Introducing Students to Queer Novel Studies: The Castle of Otranto as Case Study

This semester I am teaching a course on “Gender and Literature.” The goals of the course are to introduce students to feminist, queer, and gender studies approaches to literary analysis while focusing on a specific time period, motif, or movement in literature. In our case, that literary motif is the Gothic, and we began the semester with Horace Walpole’s seminal Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764). We used the Oxford World’s Classics edition that includes an introduction by editor Nick Groom, who touches on some of the queer readings that have been done of the novel only to adamantly refute them.

In the introduction, Groom characterizes the queer readings of the novel as absurd, and he emphasizes that the accusations of Walpole’s own homosexuality (which are discussed by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and George Haggerty among other scholars) are “unfounded.” Groom emphasizes that “homosexual desire is entirely absent from the novel,” and he proposes instead that Manfred’s perverse, quasi-incestuous desires represent anxiety about an older man’s desire for a younger woman.

Since students were required to read Groom’s introduction for the course, and since Groom’s reading directly contradicts many of the now-accepted queer readings of Otranto, I made it a point to bring up his disdain for Haggerty’s argument during class discussion. As a follow-up, I assigned Haggerty’s original essay, along with two other articles that dealt with the themes of incest and homosexuality in Otranto, as readings for class discussion. The students were assigned one of the three essays to read and respond to in writing (see below).

Despite the different approaches the articles take to the representations of the sexually taboo in The Castle of Otranto, all three focus on the representations of non-normative sexual desires in the text and situate the novella within prominent discourses on the history of sexuality, gender studies, and queer theory—discourses which the class is specifically attuned to. These scholars build on the works of prominent theorists such as Sedgwick and Michel Foucault and propose methods for reading and analyzing texts like Otranto that have queer elements but do not present queer desires overtly.      

The essays proved difficult reading for students, but together we managed to reconstruct the main argument of each author. Initially students were resistant to the arguments of the text, in part due to the difficulty of the language. However, upon closer examination, students pointed out specific pieces of evidence that they found unconvincing and why. As a class, we discussed how authors make nuanced and, at times, problematic arguments about literary texts, how they use textual evidence, and how they engage with historical sources relating to the primary text.

Together we examined one of the central symbols touched on by all three scholars: the giant stature of the apparition of Alfonso the Good, which terrifies and horrifies the characters of the novella. All three scholars in one way or another suggest that the size of the statue and the horror it instills in other characters symbolizes the horror at the sight of a giant erection.

The students found such an interpretation both fascinating and horrifying (pun intended) in addition to quite unexpected. Their skeptical approach to this interpretation became, however, an interesting point of discussion in and of itself. It led us to discuss the various interpretive possibilities for the novel from a queer perspective—regardless of the sexual orientation of the writer or the characters.

Further, by looking at three different texts, each of which takes the queerness of the text as a “given,” as a class we were able to see how such an approach functions in literary discourse, and how it can reveal to us alternative readings of a text. In this way, students were also introduced to the ways in which literary thought has developed in the last thirty years, and how scholars challenge, interrupt, and build on one another’s theories and readings of a single text.

 

Ula Klein, Texas A&M International University

 

 

Campbell, Jill. “‘I am no giant’: Horace Walpole, Heterosexual Incest, and Love Among Men.” The Eighteenth Century 39.3 (1998): 238-60.

Haggerty, George E. “Literature and Homosexuality in the Late Eighteenth Century: Walpole, Beckford, and Lewis.” Studies in the Novel 18.4 (1986): 341-52.

Perry, Ruth. “Incest as the Meaning of the Gothic Novel.” The Eighteenth Century 39.3 (1998): 261-78.

Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto. Ed. Nick Groom. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.

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