Monday, October 24, 2011

Kirsten Mendoza- Queer Theory in Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto

In “Guessing the Mould- Homosocial Sins and Identity in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto,” Max Fincher argues that this gothic novel may be read symbolically as the dynamics of a subject who has internalized a homophobic culture. During the mid-eighteenth century, a loosely defined sexual sensibility starts to gain importance thereby constructing boundaries between male-male friendship and desire. In order to further show how queer theory may be applicable to The Castle of Otranto, Fincher brings to light letters written by Walpole to men of distinction such as Lord Lincoln. These letters convey passions that range from friendship to erotic desire. William Guthrie had accused Walpole as being feminine and of loving men. According to Fincher, “Homophobia is structured upon a misogynistic viewpoint, and for the post facto effects it had on Walpole in his desire to be more ‘manly’” (Fincher 234). Walpole’s fear of his desire being ‘outed’ (as it had possibly been by Guthrie) was an ingrained part of his subconscious.
            Like the fear of being ‘outed,’ Manfred is preoccupied with the threat of his identity being ‘outed,’ an identity that claims him to be the grandson of an usurper. “Manfred is a kind of closet, albeit a public one… He can’t even name the act of betrayal and usurpation or even consider it a possibility” (Fincher 234). Like the uncanny, the sins of his family has become so familiar to Manfred that is in not only unspeakable, but also unfamiliar just as the homoerotic desire may be unfamiliar to the self. Silence and unspeakability characterize Manfred’s familial secret as the homoerotic body does as well. The fear of homoerotic desire being exposed parallels the fear of Manfred’s true identity being revealed.
            “Aesthetically, the Gothic novel is similar to the spectacle of the masquerade in its tendency towards flamboyant exaggeration” (Fincher 236). The overtly misogynistic actions of the characters of the male figures and the negative portrayal of femininity in the novel may be indicative of a desire to over compensate masculinity through this “flamboyant exaggeration.” Like Walpole’s possible desire to overcompensate his supposed “femininity,” Manfred must also protect his masculinity. Manfred’s son is sickly and effeminate. His death is seen as a blessing in disguise since a son unable to produce an heir is a reflection of Manfred’s own lack of masculinity. In order to prove his manhood, it is necessary for Manfred to continue his line, to produce a viable male heir. The portrayal of Hippolita is extremely interesting. Hippolita, a mythological Amazonian warrior, is denigrated in The Castle of Otranto to a dutiful wife who values her husband’s happiness over her children’s and her own happiness. She is not the only woman in the novel who subjects women to the vices of men. Bianca states that “a bad husband is better than no husband at all” (Fincher 237). According to Fincher, the misogynistic tendencies of this novel fit well with a desire to overcompensate for a lack of masculinity.  Through The Castle of Otranto, we can see how gothic fiction is used to enforce the ideas that sexuality outside of hetero-normative practices is “unnatural and demonic” (Fincher 241). This is done, however, through manifesting the author’s own possible uncertainty and confusion of identity into the gothic novel.

While reading The Castle of Otranto, I couldn’t help but feel repulsed by Manfred and Frederic’s desire to marry each other’s daughters and Hippolita’s catering to her husband’s devious plans. Did Manfred really have to desire to marry his deceased son’s fiancée? Fincher’s argument does seem, in my opinion, to warrant the validity of queer theory even without the extensive description into the life of Horace Walpole. The overcompensation of masculinity and extensive misogynistic tendencies of the novel make sense if you think of it as a means to firmly segregate the masculine from the feminine, to evade any possibility of the tinkering of feminine qualities upon the male. Manfred’s desire to prove his masculinity through continuing his line is a point which I find to be extremely probable and valid. Furthermore, the family “secret” as synonymous with the fear of being ‘outed’ raises very interesting points. If sexual boundaries were coming into formation during the 18C, then perhaps the sensitivity to being ‘outed’ or labeled as homoerotic, then  both Manfred’s claim to the Castle of Otranto and homoeroticism has much (in the present day at least) to do with identity.

Does queer theory bring to light possibly alternatives for us to read The Castle of Otranto? Do you believe that Fincher’s arguments are plausible? If so, then what parts of this gothic novel do you think attests to the fear of being ‘outed?’

If you do not think that Fincher’s arguments make sense, then what other possibilities would you like to give to deconstruct his correlation between the hyper-masculinity and misogynistic tendencies evident in the narrative???  For example is the negative portrayal of women in the novel indicative of a desire to prove masculinity, OR, is it simply used to make the plot more interesting as a critique on women-women relationships?


Fincher, Max. Gothic Studies, Dec2001, Vol. 3 Issue 3, p229, 17p
Subjects: CRITICISM; CASTLE of Otranto, The (Book); WALPOLE, Horace, 1717-1797


  1. I do think that the arguments made by Fincher are plausible. "Like Walpole’s possible desire to overcompensate his supposed “femininity,” Manfred must also protect his masculinity." Not only is the sickly and feminine Conrad killed at the beginning of the novel but he is killed by the helmet of a powerful warrior, making greater the distinction between Conrad and the masculine. I think that a parallel could also be drawn between Walpole's fear of being "outed" as being gay and Manfred's fear of being "outed" as not the rightful heir to Otranto. In both cases, Walpole and Manfred would probably lose everything that is of importance to them-- Walpole would probably have lost some of his reputation and Manfred would have lost the castle.

  2. Wow, Kirsten, I'm thoroughly impressed with this blog post. I agree with Krista that Fincher's arguments are entirely plausible. I do not think I could say it much better than Krista, but I certainly see many instances of repression, burying and making things hidden. Conrad, the sickly, feminine boy, is killed by an oversized casque (metaphor for a large penis, maybe?). Also, the person who does pose a threat to Manfred in the beginning of the story (the peasant) is hidden underneath the large casque (penis?). The peasant is the only one making observations of the casque when it falls, and poses a threat to exposing something. Manfred, threatened, hides the peasant away under the helmet, trying to make him unfamiliar. Further, the peasant later ends up in the tunnels under the castle. So, Manfred is afraid of being "outed" in many ways, and I see the plausibility in relating this to queer theory.

  3. One aspect of queer theory that I think applies to this novel is the notion of unstable identities. While one tries to defend and prove one's identity, this act merely exposes that identities themselves are unstable and can never truly be proven. As Fincher remarks, Manfred constant desire to prove his masculine and identity as a man merely exposes queer theory's notions. His identity is constantly put into question by the "femininity" he attempts to fight against. Like Krista and Megan, I think Fincher has some valuable insights into this novel

  4. I think it is very interesting to apply queer theory to texts that were written before the theory emerged, and Otranto is no different. I do agree with what has been said and with the plausibility of the critic's remarks about the masculinity being an overcompensation for his assumed femininity. I think we can also apply queer theory to other relationships in Otranto. As we talked about in class, it is arguable that the scene between Matilda and Isabella is one of the most psychologically complex interactions between women thus far in literature. The women are both interested in Theodore but we are more prone to focusing on how this love triangle affects the friendship between the two women. We can easily comprehend a homosocial relationship and even see the seeds of female homosocial desire, a "deviant" category of romance for the time. From page 78: both Isabella and Matilda place more value in their friendship than in either relationship with Theodore. They each concede their claim to Theodore when they believe that their friendship is threatened. It is an arguably homosexual/social relationship tinged with desire because they both have something to gain from a marriage with Theodore, after finding out that he is of noble blood, but each are reasonably willing to sacrifice that claim for a female-female relationship. Basically, reading this novel from a queer studies standpoint destabilizes the essentialist idea that there is any one stable identity or form of sexuality. We can acknowledge the possibility of multiple forms of desire and attraction.

  5. I agree that many of the arguments of the article are plausible to this text. Everybody brought up really great points of the possibility of queer studies in different instances; I found Megan's interpretation to be very interesting and symbolic, I had never thought what the oversized casque might stand for before. Looking back on the novel, I do realize many instances where there are unstable identities; the fact that there are so many identities and characters does lend to this. Manfred is a perfect example of this; I don't feel like I ever really understand his character, because he is constantly struggling with not only his identity, but the gender identities around him (he detests having only a daughter left, and demands a son). There are many instances where Manfred is fighting for his masculinity to the point where he becomes unhuman almost. Great post, Krista!