Narrative Voice in Northanger Abbey: Finding the Value of Novelistic Expression
Jane Austen ’s Northanger Abbey has been widely analyzed as satire of the gothic novel and, at first glance, it seems there is more than enough textual evidence to support this claim. Throughout the novel, Austen employs a sarcastic narrative voice, often condescending to the gothic tropes. However, the theory of the novel as pure satire falls apart once the reader considers some of the instances in the novel where Austen openly defends and pays homage to the very genre she otherwise derides. While a surface level reading of Northanger Abbey may lead the reader to believe that Austen is simply satirizing the gothic novel, a closer examination of the text revels that she is also upholding it as a valid form of art capable of mimicking real life and shedding light on human personality. Throughout the novel, Austen engages with herself in a complex discussion about novels and their usefulness, creating her own dialectic through her innovative use of narrative voice.
Taken at face value, the narrative voice in Northanger Abbey is predominately satirical. The novel opens with the narrator intentionally mocking the gothic novel and its logic. The first indication of this attitude occurs when the narrator begins discussing the protagonist Catherine’s parents, intentionally drawing attention to their normalcy as though it is an oddity. Of Catherine’s father the narrator notes, “He had a considerable independence, besides two good livings—and he was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters” (Austen 5). Similarly, of Catherine’s mother the narrator says, “She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as any body might expect, she still lived on” (Austen 5). When the narrator talks about locking up daughters and dying in child birth as though they are the norm rather than the exception, it is clear to the reader that the narrator is using novel logic, specifically gothic novel logic, wherein such extremes are common place. In doing so, the narrator also points out the absurdity of that novel logic by drawing the reader’s attention to the ludicrous nature of its standards. Not only does the narrator make fun of gothic novel logic, they also employ a sarcastic tone in order to make obvious their subversion of gothic conventions. This is clearly exemplified when the narrator first introduced the reader to Mrs. Thorpe: “This brief account of the family,” the narrator says, “is intended to supersede the necessity of a long and minute detail from Mrs. Thorpe herself, of her past adventures and sufferings, which might otherwise be expected to occupy the three or four following chapters” (Austen 21). In this passage, the narrator acknowledges the gothic custom of going into elaborate backstory for each character. By directly addressing the common practice and yet choosing not to partake in it, the narrator shirks the tradition, setting herself apart from, and above, the conventions of gothic novels. The implied understanding between the narrator and the reader is that going into elaborate backstory is a superfluous use of time. The gesture is thus a criticism of gothic convention.
The narrator also satirizes the purple prose innate to gothic novels by giving elaborate descriptions of mundane things. This is best exemplified when the narrator launches into a several page long description of Catherine doing nothing more interesting than opening a cabinet: “Her heart fluttered, her knees trembled, and her cheeks grew pale.” (Austen 124). The scene is dragged out and exaggerated in much the same way that a gothic novel would drag out and exaggerate a scene that lead to some grand reveal. This scene, however, amounts to nothing more than Catherine discovering a few laundry receipts. Setting the reader up this way, only to let the scene fall flat, parodies the melodrama often employed in gothic novels to build suspense. On the surface level it seems as if Austen makes use of this sarcastic narrative voice in order to express her distaste for gothic novels. However, this not the case throughout the entire novel. There are more than a few instances in Northanger Abbey where the narrative voice seems to clearly contradict itself, taking up the defense of gothic novels. The most obvious instance of this occurs when the narrator takes pause from narrating the story in order to go on a long tangent, the purpose of which is to defend novels as valuable mediums. After narrating a scene in which Catherine is reading a novel, the narrator elaborates: “YES, novels;—for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel writers, of degrading by contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding” (Austen 23). This defense of novels goes on for at least a page. In it, the narrator acknowledges the literary world outside of Northanger Abbey, scolding writers who express a distaste for their own artistic medium within the very novels that they write. She adds that novels have “only genius, taste, and wit to recommend them” (Austen 23). This narrative outburst comes as a surprise to the reader. Not only does the narrator seem to take an entirely different stance on the validity of novels as works of art, but she also chastises writers for doing the very thing the narrator was doing—deriding novels.
Austen’s narrator also exhibits a subtle preference for novels by favoring characters who read and mocking characters who do not. This is displayed clearly by an interaction that Catherine has with John Thorpe, who the narrator expresses a clear distain for. Thorpe asserts that he hates novels; in his own words, “Udolpho! Oh, Lord! Not I; I never read novels; I have something else to do” (Austen 32). Throughout the discourse, Thorpe makes several contradictory claims about novels and their merits, demonstrating that he actually has no understanding of them whatsoever and that his hatred for them is a flimsy attempt to make himself seem more intelligent and cultured. Conversely, the narrator deals more favorably with Henry Tilney, Catherine’s love interest. Henry is a self-proclaimed avid reader who understands the ins and outs of novel conventions and is able to employ those conventions with wit and humor in conversation. The best example of this occurs when Henry launches into a long-winded monologue wherein he constructs a story about Catherine’s first night at Northanger Abbey. During the monologue, Henry demonstrates not only a comprehensive understanding of gothic novels and their principles but is also able to allude to specific novels by referencing them in his story. When Henry says, “’Oh! Thou—whomsoever thou mayst be, into whose hands these memoirs of the wretched Matilda may fall’—when your lamp suddenly expires in the socket, and leaves you in total darkness,” he is directly referencing The Mysteries of Udolpho (Austen 116). In these ways, the narrative voice of Northanger Abbey seems to contradict itself, in one breath denouncing the gothic novel and in the next defending it.
An attentive reader will notice, however, that what at first appears to be contradiction is instead a synthesizing of the narrator’s perspective on gothic novels. The best example of this comes when the main character Catherine allows her imagination to run away with her, causing her to suspect General Tilney, Henry Tilney’s father, of murdering his late wife. Catherine’s suspicions, while they may be reasonable in the world of gothic novels, are completely unreasonable in real life. During Catherine’s flight of fancy, the narrator relays one of her thoughts: “Something was certainly to be concealed; her fancy, though it had trespassed lately once or twice, could not mislead her here” (136). This line can be read with two different narrative voices superimposed on top of it. Either the voice belongs to Catherine, who is genuine in her assertion, or to the narrator, whom the reader assumes is making another sarcastic overstatement. In this instance, however, the narrator is only being half sarcastic and one only needs to read on to find out why. Catherine’s suspicions of the General as a murderer are later discredited. She realizes the error of her ways and makes a vow to deal only in terms of logic and reality, not the fantasy realm of novels.
If Northanger Abbey had been true satire, the story would have ended here. Catherine’s decision to disavow novelistic tropes and to embrace reality would have been a perfect conclusion to a satire of the gothic novel. However, the story does not end here. Instead, it goes on to reveal that Catherine’s decision to embrace realism was a mistake. Later in the novel, it is revealed that the General, while not a murderer, is nothing but a money loving, cold hearted brute. He prevents the marriage of Catherine and Henry simply because Catherine is not from a wealthy family. Upon this revelation, the narrator delivers this line, “Catherine, at any rate, heard enough to feel that in suspecting General Tilney of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character, or magnified his cruelty” (Austen 183). The revelation that this line brings—that is, the revelation that Catherine’s original assessment of the General was at least slightly correct—allows one to reread the line, “Something was certainly to be concealed; her fancy, though it had trespassed lately once or twice, could not mislead her here,” from a new perspective. (136). The narrator’s assertion that Catherine’s suspicions “could not mislead her here” was only half sarcastic. The narrator may indeed have been mocking Catherine’s conclusion that the General was a murderer. However, they only confirmed that Catherine’s assessment of the General’s character was correct. In hindsight, it is clear that the narrator was attempting to strike this balance all along. Through setting up the tropes in traditional gothic style, and then playing them straight with realism the narrator shows us how gothic conventions act a mirror that reflects back to us an exaggerated version of the real world.
The narrative voice in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey strikes a balance between two extremes. Instead of satirizing the gothic novel or wholly defending it, the narrative voice takes a more dynamic stance on how novels should be approached. Novels are not works of frivolity but neither are they true-to-life reflections of reality. Instead, they are something else, a medium that does not portray real life, but mimics it, dramatizes it, and sheds light on the human personality through overstatement. While it might be easy to analyze Northanger Abbey as satire of the gothic novel, it would be a discredit to the true complexity of ideas contained within it and a misreading of the author’s intent in producing it. Rather than a pure attack against or defense for the gothic novel, Northanger Abbey is a dialectic formed through an innovative use of narrative voice wherein the narrator takes up the flag of two opposing ideas in order to synthesize them into a logical conclusion.
Austen, Jane, et al. Northanger Abbey; Lady Susan; The Watsons; Sanditon. Oxford University Press, 2008.
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