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The novel Northanger Abbey adversely mentions gothic literature; it even influences the main characters’ actions and decisions. However, the use of this genre is done to mock and trivialise the genre.
How Jane Austen challenges conventions of gothic novels
As one reads the novel, one comes across a series of gothic titles throughout the narration. The characters talk about and reference various pieces in the book. Catherine meets with Isabella at the beginning of her adventure at Bath. Their main topic of conversation is gothic literature. These two ladies especially mention the Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe, but their fondness for the books makes them appear one -dimensional and detached from reality.
Jane Austen also mocks gothic literature by selecting a very unconventional heroine. Gothic novels usually feature beautiful young women as main characters. Catherine is average-looking at best; sometimes, Austen leads readers to believe that her main character is even unattractive. The first page states that Catherine had “an awkward figure, sallow skin colour, dark lank hair and strong features” (Austen 1817, p.1).
In eighteenth century Britain, strong features and sallow skin were undesirable traits. Jane Austen wanted to defy conventional expectations of gothic literature by choosing an individual who had little physical appeal. Furthermore, Catherine’s social background was nothing extraordinary. She came from a large middle income household, yet most gothic novels either focused on incredibly poor or exceptionally wealthy heroines (Rose 1993).
Furthermore, Catherine was not talented in the conventional ways of English society at the time. She could not draw or paint, and neither could she write. Even Austen remarks that she was “a strange and unaccountable character” (Austen 1817, p.6). Catherine appears to have challenges with social interactions as well. She does not seem to understand people; yet this is a predominant quality in most gothic books.
Catherine did not know about Isabella’s true intentions until the situation had gone overboard. She could not hide her suspicions about Henry’s father from him. Furthermore, she fails to realise that she was leading-on John Thorpe. Catherine lacks social experience, which was a quality that was hard to miss in the gothic genre. In choosing such a heroine, the author wanted to challenge stereotypes of women in romantic literature, of which gothic novels belong (Summers 1964).
In the narration, the main character appears to grow and learn about the workings of English society. This was not initially true at the beginning. In fact, one detects Catherine’s naivety when she first visits Bath. She seems to have an overblown imagination about the way the world works. Catherine looks at the world through the eyes of the characters in gothic novels (Glock 1978).
In these books, seemingly ordinary events can lead to terrible occurrences in the future. The main character thinks of Mrs. Tilney’s death as one such tale, but later realises that she had distorted reality. Jane Austen wanted to demonstrate how gothic novels can feed the mind with unrealistic and fantastic expectations. For instance, when Henry drives her out to Northanger Abbey, he indulges her imagination:
“In one perhaps there may be a dagger, in another a few drops of blood, and in a third the remains of some instrument of torture; … your lamp being nearly exhausted, you will return towards your own apartment. In passing through the small vaulted room, however, your eyes will be attracted towards a large, old-fashioned cabinet of ebony and gold, which, though narrowly examining the furniture before, you had passed unnoticed.” (Austen 1817, p. 144)
Catherine is quite gullible at this point because she expects nothing short of gothic mystery in the place. She is deeply disappointed when she realises that Henry’s home is quite ordinary. The house possesses none of those concealed spaces that she read about in the gothic tales.
Clearly, Catherine is deluded by these readings; the author wanted to show that such exaggerations can impede one’s functioning in society. Catherine paid a heavy price for these wild imaginations when Henry discovered that she thought that someone has murdered his father. Some critics summarise this depiction through the following summary
“Again and again we see the kind of malediction novels confer on Catherine, teaching her to talk in inflated and stilted clichés, training her to expect impossibly villainous or virtuous behaviour from people whose motives are more complex than she suspects, binding her to the mundane selfishness of her contemporaries” (Gilber and Gubar, 2000, 132).
Although Austen satirises gothic novels through Catherine’s extreme indulgences, one must realise that the main character still sensed the pretentiousness of the people around her. She was right about questioning General Tilney’s character, because he turned out to be mean spirited and elitist. The author of the book wanted to show that gothic elements can skew one’s reality, but may lead to unconscious revelations about such people.
As such, Austen did not completely write-off gothic fiction. She wanted to satirise its flaws, but also acknowledge that it did possess some insights. The writer defied conventions of gothic novels by starting with a naive character, and then developed and nurtured her to the woman that she becomes at the end of the novel.
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In most gothic works, the heroines of the narrations are highly perceptive. They are well experienced in the world, and know what to expect from people. These are all qualities that Catherine lacks at the beginning of the book (St.Clair 2004).
Catherine is not the only character in the novel to defy conventional gothic depictions: General Tilney also signifies this indifference to the status quo. At the time when Austen wrote her novel, most gothic novels had villains that were forceful, violent or even murderous. However, Northanger Abbey has none of this; in fact, the villain does not seem to possess the typical traits of such a character (Sadlier, 1944). Nonetheless, Austen depicts his undesirability through his intentions and interests.
The General is overly concerned about Catherine’s wealth regardless of her admirable qualities as a person. A woman’s social status is so important to the ‘villain’ that he is willing to ruin his relationship with his son for it. Henry Tilney chooses to defy his father rather than abide by his dictatorial rules. One can perceive that Jane Austen wanted to speak out against the ills of male patriarchy in her society (Varma 1966).
She, therefore, preferred to use this role in order to advance her themes rather than to advance her plot, unlike the case is in eighteenth century gothic literature. Perhaps even the treatment of General Tilney as an antagonist is misguided in this analysis. He comes off as a man who cares too much about money and reality. The General is so concerned about maintaining his status that he meddles into the affairs of his children. Austen opted to mock gothic books by having a character that takes the shape of villain, but is not really one.
Sometimes gothic pieces focused on man’s weaknesses and his inability to control his surrounding. Rarely did they caricature society’s flaws (Levine 1999). Northanger Abbey was the exact opposite of this propensity. It satirises society’s obsessions with power and wealth through its plot as well as its characters. One such individual was Isabella who claims to care for nothing more than love.
However, she gets very frustrated at her fiancée when she realises that he is not as wealthy as she had presumed. She causes James great anguish when he realises that she was flirting with another man. Additionally, General Tilney is quite hospitable to Catherine when he thinks that she comes from a wealthy family. However, he kicks her out when John tells him otherwise.
These people were all depictions of what society can become when it places too much emphasis on wealth. Jane Austen challenges conventions of gothic literature by going in this direction. One should note that most females in the late eighteenth century had minimal economic or social options. Writing was one of the few professions that individuals could use in order to earn a decent living (Kate 1993).
They were not politicians or property owners, but they had an opinion and needed to express it somewhere (Todd 1980). The author of the novel chose to mock societal practices through the use of a common literary genre, that is: the gothic novel. While the main character of the book is unattractive, Isabella is beautiful and charming.
The author used conventional qualities of protagonists in gothic literature to satirise Isabella’s obsession with material wealth (Monaghan 1981). This choice in character traits may seem unintentional, but it reaffirms the fact that the book is indeed a parody of gothic work.
In order to mock certain elements of fiction, some authors may choose to mirror the stylistic devices of their parodied work in order to achieve this objective (Dentith 2000). Likewise, Jane Austen does the same thing with her novel. She integrates gothic elements in her piece in a manner that satirizes them rather than validates them. Most gothic novels have an air of mystery about them.
They tend to cause suspense by leaving out vital pieces of information. Readers often read on in order to discover what will happen to the main character. Austen uses mystery in her novel as well, but this achieves different objectives. For instance at some point, Henry describes Abbey exaggeratedly to Catherine. Of course she realises that Henry is fooling around.
However when she finds a manuscript, she presumes that she can uncover some proof about her suspicions. However, darkness engulfs her and she hears “receding footsteps… and the closing of a distant door” (Austen, 155). She cannot validate the significance of this piece of paper until morning. When morning comes, she soon appreciates that it was nothing but a laundry list.
The passage about the dark room may fill a reader with suspense. Nonetheless, when one discovers the reason behind her fear, one realises that there was no mystery behind it. Jane Austin employs gothic tactics to satirise the genre by showing that all the mystery was created in the mind of the protagonist.
Most gothic novels often focus on oppressed individuals. These situations may elevate readers’ perceptions of the main characters after they triumph over their adversaries. Usually, such heroines will scream and act in terror. Sometimes them may cry and faint over an issue. Others may appear overly emotional or too sentimental (Mandal 1999). It is through their sorrow and anger that the readers get to connect with them.
In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen also uses sentimentality as a trait, but only as a mechanism to defy the oppressed-heroine stereotype. In one instance Catherine seems to have lost it all; her potential father in law sends her out of his house. It is almost as if her whole world has been shattered, although John Thorpe was partly to blame for this occurrence.
Regardless of these circumstances, the reader does not necessarily think of Catherine as a damsel in distress. Furthermore, things change for the better when Henry pays her a visit in her hometown (ART 2008. General Tinley eventually consents to the marriage, so she ceases to be the oppressed victim. In another scenario, the death of Mrs. Tilney preoccupies Catherine’s mind when she suspects that her husband killed her.
However, little proof exists for her to validate this statement. She seems deeply disturbed by these issues, and one may even assume that she is living in a dangerous place. Later on, she realises that there was nothing to these suspicions. “The absurdity of her curiosity and her fears… could they ever be forgotten? She hated herself more than she could express” (Austen 1817, p.183). Austen mocks this aspect of victimisation in gothic literature by dismissing off ‘dangerous situations’ as misguided thoughts or delusions.
Jane Austen satirises gothic literature by using unconventional characters in her novel. The protagonist is not a damsel in distress, unattractive or even talented, yet one cannot miss these qualities in the gothic genre. Additionally, the villain does not fit conventional gothic depictions because he commits no explicit wicked acts.
The author also uses her characters to mock society’s obsession with wealth; an uncommon trait in gothic work. Even the stylistic devices she borrows from the latter genre are designed to dismiss such works as remote from reality.
ART, 2008, ‘Northanger Abbey and Persuasion’, Quarterly Review, vol. 24 no. 3, pp. 48.
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