Northanger Abbey Essay - Critical Evaluation

Jane Austen

Critical Evaluation

In all the history of the novel, perhaps no genre can claim more popularity than the gothic novel of the late eighteenth century. The gothic fad, however, was all but over when Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen’s parody of the gothic novel, was published in 1818, a year after her death. Her delightful mockery had actually been written when such works were at their height of popularity, about 1797-1798. The novel had been sold to a publisher in 1803 but was published posthumously.

In her early twenties at the time of the composition, the young author lived in the quiet rectory where she was born in the Hampshire village of Steventon; her circumstances resembled those of the young heroine of her novel—even to including such amusements as poring over gothic novels. Those persons who have not read Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), which occupies so much of Catherine Morland’s time and thoughts, will find other reasons to enjoy Northanger Abbey, but a knowledge of The Mysteries of Udolpho or any other gothic novel will bring special rewards.

At one level, Northanger Abbey is an amusing parody of gothic novels, with their mysterious castles and abbeys, gloomy villains, incredibly accomplished heroines, sublime landscapes, and supernatural claptrap. Austen’s satire is not, however, pointed only at such novels; the romantic sensibility of the gothic enthusiast is also a target. Northanger Abbey is a comic study of the ironic discrepancies between the prosaic world in which Catherine lives and the fantastic shapes that her imagination, fed by gothic novels, gives to that world. The author holds up the contrast between the heroine’s real situation and the gothic world she fantasizes.

The prevailing irony begins with the first sentence: “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a heroine.” As she grows up, she develops neither the prodigious artistic and intellectual accomplishments nor the requisite beauty necessary for the role. She herself is merely pretty, but once her adventures get underway, she begins to assign stereotyped gothic roles to her new acquaintances. Detecting villainy in General Tilney’s haughty demeanor merely because in The Mysteries of Udolpho the evil Montoni is haughty, she overlooks the general’s real defects of snobbery and materialism, traits that eventually prove far more threatening to her than his hauteur.

Since the central feature of the gothic novel is the sinister, dilapidated castle or abbey, Catherine’s most cherished daydreams center on Northanger Abbey and its long, damp passages. In reality, nothing is damp except an ordinary drizzling rain, nor is anything narrow or ruined, the abbey having been thoroughly renovated for modern living. Try as she will, she cannot manufacture genuine...

(The entire section is 1185 words.)