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.