Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Most literary critics refer to Northanger Abbey as Jane Austen's "Gothic parody" because it satirizes the form and conventions of the Gothic novels that were popular during the time when Austen wrote Northanger Abbey. In particular, Austen is said to have targeted Anne Radcliffe, the author of gothic novels such as A Sicilian Romance (1790), The Romance of the Forest (1791), and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Catherine reads Udolpho during her time at Bath, and it is implied that she has read similar novels before, and Isabella has a library of other Gothic novels that the women plan to read once Catherine has finished Udolpho.
Gothic novels and their conventions occur throughout the novel. On the ride from Bath to Northanger Abbey, Henry invents a humorous hypothetical story about Catherine's first night in Bath, making subtle references to several different Gothic novels, most of which were well-known at the time (consult an annotated edition of Northanger Abbey for a list of the references and the works they come from).
Aside from Henry's parody of gothic novels on the way to Northanger Abbey, two other sequences poke fun at the genre. In once, Catherine unlocks the mysterious cabinet, expecting it to contain something horrible, and finds only laundry bills. In another, Catherine imagines that the General is a wife-murderer and goes to investigate the late Mrs. Tilney's bedroom. When Henry catches her at this task and scolds her, it is not amusing, as is Catherine's discovery of the laundry bills. We feel sympathy for Catherine, who is terribly embarrassed in front of Henry. In the scenes leading up to the confrontation with Henry, it is almost disturbing to read of Catherine's paranoid assumptions that everything the General does stems from a guilty conscience. Catherine becomes almost unhinged by her own imagination. Although the actual crime turns out to be nonexistent, Austen captures some of the psychological tension typical of Gothic novels by chronicling Catherine's delusions. So although she parodies the gothic genre, Austen also makes use of some of its techniques. Some of the novel has nothing to do with Gothic novels and conventions. The first half of Northanger Abbey takes place entirely at the resort town of Bath, and has nothing to do with Gothic novels. This first half resembles Emma or Mansfield Park more than it does The Mysteries of Udolpho.
Northanger Abbey is concerned with young people and their feelings. Heroines in other Austen novels—Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice and Emma Woodhouse in Emma, for example—are a little older than Catherine, and are not as naïveté as she. Northanger Abbey portrays Catherine in situations common to teenagers: she faces peer pressure when James, Isabella and John urge her to join them on their carriage trips, for example, and must contend with the bullying John Thorpe. Austen plays the youthful Catherine against the older, more experienced Henry Tilney. There are several instances in which the adults comment on the young people, either chuckling at their behavior or criticizing it. Many readers can sympathize with Catherine once she returns home and immediately becomes sulky and obstinate with her parents—particularly her mother, who starts gently nagging her daughter right away.
There are two kinds of reading in Northanger Abbey: reading books and letters, and reading people. Catherine Morland is young and naïve, and she has a hard time distinguishing between the two types of reading. Before Catherine can really enter the world of adulthood, she needs to improve her ability to read people as well as novels. Throughout Northanger Abbey, Catherine finds herself unable to "read between the lines." She does not notice the obvious romance developing between James and Isabella, she does not understand why Frederick Tilney gets involved, she has no idea why the General is so kind to her. All of these behaviors and motivations are clear to the reader and to the characters surrounding Catherine. When Catherine finally tries to do some of her own analysis, she gets her perceptions mixed up with those encouraged by her novel-reading: she recognizes General Tilney's grumpiness and the tyrannical control he tries to exert over his children, but she attributes his attitude to the grisly murder of his wife, since such a plot twist occurs frequently in Gothic novels.
One defining moment for Catherine comes as a result of reading text. She receives a letter from Isabella, and its contents open Catherine's eyes to Isabella's manipulative, ambitious ways. It would be going a bit too far to say that Catherine is an expert at reading people by the end of the novel, but she does become better at it, and she has learned when imagination can aid perception, and when it can hurt it.
Wealth and ostentation
In Austen's novels, characters are often partly defined by their wealth and status. In Northanger Abbey, several characters are preoccupied with material longings. Isabella wants to marry someone rich, and forsakes James in favor of the richer Frederick. Mrs. Allen is obsessed with clothing and shopping, and when talking to Mrs. Thorpe, she feels less bad about her own childlessness when she notices the shabbiness of Mrs. Thorpe's clothes. The General wants his children to marry into rich and wealthy families, and his personal obsession is with remodeling and landscaping. While giving a guided tour of Northanger Abbey, the General constantly asks Catherine to compare his home and gardens to those of Mr. Allen, and is always pleased to find that his belongings are larger or more impressive. In her later novels, Austen linked character's personalities with the particular items they loved. In this early novel, she makes wealth itself the goal and passion of characters like Isabella and General Tilney.
Austen draws her portrait of Bath society from her own experience. Northanger Abbey, however, is probably as much a product of the Gothic novels that Austen read as it is a product of her own experience. A crumbling old building is often found in Gothic works, some of which feature an abbey, once used to house nuns or monks, then sold or abandoned and later purchased by some lord or baron who is generally a villain. The holy nature of the abbey becomes ironic in these Gothic novels, since terrible things go on there once the lord or baron takes possession.
For Catherine, Northanger Abbey symbolizes an imagined ideal. As soon as she enters the abbey, she begins to think of herself as the heroine of a Gothic novel. Unlike Bath, which is simply a pleasant tourist town, the Abbey is a place of mystery and perhaps even adventure, at least in Catherine's mind. When the Abbey turns out to be disappointingly normal, Catherine uses her memory of the abbeys from her novel-reading to make it more frightening.
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