The Castle of Otranto | Study Guide

Horace Walpole

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The Castle of Otranto | Chapter 1 | Summary



The main characters of the story are quickly introduced. Manfred, who is the Prince of Otranto, has two children, a "beautiful virgin" named Matilda and a younger son, who is by no means as beautiful as Matilda. This son, Conrad, is betrothed to marry Isabella, a noblewoman who lives with the family, as soon as he recovers from an illness. Manfred would like the wedding to take place as quickly as possible. Manfred's wife, Hippolita, seems skeptical of Conrad's marriage but feels so much shame at only having produced one heir that she keeps quiet. Manfred is worried about an ancient prophecy, a curse cast on the house of Otranto, coming true, although no one knows what the prophecy means: "The Castle and Lordship ... should pass from the present family whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it."

Conrad is supposed to marry Isabella on his birthday, which is the present day as the narrative begins. However, servants soon discover that a giant helmet has fallen on Conrad and killed him even while the wedding guests are waiting for him in the castle chapel. Everyone rushes to the scene and finds the boy crushed under the helmet and surrounded by black feathers. Isabella doesn't seem upset that her husband-to-be has been killed. A peasant (who will turn out later to be Theodore) suggests that perhaps the helmet was taken from a statue of "Alfonso the Good" near the St. Nicholas church, which infuriates Manfred. The wedding guests all rush to the church and discover that the helmet is actually missing from the statue. They rush back to the scene to tell Manfred, and he accuses the peasant of using sorcery to kill his son Conrad. The crowd joins in on the accusation and forms an angry mob. Manfred jails the peasant under the helmet and sets his servants to guard over him. Manfred also announces that he will not be providing food for his prisoner, saying, since he is a magician, let "his own infernal art ... furnish him."

A little while later Manfred calls for Isabella to come to him in the great gallery. When she arrives, Manfred tells her that Conrad, whom he says was "a sickly, puny child" was unworthy and didn't deserve her beauty. Manfred says he hopes "in a few years, to have reason to rejoice at the death of Conrad." Isabella assumes Manfred has gone mad. Manfred continues, telling Isabella he is in his prime and he desires her for himself. He curses Hippolita for only giving him one male heir and says he plans to divorce her immediately.

The portrait on the wall of Manfred's grandfather comes to life suddenly and sighs. Isabella hears the noise, but only Manfred sees that the painting become animated. Isabella takes Manfred's distraction as an opportunity to run away while Manfred attempts to talk to the portrait, viewing it as either a demon ghost or a possible spiritual guide.

Isabella, remembering the castle has a passageway under it that leads to the nearby church, is running through the cloisters (covered walkways) looking for the subterraneous passage when she catches a glimpse of someone else in the hallway. Then the light she is holding goes out and leaves her in the dark. The stranger speaks to her from the vault (cavern) where the trapdoor to the secret passageway should be. Isabella asks the stranger to help her escape by finding the trapdoor. A beam of moonlight shines in just then, and they locate the trapdoor. Isabella springs the lock and escapes down the stairs, telling the stranger to follow her and shut the door, but he accidentally lets go of the door and it locks back in place. Manfred, hearing the bang of the door closing, rushes in, but only the stranger is there. At this time it is revealed that the stranger is actually the peasant (later known to be Theodore) whom Manfred imprisoned underneath the helmet earlier.

Isabella gets away while the peasant distracts Manfred. Two of Manfred's servants, who are deeply afraid of ghosts and spirits, Diego and Jaquez, show up in the vault. They tell Manfred they saw the leg and foot of a giant ghost wearing armor in the chamber next to the great gallery. The peasant offers to go look and see, which makes Manfred admire him. Manfred says the peasant may go with him, but Manfred must see with his own eyes whether there is a ghost or not.

The narrative goes back to a little earlier and describes how when Manfred was, at first, searching for Isabella, he stops in Hippolita's chambers. Hippolita attempts to embrace Manfred, but he shuns her. To Hippolita's surprise, Manfred screams, "I want Isabella." He tells her to fetch her chaplain and meet him later. Then the narrative moves back to the great gallery. Hippolita is there with the chaplain when Manfred arrives. One of the servants already told her about the ghost, and she tells Manfred she checked the chamber and there isn't a ghost. Manfred softens toward her internally somewhat, but then "the next transition of his soul [is] to exquisite villainy." He is convinced that Hippolita will agree easily to a divorce and even help him encourage Isabella to marry him.

Manfred treats the peasant more kindly, telling him to sleep in a room by the stairs. Manfred says they will speak in the morning and then locks the peasant in.


From the beginning The Castle of Otranto embraces the horror of life in the Middle Ages, the time period the novel is set in. Death is everywhere and individuals have very little agency over their actions.

In the first section of the novel a helmet, a symbol that Manfred's rule over the castle will soon come to an end, quickly kills Conrad. Manfred begins his series of evil deeds, manipulating the weaknesses of his wife, Hippolita, and assuming he has the right to rule over everyone in the castle even though he rules in a violent and amoral way. The helmet also foreshadows what will eventually be revealed: that Manfred is not the true ruler of Otranto. The chapter fuses the mythical with the realistic, opening spaces for ghosts and visions, while also reflecting the complexity of relationships in a feudal society.

Mirroring is an important literary device that will continue throughout the novel. Mirrors reflect and mimic but also reveal the reality of life, and Isabella and Matilda will come to be seen as mirrors for each other. Mirrors further reveal Manfred's despicable behavior. Through he is pursuing Isabella sexually, Manfred is also pursuing her mirror, his daughter Matilda. Incest leads to destruction, but Manfred is blind to this. Instead, he believes the almost-incest—she was supposed to become his daughter-in-law and is like a daughter to him—of his pursuit of Isabella will lead to cementing his claim over the castle. Evil has such a powerful hold over Manfred that he cannot see the reality of his reflection in the mirror.

Isabella and Matilda, who will find out later about her father's diabolical plans, despite their occasional blindness, will both be portrayed as understanding the reality of the situation. The speech of Isabella and Matilda is hard to differentiate. They both speak in similar ways and come from similar moral vantage points. The mirroring will dissolve near the climax of the novel.

Manfred's first interaction with the peasant, who will be revealed to be Theodore—and the true Prince of Otranto near the end of the novel—serves to distinguish between magic and Providence. The Catholic Church in the Middle Ages made this distinction. Walpole sets up the same medieval morality and gets magic "out of the way," so to speak. Theodore is immediately accused of sorcery and of being a magician, and Manfred cruelly leaves Theodore to live on the efforts of his magic—leaving him to essentially starve to death. The reader will see at once that survival in this circumstance is impossible and perhaps wonder what will become of the peasant (Theodore). However, this story line dissolves and goes nowhere; Theodore seems to have immediately escaped. The "hand of Providence" will take center stage in the novel; magic has no place here. It is shown to be something silly: only servants, whom Walpole uses for comedic effect, believe in it.

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