The first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto marked the beginnings of a genre that is still prevalent today. The following is a summary of this work.
The novel begins with the impending marriage of Conrad, son the lord of the Castle Otranto, to Isabella. On the day of the marriage, Conrad is mysteriously struck down by a helmet that falls from the sky and crushes his skull and killing him. Remembering the curse set over the inhabitants of Castle of Otranto declaring that, should they become too proud, they will be replaced by another family, Conrad’s father Manfred panics. Afraid that his family is about to be ended, he decides to divorce his wife, Hippolita, because she has failed to give him a healthy son. Instead, he will marry Isabella himself and attempt to continue his line.
But Isabella escapes. Aided by a peasant, Theodore, she manages to escape to Friar Jerome who gives her sanctuary before Manfred can force her into marriage. Infuriated at her attempt to thwart him, Manfred sets out to get Isabella back, but finds Theodore instead and sentences him to death for aiding Isabella. As Theodore is being prepared for execution, Jerome realizes that Theodore is his son. Jerome begs Manfred to spare Theodore’s life and Manfred makes the deal that if Jerome gives Isabella up, Theodore can live.
However, before either can happen, a group of knights arrive on the scene and chaos ensues as the knights are enlisted to help save Isabella from Manfred. Theodore is locked in a tower by Manfred before he joins the race to find Isabella first.
Locked in the tower, helpless, Theodore has lost hope, but he is saved by Matilda, Manfred’s daughter. After Matilda releases him, Theodore joins the race to find Isabella as well and manages to reach her first. One of the knights shows up soon after Theodore arrives and a fight ensues whereby Theodore wounds the knight and it is discovered that he is Isabella’s father, Frederic.
As the inhabitants gather back at the castle of Otranto, it looks like both Isabella and Theodore have escaped the perils of forced marriage and death as Frederic opposes the marriage between Isabella and Manfred. However, Frederic falls for Matilda and a discussion is started between him and Manfred about marrying the other’s daughter. Desperate, neither girl wishes for this to happen and Matilda and Theodore plan to meet in the chapel. Suspecting something is up with Theodore, Manfred assumes that there is a romance between Theodore and Isabella. Going to the chapel to expose them, he takes a dagger and in a jealous rage, he stabs Matilda, mistaking her for Isabella.
Soon afterwards, it is revealed that Theodore is the true Prince of Otranto. While Manfred wallows in self-pity, shame, and despair at the slaughtering of his daughter, Theodore marries Isabella because she understands the sadness he feels.