Satire Feminism and Coming-of-Age in Northanger Abbey
A half-abandoned, eerie abbey, two lovers who can’t be together, a mysterious death, and nearly 200 pages of suspense: Austen’s Northanger Abbey is a melodramatic, brilliantly crafted satire of the gothic romance novel. Through its subversive, female-first lens, the novel at once flips genre conventions on their head while also functioning as a love-letter to romance at the same time. Austen’s caricature of Catherine’s naivety, looks, and girlish thoughts all play into the pastiche of 18th century gothic literature.
Austen weaves satire and subversive femininity throughout the novel to walk readers side-by-side Catherine as she goes from a bookish teen to a well-read married woman. Austen’s young heroine, Catherine Morland, is the quintessential anti-heroine — she’s nothing to look at, enjoys boyish activities, and is rather bookish. At the plot’s outset, Catherine is handed off to the wealthy, childless Mr. and Mrs. Allen to relax and socialize in Bath over the winter. It is there, under the watchful eye of the Allens, that she meets a handsome young bachelor, Henry Tilney, and is asked to stay with his family at Northanger Abbey. This classic romance holds no surface-level surprises.
Like all traditional love stories, it ends with Catherine and Henry getting married, despite Henry’s father’s objections. Yet Jane Austen uses these traditional elements to poke fun at the genre and its tropes — namely, courtly love, spooky abbeys, and suspense. Austen’s playful satire is evident from the moment she begins describing Catherine Morland. In stark contrast to the classic beauties of the romance genre, Catherine is characterized by her thin, awkward figure, a sallow skin without colour, dark lank hair and strong features (Austen 5). By making Catherine more human and easier to sympathise with, Austen seems to say that even ugly ducklings can wind up with a Prince Charming — an encouraging, affirming feminist manifesto for the time. Austen continues the subversion by detailing Catherine as a normal person — one who struggles to learn fables, music and writing; instead, she just wants to roll down slopes outside (Austen 5). Readers are drawn in to Catherine’s simplicity and occasional vapid tendencies, and thus are more inclined to root for her throughout the novel. The development of Catherine’s character allows opportunities for dramatic irony within the text, specifically, when she speaks to a potential suitor, John Thorpe, about marriage. While Thorpe hints incessantly about wanting her hand, Catherine remains too dense to realize his intentions. She treats him kindly and says she would be happy to see him again, when really, she cannot stand him (Austen 87). The dramatic irony leaps out at the reader here, as they understand Thorpe’s intentions, and flinch in embarrassment for poor, foolish Catherine. Although the term feminist was not around in the 1700’s, Austen herself is a considerable example of what an 18th century feminist looks like.
Many women were educated and literate, but not many went around writing novels instead of keeping house. Austen extends her own trailblazing emphasis on book smarts by presenting Catherine and Isabella as friends and avid readers; And although Isabella is described as beautiful and desirable, she is also fond of reading. Austen actually makes a theme of intelligent, literate women throughout the novel, as Eleanor Tilney is an avid reader as well. The message here is clear: a strong woman is a smart woman. What’s more, Eleanor’s brother, Henry, encourages women to keenly think about social and political issues. He asks Catherine to consider that, If reading had not been taught, Mrs. Radcliffe would have written in vain – or perhaps might not have written at all (Austen 77). Indeed, Henry’s encouragement can be seen as Austen encouraging women to push themselves to understand subjects once deemed manly, such as, history, mathematics, and topics that vex or weary a person. This is further seen when Catherine, Eleanor, and Henry chat on their walk through Bath (Austen 76). Throughout the novel, Austen addresses her audience as the narrator. She astutely points out that she will not, adopt ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel writers, then asks, If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? (Austen 21).
Austen asks readers to consider the implications of women reading novels. She makes her parody clearer later in her monologue, when she writes, (on women reading novels), [it is] only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language (Austen 22). Austen uses this opportunity to toot her own horn, and jests at how reading novels may be seen to the non-novel-reader, but in actuality, they teach lessons of human nature, language, and wit. It would be daft to assume Austen to be wholly serious, as the nature of Northanger Abbey is exaggerated. Her satire brings a deeper awareness to the power of reading, especially to the young, impressionable women of Northanger Abbey. To the heroine, Catherine, life is not dull or unlovely, like herself, but instead it is brightened and comes alive through her enjoyment of gothic novels.
As a means to awaken her readers to the power of the novel, Austen playfully parodies the romance genre’s tropes — and in doing so, helps readers elevate their comprehension and analysis of the genre in kind. George Levine, novelist and professor of English at Rutgers University, focuses on science in literature of the Victorian era. He writes, Catherine must, on terms of the genre Jane Austen adopts, marry the hero (Levine 336), he goes on to say, It is no accident, I think, that in the only direct parody in any of her major novels, Jane Austen includes explicit and unequivocal praise of the very fiction she seems to be mocking. She does not pretend to be writing a true history, but to be a novelist writing a novel. Rejecting solemnity, she praises novels-in the delightful excursus in chapter 5-as products of “”genius, wit, and taste”” which afforded more “”extensive and unaffected pleasure”” (Levine 336). Levine’s analysis demonstrates that Austen hoped to appeal and awaken her audience to the silliness of the genre, while reinforcing the importance of education and reading.
Considering how Austen crafted the satirical Northanger Abbey as a dramatically sarcastic work of gothic literature, she also suggests its power. We can look to Catherine’s love interest, Henry Tilney, for further meta-commentary. As Melissa Schaub asserts in her article, Irony and Political Education in Northanger Abbey Henry Tilney serves as Austen’s voice in the novel. Henry is there to make readers think deeper and further analyze the meta-level workings within the novel. Schaub writes that Northanger Abbey does indeed educate the reader, both in literary and political issues. In achieving this education the ideal reader would surpass not only Catherine, but also Henry (whom many readers have regarded as Austen’s mouthpiece in the novel) (Schaub). This is seen clearly when Catherine and Henry engage in their first conversation about literature. Henry says plainly, The person, be in gentlemen or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid (Austen 74). He goes on to chastise the use of the word nice (Austen 76), something Austen would have likely stated herself if walking with her instead of Henry.
Without Catherine, the naive, childish heroine, Austen’s voice, and the theme of intelligible women would have been less impactful. Catherine’s character allows her to be consumed in gothic literature. Her enjoyment of gothic literature pushes her to have her own thoughts, and come to her own conclusions; a decidedly feminist theme for the 18th century. She begins to see life in a new, albeit gloomy, light. John Mathison, literary analyst on the Brontes and Austen, describes Catherine’s awakening through her passion for gothic novels. He states, She enjoys them so much that their attitude toward life becomes hers her enjoyment makes her more fully alive and capable of various experiences and the Gothic novels make Catherine aware of her own ignorance and follies (Mathison 147). Catherine’s discovery of gothic literature is a catalyst for her growing up. She becomes more adventurous, venturing out on carriage rides with John Thorpe (Austen 40), and accepting the invitation to stay with the Tilneys at Northanger Abbey (Austen 93). Catherine is frustrated with Austen’s egotistical antagonist, John Thorpe, although he provides readers with some comedic relief.
Catherine is easily persuaded by John Thorpe, and often upset by his controlling and arrogant behavior. After John convinces Catherine to ride in the carriage with him, he says to her, ‘You will not be frightened… if my horse should dance about a little at first setting off. He will, most likely, give a plunge or two, and perhaps take the rest for a minute; but he will soon know his master. He is full of spirits, playful as can be, there is no vice in him’ (Austen 40). Readers who pick up on the subliminal here can make assumptions at what Thorpe is really jesting at — and it is likely not his horse. Catherine also becomes more aware of her childish follies through gothic literature. Henry Tilney easily teases her on the way to Northanger when he describes the room she’ll be staying in, and she exclaims, This is just like a book (Austen 106). Upon arriving, Catherine sees how silly she acted because of her obsession with the gothic. Catherine’s obsession with gothic novels and her time spent away from home elicits her metamorphosis into a young woman. She delights in life more at the end of the novel than ever before, and finds herself empowered by her continued dedication to reading and self-education. Austen gives Catherine the freedom to speak up for herself and to win in the end, being home among family and able to marry her love, Henry Tilney, which was unrequited until the last chapter of the novel. Furthermore, Austen sheds an important light on gothic literature, and all literature, by encouraging readers to understand why bright women are of value, and why exposure to literature is paramount to self-development.
Gothic Style as a Representation of Women’s Fear and Anxieties in Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Bronte’s Jane Eyre
In both Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the authors use the gothic style to represent fears or anxieties their female protagonists’ lives. Both Jane Eyre and Catherine Morland suffer from gothic delusions when they are frightened or anxious about something (although, for Jane, the delusions are sometimes real). From ghosts in the Red Room to tyrannical murderers in the Abbey, Catherine and Jane’s imaginations, accentuated by their heightened fear, these gothic scenes are holistic representations of the mental state of each of these women. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine intentionally seeks out the gothic elements in her life. She imagines on her way to Bath that their carriage will be attacked, and is actually disappointed when they arrive without incident. Once they arrive in Bath, Isabella fuels Catherine’s over-active imagination by giving her gothic novels. Catherine is seeking out a gothic narrative in her life, not because of her fear or anxiety, but rather because she yearns for adventure and excitement. Catherine is able to use her imagination to twist everyday commonplace events into completely over-exaggerated gothic scenes (Glock 35). Catherine says, “Oh! I am delighted with the book [Udolpho]! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it! I assure you, if it had not been to meet you [her friend Isabella Thorpe], I would not have come away from it for all the world” (Miller 131). Catherine’s speech here is very similar to Isabella’s usual way of speaking, which is very over the top. She hyperbolizes her emotions, saying she would like to spend her “whole life” reading Udolpho and that she would not have stopped reading it for “all the world” except to see her friend. Catherine’s exaggerated speech is typical of gothic heroes or heroines of the time. This shows the influence Isabella has on Catherine, but also Catherine’s deep desire to be the heroine of a gothic romance herself. Her wish to never come away from her gothic novel foreshadows later events where her imagination leads her to suspect her life actually becoming the plot of a gothic novel (Miller 131). Jane Eyre differs from Catherine in that she does not specifically search out the gothic elements in her life. Rather, she is more concerned with social relationships (Gribble 283). Jane’s life, however, is actually full of real gothic scenes. When Bronte first introduces the reader to Jane at Gateshead, she is sitting alone in the window seat of a small breakfast room by the cold, wet window. In contrast, her aunt and cousins are sitting in the other room together by a nice, hot fire. There is a curtain dividing the two rooms, signifying the divide between Jane and her “family”. This is a very bleak and depressing scene because Jane is in complete social isolation, disgraced and alienated by the very people who are supposed to be taking care of her. She says she felt “humbled by the consciousness of [her] physical inferiority to Eliza, John and Georgiana Reed” (Gribble 283) Her exclusion as a child affects how she views herself later in her life, especially in her relationships with others. It is is one of the main reasons for her deep desire to belong. Mr. Rochester says to Jane “I saw you had a social heart” (Gribble 283). Feeling lonely and out of place is one of the main sources of fear anxiety for Jane Eyre. Much of Northanger Abbey is about a young lady’s entry into the world. The scenes at Northanger Abbey, however, are in contrast with the rest of the novel (Glock 34). By the time Catherine has arrived at Northanger Abbey, her imagination is filled with the gothic fiction she is reading (Miller 132). At certain times while Catherine is at Northanger Abbey, the novel itself seems to turn towards the gothic style. Since the story is told from Catherine’s point of view, and her view of reality as been clouded through her reading of gothic novels, the reader’s experience is also clouded. For example. during Catherine’s first night at Northanger Abbey, there is a thunderstorm and Catherine is alone in her room. She spots a sealed trunk that she had not noticed before and with some difficulty, manages to open it. Inside she finds some old papers with writing on them. Before she can read them, however, the wind blows her candle out, and Catherine, scared half-to-death, runs for her bed. In the morning when she reads the mysterious letters, they turn out to be only laundry lists. This scene, although exciting for Catherine, is also quite frightening. Austen is warning against the unfettered exercise of a gothic imagination, because it causes unnecessary fear, and in certain situations, it can have more lasting consequences (Miller 135). One of the most strikingly gothic scenes in Jane Eyre is when Jane is in the Red Room. Jane has been sent there as punishment. It is the room that her uncle died in and she associates it with death. She catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror and sees “glittering eyes of fear” (Gribble 284). Poor Jane is terrified. For her, this ‘punishment’ is really more like child-cruelty which adds another gothic layer to the scene. Catherine’s imagination is fueled by her terror of being in the room where her uncle died and her anxieties over what will happen to her now that he is gone and she is left with people who do not like her. Therefore, when she sees a light in the room, on a night when there is no moon, her young mind, “prepared for horror”, thinks that it is a ghost (Gribble 286). In retrospect, Jane realizes it was probably only someone walking by the window with a lantern casting a light on the wall, but because of her over-developed anxiety, she interpreted this moment as something more sinister. This scene is a lot like the one in Northanger Abbey when Catherine discovers the papers in the trunk. Both girls are terrified over nothing, and think themselves quite silly once they realize this. Catherine’s willful imagination, unwisely fed on a diet of gothic novels, persuades her that gothic terror actually exists in her life and the lives around her (Glock 46). Henry Tilney plays upon Catherine’s “raised, restless and frightened imagination” by describing all the horrors that a building such as “what one reads about may produce” (Glock 40). Catherine’s active imagination reaches a dangerous peak in the gothic setting of Northanger Abbey, fueled by Henry, her gothic romance books, and her anxieties about being far from home and surrounded by people she does not know well. The novel reaches its climax as Catherine begins to suspect General Tilney of murdering his wife. Catherine becomes so convinced of this that she takes it upon herself to sneak into Mrs. Tilney’s old room, even though she is aware that the General does not like people going in there. While she is investigating the room, Henry catches her and demands to know what is going on. Catherine shamefully confesses her suspicions, realizing her delusions were voluntary and self-centered (Glock 39). “The visions of romance were over. Catherine was completely awakened. Henry’s address, short as it had been, had more thoroughly opened her eyes to the extravagance of her late fancies than all their several disappointments had done. Most grievously was she humbled. Most bitterly did she cry” (Miller 132). At Thornfield, Jane experiences several gothic-inspired events as well. On Jane’s very first day, as she is exploring Thornfield Hall, she describes the place in a sinister light by using words like narrow, low, dim, with little windows and closed doors, like Bluebeard’s Castle. While she is thinking this, she hears an intrusive noise, a laugh that she describes as mirthless and formal (Gribble 285). This laugh presumably comes from Bertha, whom some scholars believe is Jane’s alter-ego. There are various haunting, gothic scenes at Thornwood involving Bertha, like when Jane finds Mr. Rochester’s bed on fire with him still sleeping in it, when Bertha rips Jane’s wedding veil in half after trying it on in the mirror, and also the simple laughs and other sounds Jane hears while walking near Bertha’s room. It is as if Bertha is responding to Jane’s fears and anxieties, because Jane cannot respond to them herself. Jane is anxious about her wedding, knowing it will be an uneven match, and Bertha tears up her wedding dress. Mr. Rochester talks about topics that are inappropriate for Jane to hear and that night, Bertha sets his bed on fire. When Mr. Rochester tries to marry Jane while Bertha is still alive, she sets fire to the house, maiming Mr. Rochester and dying in the process. Unlike Catherine in Northanger Abbey, these events are not figments of Jane’s imagination, but they are very real. The gothic events still are fueled by Jane’s fears and anxieties. When Jane is uneasy about something, the scene has a more gothic feeling to it. The difference between Jane and Catherine is that Catherine only imagines her life as being gothic, while Jane’s life actually does embody gothic elements. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine, trying to be a romantic heroine, learns that 19th Century fantastic cruelty and extravagance only exists in gothic novels (Glock 37). She realizes that evil does exist, but it is more often than not a calculating and low-spirited evil designed for such un-exalted purposes as financial gain (Glock 37). Henry, upon realizing Catherine’s suspicions, exclaims, “Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities?” (Glock 42). Catherine is mistaken in the ways in which evil is manifest, but not in the fact that is IS manifest (Glock 43). “Such violence and insecurity can indeed arise, even in tranquil and law-abiding England, from the unrestrained fantasies of one’s own mind and the terrors of the sub-consciousness” (Glock 42). Catherine is a modern, real heroine because she suffers inwardly (Glock 37). The gothic adventures at Northanger Abbey emphasize the fact that Catherine cannot find happiness in fantasy. She only finds it once she accepts general ordinariness (Glock 38). Once Catherine realizes her foolishness, her true self comes through in the novel, unclouded by fantasy. It is ironic that once Catherine realizes her life is not a gothic romance that the real gothic elements start to emerge. General Tilney forces Catherine to return home on her own without warning straight away. This goes against Henry’s claim that nothing gothic happens in England. During her ride home, Catherine is very anxious about her life. She is mortified about what she assumes is the reason she has been sent home, her belief that General Tilney has committed murder. She is scared about leaving so suddenly and her separation from the man she loves. All of these elements add up to make a truly Gothic scene. In Jane Eyre, after John’s proposal of marriage, Jane’s anxieties return. She still loves Mr. Rochester and does not want to enter into a passionless marriage with John (Gribble 287). In an eerily gothic scene, Jane believes she hears Mr. Rochester calling to her. She hears him calling multiple times and eventually, she leaves to find him. When Jane and Mr. Rochester are united, the tone of the novel changes completely. Jane is no longer anxious or fearful. She and Mr. Rochester are free to marry and they become more equal because of his deformities. When Jane is really happy, her surroundings feel lighter and more cheerful as well. When Jane is in the garden with Mr. Rochester, her naturalistic surroundings are almost Eden-like (Gribble 291). In this sense, Jane’s emotions resemble Pathetic Fallacy, only instead of the weather changing, the shift is in the setting itself. When Jane is frightened or anxious, the scene is more gothic, and when she is happy and contented, the scene is lighter as well.Overall, the fears and anxieties of both Jane Eyre and Catherine Morland manifest themselves through gothic elements in their lives. For Catherine, the gothic events in her life are often false, although they feel very real to her, displaying her heightened sense of anxiety. In Jane’s life, however, most of the gothic events are real as her anxieties intensify, the scale and intensity of the gothic events also increases. Works Cited:Glock, Waldo S. “Catherine Morland’s Gothic Delusions: A Defense of “Northanger Abbey”.” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 32.1 (1978): 33-46. Web. 18 Nov 2010.
Afraid of the Dark: A Gothic Binary in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey
The segment on pages 133-135* of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey relates the binary of light and darkness which symbolizes the interaction between Gothicism and reality in the novel, helping the reader to realize role of Catherine in the novel as a staple between the two extremes. A popular form of entertainment in Austen’s time, Gothic novels were considered to be full of cheap thrills. Northanger Abbey’s heroine, Catherine Morland is a true lady of her time and enjoys the sensation and intrigue of Gothic novels, often to the point of excess. Northanger Abbey, however, is not a Gothic novel, but rather a story based in realism. Catherine is a realist character caught up in Gothic notions and ideals; she is in a sort of limbo, making her an ideal candidate to serve as mediator between light and dark, Gothic and Realist literature. The binary established between light and dark help to assure the reader of Catherine’s candidacy. As Catherine is about to read the letters she finds tucked away in the cabinet in her room, her candle begins to flicker. This fluctuation in light makes Catherine “turn to it with alarm,” for she is afraid her candle is in “danger of sudden extinction” (135). The words “alarm,” “danger,” and “sudden”—even “extinction,” to some degree—cause the reader to feel a sense of urgency, of impending doom. However, upon further inspection, the reader realizes that Catherine’s fears are silly and unfounded and her intense emotional response seems unnecessary and almost forced; the very nature of a candle is that it flickers, and that slight dimness is not cause for alarm. Moreover, just before Catherine sights the cabinet, she convinces herself that fear of the dark is a foolish phobia; in fact, she spends nearly an hour readying herself for bed, purposefully avoiding stroking the fire to prove herself brave enough to face the dark. According to Catherine, to fix the fire “would seem cowardly, as if she wished for the protection of light after she were in bed” (133). Catherine’s extreme reaction to the flickering candle, though, only moments later tells the reader differently. While Catherine’s reaction to light and darkness could appear to be sporadic to the reader, something else shifts during the scene as well—Catherine’s subjectivity. In the earlier scene, where Catherine allows the fire to die to prove her bravery, she is unaware of the papers in the cabinet and, therefore, is unbothered by the lack of light, by the impending darkness. However, later in the scene, after Catherine has found the papers in the cabinet, she grows jumpy, her anxiety not fueled by actual threats but by her own imagination and anticipation. The light becomes her ally and the darkness, her foe because of its inherent obscurity. The discovery of the papers changes Catherine’s view of herself—she envisions herself newly involved with her surroundings, with the papers, the cabinet they were stored in, and the darkness that envelops them. Catherine’s fear of the dark is not actually fear at all—her reactions are derived from her subjectivity. Catherine, therefore, creates her own fear and intensifies the scene for her own pleasure—she wishes to be in a Gothic novel and, since she is not, she fabricates and elaborates on certain aspects of her situation until they are exaggerated enough to appear Gothic in nature. Catherine, excited by her recent discovery of the papers in the cabinet, exaggerates the intensity of her situation. The candle flickers and, her emotions magnified, she grows alarmed. Yet when she checks the candle, she sees there is “no danger of its sudden extinction, it had yet some hours to burn” (135). In a Gothic novel, however, inconvenience and suspense are paramount, so hours of light, while the reality, does not fit in with Catherine’s vision of what should happen. She therefore snuffs the candle and the resulting darkness is so “awful…impenetrable and immovable” that she becomes “motionless with horror” (135). When reality does not align with Catherine’s yearning for suspense and mystery, she fabricates intrigue to fuel her preoccupation with Gothicism. While darkness is referred to explicitly, the properties of light are merely implicated. Before Catherine explores the cabinet in her room, she muses on the light radiating from her fireplace, suggesting that stoking the fire would make it look “as if she wished for the protection of light after she were in bed” (133). After Catherine finds the papers in the cabinet and extinguishes her candle, it is stated that there was “not a remnant of light [left] in the wick” (135). Light is therefore discussed only hypothetically. In the former excerpt, the prospect of light is pure conjecture and suggestion; it is discussed in passing and only in the theoretical sense. In the latter excerpt, light is only referred to in terms of its absence. References to light are subtle and understated, just as novels based in Realism are. The differences between allusions to darkness and light here are stark; darkness is described in detail and has a great—albeit, fabricated, even false—impact on Catherine. Light, on the other hand, is simply alluded to as the absence of darkness; it is the default, what the reader assumes unless he or she is informed otherwise. This binary, therefore, serves to inform the reader about Gothic and Realist texts. Gothic texts are showy and full of exaggeration and childish thrills. Realist texts are more subtly intriguing; they are what is left after the curtains are drawn and the stage is clean. The reader is then left with the difficult job of deciphering Catherine’s roll in the novel. Though she is the unlikely heroine of a Realist novel, she is obsessed with Gothicism, to the point of appearing juvenile. She snuffs her candle—she incurs darkness—just to intensify the scene, to fabricate Gothicism. The reader interprets Catherine’s behavior as silly and childish, yet can still relate to her because she is written realistically. Her preoccupation with Gothicism, with playing pretend and make-believe endears her to the reader and, though at times, her actions and attitude are slightly exaggerated her reactions based on her age and interests are realistic. Catherine serves as a compass, a mediator between light and dark where the two extremes touch. She is the shadow the reader follows, living in the light but yearning for the dark. The binary of light and dark, of Gothicism and Realism, help the reader to interpret Catherine as a sort of unsung mediator, as a staple, as the link that bridges the two extremes with a flickering candle and a complex fear of and yearning for the dark.
Characterization of Isabella in Northanger Abbey
Sir Francis Bacon is often cited as the progenitor of the phrase “knowledge is power”. This sentiment, if true, would render helpless Catherine Morland of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. When the reader first encounters Catherine, she is an ingenuous girl and is unfamiliar with the ways of fashionable society. Her early companion, Isabella Thrope, foils her character. Isabella is sophisticated, beautiful, and seems to be able to behave favorably in the cases of human interaction that puzzle Catherine. However, Isabella’s ruin at the end of the novel indicates that while she may have some knowledge, it is ultimately false and thus puts her into greater jeopardy than her naive friend. In this way, Isabella’s character provides an intriguing study into how social, psychological, and ideological misinformation can lead to personal destruction.The opening chapters take care to explain that Catherine, the heroine of the text, is very atypical of the heroines in Gothic novels. She is plain, unaccomplished, undesired by lovers, and lives a safe and ordinary life. Isabella, however, appears to be an excellent Gothic heroine. She is beautiful and an undeniable success with suitors. Her wordy and overly emotional speech patterns parallel the heightened sensuality of the characters of Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian. She never simply feels something but is “driven wild” (32); she never merely waits five minutes but rather “this age” (31); she does not agree, she “faithfully promises”. (155) Catherine, the narrator, and even Isabella truly believe in the characterization Isabella creates for herself as the embodiment of the sentimental heroine. While this belief ultimately jeopardizes Catherine, Isabella’s own unwillingness to acknowledge the indicators that she is not a heroine put Isabella at the greatest risk. Isabella expects the whole world to accept her as she presents herself and never doubts her own acting abilities. Although she is not evil per se, Isabella’s false knowledge causes many of Catherine’s problems in the novel. Isabella manages to secure a marriage proposal from Catherine’s brother, James Morland. However, when she discovers that he is not as rich as she first assumed, she sets her sights on Captain Tilney. It is this reaction that has leant Isabella her reputation as a gold digger. If this is true, then she is a manipulative and egocentric young woman on a quest for upward social mobility. While she is ignorant to her own character, she is well aware that she lacks most assets (such as wealth or family connections) to bring to a marriage that would make her desirable to potential suitors. Isabella’s gamble with James in trying to secure Captian Tilney reveals a deficit on the part of her interpretation of the world. Being beautiful, Isabella is used to stunning men with her good looks and seducing them. She has not, however, yet encountered her male counterpart – one who can manipulate women the way Isabella manipulates men. Her relative ingenue with regard to this causes Isabella to fall for Tinley, a man who plays at romance as she does. Furthermore, her attempt to marry the Captain reveals her lack of understanding about true emotional hurt in that she appears to think that she can shun James only to reclaim him when her other plans fall through.The letter that reveals Isabella’s misfortune in chapter 27 congregates all of her shortcomings in one document. As she does in all of their interactions, Isabella seeks to establish a mood of intimacy with Catherine through stylized nonsense, rather than through more genuine gestures that would lead to true friendship. While attempting to remain confident and light, we learn that Isabella is humiliated; James has discovered her duplicity and spurned her. Implicit in the content of the letter is the exact opposite of what Isabella asserts to be her emotional state as well as evidence of her jealousy towards Catherine. To this end, Isabella writes, “I hope you spend your time pleasantly, but am afraid you never think of me” (190) – an indication of jealousy of which Isabella herself may not even be entirely aware. To Isabella’s pain Henry replies, “But we must first suppose Isabella to have had a heart to lose–consequently to have been a very different creature; and, in that case, she would have met with very different treatment” (190). This remark concretizes the idea that Isabella is vindictive and emotionally immature as well as contributing to the conclusion that people in her life perceive her as such.Austen’s novel raises an interesting question, namely: does Isabella (and those like her) get her comeuppance? If so, the true heroine of the story (Catherine) is not quite convinced. In other words, if Isabella is not a plotting coquette, then she can be seen as an attractive girl who cannot refuse the attention of a young man. Viewed in this regard, she is perhaps no more guilty of plotting than any young girl who cannot figure out what she wants. Despite her effusive speech, and putting on airs, Isabella’s downfall is her own indecisiveness. If we accept this interpretation of her as innocent but flawed, rather than conniving and evil, she begins to resemble Ann Radcliffe’s Ellena. Ellena’s indecisiveness and trouble committing to Vivaldi cause her countless troubles and much heartache. Where Isabella cannot bare her pride to be wounded by a small income, Ellena cannot bare for her pride to be wounded by an unwelcome marriage. Both women, then, constantly seek to understand themselves in terms of how other people understand them. Pulchritudinous and charming, Isabella is endangered by not understanding the world outside of what her own pretty refelection reveals to her. Her ruin at the end of the novel indicates that while she may have some knowledge of society, her knowledge is ultimately incomplete in that she considers social standing more valuable than personal compatibility in a relationship. Though Isabella can be seen as manipulative and desirous of social standing for her desertion of James for Captain Tilney, she appears to reform at least somewhat by chapter 27. It is in the letter written in this chapter that Isabella’s vulnerability is evinced and the reader can see that she is somehow repentant for her past behavior (though she does not explicitly admit this). Ultimately, Isabella’s actions are what define others’ view of her and, though this letter appears to offer an interpretation of Isabella as changed subconsciously from her prior self, her past is how those involved in her life will always see her. So it is that Austen creates a character that serves both as a foil to a traditional gothic heroine (Catherine) and also as a sort of case study for the personal destruction that one’s own ignorance of character can catalyze.
Romantic Themes in Northanger Abbey
Jane Austen is commonly viewed as anti-romantic, but her novel Northanger Abbey possesses and promotes many of the ideas prevalent in romantic literature. Heroine Catherine Morland is an especially romantic character whose spontaneity, emotion, and sincerity eventually lead her to happiness. These traits, combined with a rejection of many traditional ideas and a theme of individualism over the norms of aristocratic society, create a novel with more romance than one would typically ascribe to Austen.Catherine’s spontaneity is one trait that makes her a romantic character. This trait becomes evident during Catherine’s conflicts with John Thorpe. Twice John forces Catherine to break her engagements to walk with the Tilneys, and twice Catherine feels a strong impulse to right this wrongdoing as quickly as possible. Although prevented from acting upon this impulse the first time, the second time she is able to act upon her whim and inform the Tilneys of what has actually occurred. So spontaneous is this decision that Catherine has given little consideration to what she will say: “‘I am come in a great hurry- It was all a mistake- I never promised to go- I told them from the first I could not go.- I ran away in a great hurry to explain it.- I did not care what you thought of me.- I would not stay for the servant’” (67- 68). Rather than being irritated by Catherine’s forcible entry into their apartment and her hasty explanation, the Tilneys reward her spontaneity by taking immediate liking to her. Catherine also shows that she follows her intuition, another romantic trait. Inspired by the many Gothic novels she has been reading, Catherine lets her imagination get the better of her as she jumps to horrible conclusions about General Tilney and his marriage; she compiles a set of clues to convince herself he either murdered his wife or has her locked away in a secret chamber. “Catherine sometimes started at the boldness of her own surmises,” Austen writes, “and sometimes hoped or feared that she had gone too far” (p.133). Although Catherine’s rush to judgment causes her some embarrassment later when she learns she was incorrect about the General, she later discovers that her intuition was correct – the General is a cruel man of questionable character.Another typical trait of the romantic character is a tendency to wear one’s heart on her sleeve, something Catherine clearly does. Her strong emotions prevent any uncertainty as to what she is feeling. She gushes about the beauty of Henry’s home in Woodston, a not-so-subtle suggestion that she would be delighted to live there as Henry’s wife. Her unrestrained praise and happiness endear Catherine to the Tilneys; the General, in particular, drops hints throughout the visit about his desire to see Catherine and Henry wed.On several occasions, Austen connects emotion to the romantic idea of appreciating nature. Although these instances are brief and usually trivial, such as an orchard inspiring happiness in Catherine, one has special significance. Catherine observes that she and Eleanor experience a particular path in a similar way, as Eleanor “began to talk with easy gaiety of the delightful melancholy which such a grove inspired” (125). The General is not similarly affected; in fact, he shows great distaste for a walk his wife once loved. His reaction leads Catherine to believe he is coldhearted and incapable of true love. Without her awareness of the path’s natural beauty and the emotions it inspires, Catherine would likely not have made this important realization about the General’s character. Catherine’s sincerity is probably her most important romantic trait. She puts her whole heart into life, and this characteristic is what wins her Henry’s affection. Her most crucial display of sincerity comes when Henry catches her snooping around the late Mrs. Tilney’s quarters. Catherine’s feelings toward Henry are so sincere that she is unable to lie to him; with some prodding, she admits her suspicions about the General. Rather that scorn Catherine due to her unfounded accusations regarding his father, Henry’s affection for her appears to grow. He recognizes realizes Catherine has deeper feelings for him, and this recognition leads him to realize he has similar emotions.Northanger Abbey also endorses romantic values by showing that the Thorpes, the least romantic family, end up unhappy and friendless at the novel’s conclusion. Isabella and John Thorpe see marriage merely as a means to improve social status. Spurned by Catherine, whom he pursued because he thought she was an heiress, John has ruined his reputation by the novel’s end. Similarly, Isabella’s engagement with James ends after he learns that his modest income disappoints her. Thus both Thorpe children lose their friends and marriage prospects because they followed aristocratic norms – marriage for social status – instead of romantic ones.The novel’s conclusion clearly promotes the romantic theme of individualism winning out over aristocratic society. The General dismisses Catherine from Northanger Abbey because she is not as wealthy as he thought her to be; he does not want Henry to marry a girl from a family so far beneath his. Henry reacts with strong individualism, turning against the values of society and wishes of his father. He declares that Catherine’s social status is of no concern to him; ultimately he is loyal to romance, not the aristocracy. Between Catherine and Henry’s marriage and that of Eleanor and her unnamed gentleman, Jane Austen makes her most romantic statement of all – life can turn out happily ever after.Catherine’s spontaneity, emotion, and sincerity capture Henry’s heart and lead him toward romantic individualism as well. Austen implies that by following one’s heart and acting sincerely, true happiness is a realistic possibility for anyone. With this lesson in Northanger Abbey, Austen reveals herself to be more romantic than she is sometimes portrayed.
Characterization in Northanger Abbey: Catherine’s Awakening
One’s life is shaped and modified as we grow through the relationships one makes, however little, even daily encounters can drastically change the course of life as a whole. In the blink of an eye, something happens, or rather someone happens to arrive by chance when we least expect it, and we are set on a course we never planned, into a future we never imagined nor thought possible. In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, it is shown through the main protagonist Catherine Morland how encounters of any sort can change our lives and make us either flourish or lessen as people, and sometimes, it only takes one person to awaken you. Isabella Thorpe was that one relationship that transformed Catherine from a girl to a woman. By the end of the novel, Catherine changes due to her relationship with Isabella as she becomes a more cynical person with less naiveté, she becomes a better judge of character and she is able to focus on and develop more mature and fulfilling relationships.
Catherine Morland is the opposite of the typical heroine one would expect to read about when first opening the novel. In fact, she is described by the author as a very ordinary girl that displays no kind of actual calling or talent: “She never could learn or understand anything before she was taught; and sometimes not even then, for she was often inattentive, and occasionally stupid” (Austen 38). She is not especially beautiful or different but rather she is kind and thoughtful and her journey throughout the novel changes her in a way that slightly skews her kindness. At the start of the novel she is naive and oblivious. She is inexperienced with real world affairs and topics and chooses instead to forget about reality altogether and bury herself in a world of fantasy and fiction through the books she reads: “Oh! I am delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it” (61). This passage when Catherine meets Isabella in the Pump-room depicts her preference to talk about books and unreal stories instead of real life things, and is what makes her so oblivious to anything existent in her surroundings. Her naiveté and lack of experience causes many problems for her throughout the course of the book and makes her oblivious to the schemes and hidden agendas of nearly every other character like John Thorpe, James Morland and Isabella Thorpe, and General Tilney.
By the end of the novel, however, when Catherine understands and starts to see that Isabella had used her to get close to her brother, she learns a lot about herself and that the world may not be as pure of a place as she initially thought. In fact, upon reading Isabella’s letter, she finally uncovers her as who she is and is disgusted: “She was ashamed of Isabella, and ashamed of having ever loved her” (212). The bad ending to her relationship with Isabella completely transforms the way that Catherine views the world and causes her to lose a lot of the naiveté that characterizes her at the beginning. Furthermore, Catherine’s habit of confusing reality with the fiction in her novels prevents her from seeing people’s true characters and leads her to misjudge them as she continuously dramatizes the people she meets and their alleged intentions. At Northanger Abbey, for example, instead of taking the opportunity she has to blossom her relationships with both Henry Tilney and Eleanor, she creates these very dramatic and gothic novel-like conjectures, and eludes herself by thinking that General Tilney had killed his wife, or was holding her prisoner in her room: “Could it be possible? – Could Henry’s father? . . . What could more plainly speak the gloomy workings of a mind not wholly dead to every sense of humanity, in its fearful review of past scenes of guilt? Unhappy man!” (186) Creating and believing stories isn’t bad in itself, however, it is these sort of tendencies that make her blind to Isabella’s true nature. She confuses Isabella, an actual person with real motivations and feelings with a fixed, artificial character who to her plays the role of a friend and companion along her own journey.
However, Catherine’s inability to be a good judge of character and see people for who they truly are ends after she reads Isabella’s letter and grasps her for who she actually is: “Her profession of attachment were now as disgusting as her excuses were empty, and her demands impudent” (212). Thus, Isabella, despite her constant telling of lies, awakened Catherine and forced her to accept that people in real life cannot be depicted as an author does to her characters, because they have altered intentions and goals, just like Isabella did. During the whole novel, we see how Isabella and Catherine grow distant with one another due to her new found friendships with the Tilneys. For example, Catherine insisted on not leaving them when they had planned an event, even though it was going to be a more uneventful kind of activity, she preferred them over Isabella’s company: “Do not urge me, Isabella. I am engaged to Miss Tilney. I cannot go” (113). However, once Catherine is finally rid of her toxic relationship with Isabella and the rest of the displeasing Thorpes, she is able to completely focus on developing healthy and honest relationships with people she can trust completely. She finds mature people like Eleanor and Henry who want to spend time with her because they are honestly fond of her. We see, at the end of the book, how much Catherine has changed, and at what point she values the people in her life at that moment by the measures she takes to keep them in her life. After accepting Mr. Tilney’s proposal, we see that her contact with her dear friend Eleanor will be maintained, and her new acquired life will, optimistically speaking, be filled with joy, friendship, and love.
Although Catherine and Isabella’s relationship did not come to a hopeful and joyful close, said heroine handles this betrayal with strength by growing and learning as a person, and is transformed by the end of the novel. Assuredly, she loses her love of fiction; in consequence she gains a better sense of reality and a better understanding of human nature. All the while, she loses her innocence and oblivion that characterized her in the beginning, and holds an enhanced value of the good relationships in her life.
Works Cited: Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. Edited by Claire Grogan. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2002, Print.
Artificiality and Fallibility in Northanger Abbey
Jane Austen, through the development of socially conscious female characters, is able to render a remarkably accurate depiction of the social structure present during the late 18th century. Her social commentary, however, highlights certain unbecoming qualities in both her protagonists and antagonists, particularly their artificiality. This feature of her writing is especially evident in her satiric novel Northanger Abbey. While Austen is clear in her criticism of characters such as Isabella and John Thorpe, neither of whom is in Catherine’s favor at the end of the novel, the author appears to be far more accepting of the affectedness of General Tilney, who is portrayed as a severe but fair man. Through the artificiality of her characters and the claims she makes about them, Austen weakens the motifs she intends to exemplify, making her an unreliable author.
General Tilney is consistently illustrated as a strange man with a somewhat severe manner. Despite this, the text never truly suggests that he is a bad man. He is kind enough to invite Catherine to stay with the Tilneys at Northanger Abbey and, although he is concerned with superficial things such as the grandeur of his home and the wealth of his childrens’ spouses, the text suggests that he wants only the best for his children. Near the end of the novel, Catherine even admits that General Tilney’s interference in their marriage may have actually strengthened the bond between her and Henry, for which she thanks the general: “…the General’s unjust interference, so far from being really injurious to the their felicity, was perhaps conducive to it, by improving their knowledge of each other, and adding strength to their attachment, I leave it to be settled by whomever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience” (Austen 235). Despite Catherine’s fairly positive opinion of him at the end of the novel, the general still proves to be quite artificial early on when, after trying so ardently to impress her in hopes of securing a wealthy wife for Henry, he rudely casts her out of his home without explanation upon hearing from John Thorpe that Catherine’s family is poor. Austen tries to forgive General Tilney’s bad behavior by stating that his conduct may have strengthened the bond between Henry and Catherine, yet his actions were undeniably callous, regardless of the end product. His superficial treatment of Catherine is based entirely off of his focus on money, and this quality makes it difficult to accept the positive light that Austen attempts to shine on him at the end of the story, causing her to appear unreliable as an author.
The most artificial character of Northanger Abbey is arguably Isabella Thorpe. Although she initially appears to be perfectly friendly and immediately forms a close bond with Catherine, the text makes it clear that she is somewhat superficial and would be content gossiping the day away. On several occasions, she gloats her apathy toward financial status, claiming that “[her] wishes are so moderate that the smallest income in nature would be enough for [her]. Where people are really attached, poverty itself is wealth; grandeur [she] detest[s]” (112), as well as that “a [small] income would satisfy [her]… [She] hate[s] money” (128). The reader, however, later finds that upon learning of her fiancé James Morland’s modest income, she immediately begins to flirt with Fredrick Tilney and eventually calls off the wedding. The reader even catches Isabella contradicting her earlier quotes when speaking to Catherine of her undesired gentleman caller, John Thorpe: “You have both of you something, to be sure, but it is not a trifle that will support a family nowadays; and after all that romancers may say, there is no doing without money” (135). Even though Isabella claims on multiple occasions that finances do not concern her and that wealth even creates a deficit in relationships, she completely flips her argument in both her actions and opinions when she abandons James and tells Catherine that romance is not enough to support a family with modest income. Although Isabella is portrayed in an increasingly negative light as the plot progresses, she commits actions that are rather similar to those of General Tilney, but it is the products of their activities that appear to decide the author’s view of them. The characters’ actions are similar in that they both send away their respective Morlands upon finding that they are not wealthy, but their rewards differ: General Tilney is somewhat respected for the sternness that strengthened Henry and Catherine’s marriage, while Isabella is scorned by the narrator and essentially forgotten by the end. The narrator’s unequal judgment of each character again suggests that Jane Austen is unreliable in her portrayal of the morals she wishes to convey.
In addition to the artificiality of Austen’s characters and the inconsistencies that they produce, the narrator also illustrates the same trait in her description of Catherine. Throughout Northanger Abbey, Austen repeatedly refers to Catherine as the story’s heroine. As early as the first pages of the novel, Austen builds Catherine up as the unsuspecting hero: “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born a heroine” (13). Naturally, because of frequent recurrence of this description, the reader spends the entirety of the story waiting for Catherine to prove herself worthy of the title. Spoiler alert: she doesn’t. A heroine is admired for her courage and noble qualities, and although Catherine is consistently portrayed as having good nature and fair judgment, at no point does she truly verify that she is a great person herself. By failing to show what she repeatedly tells the audience to be true, Austen again illustrates her unreliability as a narrator.
Jane Austen is an author of critical acclaim within the literary world, but, like any other author, her writings exhibit many flaws. Her account of Northanger Abbey creates a social commentary in which she attempts to criticize the superficial foci of the era’s social scene. Her success in conducting an efficacious critique, however, is hindered by inconsistencies in the artificiality of her characters and their descriptions. Through the artificiality of her characters and the claims she makes about them, Austen weakens the motifs she intends to exemplify, making her an unreliable author in her account of Northanger Abbey.
Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. New York: Penguin Books, 1995. Print.
Northanger Abbey: The Actual or the Sublime?
For hundreds of years, women were among the many in the world that held little to no rights. Subordinate to their husbands, they were legally not allowed to own property, or even voice their opinions in the community. Clearly, this needed to change. In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen explores the issues of women’s rights during the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century. While defending the novel throughout Northanger, Austen criticizes society at the time and the unjust treatment of women by critiquing the most popular genre; the gothic novel.
When Austin wrote Northanger, novels were seen as the lowest form of literature. Only women were seen reading novels while men spent their time on other forms of literature such as poetry or historical readings. Austen writes, “I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel writers,” to begin to explain the negative connotation that goes with being an author of a novel (22). She continues on to state, “From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers” (22). Austen realizes the hatred that goes with the novel and she does not want to feel as if her work is less than any man simply because it is classified as a novel. In Northanger Abbey, Austin uses her heroine Catherine to explain her own opinions about the degrading of authors like she, who finds novels to be much more than what men seem to believe them to be. Austen even includes conversations with Catherine and her fellow friends about novels to show how society truly views this form of literature.
The critique of novels is first viewed when Catherine is conversing with John Thorpe. To make conversation, she asks John if he has read Udolpho. John replies dramatically stating, “Oh, Lord! not I; I never read novels; I have something else to do” (31). While it may appear that John is just a busy character, he continues on to explain that ‘”novels are all so full of nonsense and stuff… they are the stupidest things in creation” (31). Austen then mocks John by the lack of knowledge on the actual novel that Catherine is referring to by showing him to truly know nothing about what he is talking about, and therefore proving his point to be invalid. This type of reaction occurs again later in the novel when Catherine is talking to another male character, Henry Tilney. Austen uses this conversation to show how women also are affected by the novels degrading lifestyle. In this conversation, Catherine mentions the novel but immediately replies with “Because they are not clever enough for you – gentlemen read better books” (72). By showing the woman’s knowledge on the subject of the novel in regards to intelligence levels, Austen points out the subordinate role that women played during this time. Men were right, women were wrong, and novels would never be read by men because they were far better than that.
During the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century, as novels were looked down upon, the most popular genre that was read by women was the gothic novel. Gilbert and Gubar write, in their short essay “Shut Up in Prose”, that “The novel is a status-deprived genre, Austin implies, because it is closely associated with a status-deprived gender” (281). Austen uses this genre in an almost mocking way to criticize the treatment of the novel and the women that are surrounding the novel. In volume I, Austen starts her novel by explaining the plain life of Catherine Moreland, and how although she was not raised with abusive parents, heavy secrets, or ravenous villains, she was still a heroine (5). Austen clearly takes a strike at the gothic novel by beginning her own in this way, as it almost completely opposes a true gothic story. She keeps with the same theme of the gothic novel and the time period by having her two main female characters, Catherine and Isabella, be fans of this genre. Many times they are described as explaining their excitement for the latest book that they found and how marvelous it has been so far. In conversation, Catherine brings up Radcliffe multiple times. For this century, Austen’s characters describe the perfect die-hard gothic novel fans. Gilbert and Gubar state that “Austin rewrites the gothic not because she disagrees with her sister novelists about the confinement of women, but because she believes woman have been imprisoned more effectively by miseducation than by walls” (285).
In Volume II, Austen completely maximizes her usage of the gothic novel by adding some of the most common themes found in any gothic. This section of the novel is said to testify to the “delusions created when girls internalize the ridiculous expectations and standards of gothic fiction” (Gilbert and Gubar 290). As Catherine is riding in the open carriage next to Henry, he begins to mock her belief in the gothic, as well as plant ideas into her head that they may actually be heading to a home with many secrets. She begins by asking Henry about the home that they are going to by questioning, “Is not it a fine old place, just like what one reads about?” (107). Henry replies by answering her with a description of a gothic scene, telling of an ancient housekeeper, a gloomy chamber, and a funeral appearance (108). Catherine is becoming all too excited by Henry’s words, though she states her fear, it is shown upon the arrival at Northanger, that she is truly hoping to find the gothic inside of their old home. Henry appears to be taunting Catherine’s gullibility and love for the gothic during this scene, and it is clear that he views her as not holding much intelligence or common sense to truly believe and enjoy this sort entertainment. By mocking Catherine in such a way as this, Henry appears to be critiquing the female reader of the novel.
Upon her entrance into the home of the Tilneys’, Catherine found that her living quarters were much different from that of which Henry described to her. Austen writes a scene where Catherine finds a heavy chest, and her curiosity gets the best of her as she must open it at that very moment. Catherine’s dramatic response to the chest clearly shows her yearnings for the gothic as she exclaims, “This is strange indeed! I did not expect such a sigh as this! –An immense heavy chest! –What can it hold? –Why should it be placed here? – Pushed back too, as if meant to be out of sight!” (112). Just minutes later, after Catherine finds simple bedspreads in the chest, Miss. Tilney walks by and explains that she pushed the chest to the back of the room so it simply would be out of the way. Austen provides a simple, domestic answer to the mysterious chest to mock the way that these answers are explained in truly gothic novels. Gilbert and Gubar ask “Could Austen be pointing at the real threat to women’s happiness when she describes her heroine finding a laundry list?” to show that, at this time, the domestication of women is as terrifying as what Catherine had hoped to find in the chest (285).
While it may look as though these descriptions of Northanger and the constant talk about the gothic novel are what is “gothic” about this book, it appears that in view to the world that is being described, Austen truly does come out with a perfectly acceptable gothic monster: men. There are no secret passageways in the Tilney’s house, but there are greedy men who only view women for wealth. There are no dead wives in the closet of General Tilney, but there are unjust treatments of women. The real horror in this novel is society and how it is unjust to the women for they were viewed as unintelligible and as housewives. Gilbert and Gubar state that “Rather than rejecting the gothic conventions she burlesques, Austen is very clearly criticizing the female gothic in order to reinvest it with authority” (284).
In many eyes, Northanger Abbey could be seen as much higher than the forms that men at this time were reading because of the hidden messages that it reveals. Austen makes it clear that she realizes male authors are praised for their work, but their work is “neither original nor literary” (Gilbert and Gubar 281). Austen hints at the lives of women and shows the struggles that they must overcome even with the men in their lives constantly blocking the way, such as General Tilney, who can be viewed as one of Catherine’s biggest threats. To him, “Catherine is a wealthy heiress whom General Tilney can further fictionalize” (Gilbert and Gubar 280). Kicking Catherine out of his home, Catherine’s life is threatened because she has no money or escort to protect her during her travels. General Tilney views her as worthless when he realizes she has far less wealth than his family and from this, Austin is pointing out a greater threat than the gothic monsters.
Northanger Abbey was written in the form of a gothic novel, but one done strictly to show much deeper issues about society during this time. Austen uses her feelings about the issues in the world to write a novel that shows the underlying problems that the world was currently facing. She points out the bigger issues than monsters, curses, and hidden doors, and in a sense, this novel is much more frightening that the original gothic novel because what she writes is not simply sublime, it is real. Showing the terrifying truths of life during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Austin implies that “history may very well be a uniform drama of masculine posturing that is no less a fiction than gothic romance” (Gilbert and Gubar 284)
Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. Northanger Abbey: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Susan Fraiman. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. 5-174. Print.
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. “Shut Up in Prose.” Northanger Abbey: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Susan Fraiman. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. 277-93. Print.
Northanger Abbey as a Parody of the Gothic Novel
Jane Austen is universally known for her uniquely intimate and precise descriptions of every-day life in late 18th and early 19th century England, and her plots are oftentimes focused on the humorous adventures of women who attempt to navigate the structures of polite society. While Austen’s first novel, Northanger Abbey (1803), has not accumulated the same cultural following as some of her others, the text is nonetheless notable as an introduction to Austen’s characteristically “realist” style of writing. The story intimately follows the exploits of Catherine Moreland, whose attempts to navigate English society are oftentimes made humorous by her imaginative view of reality, which is deeply influenced by the Gothic novels. In many ways, Northanger Abbey is notable for its definitively “Austenian” sense of humor, something which is most apparent in the way in which Austen parodies popular Gothic novels of her time. However, the novel operates as a parody of the Gothic novel in order to illuminate the true stylistic essence of the novel: realism. Austen experiments with the developing literary trends of the Romantic period (particularly Gothic writing) in order to help establish a new novelistic style which focuses on ordinary experiences, making Northanger Abbey a definitive text of early literary realism.
In order to discuss the ways in genre operates within Austen’s text, it is necessary to understand theories of realism and the Gothic as specific genres. While the name “realism” implies that novels of the kind are based upon descriptions of “real people” and their “real experiences”, Richard Chase expands upon this notion in the following statement: “The purpose of the English [realist] novel is to convey the impression of fidelity to human experience” (12). Austen’s work exemplifies an early style of realism that simply focuses on the minute details of certain character’s experiences during a specific segment of that character’s life. It is not representative of a universal human experience, but a specific human’s experience, and so each reality that is illustrated in every one of Austen’s books is determined by how the protagonist interprets that reality. However, the Romantic period (from which Austen’s novels originate from) is one that gave even more credence to the rise of the Gothic genre, which describes novels that focus on horror, death, and the supernatural (Hogle and Smith 2). Needless to say, the Gothic novel poses a sense of reality that is entirely fictional, and works of this genre directly juxtapose the non-fictional realities presented by realist fiction.
While the realism of Northanger Abbey is evident throughout the text, the manner in which Austen parodies Gothic fiction only comes into direct focus in the second and final volume of the novel. This latter portion of the story follows Catherine as she is invited to stay with Tilney family at their historic country home, a former convent called Northanger Abbey. In a series of humorous exchanges and experiences, Catherine’s visions of Northanger Abbey’s as a place right out of her Gothic novels is repeatedly usurped by a non-fictional reality, where Northanger Abbey is just like any other home in late 18th century England. While Austen parodies the Gothic novel through Catherine’s jilted expectations, she creates the foundation for a realist novel by juxtaposing the Gothic elements with entirely realistic, wholly non-fictional narrative elements.
As the story builds upon Catherine’s anticipation of travelling to the estate, she is shown to imagine it as though it is a place she would find within one of her beloved Gothic novels. She preemptively describes its “. . . long, damp passages, its narrow cells and ruined chapel, were to be within her daily reach, and she could not entirely subdue the hope of some traditional legends, some awful memorials of an injured and ill-fated nun” (147). Her excitement for visiting a “true Gothic home” is further increased during a conversation with Henry Tilney, who uses his own knowledge of Gothic novels to invent a scary description of the house for Catherine (167). In Catherine’s excitement for visiting Northanger Abbey, she relinquishes any non-fictional sense of reality and creates a fictional reality out of her Gothic-influenced imagination. Therefore, her arrival at the estate is marked by a sense of unfulfilled expectations. It is said that “To pass between lodges of a modern appearance, to find herself with such ease in the very precincts of the abbey, and driven so rapidly along a smooth, level road of fine gravel, without obstacle, alarm, or solemnity of any kind, struck her as odd and inconsistent” (169). Instead of describing the ruins of a castle, Austen creates a place which is wholly marked by the unexceptional and unremarkable. The humor of this moment is confined to the nature of the plot and the experience of the character: the audience is amused at Catherine’s unspoken disappointment at the ordinariness of the estate. The significance of this moment is that it shows how Austen puts Catherine into confrontation with a reality that falls into direct contradiction to her considerably overactive imagination, eventually revealing to Catherine (and thus the audience) the truth of reality during this particular day and age.
The second instance of confrontation between Gothic fiction and non-fictional reality, Catherine is shown to be deeply intrigued by a manuscript found within an “old-fashioned black cabinet” (177). However, in her effort to open the cabinet and in her discovery of this manuscript, Austen writes in a way that makes Catherine seem as though she is imagining herself as none other than a Gothic heroine. Even in her attempts to open the cabinet, the tension is heightened by the description of Catherine, “placing the candle with great caution on a chair, she seized the key with a very tremulous hand and tried to turn it” (178). While Catherine may be placing a great amount of suspense on the opening of this mysterious object, the audience is encouraged to laugh at these efforts because of the reality of the situation: the opening of a cabinet. In this way, the parodic elements of the novel are apparent not in the direct satire of specific Gothic tropes or characteristics; rather, the humor is found in how Catherine interprets and reacts to a “Gothic” reality.
Catherine’s humorous imagining of herself as a Gothic heroine is only encouraged when after obtaining the manuscript, she snuffs out her own candle and pretends that the wind had blown the flame out. After creating this Gothic atmosphere for herself, Catherine is seized by a self-induced sense of terror:
“Alas! It was snuffed and extinguished in one. A lamp could not have expired with more awful effect. Catherine, for a few moments, was motionless with horror. It was done completely; not a remnant of light in the wick could give hope to the rekindling breath. Darkness impenetrable and immovable filled the room. A violent gust of wind, rising with sudden fury, added fresh horror to the moment. Catherine trembled from head to foot” (180).
The rest of this scene is focused on Catherine’s “terror” at imagining herself as a Gothic heroine, and the chapter ends with the frightened protagonist having trouble sleeping. In truth, the suspenseful and mysterious scene that Austen is writing is never meant to be taken seriously, something which is confirmed by the fact that Catherine induced herself to it by blowing out her own candle. While Catherine is insisting upon an extraordinary experience of the Gothic, the awareness of Austen’s humor in this scene, as well as the audience’s preexisting knowledge of Catherine’s overactive imagination, allows the audience to see the reality of the situation immediately. There is never any true “gothicness” to the scene because in Catherine’s blowing out her own candle, she is creating her own fictional reality of terror, and that truth is something the audience is always aware of. Therefore, even in the moments where the parody of Gothic fiction is most apparent, Austen never lets the audience forget the reality of the situation, allowing her to maintain the sense of realism within the novel.
Catherine’s fantasy of the Gothic is finally shattered during a visit to unused rooms in the Abbey, where she eventually has an important conversation with Henry over the differences between reality and fantasy. Knowing that she is in the room where General Tilney’s wife died, Catherine invents a highly Gothic story in which the General murdered his wife in the room and covered up all traces of his crimes. Retreating from the room, she runs into Henry and tastelessly implies her suspicions of foul play to him. He angrily counters her suggestions with the truth: General Tilney had loved his wife very much and so naturally had no part in her death. He finally says to her “Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you” (212). While the audience has long been encouraged to take Catherine’s fantasies as humorous departures from reality, it is only when Henry confronts her with the truth of his family’s tragic and rather realistic past that Catherine begins to see her view of reality as a problem. While Austen does parody Gothic conventions in this story, she does so through the silly fantasies and faults of a protagonist who is (until this point) unable to reconcile her imagination with her actual, lived reality. While the realist aspects of the novel are apparent through Austen’s excessive descriptions of everyday life (which include every mundane detail), the heightened sense of realism is also on display through the audience’s experience with the parody of the Gothic novel. Although Catherine lacks self-awareness until the latter half of the novel, the humor in Austen’s descriptions of her fantasies is what makes the audience aware of the fantastical, fictional reality that the protagonist sees herself in. Therefore, the realism in this novel operates not only through the aforementioned details of everyday life, but also through the audience’s awareness of Catherine’s Gothic fantasies.
While the realism of the novel operates through a parody of the Gothic, it should be noted that Austen never displays any open contempt for the Gothic novel. There is no malice in how Catherine confronts the two very different realities within her imagination and within her real life; there is, however, a sophisticated and highly self-aware sense of humor to it. Therefore, the satirical elements of the novel are used only to elevate the heightened sense of realism that Austen seeks through her intimate details and descriptions. By using parody of one genre to highlight another, Austen experiments with the literary conventions that developed within the Romantic literary era and thus helps to propel the development of the realist novel as a standard mode of fiction.
Austen, Jane, and Michael Sadleir. Northanger Abbey. London: Oxford UP, 1930. Print.
Chase, Richard Volney. The American Novel and Its Tradition. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1957. Print.
Hogle, Jerrold E., and Andrew Smith. “Revisiting the Gothic and Theory: An Introduction.” Gothic Studies 11.1 (2009): 1-8. Web.
Hyperbolized Feminist Realism in Northanger Abbey
The gothic phenomena, although short-lived, left an indisputably heavy influence on literary practices in the late 1700’s, particularly that of the ‘feminist’ literary space. Jane Austen’s questionable heroine, Catherine Morland, is both the construction and deconstruction of female figures that populated the novels of her predecessors. By presenting a parodic victim of the patriarchy the heroine of Northanger Abbey, Austen was attempting to rewrite the extravagant and hyperbolic claims introduced by her more popular and sentimental precursors, such as Charlotte Smith. Hers, among many, were the texts that characterized females in literature as politically ‘sensible’ and sentimentally gothic. Austen utilizes all the literary excesses that characterize the gothic tradition to satirize the ‘sensibilities’ that marked her contemporary feminist counterparts. The role of satire destabilizes femininity; the exaggerated ‘romantic expectations’ and delusions provide a parodic victimized female figure. Firstly, Austen cleverly constructs a parodic profile of Catherine: she is naïve, part of an uneventful family life, and disinterested in ‘feminine’ social conventions. She then declares her “Everywoman’s” relationship to literature, through the voice of a self-conscious female narrative. And finally, Austen ‘fictionalizes’ the exaggerated realism that stays consistent throughout the text, by introducing Catherine to the “écriture féminine”. Northanger abbey reads as a critique of both the gothic and the sentimental sensibilities that were beings foisted on women at the time. Austen, simultaneously, constructs and deconstructs femininity as ‘feminism’ by profiling the gothic heroine, Catherine Morland; by satirizing the hyperbolic and excessive nature of ‘true sensibility’ and female gothic conventions, Austen presents a strong female identity within the patriarchy.By 1803, the year Austen sold the manuscript of Northanger abbey, the gothic heroine was a highly codified ideological figure, complete with stock physical traits, predictable parentage, and reliable class indicators. Clearly, this heroine was ripe as a subject for parody, and such, presumably, was Austen’s motive when she created her gothic heroine-in-training, Catherine Morland. Austen deflates the hyperbole that personifies the gothic heroine by beginning the novel with the following: “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine.”(Austen 5) Austen directly undermines Catherine in a way that portrays her to be ‘real’. Heroism is not perhaps an inherent characteristic in females, it is instead a label that a young girl must grow into. Diane Hoeveler, author of Gothic Feminism: The Professionalization Of Gender From Charlotte Smith To The Brontes, dissects the role of hyperbole in feminist literature in Austen’s time. She brings forth the hyperbolic nature of the ‘gothic heroine’: “By presenting a naïve heroine Austen suggests that the female gothic project is hopelessly out of touch with the social, cultural, and educational realities for most women.”(Hoeveler 143) Catherine does not fit the mold intentionally because she represents a social ‘reality’ that was a rarity in late 18th century feminist literature. Her “thin awkward figure, a sallow skin without color, dark lank hair, and strong feature” designate her as plain and ordinary, but relatable.(Austen 13) Hoeveler categorizes her as an ‘everywoman’, term that encompasses the commonplace behaviors of literary women, such as Catherine; “Catherine is Austen’s Everywoman heroine—plain, ordinary, insufficiently educated, nothing special—but she still manages to become a heroine by following her instincts, waiting passively, and learning to keep her mouth shut.”(Hoeveler 131)The everywoman is essentially a product of realism and the distorted expectations of ‘true sensibility’ that fiction conventionalizes. Catherine, labeled as the everywoman, makes clear the distortions when she spends her first night in Bath. Upon her arrival to the ball, the first great tragedy occurs in her mind, an inflation of her imaginative construct of gothic romance: “Not one, however, started with rapturous wonder on beholding her, no whisper of eager inquiry ran round the room, nor was she once called a divinity by anybody”(Austen 18). The gothic novel, in elevating to a contemptible level a young woman’s sense of herself as the object of the obsessive male gaze, masculine scrutiny and praise, can only fail to set up a frustrating disappointment for the everywoman. Catherine is victimized similarly to her gothic sisters, such as Radcliffe’s Emily and Lewis’ Antonia. Her vulnerability resembles her fellow heroines, however, the social situations are ordinary and not distinctly gothic. Hoeveler, providing comment on Catherine’s self-imagined victimization, claims that “a victim is always rewarded because such is the case in the melodramatic scheme of things. Her suffering is reified as value and stands as lucre to be exchanged for a husband.”(Hoeveler 130) Ultimately, the comment that Austen makes is on the mutability of the ‘feminine’ figure; her juxtaposition of stark realism to the amplified tropes of gothic feminism buts Catherine in a position of identity crisis.Catherine, as a victim, suffers more social adversities during her time in Bath. She feels that her situation resembles that of Emily’s, Radcliffe’s heroine in The Mysteries of Rudolph, and so begin Catherine’s delusions of her insertion into a gothic atmosphere. When Catherine faces ignorance again in the ballroom, she muses that her fate is similar to a tortured and deceived gothic heroine:“To be disgraced in the eye of the world, to wear the appearance to infamy while her heart is all purity, her actions all innocence, and the misconduct of another the true source of her debasement, is one of those circumstances which peculiarly belong to the heroine’s life, and her fortitude under it what particularly dignifies her character.”(Austen 43)Catherine’s heart is ‘pure’ and her actions ‘innocent’; she is the epitome of gothic vulnerability, even though her situation does not call for such weakness. Sensibility—or codified subjection—is a quality she, and many other women in the novel, strive to maintain. Conveniently, Henry Tilney is introduced into the novel at this particular time, and tests her ‘feminism’ through hyperbolic politeness and courting standards. Henry begins immediately by pressing her on the contents of her journal, however, she is flustered because she does not keep a journal. A journal may perhaps suggest a level of self-awareness that Catherine at this stage in her life simply does not possess. But it is significant that for the first time in the novel the act of writing appears as a metaphor for defining and inscribing one’s femininity. Henry, ironically, offers the most insight on what is feminine or not:“…it is this delightful habit of journalizing which largely contributes to form the easy style of writing for which ladies are so generally celebrated. Every body allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is particularly female. Nature may have done something, but I am sure it must be essentially assisted by the practice of keeping a journal.”(Austen 16)Northanger Abbey can be construed as Austen’s own journal, in which she is recording the politics of female ‘sensibility’. The bulk of her utilization of satire lies in this, in the self-conscious ‘sister author’, the narrator herself. Joanne Cordon examines the theoretical aspects that lie in Austen’s text through her close reading of the ‘Écriture feminine. In her article, Speaking Up for Catherine Morland: Cixous and the Feminist Heroine, states the following regarding Catherine’s language and the role of an artistic recording outlet, the journal:“The idea of a woman’s right to her own language adds significance to Catherine’s more modest assertion because the narrative examines two literary traditions associated with women—the journal and the female-authored novel—within the narrative.”(Cordon 50)Écriture féminine, translates to “women’s writing”, but the concept extends to the inscription of the female body and female difference in language and text. It is a strain of feminist literary theory that originated in France in the early 1970s and included foundational theorists such as Hélène Cixous. Cordon writes that “what makes the writing féminine is not the gender of the writer, but the aim of the writing, for écriture féminine invents new systems and dismantles old structures.”(Cordon 43) Austen is performing this in her relationship between Catherine and the ‘mighty pen’. The écriture féminine is a useful tool in juxtaposing Catherine as the ‘sentimental’ and the ‘gothic’; Catherine’s sentiment exists in her humble approach to novels and reading, and her taste for gothic and the delusions they inflict in her create a ‘self-conscious’ gothic heroine. Despite her taste for novels, Catherine does not appreciate ‘masculine’ reading: languages and history. Though her parents taught her writing and French, “her proficiency in either was not remarkable, and she shirked her lessons in both whenever she could” (Austen14).Cordon decodes this as: “Catherine’s aversion to the prescribed literature of her childhood gives her a kind of immunity to the “masculine” ideals inscribed by her culture.”(Cordon 44) This follows a reluctance that gothic females usually possess towards male authoritative forces. The parodic tone of Austen’s narrator is not just employed for the sole purpose of humor, but rather, goes beyond and parodies an entire political gendering system.The parody also extends to that of the gothic heroine, but of course by now, Austen has made her construct of the female in the gothic space clear. It is significant to consider Catherine’s conscious relationship to the gothic and her self-characterization. Hoeveler offers a comment on the role of parody in the text: “The parody or lack of parody in Austen’s work stems from the ambiguity or confusion about this notion of gendered place: either the entire external network that we know as society for women is a gothic monstrosity or there is no gothic realm at all—only faulty education and the overactive imaginations of female gothic novelists feeding false fantasies to young women.”(Hoeveler 129)The entire gothic genre was an exercise of female positioning physically and socially in the literary discipline. Hoeveler proposes the point of ‘ambiguity’, which not only pervades Austen’s novel, but feminist literature in general. Austen is parodying this ambiguity, for there is no concrete solution at the conclusion of Catherine’s journey; it is instead a social experiment of a gothic heroine attempting to function in a reality that cannot cater to her imaginative freedom. Cordon concurs that “The Mysteries of Udolpho gives Catherine a template she can apply to her own experience, and so the female-authored gothic serves as écriture féminine for Catherine.”(Cordon 51) Catherine treated it so much so that she felt a sense of great disappointment when her gothic mental construct is found to be as ordinary as she is described in the beginning: “The Abbey in itself was no more to her now than any other house. The painful remembrance of the folly it had helped to nourish and perfect, was the only emotion which could spring from a consideration of the building.”(Austen 182) Catherine’s disillusionment with Northanger Abbey marks the end of her Gothic fantasy about the house’s secret history. If her folly was to imagine Northanger Abbey as a fictional place of suppressed horror, then her redemption lies in seeing it for what it is—an ordinary family home. Her infatuation with the gothic is also discussed by Waldo S. Glock, in his article, Catherine Morland’s Gothic Delusions: A Defense of “Northanger Abbey”:“Her primary fault, the Gothic infatuation that seems to disrupt the harmonious balance of the novel, becomes the symbolic mark of Catherine’s charmingly enthusiastic enthrallment to the power of the imagination, and to the persuasive power of literature to reconcile or transcend the commonplace logic of events.”(Glock 35)The ‘commonplace logic’ that Glock is referring to may be the concept of ‘true sensibility’, again, the ideal that women are trained to strive for. The romantic expectations are tested most vigorously. Catherine’s wildly impulsive gothic reasoning exceeds normative social interaction when she becomes convinced that General Tilney killed his wife: “…and what had been terror and dislike before, was now absolute aversion. Yes, aversion! His cruelty to such a charming woman made him odious to her. She had often read of such characters.”(Austen 161) Catherine, after admitting her contempt for the General’s actions, immediately makes reference to the fiction that influences her choices. Austen, by hyperbolizing a situation such as this to this extent, brings to light the ‘ridiculousness’ of female positions in literary spaces up to Austen’s point in time. Hoeveler also acknowledges the ‘bringing to light’ that Austen performs:“By revealing to the light of common day the implausibilities of gothic conventions, Austen thought she would free herself and her fellow female novelists from the artificialities and limitations that the genre inflicted on them.”(Hoeveler 144)Austen’s work is not just a profile or a social experiment, it is most importantly a gendering struggle. Her self-conscious narrator and Catherine’s inconsistencies are coded struggles to break the mold of gothic ritual and sensible demeanor. Catherine’s escape from reality is reminiscent of the quixotic, of Lennox’s Arabella, but the metaphor for the escape is different; Catherine is utilizing her fictitious guidelines as a means to transform the feminine to ‘feminism’. Glock, on a final note, illustrates the limitations that caged Catherine throughout the text:“The point of the Gothic scenes at Northanger, in fact, is to emphasize by contrast that Catherine cannot find happiness in fantasy and romantic retreat from reality; it can only be found in the acceptance of the general ordinariness of life, as epitomized by the witty and original, yet totally unromantic Henry Tilney.”(Glock 38)Northanger abbey reads as a critique of both the gothic and the sentimental sensibilities that were beings foisted on women at the time. Austen, simultaneously, constructs and deconstructs femininity as ‘feminism’ by profiling the gothic heroine, Catherine Morland; by satirizing the hyperbolic and excessive nature of ‘true sensibility’ and female gothic conventions, Austen presents a strong female identity within the patriarchy.Works CitedAusten, Jane. Northanger Abbey ; Lady Susan ; The Watsons ; Sanditon. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.Cordon, Joanne. “Speaking Up for Catherine Morland: Cixous and the Feminist Heroine.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 32.3 (2011): 41-63. Project MUSE. Web. 31 Mar. 2012.Glock, Waldo S. “Catherine Morland’s Gothic Delusions: A Defense of “Northanger Abbey”” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 32.1 (1978): 33-46. JSTOR. Web. 31 Mar. 2012.Hoeveler, Diane L. “FOUR: Hyperbolic Femininity: Jane Austen, “Rosa Matilda”, and Mary Shelley.” Gothic Feminism: The Professionalization Of Gender From Charlotte Smith To The Brontës. University Park, PA: Penn State, 1998. 123-85. Print.