Reveal Human Existence: "The Castle Of Otranto" And "The Monk"

In Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, and Matthew Lewis’ The Monk, fantastic elements are employed to reveal the more evil aspects of human existence. In both novels, characters encounter events that can be deemed unexplainable by natural means; certain plot points bleed into areas of convenience and supernatural revelation is made clear through human vessels. While benevolence is still present in stories of the gothic genre, custom conveys that sometimes the supernatural is needed to explain the most barbaric of actions, such as murder and lust.

In Otranto, God’s hand becomes interestingly visible, at an overly convenient time in the plot, when Theodore is be put to death by Manfred. Just as the former is nearer to his demise, “the sounding of the brazen trumpet” is echoed throughout the courtyard, alluding to John’s Revelation in the Bible, which details the sounding of trumpets when the end of the world is near. With the reveal of Theodore as Father Jerome’s son, even “Manfred’s heart is capable of being touched”, speaking to the ‘supernatural ability’ of Manfred feeling contempt for his sins. During this scene, Walpole uses examples in character action to further illustrate a sense of religion such as when Theodore “kneels down in prayer” or when Jerome calls out “Gracious heaven!”. Thus, this form of “convenience” is meant to be read as a kind of providence/divine intervention that could only serve to temporarily benefit the characters and move the plot along.

Contemporary readings would especially find this evidence troubling as it comes across as lazy writing; something Walpole pulled out from a hat when his hero became thrust against a wall. Walpole almost creates a kind of metafiction when he draws his diction towards the reactions of the bystanders: “They seemed to enquire in the eyes of their lord what they ought to feel”. Just as the people in the scene are confused on how to feel, so are the readers.

Other instances such as the giant helmet falling, the talking painting and finally, Manfred’s repentance, are all examples of the supernatural working to illustrate the darker aspects of humanity, and their need for reconciliation. Villains are created when the fear of their futility is realized, thus is the case with Manfred. In the prophecy, the end of his name is near, making him manifest his evil interior and cause the plot of the novel to unfold.

It is this supernatural inspiration that helps the audience understand the depth of guilt that Manfred suffers from. By witnessing the far reaches of the fantastic, we are able to understand the nuances of the mundane. Albeit, the question of whether these acts originate from forces unseen is yet to be wholly explained.

There is in The Castle of Otranto a proliferation of ghostly and, according to The Spectres of Law, “counterfeit signs that point towards the inauthenticity of any ‘true’ claim” regarding the supernatural (Chaplin 182). What ultimately defeats Manfred is not so much a force of ‘truth’ working to undermine his illegitimate governance, this obsession with the things of the material world, but rather the human vice these supernatural occurrences pose as. While the characters believe that the supernatural may be intervening in their lives, it is the mere malice of the human heart that drives the plot forward.

Because this so-called-supernatural takes the form of human desires, we think it is of otherworldly origin. A certain level of fear is associated with this unknown. But the truth remains, that the real horror that lies in these occurrences, is that of man’s natural inclination to sin.

In Lewis’ The Monk, otherworldly revelation participates in worldly appearances when Rosario sheds his veil to reveal he is actually Matilda. Ambrosio’s quest for heavenly purity is challenged by his temptations of the flesh, “forgetting his vows and sanctity” for the instant gratification of lust. This intersection of the supernatural and the natural is also exemplified when the serpent bites Ambrosio, “I have received my death”, he states, explaining the damage this worldly character can inflict upon his unworldly soul. And in actuality, this is the event that kickstarts his descent of sin. This is a rather archaic reference to the garden of Eden where the devil took the form of a snake. These worldly objects are utilized to explain that there is evil that lurks in the human heart. It is the succumbing to these vices that these people’s true nature is revealed. In Ambrosio and Matilda’s case, it is in this act of shedding their clothes that their truest selves is acknowledged: they are sinners.

The attempt to distinguish the apparent from the real, the good from the bad, evident in the standard Gothic device of portraits assuming life, was “internalised rather than explained as a supernatural occurrence”, a trick of the light or of the imagination. In the gothic tradition, doubles, alter egos, mirrors and animated representations of the disturbing parts of human identity became the stock devices. These devices increasingly destabilised the boundaries between psyche and reality, “opening up an indeterminate zone in which the differences between fantasy and actuality were no longer secure”. This is especially true with Ambrosio and the demonic Matilda. Lewis quite literally calls upon the evil forces incarnate to explain the plot to the Ambrosio, and in exchange, the reader. By blurring the lines between the natural and the supernatural, the reality of their inner character is made known.

By presenting all the ghosts as past sins in his story, walking “signifiers of truth”, such as the Bleeding Nun, Lewis conveys the importance of listening to the supernatural. Lewis turns to Biblical allusion, another form of the supernatural, to further ground his story as a mystical revelation of truth. When Ambrosio slowly dies on a riverbank during what is “explicitly a seven-day inversion of creation”, he experiences the consequences of not listening to the lessons taught in Genesis. Lewis uncovers dark irony in this setting as Ambrosio’s original parents’ sins come to destroy him rather than bring him to life. In the end, the supernatural is meant to remind us about our own mortality. With a focus on the afterlife, we may garner inspiration on how to live in this life.

While Walpole and Lewis’ renditions of supernatural forces differ in many respects, they remain similar in their use to create creepy atmospheres and introduce themes that have been discussed for many years. By bringing God into the mix of their narratives, Walpole and Lewis elevate the gothic novel while also introducing its tropes. Yet the most amazing feat that these authors have accomplished is that of establishing a genre. Themes of providence, divine justice and the supernatural seep through the pages of fine print, wishing to create a rich environment for the prose. But ultimately, Walpole and Lewis seek to uncover the ugliest threads imbedded within the human soul, and utilize the taboo subject of the netherworld to illustrate this. Through the abundance of darkness their works, the light is earned. In order to understand the beauty of human goodness, one must venture into the darkness of its heart.

Works Cited

  1. Botting, Fred. Gothic. Routledge, 2014.
  2. Chaplin, Susan. “Spectres of Law in The Castle of Otranto.” Romanticism, vol. 12, no. 3, 2006, pp. 177–188., doi:10.1353/rom.2007.0002.
  3. Hogle, Jerrold E. “The Ghost of the Counterfeit — and the Closet — in The Monk.” Romanticism on the Net, no. 8, 1997, doi:10.7202/005770ar.
  4. Lewis, Matthew. The Monk. Penguin Books, 1998.
  5. Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto. Oxford University Press, 2014.
09 March 2021
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