Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 834
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 response to events and characters, so that while Catherine may be deluded, the reader is not. One views more judiciously the other characters through their actions and statements than Catherine does. The novel’s irony, however, is slippery. For example, Henry disciplines Catherine for her thoughts about General Tilney, but his more realistic description of English society is not a positive one either. Also, the general’s actual behavior is almost as violent as Catherine had imagined it to be.
All in all, Northanger Abbey is a novel of education: The two basic settings in the novel, Bath and Northanger Abbey, are classrooms where the inexperienced, imaginative, and easily misled Catherine is put through a series of tests as she works through a process of self-realization and self-definition. She discovers that Bath is a harsh, vulgar, and acquisitive place, as exemplified by the Thorpes and General Tilney. The Abbey provides a place of release for Catherine’s imagination, as she transgresses common sense and good manners with her investigations and her gothic allegations. Her missteps cause her painful self-reproach which generates self-examination which leads finally to self-forgiveness and growth. Austen combines scenes of action with scenes of reflection as Catherine becomes increasingly conscious of the moral and social repercussions of her actions. This combination allows Catherine to grow, and it allows readers to watch this growth in process. Her various interactions with others allow Catherine to learn the true character of people and things. She gradually gains a more mature view of herself and the people around her. She also matures into her marriage with Henry.
Henry Tilney is a classic example of one category of Austen hero: the lover/teacher. Holding opinions that are, on the whole, the narrator’s, he demonstrates for Catherine the affected manners of Bath, critiques her inexact use of language,...
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and guides her perceptions of others. He also severely disciplines Catherine’s overactive imagination when he reminds her that she is in England, not a gothic novel. Yet while he is morally superior, he is not two-dimensional, nor is he merely the narrator’s spokesman. He has a satirical sense of humor which is often rather too barbed for comfort, and he is often too clever for his own and Catherine’s good. For example, it is Henry who creates gothic fears in Catherine’s mind as they drive to the Abbey. Also, he upbraids Catherine for an opinion of General Tilney which is partly based on experience—the general has shown himself to be a domestic tyrant in his regulation of his household and in his behavior toward his children. Henry and Catherine grow toward each other: She reins in an unchecked, inexperienced imagination and learns some prudence; he relinquishes his detached, satirical observer status for a more sympathetic understanding.
Austen’s novel is ultimately conservative—it validates traditional class and gender expectations. Catherine’s and Henry’s marriage at the end creates a world of order and harmony. Marriage is the prize that the heroine wins if she successfully maneuvers her social obstacle course and learns that she must define herself according to the standards set by society.