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.
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