Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen
Northanger Abbey Jane Austen
The following entry presents criticism of Austen's novel Northanger Abbey (1818). See also, Jane Austen Criticism, Pride and Prejudice Criticism, and Mansfield Park Criticism.
Originally written between 1798 and 1799, but not published until 1818, Northanger Abbey is considered Jane Austen's first significant work of fiction. The novel is in part a burlesque of the Gothic and sentimental fiction that was popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, particularly of Ann Radcliffe's novels, such as The Mysteries of Udolfo. In addition to its parodic elements, Northanger Abbey also follows the maturation of Catherine Morland, a naive eighteen-year-old, ignorant of the workings of English society and prone to self-deception. Influenced by her reading of novels rife with the overblown qualities of horror fiction, Catherine concocts a skewed version of reality by infusing real people, things, and events with terrible significance. However, Catherine's mistaken impressions, though clouded by Gothic sentiment, often hint at an insightful, if unconscious, judgment of character that cuts through the social pretensions of those around her. In this respect Austen's novel carries on an ironic discourse which makes it not only a satire, but also a sophisticated novel of social education.
Plot and Major CharactersCatherine's introduction into society begins when Mr. and Mrs. Allen, her neighbors in Fullerton, invite her to spend some time with them while vacationing in the English town of Bath. There she meets the somewhat pedantic clergyman Henry Tilney and the histrionic Isabella Thorpe, who encourages Catherine in her reading of Gothic fiction. Her circle of acquaintances widens with the arrival of James Morland, Catherine's brother and a love interest for Isabella, and John Thorpe, Isabella's rude, conniving brother. The setting shifts from Bath to Northanger Abbey, the ancestral home of the Tilneys, when John deceives General Tilney, Henry's father, into believing that Catherine is an heiress. Austen's satire of Gothic horror novel conventions begins as Henry and Catherine drive up to the Abbey and the former plays on the heroine's romantic expectations of the place. When Catherine reaches her destination she is disappointed to find a thoroughly modern building, completely lacking in hidden passageways, concealed dungeons, and the like. Later, Austen allows Catherine's imagination to run amok, only to reveal the objects of her fears as ordinary and mundane. At the climax of the novel, General Tilney—whom Catherine suspects of having murdered or shut up his wife somewhere in the abbey—turns the heroine out after learning that she does not come from a wealthy family. At the close of the novel, the outraged Henry proposes marriage to Catherine, now divested of her delusions by Henry and his sister Eleanor. General Tilney, who proves to be not a murderer, but rather an individual of questionable moral and social character, eventually gives his consent to the marriage after learning that his daughter Eleanor is also engaged—to a wealthy Viscount.
While ostensibly a burlesque of the conventional modes of Gothic horror fiction, Northanger Abbey is also a novel of education that focuses on the theme of self-deception. Austen portrays Catherine as an inversion of the typical Gothic heroine, making her neither beautiful, talented, nor particularly intelligent, but rather ordinary in most respects. In contrast, several other characters in the novel are presented as pastiches of stock Gothic characters—Isabella and General Tilney, for example, are parodies of the damsel and the domestic tyrant. These individuals seem to fit into Catherine's deluded perspective of the world which, in the tradition of Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote, leaves her unable to distinguish between reality and the romanticized version of life she finds in popular novels. Other characters in the novel serve to balance the work. Henry Tilney is often regarded by critics as Austen's mouthpiece—though he, too, is occasionally an object of irony and ridicule. For example, he fails to realize that Catherine's delusions, though excessive, hint at the true nature of people and events. Thus, Catherine is the first to understand that General Tilney, although not a murderer, is cruel and mercenary. This ironic aspect of the novel alludes to a larger theme in the work, that of the moral significance of social conventions and conduct—a subject that Austen explored in greater detail in later novels.
Critics have generally regarded Northanger Abbey to be of lesser literary quality than the remainder of Austen's mature works. Some scholars have observed occasional lapses in her narrative technique of a sort thatdo not appear in later novels. By far the greatest debate surrounding Northanger Abbey, however, is the question of its aesthetic unity. Critics have traditionally seen the work as part novel of society, part satire of popular Gothic fiction, and therefore not a coherent whole. Detractors, focusing on the work as a parody, have found its plot weak, its characters unimaginative and superficial, and its comedy anticlimactic due to its reliance on an outmoded style of fiction. Others, while conceding the lack of an easily discernable organizing principle, argue that the work is i unified on the thematic level as not merely a satire of popular fiction, but also an ironic presentation of a self-deceived imagination that is quixotically wrong about reality but right about human morality. In addition, critics have considered Northanger Abbey a transitional work, one that moves away from the burlesque mode of the Juvenilia and toward the stylistic control of such masterpieces as Mansfield Park and Emma.
SOURCE: "The Gothic Romance," in The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction, 1917. Reprint by Octagon Books, 1967, pp. 6-53.
[In the following excerpt, Scarborough describes Northanger Abbey as a clever burlesque of the Gothic novel.]
Perhaps the most valuable contribution that the Gothic school made to English literature is Jane Austen's inimitable satire of it, Northanger Abbey. Though written as her first novel and sold in 1797, it did not appear till after her death, in 1818. Its purpose is to ridicule the Romanticists and the book in itself would justify the terroristic school, but she was ahead of her times, so the editor feared to publish it. In the meantime she wrote her other satires on society and won immortality for her work which might never have been begun save for her satiety of medieval romances. The title of the story itself is imitative, and the well-known materials are all present, yet how differently employed! The setting is a Gothic abbey tempered to modern comfort; the interfering father is not vicious, merely ill-natured; the pursuing, repulsive lover is not a villain, only a silly bore. The heroine has no beauty, nor does she topple into sonnets nor snatch a pencil to sketch the scene, for we are told that she has no accomplishments. Yet she goes through palpitating adventures mostly modelled on Mrs. Radcliffe's incidents. She is hampered in not being supplied...
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SOURCE: "Heroines, Heroes, and Villains," in Jane Austen's Novels: A Study in Structure, Chatto & Windus, 1953, pp. 83-172.
[Below, Wright investigates Catherine Morland's character, especially as it is highlighted by the words and actions of Henry Tilney and John Thorpe.]
As a satire of the Gothic horror tale,Northanger Abbey contains all the ingredients of this genre except the hero and heroine, who are deliberately normalized, partly for the purpose of heightening the ridicule. Like all parodies the book exhibits two sets of values: one is satirized, the other (by implication) is shown to be 'truer'. Here, the illusions of Gothic sentimentality are contrasted to the less flashy but more durable values of good sense; the Gothic world is one of fancy, the world as apprehended by good sense is 'real'. But the book goes somewhat beyond these limits—it goes beyond to explore the limitations of good sense itself. And Jane Austen shows us that though we must reject the Gothic world as inadequate and false, we cannot altogether apprehend the real world by good sense alone. Good sense, ironically, is limited too.
In sketching Catherine Morland's background, appearance, and disposition, her author manages to suggest both the typical Gothic heroine and, in Catherine herself, the inverse:
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SOURCE: "Satire and the Form of the Novel: The Problem of Aesthetic Unity in Northanger Abbey," in ELH, Vol. 32, No. 4, December, 1965, pp. 511-27.
[In the following essay, Kearful argues that Northanger Abbey achieves a complex unity of fiction, satire, parody, burlesque, comedy, and tragedy.]
The most important—and most interesting—critical problem concerning Northanger Abbey is the question of its aesthetic unity. Generally critics are forced to conclude that while brilliant in many of its parts, the book as a whole lacks a sufficiently consistent technique or unified form to make it a coherent work of art. Some would point to Henry Tilney's ambivalent position as surrogate ironic commentator for the author and object of her irony; some to the structural "detachability" of the "Gothic" chapters; some to the shallowness of Catherine's characterization as measured against her ostensibly central role; some to an uneasy coexistence within the same narrative of several narrative modes, ranging from apparently outright literary burlesque and parody to assumedly straightforward naturalistic reportage. Furthermore, a few characters, notably John Thorpe, never really participate in the Gothic world of Northanger Abbey, while others, notably General Tilney, in straddling its Gothic and its daylight worlds, may fail to inhabit...
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SOURCE: "The Sympathetic Imagination: Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility," in Jane Austen: A Study of Her Artistic Development, Oxford University Press, 1965, pp. 58-83.
[In the following excerpt, Litz examines complexity of theme and uneveness of narrative technique in Northanger Abbey.]
Viewed as a whole, Northanger Abbey is certainly the earliest of Jane Austen's major works. Although it was begun in 1798 after the first drafts of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice had been written, both of these novels underwent radical revision shortly before their publication in 1811 and 1813, while Jane Austen's Advertisement to Northanger Abbey states that it was "finished in the year 1803." There is some possibility that the novel was touched up after 1803, but these revisions could not have been extensive; and we are justified in taking Northanger Abbey as the only major work that was completely a product of the first half of Jane Austen's career. Certainly all the evidence of style and narrative method points toward an early date: many of the characters are two-dimensional, and Jane Austen never seems quite sure of her relationship to Henry Tilney. She frequently allows him to usurp her authority, to voice her judgments and wield her irony, and the result is considerable ambiguity concerning her...
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SOURCE: "The Comedy of Illusion in Northanger Abbey, " in Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters, Vol. LI, 1966, pp. 547-58.
[In the following essay, Baker describes Austen's ironic use of self-delusion in Northanger Abbey.]
Northanger Abbey, the third written but least revised and hence most pristine of Jane Austen's early novels, has not lacked admirers. Indeed, Andrew Wright, John K. Mathison, Alan D. McKillop, and Henrietta Ten Harmsel have led us progressively to see the dimensions of realism and validity within the novel's burlesque of Gothic romance. But there is still room, I believe, to emphasize the extent to which Jane Austen uses romance itself not merely as a comic delusion from which a young girl grows awake, but as a central symbol of one of the most persistent realities of life: the inescapable comic and ironic propensity of the human mind to delude itself.
All of us have tended to think of Jane Austen's Gothic burlesque as having a certain youthful exuberance that would have evaporated into the broader comic landscape had Miss Austen revised Northanger Abbey as thoroughly as she did Sense and Sensibility. [In From Jane Austen to Joseph Conrad, edited by Robert C. Rathburn and Martin Steinmann, Jr., 1958] McKillop considers the Gothic business a "breach [in] imaginative continuity," and even...
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SOURCE: "The Function of Parody in Northanger Abbey," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. XXX, 1969, pp. 53-63.
[Here, Zimmerman maintains that Northanger Abbey both parodies and employs conventional elements of sentimental fiction.]
Most studies of Northanger Abbey have noted that the central problem it poses for the critic is one of unity. In addition to dealing with Catherine Morland's adventures, the book parodies other novels and thus raises the question of the relationship of the parody to the total structure. The attempted solutions of this critical problem, many of them quite cogently argued, are almost exclusively attempts to show thematic relationships between the two elements—Catherine's adventures and the references to novels. But there is another dimension to the problem. Although thematic coherence is an element in unity, the parts of an individual work, or indeed of several quite different works, may cohere thematically without necessarily convincing the reader of their aesthetic unity. Despite the inevitable danger that discussion will lapse into the mere cataloguing of subjective reactions, the reader's response is relevant and must be examined.
Wayne Booth's concept of the implied reader [in The Rhetoric of Fiction, 1960] is a most useful attempt to direct the discussion toward the text, rather than exclusively toward the reader's...
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SOURCE: "Jane Austen," in The Action of English Comedy: Studies in the Encounter of Abstraction and Experience from Shakespeare to Shaw, Yale University Press, 1970, pp. 193-249.
[In the following excerpt, Kaul characterizes Northanger Abbey as a novel of education with a somewhat formulaic comic quality.]
Northanger Abbey is the story of a young girl's education, or rather her double education: first through a selective and highly self-conscious course of literary readings, and then through various experiences that teach her to differentiate the real from the bookish world and thus cause her to readjust the attitudes and expectations derived from literature. In the first chapter, which offers the early history of the heroine and which seems in many ways a simple piece of burlesque writing, Jane Austen is already working toward this double comic purpose. On the one hand we are given in Catherine Morland an ordinary girl, rather plain and tomboyish in childhood, with a commonplace family background which as little as her personal appearance can be said to mark her out as a future heroine of romance. Showing above all no aptitude for drawing or music or any of the other required accomplishments, her mind seems definitely "unpropitious for heroism"—up to the age of fifteen. But at fifteen appearances suddenly start mending, and Catherine, despite her disqualifications, considers...
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SOURCE: "Northanger Abbey: Jane Austen," in The Romantic Novel in England, Harvard University Press, 1972, pp. 118-35.
[In the excerpt below, Kiely focuses on the thematic importance of language in Northanger Abbey.]
Jane Austen thought the capabilities of language, correctly used, considerable, and early in Northanger Abbey she opens her gentle assault on romantic fiction with a defense of the novel:
I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. [A novel at its best can be a] work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.
That is what a novel might be. But it is clear from the start that Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, while an enthusiastic reader of novels, admires that...
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SOURCE: "Propriety and the Education of Catherine Morland: Northanger Abbey, " in Those Elegant Decorums: The Concept of Propriety in Jane Austen's Novels, State University of New York Press, 1973, pp. 62-81.
[In the following essay, Nardin discusses Catherine's education in the moral significance of social propriety.,]
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SOURCE: "The Lessons of Northanger Abbey," in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. XLIV, No. 1, Fall, 1974, pp. 14-30.
[Here, Rothstein explores Austen's narrative technique in Northanger Abbey, claiming that the central theme of the novel emerges from the interplay between the respective educations of Catherine and the reader.]
In Northanger Abbey, as in a number of works of eighteenth-century fiction (say, Tom Jones), the protagonist and the reader undergo parallel, but in almost no way identical, educations. The reader, as Austen's irony announces in the first paragraph, is to be led toward something better than the conventional novels to which she alludes again and again in the course of the book. As to the protagonist, the first chapter offers a dry account of Catherine's progress in music and drawing; these early lessons are extended by Mrs Allen and Henry Tilney, who teach her how to choose muslins and compose picturesque scenes, and are also extended by Catherine herself, who learns first from books and then by testing experience through trial and error. All this is obvious enough. The connections between Catherine's education and ours, however, are less obvious: so are those between two modes in Catherine's own development, the social (Bath) and the literary (Northanger Abbey). Here, to some critics, the coherence of the novel seems to break down, an event to...
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SOURCE: '"The Pen of the Contriver': The Four Fictions of Northanger Abbey," in Jane Austen: Bicentenary Essays, edited by John Halperin, Cambridge University Press, 1975, pp. 89-111.
[In the following essay, Ristkok Burlin interprets Northanger Abbey as a "single, complex treatment of the theme of fiction."]
In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen came to terms with her art in a single, complex treatment of the theme of fiction. Every character in this novel is implicated in the fictive process. Its heroine is a novel-reader, its hero an inveterate inventor of fictions, its villains liars, contrivers of fictions. The complicated plot is based totally on fictions, each of its major crises being precipitated by a fiction. The first crisis is obviously Catherine's discovery of the delusive nature of Gothic romances, the second crisis, her discovery of the delusive fictions of Bath. The third, and most important crisis, Catherine's sudden and violent expulsion from the Abbey, is curiously precipitated by a mysterious, self-contradictory double-fiction, told at Bath but revealed only retrospectively. The secret working out of this double-fiction is the real plot of Northanger Abbey, responsible for its principal action, but kept deliberately a secret from heroine, hero, and reader alike. From the distressing perplexities of this mystery her favorite characters can be...
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SOURCE: "Northanger Abbey: Some Problems of Engagement," in Jane Austen: Six Novels and Their Methods, The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1986, 10-30.
[Below, Williams analyzes style in Northanger Abbey, arguing that the novel exhibits a complex unity that eludes simple classification.]
'Oh! I am delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it. I assure you, if it had not been to meet you, I would not have come away from it for all the world.'
(Catherine Morland on The Mysteries of Udolpho)
Everybody knows that Northanger Abbey is a parody of the Gothic novel. Everyone sees that it is also, to borrow the sub-title of Fanny Burney's Evelina, the 'history of a young lady's entrance into the world'. And a well-established tradition insists that these two aspects of the novel are incompatible, even that the existence of each one is an active threat to the functioning of the other. Of course, the novel is also about reading and pleasure, reading and instruction. Does this help to heal the fracture?
The novel was probably first drafted after the earliest versions of what were to become Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. In 1803 the manuscript was sold to a publisher, but never published by him, and Austen...
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SOURCE: "Enclosed in Openness: Northanger Abbey and the Domestic Carceral," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 33, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 1-23.
[In the following essay, Morrison undertakes a feminist, post-structural analysis of gender-specific spaces and sensibilities in Northanger Abbey.]
Notre avis est . . . que si les aventures rapportées dans cet ouvrage ont un fonds de vérité, elles n'ont pu arriver que dans d'autres lieux ou d'autres temps; et nous blâmons beaucoup'auteur, qui, séduit apparemment par'espoir d'intéresser davantage en se rapprochant plus de son siècle et de son pays, a osé faire paraître sous notre costume et avec nos usages, des moeurs qui nous sont si étrangères.
—Laclos, Les liaisons dangereuses
Wir nennen das unheimlich, Sie nennen's heimlich. quoted by Freud, "Das Unheimliche"
Catherine Morland, the protagonist of Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen's gothic parody, is ultimately disabused of her gothic illusions:
"If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to—Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country...
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Gilson, David. A Bibliography of Jane Austen. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982, 877 p.
Comprehensive bibliography of primary and secondary materials published through 1975.
Jenkins, Elizabeth. Jane Austen. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1948, 410 p.
Exhaustive biographical and critical work noted for its detailed treatment of Austen's life and works.
Doubleday, Neal Frank. "Henry & Catherine." In Variety of Attempt: British and American Fiction in the Early Nineteenth Century, pp. 19-35. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1976.
Advances Northanger Abbey as an example of Austen's belief in the "inherent absurdity of the novel" as a genre.
Duckworth, Alistair M. "Aspects of Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility. " In The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen's Novels, pp. 81-114. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1971.
Analyzes Northanger Abbey as a "socio-moral" novel, one that attempts to define "proper moral behavior in the face of a largely immoral world."
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