Chapter Three: The Beneficent Supernatural in Early Gothic Dreams

Library Philosophy and Practice, July 2013 | Go to article overview

Chapter Three: The Beneficent Supernatural in Early Gothic Dreams


Dreaming the Supernatural

"Idle fancies shall be shaped like a sick man's dream, so that neither foot nor head can be assigned a single shape," reads the opening epigraph of the High Gothic text The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764). (31) The use of this reference to Horace's Ars Poetica is intriguing, as Walpole's supernatural tale would likely strike Enlightenment readers as a work of "idle fancies" (63). One might expect Walpole's audience to deliver an indictment similar to the quoted lines of the epigraph. In the preface to the first edition, Walpole anticipates this response by including a false publication history that conceals his authorship. Presenting Otranto as an artifact by an unknown writer, Walpole contends that it "can only be laid before the public at present as a matter of entertainment." (32) He adds diffidently that "even as such, some apology for it is necessary" in light of its fanciful use of "miracles, visions, necromancy, dreams, and other preternatural events." Yet in spite of Walpole's reticence, his mere "matter of entertainment" would prove immensely popular, the success of which would prompt him to openly accept authorial credit for the novel (60). Accordingly, in the preface to the second edition, he supplants apologies for apologetics, designates his work the first "Gothic story," and reveals that its plot originated in a dream (65-70, 63, 261).

Walpole's claim that the idea for Otranto was drawn from a dream factors into a disparaging letter written by George Williams, one of Walpole's acquaintances, in 1765. The similarity between the remarks of this late eighteenth-century reader and the lines from Ars Poetica is striking. For instance, Williams views Otranto as the product of Walpole's misused leisure time, recalling Horace's condemnation of "idle fancies" (63). Williams's letter posits, "How do you think [Walpole] has employed that leisure ...?" The answer immediately follows:

  In writing a novel, entitled The Castle of Otranto, and
  such a novel. ... It consists of ghosts and enchantments;
  pictures walk out of their frames, and are good company
  for half an hour together; helmets drop from the moon;
  and cover half a family. He says it was a dream, and I
  fancy one when he had some feverish disposition in
  him. (260)

Just as Horace likens fanciful works to "a sick man's dream" (63), Williams associates the fantastic work of Walpole's leisure time with the content of an absurd dream. Specifically, he seems to consider the supernatural "ghosts and enchantments" particularly dreamlike (260).

Horace and Williams are not alone in conceptualizing unrealistic elements in terms of dreamed experience; even Walpole's characters reference dreams in their responses to supernatural occurrences and unbelievable coincidences. For example, when Manfred's dead grandfather, Ricardo, steps out of his portrait, Manfred cries out, "Do I dream?" (81). Later, when Princess Matilda notices the similarity between Theodore and Alfonso, she exclaims, "Do I dream?" (108). In contrast to such events, the actual dreams of Walpole's characters seem somewhat prosaic. Even though the revelatory dreams of Frederic and Ricardo provide information that is crucial to the plot, the reader only receives secondhand reports of them (132, 164). In a remarkable reversal, the waking reality of Walpole's "Gothic story" is more dreamlike than its dreams (63). (33) Williams associates this fanciful, dreamlike reality with the aberration of sickness. But for Williams, what Horace refers to as a "sick man's dream" is, more specifically, a fever dream (63, 260). As the first chapter of this thesis mentions, during the long nineteenth century the fever dream would evoke an association with the overpowering of the rational mind by the imagination. The content that ensues from such a dream is so absurd that, in Horace's words, "neither foot nor head can be assigned a single shape" (63). …

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