The Sublime in the English Gothic Novel: Horace Walpole´s The Castle of Otranto

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

13 Pages, Grade: 2,0 (B)



1. Introduction

2. The Gothic Novel
2.2. The Castle of Otranto - a short summary
2.3. Gothic Sublimity

3. The Sublime in The Castle of Otranto
3.1. Repetition and Exaggeration
3.2. Sexual Terror and Incest

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography


In this paper I will examine the Gothic sublime by using the example of Horace Walpole´s novel The Castle of Otranto. I want to examine the features of the Gothic sublime: what was new and different about it? how is this reflected in the novel?; in order to prove the importance of Walpole´s work. It marks, in a certain aspect, a turning point in literature, since it is regarded the first Gothic novel. I will argue that the horror as developed in The Castle of Otranto is not simply based upon the appearance of ghosts and supernatural events, but rather a subtle kind of horror.

Firstly, an introduction into the Gothic novel in general, its characteristic features, and the examination of the cultural background of English Gothic fiction shall give a brief overview over the topic. Secondly, I will examine the means by which Walpole evokes fear in the reader, and the effects they had.


2.1. Background

The 18th century can be regarded as the so called “Age of Reason”, or the era of Enlightenment. Science and scientific progress grew more and more influential and it seemed as if there was no secret in the world that would remain unrevealed, which had important effects upon society and the human understanding of itself:

The realization that the earth was a lesser planet of one relatively unimportant star among millions proved to

be less chastening than one might expect; its

most widespread effect was to encourage confidence

in the sublime capacity of the human mind and in the

power of scientific method.[1]

Social changes, such as alienation and disorientation, caused by the movement of people from the country to the cities; early forces of industrialization, and the breakdown of the accepted class structure forced people to rethink their morals and values. Science brought vast changes to the English[2] society.

Paradoxically, the conditions under which Gothic novel had flourished, enlightenment, Protestant religion and Science seem to form an obstacle to Gothic fiction itself. The more interesting it is, why this genre was so popular. It seems as if scientific progress, and the enlightenment were closely linked with the suppression of human feelings. Anything that was not controllable by common sense meant a threat, a danger to the enlightened society.

However, this also gives the explanation, why the Gothic novel was so popular and so significant: “Some critics have seen it as an expression of the irrational side of the human psyche that had too long been repressed by the prevailing ethos of the eighteenth century.”[3] One could argue, that people were searching for an outlet for their natural, human emotions and they found it in the Gothic novel.

The term “Gothic” describes, according to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, “a style of literature popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, which described romantic adventures in mysterious or frightening settings”[4].The revival of the medieval world, with its spooky castles, ghosts and supernatural events, as a counter reaction to the era of rationalism and enlightenment, began already in the early 18th century. It was Walpole, however, who, in 1764, firstly published a novel that was far from the typical rationalist thinking that was predominant at that time. Peter Sabor supports the importance of Walpole´s work for the development of Gothic fiction by calling it a “pioneering Gothic novel”[5].

The Castle of Otranto, thus, reveals the basic principles of Gothic fiction: the medieval setting in a Roman- Catholic country in Southern Europe, supernatural events, a hero and a villain, women- victims, the usage of medieval places like castles, monasteries, dungeons and prisons to evoke fear in the reader. But the terror as developed in Walpole´s novel is not only based upon the constant expectation of the appearance of supernatural event, as I will illustrate later on.


[1] Sambrook, J., The Eighteenth Century: the intellectual and cultural context of English literature, 1700-1789,2nd edition, Longman, London, New York 1993, S.1.

[2]...and other societies of European countries, such as Germany and France as well.

[3] Lewis, M., The Monk, Oxford University Press, New York 1998, introduction p. XV.

[4] Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary, 5th edition, ed. by J. Crowther, Oxford University Press 1995,p. 492.

[5] Sabor, P., “Medieval revival and the Gothic” in: The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Volume 4, ed. by H.B. Nisbet and Claude Rawson, Cambridge University Press, 1997, p.470.

Excerpt out of 13 pages


The Sublime in the English Gothic Novel: Horace Walpole´s The Castle of Otranto
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Institute for Anglistics/ American Studies)
HS Novels of the Romatic Period
2,0 (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
401 KB
Sublime, English, Gothic, Novel, Horace, Walpole´s, Castle, Otranto, Novels, Romatic, Period
Quote paper
Carolin Kollwitz (Author), 2003, The Sublime in the English Gothic Novel: Horace Walpole´s The Castle of Otranto, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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