The form and function of characterisation in "The Castle of Otranto"

Essay, 2007

12 Pages, Grade: 2,7


An important component of fiction is characterisation. But what does characterisation do for a story? It allows the reader to create a picture of the characters in a story in his mind and to empathise with the protagonist and secondary characters. Moreover characterisation moves the story of a literary text onward because fascinating characters and their actions are interdependent to the whole plot. This essay will look into the structural design of characterisation and how the principle of characterisation is significant in the unfold of the story.

The dramatis personae in The Castle of Otranto can be separated into primary characters, secondary characters and minor characters. The main characters occupy Manfred, the illegitimate Prince of Otranto, the villain; Matilda, his daughter; Isabella, the intended wife of his son, Manfred´s foster daughter, and Theodore, first a mysterious stranger and later revealed as the real Prince of Otranto. These characters are the most important characters because they appear frequently in the narrative and their actions and behaviours keep the plot in motion. The important secondary characters include Hippolita, Manfred´s devoted wife; Jerome, the friar and Frederic, the believed to be death Marquis of Vicenza, Isabella´s father. Minor characters, but nevertheless quite interesting and important ones for the outcome of the story, are the servants Diego and Jaquez and last but not least, the chambermaid Bianca. Additional characters like Conrad, the son of Manfred, and Alfonso´s ghost will not be considered in the essay. The first one dies in the beginning and never appears alive but he has to be mentioned because his death triggers the story off. The second one functions as kind of watchdog who reminds and threatens mostly Manfred and the domestics by causing supernatural events in the castle.

In The Castle of Otranto every form of characterisation1 is employed. Throughout the novel the figural technique of characterisation (Pfister 1994: 251-257) predominates which conveys information about the characters through their speech and behaviour. This technique provides the reader a lively and vivid presentation of the characters that helps the reader to imagine them as real persons.

The novel opens with a few explicit-authorial descriptions of the characters. The reader learns that Manfred has two children and about his relationship to them. His son, aged fifteen, is Manfred´s “darling”, but “a homely youth, sickly and of no promising disposition” (Walpole 1764: 14) and Matilda, his daughter is “a most beautiful virgin aged eigteen” to whom Manfred “never showed any symptoms of affection” (Walpole 1764: 14). This indirect characterisation of Manfred reveals already his unloving and inhuman trait. Hippolita, his wife is “an amiable lady“(Walpole 1764: 14) and “excellent” (Walpole 1764: 33) who “sometimes venture to present the danger of marrying their only son so early […] never received any other answer than reflection on her own sterility, who had given him but one heir” (Walpole 1764: 14) and the fact that he "had contracted a marriage for his son […]”(Walpole 1764: 14) already brings to light his dominant position in the family and in the novel.

Walpole does not describe his characters´ outward appearance and personality but shows them directly in action to speed the plot up (Cf. Napier 1987: 92). Instead, Walpole uses “interpretive names” (Pfister 1994: 263). This implicit-authorial method simplifies the reader´s imagination of the characters´ personality. For example: Matilda is an Old German name and stands for strength, power and fight.2 On the first sight the meaning does not seem to correspond to the character because Matilda is not a very active character. But on the second sight there are slight parallels. She shows strength and courage by speaking to a supposed ghost, she releases Theodore from prison, provides him armour and tells him where he should escape. She first fights against a marriage with Frederic but finally submits herself with greatness to her fate and to her death and even forgives her father for murdering herself. The name Isabella means beautiful3 and “devoted to God”4 in Hebrew. The first meaning is confirmed explicitly by the author “those lovely young women […]”5 (Walpole 1764: 20) and explicit-figural by Manfred “Conrad was not worthy of your beauty” (Walpole 1764: 20). The second meaning is proved to be true implicitly through her believe that “heaven itself declares against your impious intentions!” (Walpole 1764: 22) and when she “addressed herself to every saint in heaven” (Walpole 1764: 26). Though according to the meaning and the women´s personality it would have been more suitable if Walpole interchanged the names. This is to be confirmed later in the essay when both characters are examined more precisely. Theodore is a Greek name and is translated with “divine gift.”6 Theodore is the virtuous and pious grandson of Alfonso, the Good, and the rescuer of Isabella. His presence leads to the revelation of the usurpation of Manfred´s family and to the fulfilment of the prophecy. Therefore he can be seen as divine gift for Otranto. Jerome is also a Greek name and means “sacred and holy.”7 Jerome is explicitly- authorial introduced as “holy father Jerome” (Walpole 1764: 39) and as a “good man with an air of firmness and authority […]”(Walpole 1764: 43). This is also confirmed by his self- commentary when he says:

I am no intruder in to the secrets of families. My office is to promote peace, to heal division, to preach repentance, and teach mankind to curb their headstrong passions. […] I know my duty, and am the minister of a mightier prince than Manfred (Walpole 1764: 43).

Jerome serves as moral authority who reminds Manfred of his “incestuous design” (Walpole 1764: 45) and “cruel intentions” (Walpole 1764: 46). By the way, Manfred is an Old German name and stands for hero, protection, peace.8 Although Manfred is a hero in the novel, though not in the conventional meaning, the other qualities can not be attributed to him. His interpretive name could stand for how he better should had been to avoid his fatal deed or for his real character not overcome with this desperate ambition to get a new heir. Indeed, Manfred is obsessed by his need to receive a heir who continues the usurpation of the power of Otranto. His son´s death at the day of his wedding Isabella makes him frantic and much more villainous because this event leaves him without an heir. His madness is expressed through is way of speaking. He cries “wrathfully” (Walpole 1764: 15) and “in a tempest of rage” (Walpole 1764: 15) asks “angrily” (Walpole 1764: 19), says “contemptuosly” (Walpole 1764: 29) or “hastily” (Walpole 1764: 20). Such energetic words which describe verbal as well as non-verbal behaviour create movement in the plot which keep the recipient at a degree of excitement. Other words like these are “impetuously” (Walpole 1764: 21) or “rash” (Walpole 1764: 25). Furthermore his speech is punctuated with dashes which stresses his strong emotions. On the contrary to Manfred´s way of speaking, the mysterious stranger, later revealed as Theodore, asks “with respect” (Walpole 1764: 17), speaks in a “submissive voice” (Walpole 1764: 26) and “calmly” (Walpole 1764: 28). Throughout the story the speaks elaborated and polite. Only in the end he looses all his self-control by facing the death of his beloved Matilda. In this situation his language becomes pathetic which intensifies the emotional effect of the catastrophe on the reader.

To avoid the destruction of his lineage Manfred sets disastrous events going. The first one is his own proposal to Isabella. When he speaks to her about his intention to seize her fertility he characterises Conrad explicitly by identifying him as a “sickly, puny child […] ”not worth of [Isabella´s] beauty" (Walpole 1764: 21). With this comment about his son he implicitly characterises himself as heartless and pitiless. Moreover Manfred views himself a potent man, implicitly conveyed when he says “[I] may expect a numerous offspring” (Walpole 1764: 22) and therefore immoral or even incestuous, because of the desire to get offspring with his foster-child or intended daughter-in-law.

Other features also serve to characterise Manfred. Theodore, Manfred´s counterpart, or the antagonist of the story, is the mere opposite of Manfred as well as the women Hippolita, Matilda and Isabella. They all serve to highlight Manfred´s maliciousness. Theodore’s nobility, virtue and honesty itself is conveyed through a number of speeches that show his nature. Walpole employed for Theodore´s characterisation the most commentary by others to present him as a special and worthy person for the story even before his name and origin is revealed. Isabella assesses him in praesentia (Pfister 1994: 252) as “courteous” (Walpole 1764: 27) and “generous” (Walpole 1764: 27). Through psycho-narration 9 we learn from Matilda that “his person was noble, handsome, and commanding, even in that situation [when he is examined by cruel Manfred, nearly sentenced to death]” (Walpole 1764: 49), Frederic calls him a “brave knight” (Walpole 1764: 71) and Bianca says “he is as comely a youth as ever trod on Christian ground: we are all in love with him: there is not a soul in the castle but would be rejoiced to have him for our prince” (Walpole 1764: 91) and from himself that his “soul is free from guilt” (Walpole 1764: 66).


1 According to Pfister (1994: 251 f.).

2 Cf. (23.08.2007).

3 Cf. (23.08.2007).

4 Http:// (23.08.2007).

5 Meaning Matilda and Isabella.

6 Http:// (23.08.2007).

7 Http:// (23.08.2007).

8 Http:// (23.08.2007).

9 Nünning 2004: 125.

Excerpt out of 12 pages


The form and function of characterisation in "The Castle of Otranto"
University of Wuppertal  (Fachbereich A)
The British Novel in the Late 18th and Early 19th Century
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ISBN (eBook)
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Castle, Otranto, British, Novel, Late, Early, Century
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Susanne Huse (Author), 2007, The form and function of characterisation in "The Castle of Otranto", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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