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The Castle of Otranto | Themes


Magic versus Providence

Early in the novel Walpole brings up magic to distinguish it from the supernatural events—visions, portents, ghosts, prophecies—that will unfold in the narrative. Hippolita, near the climax of the story, will declare: "There is a destiny hangs over us; the hand of Providence is stretched out." The first supernatural event Walpole uses to make this distinction comes when Conrad is crushed to death by a giant helmet that no human hands could lift. Nevertheless, when a peasant in the crowd (Theodore) suggests the helmet belongs to a statue from the nearby church, Manfred, the Prince of Otranto, calls him a "villain, monster, sorcerer" and jails the "magician" within the helmet, saying, "he should be kept there without food, with which his own infernal art might furnish him."

The reader can see clearly that Theodore will not be able to make food appear while he is trapped under a giant metal helmet. Walpole renders magic powerless in the reader's mind right from the beginning to suggest that magic won't be an easy device used to explain events in this story. Perhaps this is the author's own crafty sleight of hand, for the purpose of throwing readers off-track and enticing them to suspend their disbelief. For all that is awaiting them, readers will need to bring their imaginations along. By the time readers get to the end of the novel, it has gone far above and beyond the unbelievable.

Theodore is not accused of being a magician or sorcerer for the remainder of the novel. However, the servants, Bianca, Jaquez, and Diego are scolded and mocked throughout by the princes and princesses for confusing the godly supernatural with the magical. It is Providence, with some help from the spirits of St. Nicholas, the hermit from Joppa, and the saint-like Alfonso the Good, that pushes the narrative to its bloody conclusion: a "sacred vengeance" that rights the crimes Manfred's ancestors committed.

Being able to differentiate between magic and portents (signs from Providence) is vital to the characters' destinies. Throughout the novel, if characters do not heed a sign, they are destroyed. There are moments where Manfred has a chance to do something positive, but, instead, he continues his bad behavior. For instance, the paintings in the castle come to life and move as a sign that certain things should occur. The painting in the hallway looks like Theodore, but Manfred chooses to ignore this sign as well. By not valuing signs or misinterpreting them, Manfred continues on his selfish path and loses almost everything he values—his children, his castle. Characters who see signs and portents and interpret them successfully—like Theodore—are favored throughout the novel and achieve success. These signs are often connected to spirituality. They come as a warning, and if characters do not listen, they can be punished. One Biblical sign from The Castle of Otranto are the drops of blood that come out of the statue of Alfonso the Good, signifying the holy trinity (belief that God is made up of three divinities: the Father, the Son (Christ), and the Holy Spirit) and serving as a warning for Manfred.

Black-and-White Morality

The intertwining of religious views of the Middle Ages with Walpole's hero and villain characterizations creates a black-and-white morality in The Castle of Otranto. The story devices that result became Gothic novel standards.


Manfred becomes the archetype for the classic Gothic villain. Each choice he makes is chaotic and creates darkness. He behaves selfishly; however, he is not beyond redemption. In The Castle of Otranto, even the worst villain gets a second chance. Manfred is allowed to realign himself with Christianity and dedicate the rest of his life to the faith. Even though Manfred's behavior could be categorized as evil (murdering his daughter, attempting to marry Isabella and divorce his wife), his villainy is essential to drive the plotline. The villain also makes room for a hero to emerge who abides by a moral code, typically in the moral universe of Christianity. The evil of the villain is typically influenced by masculinity and often is a patriarchal figure. To put his villainy on full display, he often pursues an innocent woman.


The hero is an important character in Gothic literature. Often, the hero is a young princely character who tries to win over a maiden character. He isn't necessarily a barbaric character, like a war hero; he is, instead, often a lovestruck gentle soul. The hero of Gothic literature is also often connected to the common medieval ideas of religion at the time. Christian faith presents the hero (as the case with Jesus) as a self-sacrificial person who acts based on love. This can often be the downfall of a Gothic hero: when they are blinded by love, they cannot make proper choices. In The Castle of Otranto, the hero is the character of Theodore, whose moral compass never falters.


Much like the hero, the heroine is a symbol of faith. The heroine is often depicted as being a young, beautiful, virginal woman. Virginity is equated with morality for the heroine. She responds to danger in a passive way, such as when Isabella hides in the cave and when Matilda accepts her father's wishes for her to marry Frederic. In Gothic literature she is often pursued by a villain, who is typically an older patriarchal figure. Near the beginning of the novel, Isabella is escaping through mysterious corridors in the castle. She runs and has trouble figuring out how to escape until Theodore assists her. Again, she escapes from Manfred and hides in the convent or the cave in the forest. Those who pursue the heroine seek to violate her morals, which often means take her virginity. Manfred chases Isabella, pursuing her virginity, and exposes himself as the main villain.

Sterility and the Role of Women

Hippolita's inability to bear more children spurs Manfred to act in ways that ultimately destroy himself and his legacy. However, though Hippolita is the ostensibly sterile character being discarded by her husband, it is her husband's perspective and failure to recognize the power of the women in his life that comes to light to be the true fault in the character—and ensures his loss of an heir much more completely than Hippolita possibly could.

At the beginning of the novel, it is made clear to the reader that Conrad, before he is crushed to death by a supernatural helmet, is Manfred's only hope for continuing his lineage. There is also a prophecy (Manfred knows about it, but the reader does not at first) corroborating Manfred's viewpoint as well. The prophecy says his rule over Otranto will end when there is no longer a male heir to take over. Meanwhile, also at the outset of the narrative, it is made clear that Manfred sees no value whatsoever in his daughter Matilda. It never occurs to him that she could be of value until Frederic, Marquis of Vicenza, shows up and Hippolita thinks of the idea of matching Frederic with Matilda and solving all of their problems by joining the two disputing families. When Manfred kills Matilda near the end of the novel, he kills the daughter, not the son, who could have saved him from ruin and brought male heirs. Matilda is long dead to Manfred before he kills her, so it is redundant when he kills her. His blindness to her—and all women's—value is represented in his killing her.

In the center of this construct sit Theodore and Isabella. Manfred only can see potential in Isabella, but it is lust that drives him, not true sight. And further along those lines, it is Theodore's mother who is related to Alfonso the Good, not Father Jerome, Theodore's father. Because of the mother carrying the family line, Theodore rightfully gains all of Otranto, and Manfred loses all. Though he takes the course of the novel to make the point, Walpole masterfully reveals that it is the men (except Theodore, who respects and loves the female characters) in the novel who are "sterile"—incapable, ineffective—and leashed to the absurd viewpoint that only one sex (male) is vital in the producing of heirs.

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