Northanger Abbey Essay - Critical Essays

Jane Austen


One of Jane Austen’s basic aesthetic principles is probability. In Northanger Abbey, she satirizes the contemporary novels, the gothic in particular, for their improbability. Instead of perilous adventures and heightened emotions, Austen focuses on rather ordinary people in ordinary situations, emphasizing social interaction and conversation. Catherine is an antiheroine, according to the typical gothic style—hers are the anxieties and the triumphs of ordinary life. As antiheroine, Catherine highlights (and critiques) those qualities of the idealized heroine: beauty, passivity, and domestic virtue. On the other hand, Isabella appears to be the typical heroine of sensibility—she is beautiful and openly emotional—but her attractive outward characteristics mask her ugly insincerity and hypocrisy. She flouts social propriety, using conventional behavior and expectations to behave how she wishes. Ultimately, she is motivated by her vanity and her desire for money. True propriety is a respect for social conventions as a means of social intercourse, and a flaw in manners means a moral flaw at some level. In short, the “evil” characters in the novel, such as Isabella, John Thorpe, and General Tilney, are those who transgress the bounds of good manners and polite behavior.

While one focuses mainly on Catherine’s perceptions, Northanger Abbey is told by a detached third-person narrator, who posits herself as the writer of the novel. This distanced, ironic narrator passes judgment on larger social matters, such as the education of women and the value of novels, novel writing, and novel reading. She assesses Catherine’s actions and judgments and offers commentary on other characters that is beyond Catherine’s perception. The irony, and comedy, of the novel comes from the disparity between Catherine’s reading and imagination and her “reality.” there is also irony in the disparity between what Catherine knows and what readers know. Austen’s unrelentingly rational narrator controls the reader’s...

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