Sunday, October 30, 2011

Secondary Lit Post: Pat Mitchell

The issue of character identity within Horace Walpole’s gothic novel The Castle of Otranto is one that arises frequently both in reading the novel and the critical debates that have taken place since its original publication. Due to the fluidity and fickle nature of many if not most of the book’s characters, precise identity can be hard to pinpoint. What roles do and do not come into play are up for debate, and can be interpreted a seemingly countless number of ways by varying readers. One such interpretation, is that offered by Max Fincher in his article, “Homosocial Sins and Identiy in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.” In the article, Fincher suggests that Walpole’s own deeply rooted homosexuality as well as his homoerotic tendencies are subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) present within the context of the book’s characters, most notably the Manfred character.

Fincher predicates his argument by stating that “the predominant themes of the problems of marriage, courtship between differing classes and incestuous desire are not ostensibly homoerotic.” He, like most, sees these aforementioned themes as the basis for Walpole’s writing, and he makes clear that he doesn’t wish to confuse the underlying homosexual influence as a focal point of the narrative. Put in simpler terms, Fincher acknowledges that the homosexual aspects of the novel, while he does indeed believe they are there, are a bit below the surface, and easily not picked up on if the reader isn’t looking for them.

From there, Fincher goes on to explain in depth precisely where he sees the most identifiable homoerotic characteristics, specifically in regards to Manfred. Fincher argues that Manfred’s “open secret” of being the grandson of a usurper is corollary to Walpole’s own secret identity as a homosexual. The crux of argument reads as follows: “. It operates in a similar way in which the open secret of the condition of the homoerotic body does, through the collusion of silence and unspeakability.” Shortly thereafter Fincher identifies the passage wherein Manfred, while speaking to Frederic, is unable to openly admit to the lineage of corruption he hails from, as he stumbles over his own words when speaking of his grandfather, never reaching any certifiable conclusion. This, Fincher argues, serves as further proof that the closet Manfred has constructed for himself is representative of the real-life closet in which Walpole resides, and that Manfred’s fear of exposure is the same fear that Walpole deals with in reality.

For me, this interpretation was fairly eye opening. It was an angle that I hadn’t given much consideration to, if any at all. Upon my first reading of the article I was still leery to say the least, but then in re-reading some passages, specifically those mentioned by Fincher within the article itself, he indeed appears to have constructed a sound and logical argument. After doing some brief independent research on the topic right after this, it took little more than a quick Google search to realize that the theory of Walpole as a homosexual is actually quite predominant today. Furthermore, what I especially appreciated about the article was that it appointed some more identity to Manfred, something that I felt was a bit lacking within the original narrative. It was clear from my original reading that his character was somewhat of a desperate one, but what the article drove home for me was this notion of self-preservation within his character that I hadn’t found so overwhelming the first time around. Particularly when paralleled with the author’s own deep-rooted concerns, it becomes much more obvious and for me, more intriguing.

As previously mentioned, one specific passage that Fincher points to is the scene in which Manfred speaks of his grandfather, but unable to come to terms with what he cannot admit, he falls short of finishing his statement. He says: “My grandfather was incapable – I say, sir, Don Ricardo was incapable – Excuse me, your interruption has disordered me – I venerate the memory of my grandfather.” (64)

My question then is, if Manfred had found it within himself to be revealing here, how do you think he would have gone about it? There are several possibilities. Would he have come clean but in his trademarked devious nature entwined some fresh lie with the actual truth? Or would he have been straightforward and blatant? Or, to take it a bit further still, do you think there was no real way his character could’ve admitted the secret of his grandfather at all? Some would likely argue that the way in which Walpole presented this scene was the only genuine way it could be done. As Fincher puts it, it’s entirely “open for interpretation.” So how do you see it?

Fincher, Max “Homosocial Sins and Identity in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto” Gothic Studies Journal (2001): 229-242. Web Accessed: 28 October 2011.

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