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.
Character Development and the Victorian Woman
In the Victorian era, appropriate etiquette and manners were predetermined for both men and women. The society in which they lived maintained stereotypical gender roles more rigidly defined than at the present. The coming of age was difficult for any young person; therefore, the ability to distinguish among good and poor examples of etiquette was essential to attaining proper and respectful womanhood or manhood. The stereotypical Victorian woman was considered to be meek, weak, have few opinions, be generally helpless, and have little chance of gaining social status. For the most part, these women were said to have two main roles: courtship followed by marriage. Even from a young age, girls dreamed of a successful marriage in that this was their only hope of rising in society (Petrie, 199-206). In fact, one writer said “that it is not easy to comprehend the possibility of raising them to a higher plane than that to which they had been lifted, because of their natural incapacity for other than the domestic and social functions which they so gracefully fulfilled” (James, 215). These women were also considered intellectually inferior. Women were only expected to learn French, drawing, and music (Petrie, 200). Subjects such as art, literature, and especially science were considered too complex and advanced for a woman’s mind (James, 324-25). As the fight began for women’s equality, especially in education, one famous female author questioned men’s intellect in marrying such passive women. In “Vindication of the Rights of Women,” Mary Wollstonecraft asks: “Do the women who, by the attainment of a few artificial accomplishments, have strengthened the prevailing prejudice, merely contribute to the happiness of their husbands? Do they display their charms merely to amuse them? And have women, who have early imbibed notions of passive obedience, sufficient character to manage a family or educate children?” (Mellor, 388) In other words, how can a man desire a passive and uneducated woman to become his wife as well as the mother and protector of his children? Without the correct education, the mother will not be fully equipped to deal with crucial issues that arise in managing a family and in parenting. Men would also be more satisfied if their wives completed them, rather than simply amused them. In Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey, however, the female characters express their individual opinions and do not appear to be naturally weak; they are instead forced to be submissive, or meek, towards men and compelled to rely on them. For example, when Captain Tilney demands that Catherine leave Northanger, she has no other choice. She is given neither adequate time to pack her things, nor a guard to ensure her safety on her way home (Austen, 177). She must yield to the man. As a young and impressionable girl, the young protagonist, Catherine Morland, must face these stereotypes and develop her individual character, while maintaining her intellect and not yielding to the expected passivity. In order to accomplish this, she needs both positive and negative examples of acceptable manners. After recognizing the differences in each of her acquaintances, she must choose which attributes to reject and which to embrace. Jane Austen effectively uses character foils, through both males and females, in order to aid Catherine in this critical search. Mrs. Morland, for example, contrasts with Mrs. Thorpe. Mrs. Morland lacks humor, but is kind and honest (Todd, 74). She desires the best for her children, but has little time to help Catherine because she spends the majority of her time educating the younger children. Catherine even overhears her parents say at one time that she is becoming a pretty young lady (Austen, 10). While her parents love her and wish only the best for her, they are not boastful about their daughter. On the other hand, Mrs. Morland is unafraid to boast of the greatness of her children – which is obviously why her children are also poor examples of character. She believes that “all of them [are] more beloved and respected in their different station than any other three beings ever were” (Austen, 25). Catherine becomes more like her mother, however, by recognizing the good in people and by not being boastful of her relationships with others.Mr. Allen and General Tilney are both wealthy men, but they have different attitudes and values. Mr. Allen is practical, sensible, and humble, whereas General Tilney is obsessed with material objects. When showing Catherine around the abbey for the first time, he makes reference to the small size and simplicity of the rooms and even begins to tell her the very price of one particular item, while all along he is searching for compliments (Austen, 128). He implores Catherine to compare his possessions to that of Mr. Allen’s; by falsely suggesting that Catherine must be used to more luxury and nicer things at the Allen’s, he really only desires to hear Catherine deny this claim (Austen, 131). In comparison, Catherine falls in love with Henry Tilney, not because of his money, but because of his personality and heart. In this respect, she seems more alike to Mr. Allen.Henry Tilney and John Thorpe are also quite different from one another. Thorpe is excessively arrogant whereas Tilney has the ability to clearly recognize the motivations of others. Thorpe, who is at first determined to marry Catherine, for example, offers General Tilney only the highest compliments concerning her. His pride causes the Morlands to seem even wealthier than he himself believes them to be. In fact, this not only applies to the Morlands, but “with whomsoever he was, or was likely to be connected, his own consequence always required that theirs should be great, and as his intimacy with any acquaintance grew, so regularly grew their fortune” (Austen, 193). Tilney, on the other hand, is considerate and tender and even helps Catherine to recognize her own follies — as when she suspects the General of being his wife’s cause of death. He asks her to “consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained” and to “remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians” (Austen, 156) — thus guiding her back into reality. While Thorpe only wants Catherine because of her supposed money, Henry Tilney truly loves her. As evidence, when Tilney learns that she does not have much money, he still pursues and eventually marries her.Perhaps the most crucial contrast exists between Isabella Thorpe and Eleanor Tilney. Eleanor is reserved and calm while Isabella is more outgoing and feisty. Isabella is fickle and attempts to manipulate Catherine into going to Clifton with them by first asking her to retract her engagement with Miss Tilney. When this tactic doesn’t work she tries again by calling her affectionate names (Austen, 79). She also accepts James Morlands proposal, but then flirts with Captain Tilney, causing James to break off the engagement (Austen, 159-60). It is quite ironic that Isabella claims that she paid no attention to Captain Tilney because she “knew the fickle sex too well” (Austen, 171), when in fact her own fickleness leads her to flirt with him. She tries to persuade Catherine to write to James, in her defense, but Catherine finally realizes her selfishness and insincerity. Eleanor is forgiving, as when she agrees to still go on a walk with Catherine even after having been unwillingly rejected. Eleanor is also disheartened and upset when she is forced to share with Catherine the General’s demand for Catherine to leave. She begs Catherine to understand and reminds her that “you are too good, I am sure, to think the worse of me for the part I am obliged to perform. I am indeed a most unwilling messenger” (Austen, 176). In other words, she is a faithful and unselfish friend. As Catherine grows throughout the novel, she becomes increasingly more and more like Eleanor. In fact, because of Isabella’s “inconsistencies, contradictions, and falsehood[s]” she discontinues her friendship with Isabella (Austen, 172).In conclusion, Catherine faces an array of examples to look to concerning her development of character as a Victorian woman. The poor examples of character, Mrs. Thorpe, General Tilney, John Thorpe, and Isabella Thorpe, all help Catherine to realize that selfishness and concern with material goods are qualities to be avoided. On the other hand, her mother, Mr. Allen, Henry Tilney, and Eleanor Tilney, all help her to know which qualities are welcomed and desired. She is attracted to the character traits of the latter four and becomes more like them throughout the novel. She is meek, in a positive way, and voices her many opinions, but she also finds a husband who allows her to be intellectual and considers her his equal rather than simply for entertainment purposes. Unlike most women at this time, she is able to raise her social status by marrying someone of a greater stature than herself, but this is not the motivation of her relationship with Henry. Catherine thus has the ability to become not the stereotypical Victorian woman, but an idealized and idolized Victorian woman.Works CitedAusten, Jane. Northanger Abbey. New York: Pearson and Longman, 2005. 8-198. James, Bartlett B. Woman: In All Ages and in All Countries. Philadelphia: The Rittenhouse Press, 1907. 311-340.Mellor, Anne K., and Richard E. Matlak. “Vindication of the Rights of Women.” British Literature: 1780-1830. Boston: Heinle and Heinle, 1996. 371-413.Petrie, Sir Charles. The Victorians. New York: David McKay Co., Inc., 1961. 195-224.Todd, Janet, ed. Jane Austen: New Perspectives. Vol. 3. New York: Holmes and Meier, Inc., 1983. 74-233.
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.
Sense vs. Sensibility: Which is the Victor?
Human nature undeniable has many facets is undeniable. Whether or not some character traits are superior to others, however, is debatable. One such deliberation is whether sense invariably triumphs over sensibility. Through her characters Catherine Morland in “Northanger Abbey” and Marianne Dashwood in “Sense and Sensibility,” Jane Austen boldly attempts, and succeeds, in answering this question. Each heroine faces the extraordinary challenge of leaving their childhood worlds of fantasy behind to develop as a rational adult and find “sensibility.” Austen also designs characters that are purer paradigms of reason and rationality, exposing innate flaws in either inclination through opposing characters. The resulting friction demonstrates that sense and sensibility do not necessarily surpass each other. Rather, their real value comes from their mutual role in maturation. Thus, neither trait is considerably useful unless influenced by its counterpart.Although both Catherine Morland and Marianne Dashwood are Austen’s models of sensibility, neither girl bears much similarity towards the other. Catherine is a naïve country girl with little guidance and no rational concept of human nature. Marianne, on the other hand, is not so blameless. Her impropriety is a result of indulging her emotions according to her personal code of morality. Whatever their differences, both girls are invariably mislead by the influence of amorous literature. Their ecstatic delight in prose and poetry leads them to believe that the real world can be superimposed on the template of a romance novel. The reader sees this in Catherine as she envisions herself making a thrilling discovery when exploring Northanger Abbey. In Marianne’s case we are told that “all her opinions are romantic” (62) and that she depends upon her instincts to alarm her of misconduct. As she says, “…if there had been any real impropriety in what I did, I should have been sensible of it at the time, for we always know when we are acting wrong, and with such a conviction I could have had no pleasure” (72). As the novels progress, it becomes blatantly obvious that without the introduction of common sense, Catherine’s understanding and Marianne’s disposition will never be corrected. By the same token, a complete loss of sensibility would render them heartless and devoid of compassion, much like the callous characters of Isabella Thorpe or Fanny Dashwood. Together, these ideas suggest that the process of maturation is a continual cycle of sense and sensibility acting upon each other. Thus, it is through Catherine and Marianne that Austen emphasizes the need for sense. To project the value of moderate sensibility, however, she uses Elinor Dashwood. Elinor is the embodiment of rationality, exactly the opposite of her sister Marianne. Where Marianne is governed by her feelings, Elinor is controlled by reason and conviction. In a number of ways Elinor has already acquired the wisdom and discernment of an esteemed elder. To the reader’s surprise, however, even Elinor’s fastidious opinions undergo an emotional evolution. This long metamorphosis transforms her from an uncommonly sensible woman into a sympathetic heroine. This change is made clear, for example, when her judgment errs in the seriousness of Marianne’s late illness, as well as when her estimation of Willoughby softens when he explains himself to her at Cleveland. Also worth noting, however, is that neither Elinor nor Marianne espouse their early sentiments toward first and second attachments. In the end, it is Elinor who learns the strength of a first attachment, while Marianne realizes the fullness of a second. The flaws of sense and sensibility are best illustrated, however, when both Elinor and Marianne fail to deal with their disappointed love by virtue of natural inclination. Elinor finally sees for herself how she underestimated the sacrifice of repressing her sensibility; Marianne becomes aware of how her own indiscretion demoralized her conduct. It is with this new awareness of self that a process of healing begins for each woman. Despite the importance of tempering sense with sensibility, it is significant that both Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility are written from a point of view where sense is an anchor. With this in mind, we see how sense is used as a lens to examine human nature. The role of reason here is to reveal the involuntary tendencies of the heart and mind. This sensible approach is also used because it offers structure without excluding the exchange of emotion between various characters. In the context of the novels, this is manifest through Elinor’s and Marianne’s growing consciousness. As their separate but similar experiences evoke this awareness of self, we see how sense and sensibility work in tandem toward maturation. Indeed, this appears to be the very heart of Austen’s intention. As Marilyn Butler says, “[Austen] does not value the personal process of learning to reason as an end in itself” (Butler 177). If this were the case, then the novels would conclude with little or no care to Elinor’s own alteration. Austen’s design proves itself to be even more intricate, however, as we see the unfolding of the denouement. Specifically, characters that remain unchanged by life experiences are doomed to a false feeling of happiness. This is evident through her presentation of characters like General Tilney or John Willoughby, who seem perfectly mercenary in comparison to Catherine, Elinor or Marianne. This is the reality that the girls eventually become aware of as they combine the logistics of sensible behavior with expressions of sensibility. That they can come to this conclusion is evidence of their maturation; what is more, however, is that they are now more understanding of human nature and its inclination to make sacrifices under the stress of society. It is precisely because they still have their sensibilities, then, that these women can rise above the socially constructed ideology (i.e. Catherine and Elinor), or the personally designed one (Marianne), that previously limited them from uniting sense and sensibility in perfect balance.The main idea that Austen ends up presenting to her readers, then, is that possessing and equal amount of sense and sensibility kindles a seasoned understanding of the verities of life. Standing on this level foundation offers an unobstructed view of other truths, like how a sensible society governing the human race is both a blessing and a curse. This premise also reveals that the best way to avoid losing one’s humanity to social institutions, regardless of context, comes by self-awareness through maturation. As illustrated by Austen, to know oneself is to keep reason and raptures in check with one another. Moreover, achieving this balance is the means to a greater end.
Realism or Romance
The realistic novel, characterized by its presentation of reality and rational philosophy, was a genre created in response to the romantic, or “gothic,” novel and which was characterized by sensationalist escapism. In contrast to romanticism’s poetic and dreamlike language, the diction of the realistic novel was more natural and simple-often making use of satire or dialogue. Realism tended to focus more on character study rather than on actual plot, and lacked the fantastic events of the gothic novel. However, Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey broke from the conventions of both literary techniques in that it utilized aspects from both realism and romanticism. Austen’s use of dialogue and satire, as well as the ordinary events depicted through the novel, highlight the realistic aspects of the work. Rather than employing the flowery, romantic words recalling those used by writers such as Pope, Grey and Thompson (5), this piece uses matter-of-fact dialogue between the characters to describe the events. For example, Henry Tilney’s interaction with Catherine (15) is comprised mainly of dialogue, and relies upon their speech rather than on narrative description. The speaker uses tone and free indirect discourse as a means of revealing the minds of the characters, who are arguably more important to the realistic novel than the plot. Free indirect discourse allows the readers insight into the characters’ emotions and thoughts in scenes through the voice of the narrator without the use of dialogue. As Catherine explores the Abbey for the first night, the storm and the “characteristic sounds” make her feel as though “she really [is] in an Abbey” (138). This reveals her own misconceptions of Northanger Abbey, and the expectations she has of its similarities to the setting of a true gothic romance. These aspects help to show more of the characters’ inner thoughts, allowing the narrator to reveal their development throughout the novel. The ordinary qualities of the characters in Northanger Abbey, and particularly that of Catherine, are used to allocate a sense of reality to their individual personas. The novel’s heroine, Catherine, lacks the characteristics of the typical gothic romance heroine. The reason for her “strange, unaccountable character” is that she does not have any of the remarkable qualities or extraordinary talents so often found in the gothic novel heroines, but rather is described as decidedly “ordinary” (4). However, Catherine’s maturation is evident toward the end of the novel; she has developed the ability to see people for who they are (especially Isabella and General Tilney). Upon reading Isabella’s letter describing what occurred with Frederick Tilney, Catherine finally realizes the “inconsistencies, contradictions, and falsehood” that have revolved around their friendship, and declares the contents of the letter “disgusting…empty, and…impudent” (182). This reveals how Catherine is now able to see Isabella’s true nature. Her interaction with Henry and willingness to speak against his brother Frederick, declaring that she “must say that [she does] not like him at all” (182), shows a newfound independence and further growth in that she is now speaking up against Henry, whom she fears offending. After General Tilney abruptly makes Catherine return home, her ability to speak up about it to Eleanor rather than accept it quietly reveals her growing maturity. Although “it [is] with pain” that Catherine speaks up at all, she mentions her anxiety about the General’s behavior for the sake of her friendship with Eleanor. The darker tone of the second half of Northanger Abbey as well as the theme of the gothic novel infuse the piece with elements of romanticism. Catherine’s obsession with gothic novels, as revealed through her discussions of Udolpho and the importance of reading such novels with Isabella (29), shows the idealized view of the genre by people of the time period. Catherine’s exploration of Northanger Abbey sets the mood for the second half of the novel; she views the dark and mysterious mansion to be the optimal gothic setting. Her fantastic imaginings of what she finds within the manor as well as the mystery she creates surrounding the late Mrs. Tilney set the mood for an atypical gothic piece. However, her fantasies are shattered when the house is discovered to be an ordinary manor and those living within no more fantastic than Catherine herself. While bracing herself for an amazing adventure “just like a book” when Henry indulges her fancy in the carriage ride to the Abbey (131), her fantasies of mysterious papers and dark corridors are broken when the things she discovers are “scarcely more interesting” (143) than a washing bill and a wife who passed away from natural causes. Austen places this ordinary, anti-gothic heroine in a supposedly gothic novel-like setting as a means of incorporating gothic themes into her realistic novel. Although a realistic novel, Northanger Abbey utilizes romantic themes in an effort to satirize the gothic genre. Although the diction, structure, characters and events are realistic, many characteristics of the piece draw on romantic themes. Austen places “normal” characters such as Catherine into mundane circumstances to reverse the theme of the extraordinary gothic heroine going through unbelievable experiences. The writer places Catherine into situations that a gothic heroine might embark on, and purposely makes them ordinary. Austen also makes direct references to novels throughout this story. Her excerpts from romance writers as Gray, Thompson, Pope and Shakespeare are satirically placed, showing how Catherine, a realistic character in a realistic novel, seeks the life of the gothic heroine through “the memories [of] these quotations” (5). Austen later makes a direct reference to novelists of the time period and their practices of putting down other novelists (25). These themes, used in conjunction with the realistic setting and characters of the novel, mock the romantic genre and its various absurdities.
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.