How does Northanger Abbey employ comedy in its examination of character? Refer to text or a passage from the novel to show an example.

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thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen functions in many ways as a parody of the unrealistic conventions of the Gothic novel. Austen often highlights the nature of her characters by contrasting them with Gothic ideals in a humorous fashion. In particular, the character of Catherine Morland is often illustrated by invoking the iconic Gothic novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe. First, Catherine and her friend, the immoral Isabella Thorpe, are portrayed as reading copies the three volumes of The Mysteries of Udolpho from a circulating library over the course of Northanger Abbey and being influenced by its assumptions. Secondly, Catherine is frequently explicitly contrasted with the typical Gothic heroine in a humorous manner. 

The first comic contrast between Catherine and the Gothic heroine occurs in the opening of the book, where Catherine is contrasted with the Gothic heroine in a manner that makes the absurdity and improbability of the traditional heroine apparent and also highlights Catherine's basic decency and normality. For example, Austen mentions:

[Catherine] was fond of all boys' plays, and greatly preferred cricket not merely to dolls, but to the more heroic enjoyments of infancy, nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush.

This uses comedy to show that Catherine was a normal young girl, rather than an improbably idealized one, and makes the typical images of the Gothic heroine seem absurd. In fact, despite being average at lessons with none of the striking artistic genius or taste attributed to the Gothic heroines: 

 ... she had neither a bad heart nor a bad temper; was seldom stubborn, scarcely ever quarrelsome, and very kind to the little ones, with few interruptions of tyranny;

A second scene using comedy to delineate Catherine's character occurs before she goes to bed at Northanger Abbey. It is a dark and stormy night. Just as she finds a sheaf of papers tucked in the back of an old cabinet, a gust of wind blows out her candle. She imagines this some mysterious diary revealing a Gothic tale of horror, showing how much the fiction she has been reading has influenced her imagination. The overwrought language that describes what she imagines is bitingly parodic, as is the moment when she wakes up and discovers that the mysterious papers are merely a forgotten laundry list. 


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Northanger Abbey

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