Northanger Abbey main character Catherine Morland sitting and reading

Northanger Abbey

by Jane Austen

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Critical Evaluation

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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 gothic horrors. Instead of dark revelations of murder and madness in the Tilney family, she faces self-revelation, her recognition that she has suffered from a delusion in her desire to be frightened.

If the ridicule of gothicism and the exposure of false sensibility compose major themes, another more inclusive theme, common to all Austen’s novels, is the problem of limitation. Catherine at age seventeen is “launched into all the difficulties and dangers of six weeks residence at Bath,” the fashionable resort, leaving a sheltered life in her village of Fullerton. She immediately discerns, however, a state of artificial confinement as a way of life in Bath. Catherine began to feel something of disappointment—she was tired of being continually pressed against by people, the generality of whose faces possessed nothing to interest, and with all of whom she was so wholly unacquainted, that she could not relieve the irksomeness...

(This entire section contains 1185 words.)

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of imprisonment by the exchange of a syllable with any of her fellow captives . . . she felt yet more awkwardness of having no party to join, no acquaintance to claim, no gentleman to assist them.

Throughout the novel, Austen continues to develop this initial image of an empty, fashionable routine in which each day brought its regular duties. Catherine romanticizes this reality, her delusions culminating with the delightful invitation to visit the Tilneys at Northanger Abbey. Thus the gothic parody functions also as a study of a common response—escapism—to a society circumscribed by empty rituals and relationships. This theme is resolved when Catherine’s visions of romance are shattered by the mundane discoveries at Northanger Abbey, which compel her to abandon her romantic notions and choose the alternative of acting in the future with common sense.

Nevertheless, in her dismissal of fantasy, she has not yet come to terms with the limitations in reality, the pressures of society that can impose imprisonment. Such experience is melodramatically represented by her expulsion from the abbey. The order is delivered without explanation, the time and manner of departure are determined by General Tilney, and Catherine is denied either friendship or common courtesy. With no alternatives, Catherine is in a situation that resists good sense, and she is reduced to a passive awareness of the reality and substance of life. When she is shut off in her room at the abbey, her mind is so occupied in the contemplation of actual and natural evil that she is numb to the loneliness of her situation. Confined in a hired carriage for the long, unfamiliar journey to Fullerton, she is conscious only of the pressing anxieties of thought. At home, her thought processes are lost in the reflection of her own change of feelings and spirit. She is the opposite of what she had been, an innocent young woman.

Catherine survives the transition from innocence to experience, proving to her mother, at least, that she can shift very well for herself. Catherine’s maturity, however, is tested no further. The restoration of her happiness depends less on herself and Henry than it does on General Tilney, and she is finally received by the general on the basis not of personal merit but of money. Only when the Morlands prove to be a family of good financial standing is Catherine free to marry the man of her choice.

Concerning the rapid turn of events in her denouement, Austen wryly observed, “To begin perfect happiness at the respective ages of twenty-six and eighteen, is to do pretty well.” Despite the happy ending that concludes the novel, Austen leaves Catherine on the threshold only of the reality of life that her experiences have revealed. The area of her testing has already been defined, for example, in the discrepancy between her image of Henry’s parsonage and that of General Tilney. To Catherine, it is “something like Fullerton, but better: Fullerton had its faults, but Woodston probably had none.”

Thus, Northanger Abbey is a novel of initiation; its heroine ironically discovers in the world not a new freedom, but a new set of restrictions. Once undeceived of her romantic illusions of escape, she is returned with a vengeance to the world as it is, small but decent. As an early novel, Northanger Abbey points the way to Austen’s mature novels, in which the focus is on heroines who are constrained to deal with life within defined limitations.

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