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