In Gothic literature, Jerrold E. Hogle argues ‘women are the figures most fearfully trapped between contradictory pressures and impulses’ (Hogle, p.9). In other words, women are constricted to the stereotype of being wives and mothers or by being overly sexualised. For the purpose of this blog, the focus will lie on the representation of woman pressured into matrimony. Feminist critics have long confronted the cultural problem of gender distinctions in Gothic literature, relating to constructions of male power and gender boundaries for women (Hogle, p.9). In this blog, I will discuss how women conform to gender difference, in which they appear to be ‘passive, non-practical, subordinate and emotional’ (Bennett and Royle, p.179), in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), which is regarded as the first Gothic novel (Hogle, p.21). Thus, his characters, Isabella and Matilda, can be regarded as the first Gothic heroines.



Image: Theodore and Matilda (1894) Unknown Artist

When The Castle of Otranto was originally published, it addressed in the preface that the narrative was from an uncovered medieval manuscript (Hindle, p.xxxi). The novel tells the story of Manfred, the prince of Otranto, who, after a series of supernatural events and the sudden death of his son Conrad, is left without an heir. Manfred is then determined to marry his son’s bride Isabella, in his attempts to continue his family line: ‘You have lost your bridegroom […] I have lost the hopes of my race!’ (Walpole, p.23). The majority of literary attention has focused on the character of Isabella, whilst Manfred’s daughter Matilda has been rejected. Isabella is the main character subjected to Manfred’s patriarchal tyranny, however, Matilda is confined to another side of Walpole’s subordinated and patriarchal world, as she is expected to be a devoted daughter to her father. Matilda and Isabella are first introduced in the opening pages of the novel. Princess Matilda is described as the ‘most beautiful virgin’ (Walpole, p.17), while the lady Isabella is introduced as having ‘already been delivered by her guardians into the hands of Manfred’ (Walpole, p.17). In other words, Isabella has been handed over from one patriarchal figure to another, thus, enforcing women’s position within the social hierarchy. Both Matilda and Isabella are defined by their lack of sexuality and their inferior place within patriarchal society. Furthermore, both women are objects to be valued or cast aside by the men in their lives. Isabella’s virginity is of value to Manfred because she could provide him ‘numerous offspring’ (Walpole, p.24). Meanwhile, after the death of her brother, Matilda loses all credibility in her father’s eyes, as she is deemed worthless. Manfred states: ‘Begone, I do not want a daughter’, before ‘flinging back abruptly [and he] clapped the door against the terrified Matilda’ (Walpole, p.22).


Donna Heiland argues that ‘early gothic novels make absolutely clear the [authors] concern with exploring, defining and ultimately defending patriarchy’ (Heiland, p.8). She further suggests that Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto celebrates a male creative power ‘that demands the suppression – and sometimes the outright sacrifice – of women’ (Heiland, p.11). The novel explores women’s suppression through patriarchal society and the significance placed on the survival of a male bloodline. In the novel, Isabella is the one who can affect the line of succession as she will be the one to give birth to future heirs (Heiland, p.12). The current ruler Manfred has the power to control the lives of his daughter Matilda and his soon-to-be daughter-in-law Isabella. However, it is ironic that it is the occurrence of supernatural events that lead to Manfred’s power being threatened and ultimately abolished with the arrival of the peasant, Theodore. Isabella’s rejection of Manfred’s proposal leads to a violent outburst, where Isabella is left running for her life through the castle’s underground passageways: ‘Every murmur struck her with terror; – yet more she dreaded to hear the wrathful voice of Manfred urging his domestics to pursue her’ (Walpole, p.26). In The Castle of Otranto, Isabella is the first Gothic heroine to find herself caught in ‘a labyrinth of darkness’ while pursued by a patriarch who wishes to control her future (Hogle, p.9). This male pursuit of a female heroine is believed to have influenced the works of the formative gothic novelist Anne Radcliffe. Whilst in Walpole’s work, Isabella is a helpless victim to Manfred’s tyranny and Theodore must save her, in Radcliffe’s work she created a gothic heroine who turns her journey in the ‘labyrinth’ into a means of acquiring her own property and power in the ‘male-dominated world full of terrors for every female’ (Hogle, p.10).

Isabella The Castle of OtrantoImage: Isabella and Theodore in the castle’s underground passageways (1797), © The British Museum. Museum Number: 1953,0214.47

The sacrifice of women can be seen in the character of Matilda, who is killed at the end of the novel as a result of Manfred’s patriarchal rage. Matilda, is originally represented as a woman devoted to her father and her religion. Although, once she meets Theodore they both fall in love and her heart is set on becoming his bride:

‘Theodore flung himself at her feet, and seizing her lily hand, which with struggles she suffered him to kiss, he vowed on the earliest opportunity to get himself knighted, and fervently entreated her permission to swear himself eternally her knight.’ (Walpole, p.68)

In this passage, Matilda is drawn into Theodore’s desires and she is somewhat empowered by his desire to be given the title of knight in order to gain her permission for their union. Here, Matilda is given a higher authority to Theodore in her role as princess and his current role as peasant. Furthermore, Matilda is given the opportunity to fall in love and to choose whom she is to marry. Against the reader’s expectations, Theodore falls in love with the innocent and religious heroine, rather than the beauty Isabella. However, it is the love story between Theodore and Matilda which enforces the idea of sacrifice in Matilda’s death: ‘Theodore supporting her head with his arm, and hanging over her in agony of despairing love, still endeavoured to inspire her with hopes of life’ (Walpole, p.100). Manfred, believing the young woman in the chapel to be Isabella, stabs his daughter and leaves her fatally wounded. Manfred attacking Matilda leads him to meeting his own demise, but at the cost of Matilda dying before she can begin a life with Theodore. Matilda’s sacrifice can be seen in her final words: ‘Isabella – Theodore – for my sake – oh!’ (Walpole, p.102), in which Matilda wishes for Theodore to marry Isabella, because it is with her passing that Theodore can take his role as the rightful ruler of Otranto: ‘Conrad is gone! Matilda is no more! In Theodore we view the true prince of Otranto’ (Walpole, p.103).

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Image: Theodore pledging his love to Matilda. The Vyne Estate © National Trust Collections / Kathryn Allen-Kincross, Object: 719492


Nick Groom in his introduction to The Castle of Otranto states ‘women are hunted and pursued, as well as being courted, entangled in intrigue, and in receipt of declarations of chivalric love and devotion’ (Groom, p.35). As previously discussed, Matilda falls in love with Theodore, and his love is reciprocated, however, she is tragically stabbed before they can have their happy ending. The tragic death of a heroine, when she finds love with the enemy of the patriarch, can also be seen in William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794) with the death of Emily Melvile. Though Godwin’s novel is set in the world of the late eighteenth century, Godwin’s heroine too experiences the restrictions of the patriarchal world explored in Walpole’s Medieval Italy. In Volume One of Godwin’s novel, the narrative focuses on the feud between Caleb William’s future employer, Ferdinando Falkland and Barnabas Tyrrel. Tyrrel is Emily’s guardian when she falls in love with Falkland after he saves her life, and so, disgusted by Emily’s feelings for his enemy: ‘Are you not in love with Fawkland? The man is a legion of devils to me!’ (Godwin, p.64), Tyrrel has Emily arrested for owing debts and she dies in prison from sickness. The poor treatment of Emily on behalf of her patriarch Tyrell, and thus the consequences of her death, present women’s ongoing subordination within a male dominated society and the Gothic tradition. Furthermore, Isabella and Matilda, throughout the novel, find themselves in compromising situations which are enforced upon them when they reject patriarchal authority (Groom, p.xxxv). This is a common theme within the Gothic tradition, however, as seen in the third blog, female characters in later Gothic novels and feature film gain a sense of empowerment.


Overall, ‘patriarchy involves upholding the supposed priority of the male’ (Bennett and Royle, p.182), which poses a negative message about the position of women. At the expense of Manfred losing his power, the patriarchal society regains balance as the rightful heir, Theodore, succeeds to the throne. Isabella as a heroine escapes Manfred’s tyrannical regime, but continues to conform to the dictations of a patriarchal society as she eventually marries Theodore and remains his subordinate. Thus, the dominant gender stereotypes within Western culture are present within Walpole’s writing, as it is articulated that men are ‘strong, active, rational’ in the heroic character of Theodore, while women are ‘weak, passive and irrational’, as Matilda is tragically killed and Isabella is expected to wait for Theodore’s affections after the loss of his lover. (Bennett and Royle, p.182).



Bennett. Andrew & Royle. Nicholas, The Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, Fourth Edition, London: Routledge, 2014

Godwin. William, Caleb Williams, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009

Groom. Nick, ‘Introduction’ in Walpole. H, The Castle of Otranto, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014

Hindle. Maurice, ‘Introduction’ in Stoker. Bram, Dracula, London: Penguin Classics, 2003

Hogle. Jerrold. E (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002

Walpole. Horace, The Castle of Otranto, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014


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