Friday, 4 March 2011

Gothic in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey

Last semester I took a class on Jane Austen. Not that I needed it, I had already read the Le Faye compilation of Austen's letters, two biographies and James Austen-Leigh's memoirs. I simply took the class for fun, which is was. As a part of the class we had to write quite a few shorter papers on the novels, and I though I would post some of them here now that the class is done. So, here's the first paper:

Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is ripe with allusions to the Gothic style. Written as a kind of parody, all the classic Gothic elements are in one way or another imputed and undermined. It begins with the very first sentence: “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine” (Austen, 1980). Immediately one wonders what qualities a heroine is supposed to possess, and why Catherine – who is in fact a heroine, since it is her own story – isn’t considered to have these. It implies that there is a certain mould that all heroines are made of; that if one reads a Gothic novel one will always meet with the same kinds of characters and incidents. The entire introduction of Catherine in the first chapter goes to show that she will in no way fit this mould, yet still be the heroine.

The most obvious references to Gothic literature appears when Catherine goes to Northanger Abbey. The first appearance of the Abbey does not satisfy her feelings about abbeys at all: it has been furnished in a modern style, the windows are great and let in much light, there are far more people working there than she had imagined, and parts of the abbey have been rebuilt in a completely different style. This is one of many points where Austen compares the Gothic to reality; in fact, I would say that the notion of realism is a keyword throughout Northanger Abbey. The Gothic world is compared to the real world, and deemed silly and even amoral.

Although Henry Tilney himself enjoys Gothic novels, he and Catherine find much pleasure in caricaturing the Gothic plot on their way to the Abbey. Henry is in this instance the driving force against the Gothic, for Catherine still harbours those expectations that have been created from too much reading and imagining. The reader is exposed to these expectations as she searches through her own and Mrs. Tilney’s rooms. This is the part of the novel when Catherine acts as the typical Gothic heroine, and also the part where it is most obvious that she is at fault.  Even Catherine blames “that sort of reading which she had there [in Bath] indulged” (Austen, 1980) when her eyes are finally opened to the nature of what she had been secretly accusing General Tilney of.

An important ingredient in Gothic novels is terror. The protagonist is supposed to be afraid, to face that fear in the end, and conquer it. At Northanger Catherine is afraid of imagined dangers. She spends sleepless nights listening to the howling wind, yet during her very last night after being turned out of the house, there are different terrors eating at her mind. This time she faces real fears, yet faces them much more boldly than when she ran away from the list of laundry found in the cabinet. She has undergone a change away from the Gothic, and become stronger as a result of it.

At the Abbey, General Tilney is twice the villain: once in Catherine’s imagination and once in reality. He is, in truth, the essence of a Gothic villain (though I am of the mind that he is not the main villain of the novel, but rather John Thorpe) and what Catherine accuses him of is not far from the truth. However, General Tilney is also a very silly man, and his children suffer a great deal from his actions. Henry exclaims to Catherine that she has imagined very un-English morals to exist in his father, yet she concludes herself that in thinking so “she had scarcely sinned against his character, or magnified his cruelty” (Austen, 1980). General Tilney becomes the Gothic villain, but his pompous character undermines his villainy greatly, for one cannot but detest and look down on him. He is not someone to fear, but someone to ridicule.

From her stay at the Abbey, Catherine learnt that it is not the place where one lives that creates an adventure, but rather the people in it. She imagined that going to an Abbey would fulfil all her dreams of a quest, yet each time she imagines herself in one it ends badly. However, she had greater enjoyment of the time when she is alone with the Tilney siblings than on any other occasion. She has grown tired of the grounds around the Abbey, yet not a day goes by in their company when she is remotely unhappy. It is good company that is entertaining, not the mysterious places of the world. Again, Austen illustrates that reality far overshadows the Gothic illusion.

Furthermore, it is possible to draw the conclusion that her time spent in Bath was Catherine’s Gothic adventure, rather than her time at the Abbey. When Henry Tilney is introduced to Catherine, Austen calls her “our heroine” and makes it obvious that Henry is our hero. John Thorpe, as the villain, tries to steal Catherine away from Henry, and she fights him and learns that not everyone in the world is moral and honest. The events at bath are just as adventurous as those at the Abbey, Catherine is only too humble to realise it. However, they are “real” adventures, like those many other women during those times might experience – or might miss out on.

The point where Austen ridicules the Gothic style the most, in my opinion, is in Henry and Catherine’s love story. In fact, it is one of the most unromantic love stories every written, for he falls in love with her only because she loved him first. It is not for any personal quality of hers that he loves her, only mere gratitude. Had Catherine not so clearly shown her feelings for Henry when speaking to his sister in the beginning of their acquaintance, and not been so eager to please Henry on the occasions when they met, he might not have loved her at all. Catherine acted in no way as the Gothic heroine; she opened her heart completely even before she was secure of her hero’s feelings, yet she – realistically – still gained her hero. 

Northanger Abbey may be a parody of Gothic novels, yet it is not a parody of novels in general. Austen even famously defends novels and their authors. However, it can also be said to be a celebration of realistic fiction – not in the sense of having to convey the absolute truth in novels, but for authors to know of what they are writing and stay within the realms of what might happen in the real world. It is a matter of quality of the work and how knowledgeable the author is on the subjects conveyed. Austen herself never ventured to write anything she didn’t know about, yet the fact that she managed to produce such amazing novels is greater evidence of her brilliance than any “imaginative” novels might even have been.

Works Cited
Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey and Other Works. New York: Oxford University Press Inc, 1980.

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