The gothic romance, which enjoyed a revival during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, has as significant an influence on the development of the short story as the moral exemplum and the essay. Many critics have pointed out the basically religious, spiritual, romantic nature of gothic fiction. David Punter argues that the gothic writers insist that the world is much more mysterious and terrifying, much less explicable in terms of cause and effect, than realism suggests.
S. L. Varnado has shown how Rudolf Otto's concept of the numinous is integrally related to the basic spirit of gothic fiction. Using short fictions such as Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows," Henry James' "The Jolly Corner," and Poe's "The Imp of the Perverse" as his examples, Varnado explains how such characteristics as "harmony of contrasts," "the wholly other," and "emptiness," which Otto describes as central characteristics of the "unnamed Something" he calls the numinous, are also characteristic of the gothic spirit. Such descriptions of the numinous and the gothic are of course echoed in Frank O'Connor's famous remark about our approaching the short story in the mood of Pascal's saying: "Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m'effraie."
Thus, it is no accident that the first fictional work in English literature to have a marked effect on the 19th-century short story form is Horace Walpole's prototypical gothic romance, "The Castle of Otranto" (1765), for in it, Walpole, heir to the development of "realistic" fiction that originated in Boccaccio's rebellion against the old medieval romance, self-consciously combined conventions of both realism and romance. In his famous "Preface" to the second edition, Walpole tells us his work is an attempt to blend two kinds of romance--the ancient and the modern. "In the former, all was imagination and improbability: in the latter, nature is intended to be, and sometimes has been, copied with success."
Noting that fancy had been damned up by an adherence to common life in modern fiction, whereas in the ancient romance nature or reality was excluded, Walpole characterized his reconciliation task as one in which while "leaving the powers of fancy at liberty to expatiate through the boundless realms of invention, and thence of creating more interesting situations," he would construct "the mortal agents in his drama according to the rules of probability: in short, to make them think, speak, and act, as it might be supposed mere men and women do in extraordinary positions."
However, precisely because Walpole's ordinary people are placed in extraordinary situations, his characters do not remain "ordinary," that is, "as-if-real"; instead, they become transformed into illustrative figures. For even though the characters in his fiction seem to be motivated by individual psychologies, the placing of them in extreme situations transforms them into psychological embodiments. As a result, Elizabeth MacAndrew points out in her study of gothic traditions in fiction, Walpole's characters occupy a "hazy no-man's land between the abstraction of allegory and the 'reality' of social and comic novels."
The result of this ambiguous mixture of motivation, in which characters seem both driven by some pre-established force of the projective story itself and by their own obsessive desires, is that, as Robert Harbison points out, readers of gothic fiction are kept outside the center of the story so that character motives are "a closed book," making their movements seem unnatural" (164). Indeed the mystery of motivation--what makes Goodman Brown go into the forest or Bartleby prefer not to, for example, is a central problem of the 19th-century short story.
The basic story of "The Castle of Otranto" is the family romance--the mystery of paternity and the problem of who shall rule. Manfred, the "father," wishes to continue his reign over the house, but he must inevitably be displaced by the "son." Theodore, the true heir, replaces the false son, Conrad, when he dies on his wedding day. Theodore then makes the discovery that every son makes, that he is the true heir; but to inherit, he must marry the father's daughter. However, the father also wishes to marry the daughter to assure the continuance of his rule of the house. All this is "displaced" in the story in the Freudian dream sense and emphasized by overdetermination of roles. There are, for example, three "fathers" in the tale: Manfred, Frederick, and Jerome; two "sons": Conrad and Theodore; two "daughters": Isabelle and Matilda; and one "mother": Hippolita. In structure, "The Castle of Otranto" is a story in which all characters and thus all motifs are closely and obsessively related.
In a story that sounds like a fantasy taking place in a castle described as a child's playhouse, the plot moves toward the fulfillment of the central prophecy of the family romance: that the castle and the lordship shall pass from the present family when the real owner of the castle shall be grown too large to inhabit it. The manifest plot develops as a dream-like fantasy of the true owner, Alfonso, growing physically so large that the castle is finally rent into pieces. This, however, is a displaced version of the story of the son wresting control of the house from the father when he grows old enough or so "big" that there is no room for two men there. Theodore, the true heir, the grandson of Alfonso, growing old enough to displace the father figure, Manfred, constitutes the latent plot.
The story begins with Manfred's attempt to replace the sickly, son Conrad, who is destroyed by the fall of the enormous helmet, a symbol for the child's perception of the father's phallus. With this death, Manfred desires to marry the intended bride of the son, who, because she is his intended daughter-in-law, is a displaced version of the daughter herself. In fact, after Conrad's death, Manfred says to Isabella that he does not want a daughter, suggesting the unspoken taboo desire that the daughter also be wife; he demeans the sickly son as unworthy of her, telling Isabella that being in the prime of age he will know how to value her beauties. When Isabella flees Manfred's incestuous and "impious intentions," she encounters Theodore, who, after having been temporarily trapped by the giant helmet, has escaped to an underground vault from whence he is "born" to begin his efforts to take his rightful place as ruler of the castle.
These displacements are suggested by the several identity confusions that take place throughout the story. At first, Isabella mistakes Theodore for the ghost of the dead son, Conrad. When Theodore first meets Matilda, he confuses her with Isabella. Both sons and both daughters are overdetermined embodiments of "son" and "daughter" respectively. Matilda, the daughter of Manfred, has "fallen in love" with a portrait image of the true father, Alfonso, the grandfather of Theodore. Alfonso is the romance version of the true knight, embodied in Theodore, who will rescue Matilda/Isabella from the tyrannical father. However, Manfred plots to symbolically castrate the son Theodore by having his head cut off. Meanwhile, Theodore, dressing in the armor of his grandfather, prepares to fulfill another prophecy made to Isabella's father Frederic, that only by the blood of Alfonso will she be saved; and it is indeed Alfonso's blood in Theodore that must accomplish this salvation.
However, Manfred proposes a double marriage: Frederic shall marry Manfred's daughter and Manfred shall marry Frederic's daughter. This overdetermination of symbols is the displaced version of the father's desire for the daughter as wife to assure the maintenance of his right to the castle. That this doubling and overdetermination is central to the understanding of the latent story is also indicated by the climactic event when Manfred, mistaking Matilda for Isabella, stabs her. With her death, the giant figure of Alfonso throws the castle into ruins and Theodore, the true heir, is enthroned. Manfred is exiled and Theodore marries Isabella, the displaced version of the sister, Matilda.
With its stereotypical figures of the tyrannical father, the saint-like mother, the virgin daughter, and the prince disguised as a peasant; the story has many of the same kinds of figures we are familiar with in fairy tale, and thus it seems to have its source in dreams. The work is similar to the old romance in that the characters are more like psychological archetypes than real people, but it is like the realistic novel at the same time in that the characters are driven by their own conscious desires. The story must therefore be read as a manifest plot in which characters act out their desires, but also as a latent plot in which desire itself becomes objectified and embodied. Consequently, statements in the surface plot are often double entendre for the latent plot, and seemingly gratuitous errors and absurd accidents in the surface action are determined and meaningful in the latent action. Ultimately, whereas much makes no sense on the surface plot, everything makes sense on the latent level, i.e. is unified by the obsessive coherence of the taboo psychological story underlying the absurd supernatural surface.
This transformation of "real" people into parable figures by the latent thrust of the traditional romance story is characteristic of 19th-century short fiction. It is effected by means of the displacement process, understood both psychologically and aesthetically. For Freud, the term suggests that taboo desires are displaced to permissible objects and that we can only uncover the taboo desire by correctly interpreting the overdetermination of symbols and corresponding motifs. For Northrop Frye, displacement signifies the writer's efforts to create a sense of verisimilitude for the actions of characters in an essentially code-bound story. We can see how both forms of displacement are at work here, as the latent story of the family romance is displaced to psychologically-real figures, but is revealed through the overdetermination of corresponding repeated motifs rather than by means of the purely two-dimensional figures of the old romance form.
The combination of opposing generic conventions results in the "tonal and modal discordances" that Elizabeth Napier calls one of the story's most striking characteristic features and also accounts for most of the work's comedy. As in the sketches of Sir Walter Scott and Washington Irving, the reader does not know whether to respond to the characters as real or as representative, for in fact, in such a transitional period of the genre's development, they are indeed both.
As will be discussed later, Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville struggle with the same ambiguous mixture. The difference is that whereas Walpole creates a puzzle with scattered pieces based on the latent taboo psychological plot, Poe creates a puzzle based on laying bare the naturalistic explanation for the seemingly supernatural events. Poe makes the unconscious obsessive unity that holds Walpole's story together into a conscious basis for his aesthetic theory of the unity of the short story.