How does Northanger Abbey satirise gothic literature?

Last Updated: 20 Aug 2020
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The novel, ‘Northanger Abbey’, is a satire of gothic literature written by Jane Austen between 1798 and 1799 during the era when gothic literature and romanticism were very popular. The novel is a direct parody of Ann Radcliffe’s ‘Mysteries of Udolpho’ and several other popular authors at the time as a means for Austen to criticise the lack of sensibility displayed in gothic novels. It is through her use of typical gothic elements and archetypes, the anti-climactic climaxes, and the false looming danger and mystery that Austen parodies both Radcliffe’s characters and tone as a means of satirising the gothic genre.

Austin displays several gothic elements in ‘Northanger Abbey’, however these elements are really only a figure of Catherine’s delusions. The setting of an old abbey and the innocent heroine pursued by the aristocratic villain with a dark secret are satirised for their typical use to build suspense and tension in gothic novels. Although Catherine perceives Northanger Abbey to be haunted and mysterious, it is far from so; “Its long, damp passages, its narrow cells and ruined chapel, were to be within her daily reach[…]To an imagination which had hoped for the smallest divisions, and the heaviest stone-work, for painted glass, dirt and cobwebs, the difference was very distressing.”(Austen, 1817).

Similarly, she places General Tilney in the archetype of the stereotypical gothic villain believing him to be “an unkind husband”(Austen, 1817) who “did not love her (his wife’s) walk”(Austen, 1817), and therefore could not have loved her. However, she is then proven to be wrong when confronted by Henry Tilney who states that, “You have erred in supposing him not attached to her. He loved her, I am persuaded, as well as it was possible for him to.” (Austen, 1817).

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Instead of the looming disaster expected in a gothic novel, Austen uses these elements to satirise the genre. She personifies the public through Catherine Morland when she says, “It had been all a voluntary, self-created delusion, each trifling circumstance receiving importance from an imagination resolved on alarm, and everything forced to bend to one purpose by a mind which, before she entered the Abbey, had been craving to be frightened.” (Austen, 1817). Austin uses Catherine to mock how the public will dissolution themselves to be frightened even when there is no present danger.

It is through Catherine’s errors and foolishness that Austen mocks the traditional heroine of a gothic text. Although she is the heroine, Catherine is always referred to as having “nothing heroic about her” (Austen, 1817) and is often seen as being immature and naïve. Austen denies her the traits associated with the female archetype demonstrated in ‘Mysteries of Udolpho’ and other gothic texts as a way of mocking the gothic heroine stereotype of the intelligent, rich, beautiful female protagonist. Catherine is often compared to Emily St Aubert throughout ‘Northanger Abbey’ as a means of further satirising Catherine’s lack of heroistic qualities.

Emily St Aubert is described as “a beautiful young lady” but also having a “lovely personality as well” (Eva De Ridder, 2014). She had a “sensibility [that] gave a pensive tone to her spirts, and a softness to her manner, which added grace to beauty” (Ann Radcliffe as cited in De Ridder, 2014) contrasting Catherine to be exceptionally plain, “occasionally stupid” (Austen, 1817) and having an ability in drawing, music or a foreign language that is “not remarkable” (Austin, 1817).

In addition, Austen parodies both the father and mother figures in gothic texts, saying how Mr. Morland wasn’t “in the least addicted to locking up his daughters” (Austen, 1817), and how his wife “instead of dying in child birth as anybody might expect, she still lived on to see them (her children) grow up around her and to enjoy excellent health herself” (Austen, 1817). This is Austen’s way of satirising the fact that Catherine cannot be a heroine because she hasn’t experienced any death or sorrow like other gothic female protagonists, such as Emily St Aubert.

Austen additionally satirises the suspense and adventure of a gothic novel by creating anti-climactic climaxes throughout her writing. Catherine, in searching for something mysterious at Northanger Abbey, fails to reveal; “her resolute effort threw back the lid and gave to her astonished eyes the view of a white cotton counterpane, properly folded, reposing at one end of the chest in undisputed possession!” (Austen, 1817); “Her fingers grasped the handle of a drawer and drew it forth. It was entirely empty. With less alarm and greater eagerness, she seized a second, a third, a fourth; each was equally empty” (Austen, 1817). In not creating a gothic style climax, Austen mocks not only Catherine and the gothic genre but also the audience that is reading the book. The audience knows that Catherine won’t find anything because there is nothing to find, yet they still await the looming mystery and danger found in gothic novels.

It is through the imagery of the looming danger that Austen increases the tension and anxiety, even though there is none, satirising the gothic perception of danger; “The very curtains of her bed seemed at one moment in motion, and at another the lock of her door was agitated, as if by the attempt of somebody to enter. Hollow murmurs seemed to creep along the gallery, and more than once her blood was chilled by the sound of distant moans.

Hour after hour passed away, […] she unknowingly fell asleep.” (Austen, 1817). The danger is only perceived by Catherine to be so because she wants to feel like the gothic heroines that she reads about. Her imagination is more frightful than the situation and often leads to her looking naïve and foolish such as in the situation when Eleanor Tilney catches her snooping in an old chest; “[…] the rising shame of having harboured for some minutes and absurd expectation, was then added then shame of being caught in so idle a search.” (Austen, 1817). Austen satirises Catherine’s disillusions to convey how people can succumb to foolish fantasies instead of using common sense.

By satirising the parody of gothic literature, Austen shows the need for balance between feelings and reason through the use of Catherine’s disillusions. Catherine is influenced by the books that she reads and, consequently, desires the world around her to be as if she was in a gothic novel. The danger that she perceives is only a figment created by her imagination. However, it causes her to make assumptions that are false, depicting her to be naïve and foolish. Through this, Austen strives to portray the damaging effects of the gothic genre on young minds and how it might influence them to think irrationally. She demonstrates to the audience how, when reading such a book, one must recognise the fiction for what it is, without replicating it in their real lives.

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