Gothic architecture thrived during the high and late medieval period. The upper echelons of the feudal system were so impressed by the looming cathedrals that they had their castles built in the same Gothic style. These castles are striking yet, at the same time, sinister: the grand vaulted ceilings and the flying buttresses dwarf and intimidate the serf or visitor. These were times of patriarchal power and occult beliefs, the castle symbolising many tropes that also pertain to the Gothic literary movement, such as terror, incarceration, the psyche and the supernatural.
The essay explores the role of the castle, in particular its connection to, and relationship with, the idea of hierarchy and the feudal system; vulnerability, death and the aesthetics of terror; and psychological subjugation. The main texts are The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole and Dracula by Bram Stoker. Both of these texts connect their castle with the feudal system and the ideas of fear and entrapment. Subsidiary texts are The Fall of the House of Usher, The Masque of the Red Death and The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe, and The Bloody Chamber, The Lady of the House of Love and The Courtship of Mr. Lyon by Angela Carter. These texts demonstrate that elements in my main texts are fundamental to many other Gothic texts and draw comparisons and differences between them. Although only The Bloody Chamber technically narrates events inside a castle, the rest comprise of buildings in which similar events can be witnessed; these texts can certainly all be labelled Gothic. The castle’s effect on the characters in these texts is always adverse, and whether the characters’ perception is compromised by a supernatural fear instilled in them by the archaic setting or they feel barricaded into the paranoid recesses of their own mind, the castle augments all these feelings with terrifying consequences.
Castles in the Gothic genre are dominant structures. Castle Dracula is undoubtedly magnificent and Harker notes immediately upon his arrival that he is in ‘the courtyard of a vast ruined castle’ whose ‘broken battlements showed a jagged line against the moonlit sky’ . Walpole, in The Castle of Otranto (Otranto), is more subtle in describing the castle’s magnitude, merely telling the reader that the ‘hundred gentlemen bearing an enormous sword’ fit easily into the courtyard. Stoker uses the castle to frame his narrative, having every stone ‘articulated against the light of the setting sun’ which revives the image created by ‘the moonlit sky’ at the beginning of the novel. Both castles are complex structures: during Isabella’s flight in Otranto we discover that the castle is ‘hollowed into several intricate cloisters’ and this is very similar to Castle Dracula which contains ‘a dark, tunnel-like passage’ . It seems, however, that Stoker was more aware of the Gothic architectural tradition, as phrases such as ‘up a great winding stair’ and ‘tall black windows’ illustrate.
A sense of grandeur is typical of the Gothic: in Poe’s short story The Masque of the Red Death (Masque) we see ‘an extensive and magnificent structure’ and the castle in Angela Carter’s short story (Chamber) is ‘a mysterious, amphibious place, contravening the materiality of both earth and the waves’ . This transcendental majesty takes a more reserved form in The Courtship of Mr. Lyons’ (Courtship) with ‘a miniature, perfect, Palladian house that seemed to hide itself shyly behind snow-laden skirts of an antique cypress’. This trope of opulence is also implied in The Fall of the House of Usher (Usher) by Poe when Usher points at ‘the huge antique panels’. It is clear that if the writer wants to impress the reader with a building, then it must be extraordinary, through its magnificence, complexity or beauty. This grandeur fosters a sense of insecurity as great power can illicit discomfort even in those who feel free.
A castle’s primary function is to protect its inhabitants against enemy invasions. Castle Dracula is situated in a wild, mountain stronghold which was ‘built on the corner of a great rock, so that on three sides it was quite impregnable’, rendering it extremely difficult to attack; the castle represents security. Safety is also a concern in Otranto as there is a subterraneous passage to a nearby church, which proves to be a useful escape route. It is significant that Dracula is not defeated by Harker and his accomplices in his castle and that it is the walls, the principal safety components of Castle Otranto, which collapse on Theodore’s arrival. After analysing other Gothic texts, it becomes even clearer that defence and strength are crucial facets to the castle: in Chamber the walls of the torture chamber are ‘the naked rock’ and the house in Courtship is ‘behind wrought iron gates’. However, the tarn closing over ‘the fragments of the ‘HOUSE OF USHER’ is not symbolic of a prophecy being fulfilled, as in Otranto, but of Usher’s final descent into madness and ruin.
The castle is a strong structure, a symbol of power, and hence only the wealthiest families could afford this sort of luxury. Hierarchy and the feudal system have an important role to play when discussing the castle. It is also interesting to note that Stoker described Dracula as ‘the old mediaeval vampire but recrudescent today’, whilst the novel Otranto pretends to concern events that occurred at some point between 1095 and 1243; both novels are steeped in history. Count Dracula’s face is described as ‘aquiline’, implying a noble heritage and this is underlined by his self-identification as a ‘Transylvanian noble’. Castle Dracula is a tangible part of this notion. Walpole goes even further in representing the castle as a remnant of an aristocratic past with the prophetic line ‘That the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it’ which is integral to the narrative. Lineage is essential to Otranto and this is made extremely clear when Theodore, Alfonso’s descendant, who was poisoned by Manfred’s grandfather, enters: ‘The walls of the castle behind Manfred were thrown down with a mighty force, and the form of Alfonso, dilated to an immense magnitude, appeared in the centre of the ruins.’
The collapsed walls are symbolic of Manfred’s treachery, but more importantly the restoration of the true descendant. The ruin is monumental and therefore gives the impression of a long-lost power, not to mention echoes of supernatural fears, whilst Castle Dracula’s survival renders it a permanent menace. Both, however, are signs of the distant past and their ownership is vital to the characters, as is demonstrated by Manfred first being ‘impatient for grandsons’, then later wanting to marry Isabella; the survival of the family, and the castle with them, is of utmost importance. We see the ‘Romanian aristocracy’ and ‘Vlad the Impaler’ mentioned in The Lady of the House of Love (Lady) by Angela Carter, and in Chamber the dining hall is the one ‘at which King Mark was reputed to have fed his knights’ . All of these buildings are immersed in noble history and antiquity.
The fact that these castles were once grand emphasises how decayed they are in the present. In Castle Dracula ‘the carving had been much worn by time and weather’, but Walpole goes so far as to have Castle Otranto collapse, owing to past sins and the prospect of rejuvenation. The Gothic trope of the new versus the old world comes to the surface here. This can be read from a Marxist perspective: Karl Marx believed that cultures shift between time zones and hence there is a crisis in modernity as we are still obsessed with the past. This old order therefore provokes anxieties in the present. In Dracula, Harker innocently represents modernity and the castle is in direct contrast to this; whilst in Otranto the prophecy originates from the past although it is fulfilled in the present. Long ago the castle would have been appreciated; now, above all with Castle Dracula, it is an immense threat.
Other buildings in Gothic fiction conform to this notion: in Usher, ‘The discoloration of ages had been great. Minute fungi over-spread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the eaves’ whilst in Chamber, ‘the old name for this place is the Castle of Murder’ and the protagonist in Lady is surprised ‘to find how ruinous the interior of the house was.’ The Marquis De Sade argued that the Gothic movement was the necessary art of a revolutionary age, but the argument that it came about due to a general perception that all ancient structures were decaying also holds true. The crumbling scenery intimates both ruin and a glorious, potent past, grouping thousands of memories and stories into a single image.
The purpose of a fortress is to prevent entry, but this means it also prevents exit. Jonathan Harker soon discovers that all of the exits from Castle Dracula are locked and that ‘The castle is a veritable prison, and I am a prisoner’. This sentiment of entrapment is enforced by a description of the view from his window: he finds a ‘sense of freedom in the vast expanse’ and this natural sublimity, along with the imposing architecture, highlights his plight. The word ‘jagged’, used to describe battlements and a crest, can be linked to the vampires who live inside the castle. In Otranto, instead of the doors being locked, ‘several intricate cloisters’, exacerbated by gusts of wind, make Isabella’s flight difficult, although she manages to leave the castle more easily than Harker. However, it is significant that she has to take refuge in a church and is unable to go outside; claustrophobia, a feeling symptomatic of imprisonment, prevails here. All of these places put the reader in a scenario of entrapment; this feeling of vulnerability is disturbing owing to the cathartic working through of one’s fears involved.
It is evident that the Gothic genre has a penchant for structures which incarcerate their inhabitants. In Chamber, Carter calls the castle a ‘lovely prison’; however, we should not forget that Carter, unlike the rest of the writers here, is female and hence, owing to the Gothic trope of the woman trapped in the castle, it is possible that she is slightly more preoccupied with this theme. In Usher, the sentence ‘The windows were long, narrow, and pointed, at so vast a distance from the black oaken floor as to be altogether inaccessible from within’ gives an impression of a room from which it is impossible to escape. Lady, however, goes so far as to create a disturbing image of roses growing into a wall ‘which incarcerates her in the castle of her inheritance’. These Gothic structures of entrapment unnerve and terrify the characters and, through our empathy, us. We experience the same surprises and even the same desire for freedom, although with the assurance that we are safe.
Castles are mysterious places in which reality can sometimes be conquered by supernatural forces. However, the nature of these powers is remarkably different when comparing Otranto and Dracula. In Otranto, there are many bizarre occurrences: Conrad is ‘almost buried under an enormous helmet’, a statue’s nose bleeds, and a giant armour-clad foot and arm appear inside the castle. Ghosts also have a part to play in the intrigue: a skeleton ‘wrapt in a hermit’s cowl’ tells Frederic to forget Matilda. The fear of something hiding in a castle is a classic Gothic trope.
The reader’s trust, and by extension the veracity of the events, are challenged far more rigorously in Dracula; instead of an omniscient narrator like the one in Otranto, Stoker uses an epistolary form with Harker’s journal which is far more fallible. It is not so much the occurrences in Castle Dracula that are supernatural, but rather the inhabitants themselves. Harker realises early on that he is ‘the only living soul within the place’ and soon after is seduced by three vampiresses who seem unconfined by the castle’s physical limits: ‘they simply seemed to fade into the rays of the moonlight’. Similarly, Count Dracula lives off human blood, can only survive in darkness, has no reflection in mirrors and is afraid of garlic and crucifixes. The vampire is a mythical phenomenon and hence in Dracula the reader is being asked not just to accept supernatural happenings, as in Otranto, but actually to believe in and fear them. Furthermore, it is notable that although in both novels the uncanny incidents do not take place solely in the castle, they originate in these buildings.
The majority of Gothic novels with supernatural elements conform with Otranto in content, but not form. Poe, in Usher, includes natural phenomena: ‘Suddenly there shot along the path a wild light, and I turned to see whence a gleam so unusual could have issued’ which leads to the house’s collapse. This short story is in the first person, and hence the reader must also question the fallibility of the narrator who could have been affected by Usher’s insanity. Tzvetan Todorov wrote about the supernatural unexplained, remarking that a person who witnesses an event must pick one of two solutions: either he is a victim of his imagination or the event actually took place. This hesitation is the primary requirement for the fantastic to embed itself in our minds.
However, what we should really question is the impact that the prison-like state of castles and the supernatural elements therein have on the characters and on the reader. Above all, the castle provokes terror and there is a tension here as the castle is a physical object so in theory would be more associated with horror. Moreover, this terror leads to very similar consequences in Dracula and Otranto: Harker states that the castle ‘chilled my heart and made my nerves tremble’ and madly resolves ‘to scale the castle wall farther than I have yet attempted’ in order to escape; Isabella, after the death of her fiance Conrad, flees from his father, Manfred, through an underground passage. However, Harker also compares himself to a ‘rat… in a trap’ , and in Otranto Bianca, after seeing a giant hand, declares “I will not sleep in the castle to-night”. Hence it is evident that it is not only the inhabitants of the castle who precipitate such fright but the castle’s resemblance to a prison and its supernatural facets as well.
Why do the sense of entrapment and the existence of the supernatural in castles actually provoke terrore The most obvious reason would be the fear of death: incarceration curtails our personal space and freedom, and inevitably links back to this primal preoccupation with our mortality. What the characters feel is essentially claustrophobia which, if experienced continually, is extremely unsettling; this is cathartic for the reader who feels trapped without actual physical imprisonment. Masque is an allegory of the inevitability of death as the characters are pursued by a stranger who kills them all. In almost all of my texts there are deaths, and in my main texts there are multiple ones. Clearly, the sensation of being trapped inside such an enormous structure reinforces this defencelessness as the characters seem to be in constant awe of their surroundings.
Poe was fascinated by the idea of being buried alive, something we see with the cataleptic Madeleine in Usher, and the panic felt inside the castle can be seen as an extension of this. This paranoia of being trapped with no escape is applicable to both Dracula and Otranto; without a lucky descent from a window and an underground passage respectively this would have been a reality
There is also the tension of events happening against the will of the characters, such as the giant’s presence in Otranto, and it is significant that Dracula welcomes Harker with “Enter freely and of your own will!” Although he arrives by choice, the protagonist is soon unnerved by his surroundings. This idea can be extended to sexuality: according to Freud , the sex drive, Eros, is uncontrollably bound to the death instinct, Thanatos, and thus these two concepts of life-producing and life-terminating are connected. The vampiresses toy with Harker’s mind: he wants to stay faithful to Mina, but at the same time finds the creatures ‘voluptuous’; the scene ends with the line ‘Then the horror overcame me’. This challenges the stereotypical events that happen in a castle: usually the malicious male (Manfred) puts the female protagonist (Isabella) under threat, causing her to flee and be pursued. It is in castles where these dark events can flourish as they are set apart from the outside world. Dracula, however, distorts this concept by having the vampiresses try to overpower the male protagonist; the gender roles are reversed, illustrating another way in which Stoker perturbs both Harker and the reader.
The castle also has an alarming propensity to affect one’s sleep. The Count warns Harker “that should you leave these rooms you will not by any chance go to sleep in any other part of the castle. It is old, and has many memories, and there are bad dreams for those who sleep unwisely.”
Danger hiding in the castle is a quintessential Gothic trope and Harker disobeys the Count; he writes ‘The sense of sleep was upon me’ which leads to his encounter with the vampiresses. It is clear that the castle challenges the liminal state of dreams and reality. Harker, on seeing them, remarks, ‘I thought at the time I must be dreaming when I saw them’ and throughout his time at Castle Dracula he is never sure if what he is experiencing is real. In Otranto, however, the general aura of realism is retained, although it is intermittently tested by various events:
“‘What, is not that Alfonso?’ cried Manfred: ‘dost thou not see him? Can it be my brain’s delirium?’ – ‘This! my lord,’ said Hippolita: ‘this is Theodore, the youth who has been so unfortunate’ – …‘Theodore, or a phantom, he has unhinged the soul of Manfred.’”
Here, Manfred cannot believe his eyes and it appears that the supernatural and dramatic events, facilitated by the castle, have begun to overwhelm him. Bianca, after seeing a hand, exclaims, ‘I will not sleep in the castle to-night’ and hence it seems that in Otranto one’s sleep is troubled, but in Dracula one does not know whether or not one is conscious. Harker writes, ‘I began to rub my eyes and pinch myself to see if I were awake’ then realises that everything ‘seemed like a horrible nightmare.’ The imposing building terrorises him as it enables reality to become extremely vague. It is also notable that Madeleine in Usher is cataleptic and hence the connection between sleep and death is made when she is buried and returns.
Darkness, an aspect so inherent to the Gothic, also aids the castle in its slow subjugation of the characters. It represents the uncertain, the unknown and the intimidating. The ‘long labyrinth of darkness’ in Otranto is linked with the terrible workings of Manfred’s mind. This draws a parallel with The Tell-Tale Heart by Poe in which the narrator describes his victim’s room ‘as black as pitch with the thick darkness’ , which may also be read as a reference to the dark recesses of his own crazed mind. We must also remember that Count Dracula can only thrive out of the light. Hippolita assures Manfred that ‘the vision of the gigantic leg and foot was all a fable; and no doubt an impression made by fear, and the dark and dismal hour of the night, on the minds of his servants.’ Darkness here is represented as something which can evince these horrible visions.
This psychological disorientation is reinforced by the size of the castle. Both Castle Dracula and Castle Otranto are enormous, making them appear to have limitless boundaries: this threatens the characters with problems involving size and order, and, according to Freud in his book An Outline of Psychoanalysis , causes previously repressed childhood fears to rise to the surface. Harker and Manfred’s deep paranoia, regardless of their foresight, attest to this. There is a tension here as once inside the castle it can be very claustrophobic. The phallic aspect to Gothic towers has been a component of horror symbolism for a long time; the tower’s height aids the conquest of the characters’ minds.
The loneliness experienced adds another dimension. It is augmented by the complete change of scene for Harker for he is, like the protagonist in Chamber, in an exotic, Transylvanian land. He soon notices that ‘there were no servants in the house’ and finds this solitude unnerving: ‘I start at my own shadow, and am full of all sorts of horrible imaginings’. The count leaves him alone to brood and this isolation, as with Usher who lived alone for a long time owing to Madeleine’s condition, begins to make him paranoid. Isabella likewise is overcome by fear, exacerbated by the terrifying labyrinth: ‘all these thoughts crowded on her distracted mind, and she was ready to sink under her apprehensions’. Nerves and loneliness play a significant part in the development of the majority of the characters in these Gothic novels.
From a psychological viewpoint, the castle is symbolic of the natural human fear of being incarcerated within our own minds. As human beings, we create social networks and situations from which we sometimes cannot escape. We are tempted by, and often yield to, base desires; Harker cannot resist falling asleep outside his room and realises his mistake the next day as the vampiresses want to suck his blood. In Chamber, the same scenario occurs as the French Marquis says to the protagonist, ‘All is yours, everywhere is open to you – except the lock that this single key fits. Yet all it is the key to a little room at the foot of the west tower’.
Although if the young girl had not disobeyed her husband’s orders she would have died, we must remember that delving too deeply into our psyche can have unsavoury repercussions. Natural human curiosity makes it inevitable that they succumb to these temptations. Both Harker and Manfred spend too much time brooding alone; we must relieve ourselves of our mind’s repressed thoughts through communication instead of solitude.
However, it is possible to view Dracula as far more of a psychological novel than Otranto. Andr’s Romero Jedar argues that this fin-de-siecle novel ‘can be interpreted as a conscious inquiry into the functioning of the mind and into the aetiology of paranoid behaviour.’ He points out that Stoker was aware of French psychiatrist Jean-Martin Charcot’s work which focused on hysteria and notes that Harker’s mental deterioration is easy to observe: he starts as an almost omniscient narrator and the first line of the novel is ‘Left Munich at 8.35 p.m. on 1st May’ , but after a few days in the castle he is writing exclamatory sentences such as ‘God help me!’ One can draw a parallel with Usher as there is an argument that Usher’s paranoid condition affects the narrator deeply. This would render the end scene imaginary, conceived by a ‘folie deux’ or ‘Lasgue-Falret Syndrome’ which is essentially a shared madness. Whether or not the ending is genuine is debatable, but its vividness and supernatural tone are synonymous with an extreme hallucination. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the castle (or house) is crucial in eliciting paranoia in its inhabitants.
The primary method of psychological subjugation is the way in which our sense of order is threatened. Gothic castles can be said to alter our perception: they appear natural but are man-made; they represent thousands of years of history but exist in the present with us; inside them all logical laws seem to disappear; and they confuse our ideas of rescue and sanctuary. Desubjectification is rife as every character is gripped by a power that is impervious to their efforts to keep a sense of order: Harker is completely overwhelmed and the supernatural events in Otranto bewilder and terrify the castle’s inhabitants. The reader is supposed to enjoy these psychologically fraught scenes as we are able to experience this lack of agency whilst still staying detached from the event itself. This catharsis is one of the reasons why the Gothic movement has so enthralled readers over the years.
On 24th May 1897, Stoker wrote a letter to William Gladstone in which he said, ‘The book is necessarily full of horrors and terrors but I trust that these are calculated to cleanse the mind by pity and terror’. Hence the reasons for including the castle in Gothic literature are the same as those of the literary movement’s raisons d’etre. Stoker believed that the genre was cathartic in providing petrifying scenarios for the reader which had an overriding moral purpose, to purify the psyche by subjecting it to a heightened emotional state. Thus the scenes in Dracula with the vampiresses and Isabella’s hurried flight from Manfred in Otranto are vital in eliciting the desired response from the reader. This would simply not be possible without the castle. It is a decaying stronghold representing a bygone era, a bastion of security and incarceration, and a place where violence and terror run riot. In Otranto, the castle has even been seen as the central protagonist as it encompasses the novel’s events and its physical dominance highlights the weaknesses of the human characters. The castle, with its contrasting features of protection and entrapment, past and present, life and death, reveals the ambiguity and darkness which underlie the Gothic, a genre of incredible complexity.
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Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto, Oxford University Press: London (1964).
Edgar Allen Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writing, Penguin: London (1967).
Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber, Vintage: London (1995).
David Punter and Glennis Byron, The Gothic , Blackwell Publishing: Oxford (2004).
Sigmund Freud, An Outline of Psychoanalysis, Penguin Classics: London (2003).
David Stevens, The Gothic Tradition, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge (2008).
Andres Romero Jedar, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. A Study on the Human Mind and Paranoid Behaviour, Journal of the Spanish Association of Anglo-American Studies: (December 2009).
Bram Stoker, letter to William Gladstone, Journal of Dracula Studies 1: (1999).
Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, Cornell University Press: Cornell (1975).
Marquis de Sade, An Essay on Novels. The Crimes of Love, Oxford University Press: New York (2005).
Charles Lasegue and Jean-Pierre Falret, Analectes – La folie deux, Theraplix: Paris (1979)
John Riely, The Castle of Otranto Revisited, The Yale University Library Gazette, Vol. 53, No. 1: Yale (1978).
Harriet Hustis, Performative Textuality in Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, Studies in the Novel, University of North Texas, Vol. 33, No. 1: Texas (2001).