Monday, February 15, 2010

At a Loss for Words

The failure of speech seems to be an important mechanism in the driving of the plot of The Castle of Otranto. At moments when the characters find themselves unable or unwilling to speak, Walpole is able to move the plot forward. The story itself rests entirely on the increasing compounding of lies and deception that characters (particularly Manfred) put forth. As a failure of speech, lies point to an instance in which the arbitrary act of speaking and naming (which is integrally related to the idea of truth) breaks down, allowing a space that is filled by Walpole's plot structure. When the truth is spoken, it is given a certain sense of weight, almost occupying physical space: "I am no imposter, my lord; nor have I deserved opprobrious language. I answered to ecery question your highness put to me last night with the same veracity that I shall speak now: and that will not be from fear of your tortures, but because my soul abhors a falsehood" (53). The explicit failure of speech for a character has similar implications, as when the servants find themselves unable to describe what they have seen: "We thought we had, my lord, said the fellow looking terrified -- but -- Bust what? cried the Prince; has she escaped? -- Jaquez and I, my lord -- Yes, I and Diego, interrupted the second, who came up in still greater consternation -- Speak one of you at a time, said Manfred" (33). The servants struggle for words in the face of the supernatural, which seems to have taken from them their ability to speak. That which is outside of the natural world, then, has undermined what is fundamental to humanity. The struggle to find words and speak truth throughout the story points to the importance of those moments in which one cannot rely on speech, which seems to have implications for Walpole's uderstanding of his own authorship. If the tools of his craft become untrustworthy, what does that mean for the state of his novel for readers?


  1. Sarah, I follow your train of thought regarding the loss of speech, but I think your transitions are a little disjointed. You seem to be arguing that a loss of speech arises from both lying and the supernatural, but are the two connected? Or does the type of silence differ? Could it be that lying causes a hesitation and the inability to explain oneself while the supernatural causes an awe-inspired loss of words? Your statement "that which is outside of the natural world, then, has undermined what is fundamental to humanity" is particularly interesting to me. I think lying and deceit is a fundamental aspect of humanity as well as the desire to describe/label everything we come into contact with. With regards to your concluding statement, I'm not sure if this is exactly the question you are asking, but does Walpole rely strictly on speech? Walpole utilizes written language to evoke emotion in the reader, allowing the reader to find their own truth rather than trying to tell them with speech.

  2. I think this is a very interesting point because it shows how language or the lack there of is emphasized throughout the gothic pieces. In the Alfonzo poem, language serves a self-fulling prophesy: what she says becomes her reality. While in The Castle of Otranto, the lack of words plays on Manfred's insecurities. Although these two examples contradict each other in the way language is used, however, they demonstrate how language is manipulated in these gothic poems to manipulate the natural and the supernatural realm.