Old Testament rather than a Christian sentiment, and, in the first preface, Walpole laments the idea that this [page 33] seems to be the moral of the novel: “I could wish he [the anonymous author] had grounded his plan on a more useful moral than this; that the sins of fathers are visited on their children to the third and fourth generation” (6).14 It certainly does not portray the church, as represented by Father Jerome, in a positive light. Cynthia Wall writes:

The Monthly Review of January 1765 said irritably: ‘That unchristian doctrine of visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children, is certainly, under our present system, not only a very useless, but also an insupportable moral, and yet it is almost the only one deducible from this story’ (Monthly Review, 32:99). From the eighteenth-century didactic point of view, even the moral of Otranto is inadequate. The reviewer is presumably sarcastic, but what if – ironically – he’s exactly captured the point? (90)15

It seems to me that by portraying the church in a negative light, the novel is indeed questioning this morality, rather than supporting the legitimacy of the feudal system of inheritance which seeks to convey power across generations whether it is deserved or not. Rewarding the unworthy and punishing the innocent are related issues. Theodore, at least, responds angrily to his father thus: “Will heaven visit the innocent for the crimes of the guilty?” (86).

The main supernatural protagonist, the ghost of Alfonso the Good, is not presented in a much better light.16 We presume that it is through his agency, in collaboration with Saint Nicholas, that Manfred’s innocent son Conrad is brutally murdered at the outset of the novel. All that is left of the hapless Conrad are “bleeding mangled remains” (19). The ghost, like Ricardo and Manfred, is a murderer, or at least complicit in murder. When Matilda, another innocent, is killed, Alfonso’s ghost shows no compassion, and merely states triumphantly that Theodore is the rightful heir, as we have seen. Even Saint Nicholas is compromised. Saint Nicholas did, after all, make a deal with Alfonso’s murderer, Manfred’s grandfather, to allow Ricardo’s line to rule in Otranto “as long as issue-male from Ricardo’s loins should remain to enjoy it” in return for the money to found a church and two convents, which is essentially a bribe (104). Apart from these considerations of plot, the supernatural forces in the novel are portrayed in a ridiculous manner, as many critics have noted and which garnered them little gravitas from the perspective of its early readers.17 Two of the earliest reviews speak of the “absurdity [page 34] of [the novel’s] contents” and that “those who can digest the absurdities of Gothic fiction, and bear with the machinery of ghosts and goblins, may hope, at least, for considerable entertainment” (qtd. in Sabor 68, 70).18 David Punter also believes that Walpole put the supernatural to an “ironic use which is meant to interest and amuse us by its self-conscious quaintness” (46). The manner of Conrad’s death, for instance, is so highly implausible in the real world (being crushed to death by a gigantic helmet which seems to fall from the sky) that readers would more likely experience a distancing from the supernatural than any real fear, even though the event itself is not amusing.19

Given that it seems illogical that the supernatural forces would wish to destroy the castle that they perceive as their own, and the fact that Manfred, as well as his opponents, are portrayed negatively (they recall “the ambitious, the murderer, the tyrant” of Walpole’s letter quoted above), it seems plausible that poetic justice would be better served if it were nature that destroyed the castle, either because none of the murderous patriarchs deserve to own it by virtue of their murderous and tyrannical ways, or because it serves justice to destroy the institution/structure that might cause them to behave in this way in the first place.20 How, then, is nature portrayed in the novel?

The Portrayal of Nature in The Castle of Otranto

In considering the idea of nature in the novel, we should briefly look into the presentation of human nature in the novel, as well as nature as a physical force. Though the actual word nature is not used frequently in the novel, we are told that Manfred is “naturally humane” when his passion to keep control of the castle does not “obscure his reason” (31). Readers may conclude from this that it is the system represented by the castle and the suit of armor itself that is causing his natural humanity to be suppressed. Even though Matilda and Isabella have a brief squabble over Theodore, they cannot sustain this as their jealousy gives way to the “natural sincerity and candour of their souls” (82). Matilda’s “nature” is one of “gentle timidity” (22). Theodore’s “nature” is one of “generous gallantry” (69). Although these examples do not necessarily imply a vision of [page 35] human nature à la Rousseau, they still show human nature as being essentially on the side of the good. When Father Jerome is pleading for clemency from Manfred towards Theodore, he argues “that it is nature that pleads for this boy” (54). Here, Jerome must be arguing for an idea of nature as a just and benign force. Isabella and Theodore follow the (natural) impulses of their hearts because they are “too recently acquainted with parental authority” (86). The implication is inherent in the novel that human nature, seeing that it is only mentioned in these few instances, is generally positive and, by implication, opposed to patriarchal oppression.

Turning to physical manifestations of nature, there are a few key moments when the wind plays a role. When Bianca says to Matilda that “a bad husband is better than no husband at all,” she is interrupted by a noise which she imagines is an expression of supernatural displeasure (38). Matilda retorts as follows: “It is the wind, …, whistling through the battlements in the tower above: you have heard it a thousand times” (38). The wind does conveniently interrupt Bianca’s line of thought about marriage. When Manfred sees the plumes on the helmet in the open courtyard being “tempestuously agitated,” he interprets this as a “portent,” though the text only states that the plumes are nodding “as if bowed by some invisible wearer” (55-6, my italics), and his persecution of Theodore is interrupted. The text, in these two instances, leaves the interpretation of the events, whether as natural or supernatural, open to the reader, especially as the word “tempestuously” suggests that there is bad weather abroad. The scene could simply be describing a natural event occurring at a propitious moment. If so, then the natural wind is protecting Theodore. Nowhere does the text state that the storms are caused by supernatural agents. The novel frequently juxtaposes the conflicting interpretations of events as caused by either natural or supernatural forces, as we have seen above, as when Hippolita gives a psychological explanation of the vision of the gigantic leg as a mere “fable; and no doubt an impression made by fear, and the dark and dismal hour of night, on the minds of [Manfred’s] servants” (35), whereas the servants believe these appearances to be real. The reader is, thus, primed to address this conflict of interpretation in the climactic scene which is the focus of this article. [page 36]

The moon also has a role to play. When Manfred initially pursues Isabella, the moon shines on the helmet. Isabella (mis)interprets this as a heavenly sign—“see heaven declares itself against your impious intentions” (24-5)—but the reader need not do so. A while later, the moonlight fortuitously shines through a crack in the ceiling and illuminates the lock on the trapdoor, which allows Isabella to make her escape from the castle (28). Theodore attributes the ray of moonlight on the lock to the trapdoor as the influence of “Providence” (30). Again, readers may interpret these occurrences as supernatural interventions, as do some of the characters, but they need not do so, especially if the interpretation that nature has partially destroyed the walls is plausible.21 If so, the moon has allowed Isabella to escape, not a supernatural force.

Of more importance are the claps of thunder (caused by lightning, we presume, during a “tempest”) which have a physical effect on the castle. These occur only three times in the novel: once, at the end, just as Matilda dies, again as the ghost rises into the heavens, as we have seen, and the other time at exactly the moment when Theodore and Matilda fall in love. “A clap of thunder was heard, that shook the battlements,” just as Theodore and Matilda had “drunk deeply of a passion which both now tasted for the first time” (69). We should note that The Castle of Otranto is essentially grounded in the genre of romance, even if it is a blend of the “ancient and the modern” romance as Walpole has it in the second preface (9). The moment of mutual infatuation is, therefore, central to this genre, and it is surely important that it is at this exact time that nature strikes the top of the walls of the castle, the very institution (with its supernatural supporters) which will not allow the union of Theodore and Matilda. The second strike at the castle, when Matilda dies, shakes the castle further, right down to the foundations of the walls, before the earth itself shakes. The third clap, as the ghost of Alfonso ascends, may be signifying the sound of nature’s triumph, rather than any divine approbation.


Kathy Justice Gentile argues that characters like the ghost of Alfonso are “animated by our persistent yearning for some kind of [page 37] compensatory and elevating supernaturalism” (28). Readers, in other words, yearn to provide supernatural explanations, even when there are none. She argues further, against a conservative reading, that “Walpole’s sublime and supernatural effects work to confound and deceive rather than to … ultimately sanction aristocratic might and right” (18). This is a type of “revolutionary” rather than “conservative” reading with which I concur. If we add my argument that it is nature which partially destroys the castle to that of Gentile, then the following analysis of the novel becomes plausible: Hippolita and Matilda are victims of patriarchy because they are too obedient to patriarchy as represented by Manfred. Nature (as a symbolic force for good opposed to the murderous natural and supernatural patriarchs) partially destroys the castle, but is not entirely successful as such a symbolic revolution was not possible in the mediaeval period when the novel is set, between AD 1095 and 1243 according to the first preface (5).22 The two characters who stand in most opposition to the patriarchal forces because of their brief acquaintance with “parental authority,” Theodore and Isabella, are not rewarded with a traditionally happy marriage precisely because they take up their positions in “the remaining part of the castle” (105), therefore legitimizing the system and increasing the likelihood that the vicious cycle of violence will be continued, and the “sins of the fathers” be visited on their children down the generations.23 In this reading, the novel implies that it is only when the entire castle (and what it symbolizes) is destroyed that the cycle of violence will have a possibility of being halted.

E.J. Clery points out that Walpole himself was “no radical” and was horrified by the events of the French Revolution: “perhaps he saw in them a sequel to his dream, a terrible revenge of the forces of the present over those of the past” (Introduction xxxii-xxxiii). Even so, Walpole, she argues, dramatizes the gulf between supernatural phenomena which are “emanations of a providential law of inheritance” and the characters who are “guided by the law of human nature” (xxx). The reader is invited to “revel in the nightmarish collapse of a system of power that contains the seeds of its own destruction” (xxxii).24 Nature, according to my reading, has more symbolic force than does providence in this case.

The novel, of course, does not directly attribute intentionality to [page 38] nature as an agent, though the timing of these natural events such as the earthquake might be considered as uncanny in the sense that familiar natural events produce fear in the characters because they coincide with auspicious moments. To attribute intentional agency to nature would be as irrational as a firm belief in the supernatural which, I believe, the novel gently mocks.

Symbolically, however, the natural events which partially destroy the castle can be viewed by the reader as achieving a modicum of poetic justice. In this sense, nature might represent a benevolent alternative to the corrupt supernatural forces as portrayed in the novel. By juxtaposing natural and supernatural elements, the novel can lead readers to a view of a non-supernatural “nature” which has a moral force that can lead to poetic justice being achieved. The novel provides sufficient grounds for interpreting many of the so-called supernatural events as natural, as I hope to have shown, thus encouraging, in part, the notion of the exploded or explained supernatural, that “peculiar naturalization of the supernatural” which had a large influence on later gothic fiction, and can “be observed in The Mysteries of Udolpho and many other gothic novels following Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto” (Andriopoulos 741). “A referential, enlightenment interpretation of Otranto, reducing its myth to nature, will clearly not exhaust the significance of the work for its contemporary readers,” though, as Clery writes, just as a rational interpretation need not do so for readers today (The Rise 69-70).

There are, indeed, many events in the novel which cannot be “exploded” in rational terms, such as the fall of the giant helmet which kills Conrad, so the novel, too, is foundational in the development of this strain of the gothic, the unexplained supernatural. The conflict between these alternative interpretive frameworks offered by the novel makes it a kind of barometer, as it were, which allows us to follow the changing “weather” of the debate between the natural and the supernatural in the novel’s critical heritage.

Given the ambiguities created by the collision between the ancient and modern worldviews created by Walpole, we may also read into his novel the seeds of the “natural supernaturalism” which Abrams famously argued was a hallmark of the Romantic period. In other words, this novel allows the possibility—if one were to claim [page 39] that nature, as opposed to the supernatural, were a force for good—that nature could be supernaturalized, or be granted a sense of positive agency as a force for good, even though the novel itself does not go that far.25 As Abrams writes of certain prophetic Romantic poets such as Blake, “these poets cry out for a transformation of history from the shape of eternal recurrence to the shape of apocalyptic prophecy, in which history reaches its highest point and stops” (498). Though Walpole himself may not have supported this idea, my argument is that the novel allows for, and even encourages, a “revolutionary” interpretation, an interpretation that argues for a world in which a break from the cycle of the “sins of the fathers” being visited on their children becomes a possibility. It seems that it can only be nature, as presented in the novel, which might achieve this outcome. Valdine Clemens notes a tradition from “Walpole’s collapsing Castle of Otranto, to King’s burning Overlook hotel in The Shining, to Scott’s exploding spaceship in Alien” (7). Certainly, Walpole’s literary and cultural heirs have considered carefully whether the symbolic castle is to be destroyed or not. As such, the more “revolutionary” tradition in the gothic might very well be this influential eighteenth-century text’s true heir. The Castle of Otranto has played a key role in the establishment of supernatural fiction in European literature, yet, ironically, the real “invisible hand” in this novel is most likely nature, not its supernatural forces.


1. “Nature” and “Supernatural” are highly contested terms. For the purposes of this argument, I will use them in the simple sense of nature as natural forces such as storms and earthquakes, and the supernatural as manifestations, like ghosts, which have not been (or may never be) scientifically proven or explained. Human nature, as it is presented in the novel, will be considered separately.

2. Boone’s contention is that Otranto “enters a crucial eighteenth-century discourse on sensibility to validate a feminized middle way in which reason cooperates with feeling” (185).

3. For further comment on “conservative” and “revolutionary” readings, see Markman Ellis (33-4). For examples of the conservative reading, see James Watt (62, 59), who argues that the supernatural forces are ultimately benign, and that the novel could simply be read as an “aristocratic jeu d’esprit” (38), Nick Groom (viii), and Valdine Clemens (40). [page 40]

4. Carol Margaret Davison, for instance, argues that it is the “mira-culous ‘assumption’ of Alfonso” which “signals the restoration of ethical paternal authority,” but she does not consider who or what partially destroyed the walls or why (78).

5. For John Allen Stevenson, in his chapter on political super-naturalism, the giant suit of armor, which represents the body politic, “is the agent” (99).

6. James Watt, for instance, merely states that the shade of Alfonso leaves the characters “to contemplate the ruins of Otranto castle” (38).

7. It is beyond the scope of this article to provide an exhaustive list of critics who follow this approach. By way of example, see Christina Gieseler (51, 2), Roger Luckhurst (153), E. J. Clery (The Rise 71-2), Sue Chaplin (184-5), Crystal B. Lake (489), Peter Lindfield (47), and Ellen Ledoux (41), the latter offering a more “revolutionary” interpretation.

8. In the first preface, Walpole pretended that the novel was a translation of an original manuscript written in Italian at some time between 1095 and 1243 (5).

9. This reading, which seems obvious to me, is stated very rarely in criticism of The Castle of Otranto. One example is in an MA thesis written in 1940 by Willa Frances Matthews (9).

10. See Helmut Thielicke (36).

11. “And can you then impute a sinful deed / To babes who on their mothers [sic] bosoms bleed?” (158). As David Brennan puts it: “[t]heologians and the religious authorities—like the Jesuit Malagrida in Lisbon—exploited the situation and the superstitiousness of the people, declaring that the earthquake was a punishment by god for the sins of the world—but why then should god destroy the churches and spare the brothels?”

12. A recently uncovered eyewitness account of the Lisbon earthquake criticizes the “Crafty, Designing Priests” for imposing on the credulous populace with their “Superstitious Farce” (Cunningham 111).

13. See also pp. 38, 29, 51, 52, 54, 68, 70, 72, 73, 86, 100, 104.

14. See Exodus 20:5 and 34:7, Numbers 14:18, and Deut. 5:9.

15. Wall adds, “the house inherited stands in ruins, as if caused by the rightful heir’s return itself” (90).

16. Matilda believes that Alphonso was a “virtuous prince,” as does her mother, but her servant Bianca reminds her that “he is no saint by the almanack” (38-9).

17. See, for instance, Clara Reeve, in her preface to The Old English Baron, who writes that the effect of the way the supernatural [page 41] machinery is portrayed is to “excite laughter” and dissolve “enchantment” (qtd. in Sabor 77).

18. In the Critical Review, January 1765, and the Monthly Review, February 1765.

19. Or, in Brechtian terms, a Verfremdungseffekt.

20. Ambrosio in Matthew Lewis’s novel The Monk (1796) is not directly punished by either the church or the supernatural agents in their demonic aspects. Instead, he is finally destroyed by nature, literally torn to pieces by insects and eagles before his body is washed away in a storm (339). In a letter to his mother, Lewis wrote that his novel was a “Roma[nce] in the style of the Castle of Otranto.” See Groom (xxiii).

21. For a thorough discussion of the “invisible hand,” which may be interpreted as the agency of Providence, see Andriopoulos. He writes: “[Adam] Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ conjures the same ‘providential manipulation of disorder into order’ effected by the supernatural agents in Walpole’s Castle of Otranto” (747).

22. The servant Jacquez, according to Bianca, says that “this moon will not be out before us seeing some strange revolution” (95). If Jacquez was referring to a revolution against the patriarchal order, then he got his timing wrong.

23. Theodore cannot forget Matilda, and is persuaded to be with Isabella not because he loves her, but because “he could know no happiness but in the society of one with whom he could forever indulge the melancholy that had taken possession of his soul” (105). This is the final line of the novel, which, thus, stresses that there is not a traditionally “happy ending” as expected in most romances. Certainly, the relationship is “haunted” by the memory of Matilda.

24. Clery further points out that the novel, as a work of sensibility, “is allied with the contemporary critique of aristocratic institutions” (xxxii).

25. Stevenson also sees Walpole’s legacy in the “natural super-naturalism” of Coleridge’s idea of the suspension of disbelief (90).

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MLA citation (print):

Shaw, Damian. "Natural versus Supernatural Agency in The Castle of Otranto." Supernatural Studies, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 26-43.