Dreaming the Supernatural
"Idle fancies shall be shaped like a sick man's dream, so that neither foot nor head can be assigned a single shape," reads the opening epigraph of the High Gothic text The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764). (31) The use of this reference to Horace's Ars Poetica is intriguing, as Walpole's supernatural tale would likely strike Enlightenment readers as a work of "idle fancies" (63). One might expect Walpole's audience to deliver an indictment similar to the quoted lines of the epigraph. In the preface to the first edition, Walpole anticipates this response by including a false publication history that conceals his authorship. Presenting Otranto as an artifact by an unknown writer, Walpole contends that it "can only be laid before the public at present as a matter of entertainment." (32) He adds diffidently that "even as such, some apology for it is necessary" in light of its fanciful use of "miracles, visions, necromancy, dreams, and other preternatural events." Yet in spite of Walpole's reticence, his mere "matter of entertainment" would prove immensely popular, the success of which would prompt him to openly accept authorial credit for the novel (60). Accordingly, in the preface to the second edition, he supplants apologies for apologetics, designates his work the first "Gothic story," and reveals that its plot originated in a dream (65-70, 63, 261).
Walpole's claim that the idea for Otranto was drawn from a dream factors into a disparaging letter written by George Williams, one of Walpole's acquaintances, in 1765. The similarity between the remarks of this late eighteenth-century reader and the lines from Ars Poetica is striking. For instance, Williams views Otranto as the product of Walpole's misused leisure time, recalling Horace's condemnation of "idle fancies" (63). Williams's letter posits, "How do you think [Walpole] has employed that leisure ...?" The answer immediately follows:
In writing a novel, entitled The Castle of Otranto, and such a novel. ... It consists of ghosts and enchantments; pictures walk out of their frames, and are good company for half an hour together; helmets drop from the moon; and cover half a family. He says it was a dream, and I fancy one when he had some feverish disposition in him. (260) Just as Horace likens fanciful works to "a sick man's dream" (63), Williams associates the fantastic work of Walpole's leisure time with the content of an absurd dream. Specifically, he seems to consider the supernatural "ghosts and enchantments" particularly dreamlike (260).
Horace and Williams are not alone in conceptualizing unrealistic elements in terms of dreamed experience; even Walpole's characters reference dreams in their responses to supernatural occurrences and unbelievable coincidences. For example, when Manfred's dead grandfather, Ricardo, steps out of his portrait, Manfred cries out, "Do I dream?" (81). Later, when Princess Matilda notices the similarity between Theodore and Alfonso, she exclaims, "Do I dream?" (108). In contrast to such events, the actual dreams of Walpole's characters seem somewhat prosaic. Even though the revelatory dreams of Frederic and Ricardo provide information that is crucial to the plot, the reader only receives secondhand reports of them (132, 164). In a remarkable reversal, the waking reality of Walpole's "Gothic story" is more dreamlike than its dreams (63). (33) Williams associates this fanciful, dreamlike reality with the aberration of sickness. But for Williams, what Horace refers to as a "sick man's dream" is, more specifically, a fever dream (63, 260). As the first chapter of this thesis mentions, during the long nineteenth century the fever dream would evoke an association with the overpowering of the rational mind by the imagination. The content that ensues from such a dream is so absurd that, in Horace's words, "neither foot nor head can be assigned a single shape" (63).
To this assertion, Walpole's text enacts a playful counterargument (63). As Otranto progresses, several gigantic extensions of Alfonso--a helmet, a sword, a foot, and a hand--make dramatic appearances throughout the narrative. Although the giant sword is carried to the castle by one hundred men (133), the helmet, the foot, and the hand miraculously appear throughout the castle land (80, 152, 92-93). Ultimately, the disembodied apparatuses are connected to the "single shape" of the oversized ghost of Alfonso, the last rightful ruler of Otranto (63, 162). Alfonso reveals his true heir with so much dramatic, supernatural intensity that everyone submits to his decree. His word is even accepted by Manfred, who has spent the majority of the text committing egregious acts to protect his unlawful reign over Otranto (162). The changing physical assemblage of Alfonso thereby causes a major change not only in the assemblage of Otranto's monarchy, but also in the assemblage of the narrative itself. The outcome of the novel is not the effect of rational influences, but rather of supernatural intensity or, on the meta-textual level, of Walpole's decision to indulge the imagination in his Gothic story. Since nineteenth-century etiological studies tend to attribute dreams either to preternatural forces or to the imagination, this resolution reaffirms the dreamlike quality of Otranto. In the context of the epigraph's condemnation of dreamlike fancies, the powerful manifestation of Alfonso at the end of the novel suggests that even a fanciful, dreamlike tale can possess the potential to effect dramatic change.
Such dreamlike elements are not the result of literary oversight, as Horace or Williams might assume, but of Walpole's deliberate choice to indulge the imagination. In his preface to the second edition, Walpole explains that in writing Otranto, he had been "desirous of leaving the powers of fancy at liberty to expatiate through the boundless realms of invention" (65). In 1767, he expounds,
I did not write the book for the present age, which seeks only cold reason ... I let my imagination run free; visions and passions spurred me on. I did it in spite of the rules, the critics, and the philosophers. In Otranto, the imagination is not limited by "cold," dialectical reason. Walpole associates this imaginative freedom with image-dominated "visions" and the affective intensity of "passions" (262). He contends that this focus generates "more interesting situations," which reveal the ways in which his characters "think, speak, and act, as it might be supposed mere men and women would do in extraordinary positions" (65). In short, Walpole creates dreamlike spaces as a literary technique to test the affective potential of his characters.
This question of potential centers on...