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Unspeakable Horror. Gothic Romance & The Castle of Otranto. After Defoe: Richardson and the Rise of Realism. Defoe’s texts—combined with other early genres such as amorous fiction—culminate in 1739 with what is often considered the first fully-realized novel: Samuel Richardson’s Pamela .

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unspeakable horror

Unspeakable Horror

Gothic Romance & The Castle of Otranto

after defoe richardson and the rise of realism
After Defoe: Richardson and the Rise of Realism
  • Defoe’s texts—combined with other early genres such as amorous fiction—culminate in 1739 with what is often considered the first fully-realized novel: Samuel Richardson’s Pamela.
  • Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded is an epistolary novel, and features a servant who resists her master’s repeated sexual advances until he finally marries her.
  • Pamela is widely praised for Richardson’s wealth of circumstantial detail, as well as the text’s psychological realism and didactic elements.
  • Pamela becomes a genuine media event. People felt social pressure to read the book, stores sold Pamela merchandise such as fans, many women named their babies Pamela—and other authors published either imitations or biting parodies.
henry fielding the comic epic in prose
Henry Fielding: The “Comic Epic in Prose”
  • Fielding both admired and criticized Richardson’s texts, and explicitly set out to create “a new province of writing” which he called the “comic epic in prose.” (Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones, Amelia)
  • Unlike Defoe and Richardson, Fielding openly owned the fictional nature of his full-length novels, and the narrator frequently breaks into the story to comment.
  • Fielding wrote novels influenced by the traditional picaresque genre, and include a number of comic episodes, although the plots are carefully structured.
  • Fielding depicts a much wider range of characters and employs a great deal of satire, though his characters are less fully developed than Richardson’s.
  • Fielding’s novels also feature myriad coincidental events—though he still defends the realism of his narratives: “For tho’ every good author will confine himself within the bounds of probability, it is by no means necessary that his characters, or his incidents, should be trite, common, or vulgar, such as happen in every street, or in every house, or which may be met with in the home articles of a newspaper.” (Tom Jones, VIII.1)
gothic romance
Gothic Romance
  • Etymology of “Gothic”: The word Gothic originally only referred to the Goths, one of the Germanic tribes that helped destroy Rome. Their now-extinct language, also called Gothic, died out completely. The term later came to signify "Germanic," then "medieval," especially in reference to the medieval architecture and art used in western Europe between 1100 and 1500 CE.
  • Gothic romances feature:
  • Exotic settings in the distant past, usually in Continental Europe
  • Protagonists/narrators (often isolated)who exhibit sensibility; instead of reliance on reason, these texts valorize the senses, feelings, and imagination.
  • Intense emotions: hate, passion, terror, grief, astonishment –which often cannot be verbally articulated
  • An atmosphere of mystery, suspense, and decay; these qualities are often enhanced by the physical environment and diction as well as the plot
  • Prophecies, omens, portents, and/or visions
  • Supernatural and/or otherwise inexplicable events
  • The persecution of virtuous women—especially by powerful, despotic men.
  • Dysfunctional or unnatural relationships; destabilized social order
horace walpole 1717 1797
Horace Walpole (1717-1797)
  • Youngest son of Robert Walpole, the first true Prime Minister of Britain.
  • Walpole was wealthy, cultured, and well-educated. He never married.
  • He entered Parliament shortly before his father’s fall from power, and never became fully engaged in politics.
  • Walpole preferred to study literature and art; he established a printing press at his Strawberry Hill estate, and he is largely responsible for the increasing interest in the “Gothic” aesthetic.
strawberry hill
Strawberry Hill

Walpole began building on the property in 1749, and continued making additions and alterations for 30 years: "Strawberry Hill was the first house without any existing medieval fabric to be [re]built from scratch in the Gothic style and the first to be based on actual historic examples, rather than an extrapolation of the Gothic vocabulary…As such it has a claim to be the starting point of the Gothic Revival.“ –Rosemary Hill

contemporary responses
Contemporary Responses

The Monthly Review (January 1765): “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 from the performance before us: for it is written with no common pen; the language is accurate and elegant; the characters are highly finished; and the disquisitions into human manners, passions, and pursuits, indicate the keenest penetration, and the most perfect knowledge of mankind.

The Monthly Review (May 1765): “While we considered it as [a translation from an ancient writer], we could readily excuse its preposterous phenomena, and consider them as sacrifices to a gross and unenlightened age.—But when, as in this edition, the Castle of Otranto is declared to be a modern performance, that indulgence we afforded to the foibles of a supposed antiquity, we can by no means extend to the singularity of a false taste in a cultivated period of learning. It is, indeed, more than strange, that an Author, of a refined a polished genius, should be an advocate for re-establishing the barbarous superstitions of Gothic devilism!”

study questions
Study Questions
  • The Castle of Otranto is fundamentally concerned with the nature of power: political, religious, sexual—and supernatural. How do various characters attempt to gain control or influence, and to what types of authority do they appeal?
  • How does the text represent family? Which characters can be included in Manfred’s family? How are the various characters affected by familial duty, and in what ways are their relationships depicted as “out of joint”?
  • Walpole argues that he has presented realistic characters, and indeed, he does include characters from a variety of social classes. What types of traits seem to be typical of each caste—and what do these traits suggest about Walpole’s own perspective?
  • The writer for The Monthly Review was willing to tolerate Otranto’s “barbarous superstitions” as long as it was a genuinely historic text. However, the reviewer is unable to approve the text as a modern fiction. Why? Why might contemporary readers view The Castle of Otranto as transgressive—or even dangerous?
  • How the conventions of Gothic romance (or realism!) intersect with any of the above themes?