The Frankenstein Identity: Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto

Subjective identity is the concept that an individual can conceive a complete and static identity based on personal observation and experience alone. Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto complicates the possibility or reliability of a subjective identity. Walpole’s use of the third person demonstrates the complexity of identity, because it demonstrates that one person cannot observe and experience simultaneous events. The third person illuminates a disjoint between what characters know and what is happening. As a full range of perceptions interplay, the reader has the ability to witness a number of events, reactions, and misunderstandings. As the characters demonstrate strained reasoning, the idea of a convincing self-identity weakens. On the backbone of an objective narrator, a theme of disembodiment or discontinuity of the self is represented through synecdoche, metaphor, and plot. Combined, the formal structure and the context of the novel wholly challenge the concept of subjective identity.

Structurally, the omniscient third challenges the perception of one person because it allows the reader to know more than any one character and grants a fuller understanding of events as they unfold. The reader’s broader understanding is a direct contrast to the limited understanding of a singular character. This structuring demonstrates the limitations of a singular perspective. Since a subjective identity rests on an individual’s limited observation and experience, a subjective identity can be interpreted as, therefore, limited or unreliable. Support of the ability to maintain a contiguous self-identity might be noted if the novel were about a singular character who was presented in the first person: there would be no conflicting perspective from which to consider the character’s identity. The formal structure of the novel poses a contrast to the reliability of a subjective identity. Similarly, the context promotes that position as well.

Many examples of mistaken identity pepper the novel, from who Frederic is, to whether or not Theodore is Alfonso, and even through to the end of the novel when Manfred thinks he’s stabbing Isabella, but it turns out to be Matilda. Much of the novel’s plot revolves around knowing or not knowing who someone is. As the novel’s entirety revolves around knowing who someone is, it is clear that identity is a central theme to the novel. Topically, mistaken identity is a device that adds mystery and propels plot. However, considering the tone of the novel, a more complex statement on the problem of truly knowing someone can be gleaned. “Who is the youth that we found in the vault?” (52) Manfred asks the Friar. There is not only a pressing desire to know the identity of the youth, but there is a haunting tone to the sentence. Orally, the “wh” and “ou” sounds are very breathy and seem to embody the uneasy sounds of whispering. In addition to the ghastly parts of the tale, there is a formal element of fear in the writing here that highlights not knowing or not being able to make sense of who someone is. This tone works well with the question of identity because it is frightening to stand against the safety of universal truth.

Besides the general theme of mistaken identity in the novel, the impermeable and unchanging notion of subjective identity is challenged on the level of character. The first example is a mob’s mimicked and shared response to Manfred’s outburst: “The mob, who wanted some object within the scope of their capacities on whom they might discharge their bewildered reasonings, caught the words from the mouth of their lord, and re-ehoed (…)” (21). The mob literally takes the words from the mouth of another, internalizes them, and reproduces what was said. This unoriginal community is magnified by its large number of participants. That magnification demonstrates the lack of original thought on a large scale; the act is not limited to the misguided minds of a few madmen. A second example on the collectivity of thought occurs when two servants seem to share a mind: “We do not know said they both together. We are frightened out of our wits” (33) and “Spare him spare him—the peasants again chime in repeating what was said. Your highness would not believe our eyes.” (57). They are experiencing the very same reaction. There is a lack of individuality in each of these examples that lends to the idea that subjective identity is an unconvincing concept. Rather than writing about a varying conclusion arriving from each individual,  Walpole chooses to show the influence one can have on the actions of another and the similarities among people. The mob’s lack of agency shows the fluidity with which lazy consciousness regurgitates thought. Taking in and reproducing the actions of another without any input from their own perspective demonstrates the impressionability of thought and action. These characters demonstrate an identity that is not singular and unique, but highly impressionable.

So far, identity does not exist in an isolated or constant state, but it also lacks rationality. The characters in the last paragraph not only take in the reactions of another, but demonstrate a lack of rational thought:

“[They never reflected on] how enormous the disproportion was between the marble helmet and that had been in the church and that of steel before their eyes; no how impossible it was for a youth, seemingly not twenty, to wield a piece of armour of so prodigious a weight” (21).

The fallibility of unreasoned thought is demonstrated by the misunderstood and yet accepted belief in Manfred’s curse. This speaks to the fallibility of thought in general and gives weight to the new ways of empirical thinking that defined the age of enlightenment. Manfred goes on to understand the folly of his thoughts and chooses to cling to the belief in the supernatural than to the reality of the events (21) while the mob also chooses to go along with his “folly.” The narrator is on the side of empiricism because he is pointing out this flaw in reasoning to the reader. This vulgar belief shows the perpetual nature of such unempirical reasoning. The urge to believe in false reasoning outweighs the evidence. The brain still attempts to reason, but since it is based on folly, the brain continues in the vein of belief based thought.

Relying on others to interpret impressions affecting one’s self does not belong simply to mob mentality, but operates on the level of the individual as well. Throughout the novel, characters are taking the impressions they glean from others and internalizing them in order to affect their actions: “Her fright brought Frederic to himself” (107) and, when Isabella sees Theodore, “Recovering her spirits from his courteous demeanour” (75-76). Frederic is in a state that is not “himself” and it is the fright of another that brings that self back. Likewise, Isabella can only recover her spirits from the demeanor of another. The effects of one person on the other, even in a personal setting, shine through in these moments. Their interior states are altered by outside influence. Since a subjective identity relies on a constant self, objective influence should not have the effect that it does. The novel continues to demonstrate the permeability of identity and the false premises that haunt emotion and thought that weaken the reliability of a subjective identity.

As in the previous paragraph, where Manfred realizes his folly, a conflict between the passions and reason recur: “Jerome’s mind was troubled by a thousand passions” (63). If a characters mind is troubled by their observations and experiences, it can be said that a contiguous, subjective identity is likewise challenged. The novel continues to note problems between passion and reason, more distinctly when it comes to markers of identity such as virtue: “The circumstances of his fortune had given an asperity to his temper, which was naturally humane; and his virtues were always ready to operate, when his passion did not obscure his reason.” (33). Here, the core of self-identity is subjugated by varying emotions. Since it is the narrator (and reader) that can see these changes, but not the character himself. It is clear that subjective identity is marred by irregularity.

A further breakdown of the self is evident in the theme of disembodiment. Characters are constantly reacting to and speaking on parts of the body rather than on the whole of one’s self. This disembodiment operates as a metaphor for a non-contiguous self: “Her conscience is in your hands” (50). In this sentence, Hippolita’s entire conscience is not contained by her body, but dependent on the actions of another. In Jerome’s hands, her conscience can be worked with and molded. It is not her experience and observation that will mold a core part of who she is, but rather the influence of another. The idea of disembodiment is frightening, but rings true in opposition to the idea of subjectivity. This thread continues throughout the novel:  “The folly of these ejaculations brought Manfred to himself” (21), “Hearken to him who speaks through my organs” (48), “Restore the heart” (49), and “I saw a foot and part of his leg” (35) all lend to the idea that a person is not always whole, but often fragmented and disjointed. This mode of description works on the level of fear for a reader, but also acts as a metaphor for the observation and understanding on the part of both objective and subjective viewers.

The difficulty of understanding one’s identity or motives does not rest solely with the subjective, but also poses challenges to the objective viewers as well. Characters continuously attempt to determine the actions of others based on how they represent themselves: “I respect your tears” (51). In the same sense as disembodiment, a person is not judged by the entirety of their being, but rather by fragmented outward appearances.  There is also a lack in communicating one’s interiority to the outside world. If subjective identity were something that could be fully understood and grounded, there would be a way to elaborate one’s self fully: (73) “‘tis my soul would imprint it’s effusions on thy hand” (73). Theodore has not the words to fully elaborate on his interiority and it seems that Matilda may not have been able to understand his meaning upon hearing it. His meaning must be imprinted on her body. That knowledge and understanding can be imprinted on the body with meaning, without having to pass through the mind first, shows that understanding does not lie with the brain alone. This separation of body and mind supports the limitations of subjective identity because it is not consciousness alone that effects one’s identity.

A final point that reasserts the novel’s complication of subjective identity rests in the theme of history influencing the present: “Know the blood that flows in my veins” (57). Theodore’s blood is noble because it has transitioned from Jerome to him. It is an inherent part of his identity that is not founded from within his own consciousness, but that defines him through lineage. Jerome’s status and identity changes drastically from that of a friar to a nobleman: “You are no longer Jerome, but the count of Falconara” (58). Likewise, Frederic gains status once it is revealed that he is Isabella’s father. The entire novel is predicated on the identity of people based on their bloodlines and history. An extension of Manfred’s being is linked to his name: “Manfred’s name must perish” (51). The identity of these people are all closely linked to their lineage and history. Manfred’s belief that he can only live on through an heir strengthens the idea that history is an extension of the self. It is not a subjective identity that matters, but the objective meaning the name carries. Bloodlines confuse the self as a singular static being and extend that being or identity, literally, to the lives of offspring.

Structurally, the third person speaks to a recurring theme of the novel: What static fact can be known about one’s identity, let alone that of others, within the limited scope of intellectual capacity for self reflection? The novel displays an identity linked to ephemeral or fantastical elements in the past and challenges the conventional means of knowing. Through recurring themes of disembodiment, active history, mistaken identity, and constantly changing representations of the self or conflicting passion and reason, the novel challenges the concepts of a sustainable subjective identity.

Work Cited

Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.