"The Divided Self": Characterization, Identities, and the Supernatural
A cursory first reading of Horace Walpole's Otranto might yield an impression that its characters are thoroughly superficial, shallow, and flat, almost to the point of being laughably so. A single character mold seems to have been applied to each character: Manfred is the incestuous tyrant, Hippolita is the helplessly devoted wife, Matilda is the picture of “tenderness and duty” (38), and Theodore is the chivalrous protector of delicate young ladies. As some critics have pointed out, each character is described heavy-handedly, and the author provides no keys into the inner minds of the characters, relying instead of outward displays of excess emotion (Sedgwick 131). Consequently, Otranto becomes “theatrical” (Napier 33) because of its emphasis on dramatic action and visual display. To the reader, each character and his/her displays of emotion combine in Otranto to make what amounts to a thoroughly ludicrous cast.
There is some debate over the substitution of flat characters for even a single dynamic characters. Was this a deliberate choice on the part of the author? Some possibilities that may arise include the suggestion that Walpole was unskilled as an author and consequently, was unable to write “well.” Another suggestion is that Walpole's skill as an author is demonstrated in his intentional choice to write flat characters to achieve a higher purpose. Perhaps this purpose was to make his short novel a work of pure entertainment with mindless, fluffy characters? Or to maintain a quick-moving plot? Or perhaps Walpole decided to “systematically sacrific[e characters] to other, more highly valued aspects of narrative such as moral and plot” (Napier 34) within Otranto?
Among critics, there is an immense focus on authorial intention, and the discussion is unlikely to yield any definitive statement on Walpole's “true” purpose. Admittedly, I am more interested in the effect of flat characters on the reader and on the reading experience. The use of flat characters might lead some readers to label the novel as trivial, and then consequently disregard and dismiss it. Other readers, after recognizing the flat characters, might overlook the characters and focus instead on the plot or moral of Otranto. Yet another category of readers will, like myself, interpret and study these characters more closely.
The argument that I am positing here is that the application of the label “flat” to Walpole's characters is an oversimplification, because the characters are, to a certain extent, realistic. Certainly, I am using this word not in the everyday sense, as it is quite unlikely that I'll encounter a “Manfred” or “Theodore” on the street, or will witness the supernatural appearance of a gigantic plumed helmet. Rather, I use the word “realistic” to say that the characters act and respond in a way that accurately reflects social expectations within the time period.
The character of...