The Semantic Charging of Space in "The Castle of Otranto" (Gothic Novel)

Essay, 2007

16 Pages, Grade: 1,3


The Semantic Charging of Space in The Castle of Otranto

[…] An awful silence reigned throughout those subterraneous regions, except now and then some blasts of wind that shook the doors [Isabella] had passed, and which grating on the rusty hinges were re-echoed through that long labyrinth of darkness. Every murmur struck her with new terror […] (Walpole 61).

This passage of Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto is only one example that shows how the construction of the setting in this novel strongly contributes to the atmosphere of the tale. Also in other passages it becomes obvious that the description of space and landscape conveys a specific meaning within the story, and even prefigures the development throughout the plot. Nünning and Nünning mention: „Räume [fungieren] nicht nur als Schauplätze […], sondern [erfüllen] eine ‚Erzählfunktion’ […], ‚räumliche Oppositionen [werden] zum Modell für semantische Oppositionen’“ (cf. 132). Thus, several places and the landscape depicted in the setting may function as semantic carriers (cf. ibid. 133). In this essay it will be examined in how far space is semantically charged in Walpole’s work, and how this influences the plot, the atmosphere within the story, and the reader’s perception of it. In addition, it will be shown that the semantic charging of the settings in The Castle of Otranto is also influenced by its being a Gothic novel. Therefore, a definition of the latter term will be given as well.

“Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto is generally regarded as the first Gothic novel” (Clery 21). At least, one can say that it “reveals many of the preoccupations of the later Gothic novel” (Sage 81), as Walpole’s story looks back on a feudal world, in this case, medieval Italy, in which the Lord of Manor, Manfred, the first of a long line of Gothic villain/heroes, exercises seigneurial rights over the minds and bodies of his subjects (sic ibid.). The fact that The Castle of Otranto is a Gothic text, already equips it with several features that contribute to the semantic charging of space within the tale. For example, the story of The Castle of Otranto is - as the title alludes to - set in a castle, and sometimes plays in subterraneous regions such as the castle’s vaults (chapter 1), or caves in the area (chapter 3):

[…] a Gothic tale usually takes place […] in an antiquated or seemingly antiquated space - be it a castle, a foreign place, an abbey, a vast prison, a subterranean crypt, a graveyard […]. Within this space, or a combination of such spaces, are hidden some secrets from the past […] that haunt the characters, psychologically, physically, or otherwise at the main time of the story (Hogle 2). This perfectly applies to Walpole’s tale, as the family, who inherits the principality of Otranto, is haunted within their own home by an ancient prophecy. They are also physically and psychologically haunted by their own passions, as for example Isabella - indicated by the quotation at the beginning of this essay - tries to escape the castle and the passions of her actual father-in-law, Manfred. The ancient prophecy leads to a number of supernatural apparitions in several areas of the building, and also in its surrounding territory “in the wood near Joppa” (Walpole 114). Hogle argues that the supernatural hauntings in Gothic tales - which in The Castle of Otranto are connected with the prophecy - can take many forms, but they frequently assume the features of ghosts, spectres, or monsters […] (2). The prophecy in Walpole’s story says 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 (51). It can be argued that the prophecy comprises the basic cause that makes the castle a haunted place, and therewith a semantically charged space. As Hogle mentions, a haunting may “rise from within the antiquated space, […] to manifest unresolved crimes or conflicts that cannot longer be buried from view” (ibid.). In Walpole’s text, this is actually the case: the castle is destroyed by the apparition itself, as the prophecy -which in the tale is said to be “difficult to make any sense of” (51) - is ironically meant literally: the “real owner”, the apparition of Alfonso the Good, actually grows larger and larger, and sometimes its helmet and sabre, and parts of the body itself are seen by the occupants of the castle, until the spectre becomes so large that the castle is destroyed by its magnitude (cf. 145).The usurpation of the principality by Manfred’s ancestors is revenged, and the lawful heir and hero of the tale, Theodore, inherits the throne. So, the castle with its surroundings operates as a semantic carrier as it is cursed by the prophecy. This function is stressed by several supernatural incidents that occur within its walls, and demonstrate that the space is haunted.

As Walpole’s tale is known to be the first Gothic Novel and his being the “progenitor of [the] genre” (Clery 21/22), it can be concluded that The Castle of Otranto constituted no common publication during Walpole’s time, and so his readers could not know what they were going to read about.1 However, one can say that his “Preface to the First Edition” already delivers and forebodes the semantic charging of the castle by the preface’s rough outline of the tale’s setting and plot, which later would be characterized as Gothic. In the preface, it is revealed that the story is set in “the darkest ages of Christianity” (Walpole 39), in the time of the crusades, and takes place in the area of Naples (cf. ibid.). The narrator claims that “the scene is undoubtedly laid in some real castle” (ibid.), and he also warns the reader that “miracles, visions, necromancy, dreams, and other preternatural events” (ibid. 40) are part of the story. Furthermore, he mentions that it will end in a catastrophe (cf. ibid.), and that terror is “the author’s principal engine” (ibid.). People in Walpole’s time connoted the Middle Ages and castles with certain associations, and therefore the description of the setting - being a place of supernatural incidents and of catastrophe - might have, without reading any further, conveyed some semantic meaning to them:

For Walpole’s contemporaries the Gothic age was a long period of barbarism, superstition, and anarchy dimly stretching from the fifth century AD, when Visigoth invaders precipitated the Fall of the Roman Empire, to the Renaissance and the revival of classic learning (Clery 21).

So, to a certain extent it might have been apparent to Walpole’s readers that the places in the story might carry a semantic meaning.

Moreover, the semantic charging of space in The Castle of Otranto is due to the boundedness of the setting which evokes several emotional reactions in the characters and also the reader. Space is confined to the castle, its nearby church and convents, as well as to the caverns in some distance to it. These places can be regarded as the primary setting of the action, which by Hoffmann is defined as the “Aktionsraum” (Nünning and Nünning 133). Additionally, most places simultaneously function as what Hoffmann characterises as “gestimmter Raum” (ibid.): places and objects are used symbolically or atmospherically as primary means of expression (cf. ibid). In almost every mentioned place in the castle, the atmosphere is described as creepy, and sooner or later supernatural incidents happen. Railo maintains that “the reader’s imagination is soon aware of a concentration on the limited sphere of what seems to be a medieval castle” (7). For example, when Isabella flees from Manfred, she realizes that “the gates of the castle […] were locked, and guards placed in the court” (Walpole 60). So, she hurries into the vaults, as she “recollected a subterraneous passage which led from the vaults of the castle to the church of saint Nicholas” (ibid. 61). The place is described as a “long labyrinth of darkness” (ibid.) in which “now and then some blasts of wind […] shook the doors she had passed, and which grating on the rusty hinges were re-echoed” (ibid.). The depiction of the place definitely stresses the confinedness of the princess in the castle.

Especially, it is not only her outer boundedness, but also her inner feelings that are expressed: Isabella is “under so much anxiety” that she hardly finds the door to the passage (cf. ibid.). As Harris notes, the vaults have a “haunting flavour with their branchings, claustrophobia, and mystery” (cf. Harris2 ). Isabella is not only caught in the place itself, fearing Manfred to find her, but also in her own panic which makes it difficult for her to find her way through the labyrinth. Her thoughts rush through her mind, and she is oversensitive to every sound that breaks through the “awful silence” (ibid.) Sage argues that “[…] the use of confined spaces - castles, dungeons, monasteries and prisons” in Gothic novels are used “to symbolise extreme emotional states by labyrinthine incarceration […] ” (82).

It is Isabella’s plan to escape the castle, and then “shut herself up for ever among the holy virgins, whose convent was contiguous to the cathedral” (ibid.): in the convent the princess would be trapped again, even though she would be there deliberately, so as to evade Manfred’s advances. After Isabella’s flight is successful, she very soon leaves the convent as well, because - after having heard that Manfred’s wife Hippolita would be dead - she does not feel safe there either (ibid. 96/97).

Theodore also had to feel the confinement in the castle on a physical level: first he was “kept prisoner under the helmet itself” (55), because he was accused of being a necromancer and to have killed prince Conrad with the “enormous helmet” (ibid 52); then, after he is found in the subterraneous passage shortly after assisting Isabella in her flight, he is imprisoned again in a chamber (cf. ibid. 72). Manfred intends to execute him, as he jealously suspects Theodore of being Isabella’s admirer (cf. ibid. 89). With the help of Father Jerome, who detects that Theodore is his son, the young man gets around the death sentence, and is then taken hostage in the castle (cf. ibid. 89-91). Manfred wants to blackmail Jerome who shall deliver Isabella back (cf. ibid.).


1 “The vogue that Walpole began was imitated only sporadically over the next few decades, both in prose fiction and theatrical drama. But it exploded in the 1790s (the decade Walpole died) throughout the British Isles, on the continent of Europe, and briefly in the new United States […]” (Hogle 1).

2 Harris, Robert. Elements of the Gothic Novel. URL: Version Date: August 6, 1998, accessed on March 27, 2007.

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The Semantic Charging of Space in "The Castle of Otranto" (Gothic Novel)
University of Wuppertal  (Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
The British Novel in the Late 18th and Early 19th Century
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12-seitige Analyse von "The Castle of Otranto" als Gothic Novel, in Form eines Essays + Bibliographie.
Semantic, Charging, Space, Castle, Otranto, Novel)
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Christina Gieseler (Author), 2007, The Semantic Charging of Space in "The Castle of Otranto" (Gothic Novel), Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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