After the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and other social reformations in Europe, the Romantic era emerged, shaping the literary sphere. From the Romantic the Romantic era , the Romantic Gothic subgenre evolved. Writers began to focus on the idea of revolutions, the limitless nature of human beings, the beauty of spontaneity, and the darkness of the sublime. Amongst many writers during this era was Jane Austen.
Historians have noticed that her writing seems “untouched by the political, intellectual, and artistic revolutions of her age,” causing many to believe that she is a Neoclassic rather than a Romantic Gothic (Abrams 16). At first glance, this accusation seems to be false; some of Austen’s novels, specifically Northanger Abbey, seem to contain Gothic characteristics; however, an in-depth analysis of Northanger Abbey suggests that Austen wrote the novel as a Gothic satire. Austen mocks the sentimental Gothic conventions of her time through the characters and setting, suggesting that she is not a Romantic.
To begin, Austen uses Catherine Morland to ridicule Gothic heroines and reveal their absurd nature. In the beginning of the novel, the reader realizes that Catherine is slightly different from the typical Gothic heroine. Gothic heroines are usually depicted as beautiful, talented, and tragic. It is apparent that Catherine does not fit into this mold when Austen states that “no one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine” (Austen 15).
Catherine is described as awkward, inattentive, and stupid. She lacks femininity because she favors boyish games over dolls and sports over informative books. As she matures, she isn’t gifted, skilled, or passionate—three qualities that most Gothic heroines possess. Catherine’s days are spent reading stories about heroines, suggesting that she subconsciously wishes she were one. While Catherine shows some heroic qualities (she demonstrates courage when she moves away from her parents and when she leaves the comfort of Bath to stay at Northanger Abbey), she mostly is presented as naive and immature. Austen uses these negative qualities to make laugh at the Gothic heroines of her day.
Catherine’s character demonstrates how silly Gothic heroines are when she naively accuses General Tilney of murdering his wife. She is determined to prove her accusation while staying at his manor and becomes obsessed with exploring the forbidden gallery, the place where Mrs. Tilney died. While rummaging through the gallery, she realizes that there is no evidence of Mrs. Tilney’s murder—the apartments are quite normal—and she is caught sneaking around by Henry.
Henry explains that his mother’s death and criticizes Catherine’s foolish accusations and thoughts. Austen writes, “Catherine was completely awakened. Henry’s address, short as it had been, had more thoroughly opened her eyes to the extravagance of her late fancies than all their several disappointments had done. Most grievously was she humbled” (Austen 187). This brings humor into the novel and encourages readers to laugh at Catherine’s stupidity. Through Catherine’s foolishness, Austen illustrates the ridiculous nature of Gothic heroines.
In addition to the character of Catherine Morland, Austen uses General Tilney’s character to further mock the Gothic genre. She presents the General as the villain, a necessary role in the Gothic novel, but she reveals at the end of the story that he is simply a protective father. The General is depicted as evil through his short temperament, his refusal to speak of his deceased wife, and his domineering personality. During Catherine’s first night at the Abbey, she witnesses the General’s anger.
The novel reads that General Tilney “pulled the bell with violence” and ordered that dinner be set on the table “directly” (Austen 157). This startles Catherine and puts the General in an unfavorable light. The next day, he appears even more odd when Catherine discovers that he doesn’t have a picture of his deceased wife hanging in his room. “My father was dissatisfied with the painting,” Eleanor states to Catherine (Austen 160).
Catherine notices that the General never speaks of his wife and that he avoids anything that reminds him of her. From these details, Catherine infers that the General killed his wife. Later, General Tilney seems even more evil when he orders Catherine to leave the estate immediately.
Catherine calls his actions “grossly uncivil” (Austen 212). Although the General’s anger, rudeness, and strangeness towards his deceased wife make him appear as the villain, the General is in reality a normal father who misses his wife and wants the best for his children. By presenting General Tilney to be scarier than he is, Austen brings humor into the novel and mocks the Gothic convention of a villain.
Along with the characters, Austen uses the setting to further poke fun of Gothic conventions. Northanger Abbey, the setting of the second half of the novel, appears to be spooky and mysterious. Austen describes the estate as “rich in gothic ornaments” and gloomy in appearance (Austen 168). On the carriage ride to Northanger Abbey, Henry scares Catherine by telling her that she will experience horrors once they arrive, making her believe that his home is haunted.
Catherine falls for this joke, especially when she finds a mysterious chest in her room quarters upon arriving. Later that night, she looks into a cabinet and finds a scroll of paper. While trying to read the writing, her candle goes out. Here, Austen builds the suspension. The scene is written in a way that encourages the reader to, like Catherine, believe that Northanger Abbey is haunted. Catherine breaks into a sweat as she stands in the dark with a storm occurring outside her window.
After Catherine crawls into bed, Austen writes, “Hollow murmurs seemed to creep along the gallery, and more than once her blood was chilled by the sound of distant moans” (Austen 162). It is evident that the purpose of this section is to scare the reader and present Northanger Abbey as a typical Gothic setting.
By the end of the novel, the reader realizes that Northanger Abbey is not haunted. When Catherine returns to the estate, Austen writes, “The Abbey in itself was no more to her now than any other house” (Austen 198). This provides more humor to the novel as the reader realizes that the mysterious chest and the forbidden gallery aren’t as frightful as Catherine initially saw them to be.
Although Austen includes Gothic conventions in her novel, she makes it apparent by the end that everything scary about Northanger Abbey (the place itself and the General) stems from Catherine’s foolish imaginations, presenting the novel as a gothic parody. Thus, while Austen initially appears to be a Romantic, she separates herself from the Romantic group by playfully using Gothic conventions to poke fun of the Gothic genre.
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