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Reading the World: Beneath the Surface of Books and People in Northanger Abbey

In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen makes extensive use of references to books and reading. For Austen’s characters, “living in the world involves the reading of people, behaviour, dress and conversation as well as of books” (Butler xvi). Throughout the novel, Austen closely identifies the way her characters read books with the way they “read” the real world. Their various reading styles capture the different ways they approach life, shaping our understanding of who they are, particularly in the case of Austen's heroine, Catherine Morland. In many ways, Northanger Abbey is about Catherine’s journey to becoming a mature reader, both of books and the world around her. Throughout the novel, Austen constructs many parallels between reading books and reading real life to illustrate that truth and fiction are often tied together within the same package; mature readers must be able to look beyond surface appearances and discern the difference.

Austen famously skewers Gothic romance tropes throughout Northanger Abbey, humorously pointing out the ways normal, realistic Catherine, described in blunt terms as “often inattentive . . . occasionally stupid . . . [and] almost pretty” (16-17), and her comparatively uneventful life are unlike those of the ravishing beauties and melodramatic horror scenes in her favorite novels. Austen does not purely condemn the Gothic genre—after all, the sophisticated, witty hero Henry Tilney has proudly read and enjoyed nearly every one of Mrs. Radcliffe’s novels (102)—rather, she gently laughs at Catherine’s, and perhaps the reader’s, initial naive conflation of Gothic drama with the actual happenings of everyday life. Austen continues to weave this satire of the Gothic novel throughout Northanger Abbey, often by ironically pointing out the ways her own novel “falls short” of classic stereotypes while emphasizing her characters' realistic, relatable actions and emotions. When it’s time for Catherine to leave her family and travel to Bath, her mother doesn’t anxiously overwhelm her with dire warnings about powerful men who might snatch her away in the middle of the night, her sister doesn’t tearfully implore her to write as often as possible, her father doesn’t solemnly hand her all the money he owns; rather, “Every thing . . . seemed rather consistent with the common feelings of common life” (20). Austen constantly emphasizes that this story is not a sappy Gothic romance; “Feelings rather natural than heroic” (89) are what characterize Catherine.

Aside from adding a good deal of humor to the story and introducing the theme of reality versus fiction, Austen’s complex Gothic satire actually draws attention to the fact that Northanger Abbey itself is a work of fiction. Though she laughs at the unreality of Gothic stereotypes, she also recognizes that her own work is a story with a pure and virtuous heroine, a mysterious, dashing hero, a dramatic scene in a dark castle on a stormy night, and of course, a triumphant wedding to cap it all off. She draws from stereotypes even as she satirizes them; for example, though she points out that Catherine’s sister sensibly doesn’t beg her to write her every last detail of her journey, later in the story Eleanor does in fact throw herself at Catherine as they part, crying, “You must write to me, Catherine . . . you must let me hear from you as soon as possible” (213). By leveraging these Gothic archetypes as inspiration for characters that are still sympathetic and relatable, Austen shows again that her satire is not a blanket condemnation of the genre. Rather, she cautions against swallowing the stereotypes whole, taking their exaggerated face value for reality, as Catherine does. By placing the relationship between truth and fiction in the back of the reader’s mind, she sets the stage for Catherine to begin sorting the two out as she learns to read both books and people, and invites the reader along for the journey.

When she introduces Catherine as her unlikely heroine in the first chapter, Austen connects Catherine’s immaturity to her choice of reading material: at fourteen, she was partial to books that were “all story and no reflection” (17), and at her current age of seventeen, the way in which she devours Gothic novels is little better. The young heroine’s obsession with Gothic novels at the start of the novel introduces her sincere yet simple nature, highlighting her naivety. As the story progresses, the reader comes to see that “[Catherine’s] heart is all purity, her actions all innocence” (52), and “without conceit or affectation of any kind” (19). She is an open book, and a fairly charming one at that. But her “ignorant and uninformed” (19) mind manifests itself in the fact that she believes everyone else to be as straightforward and guileless as herself. When Isabella says that two “odious young men” have been bothering her and hopes that they will not follow her, Catherine innocently takes her word for it, oblivious to the flashing signs that Isabella is actually desperate for their attention (42). Anything that is not explicitly stated goes over Catherine’s head. And just as a reader who takes figures of speech at face value loses the richness, color, and depth of understanding they impart to the literary experience (and may even come away with a completely incorrect interpretation of the author’s meaning), Catherine naively misunderstands the words and actions of the people around her because she takes them at face value. Her inability to read beyond the surface of Isabella’s constant hyperbole, John’s less-than-subtle allusions, Henry’s satirical humor, and General Tilney’s mysterious character leads her into confusion and misunderstanding.

In Bath, Catherine’s reading habits form the foundation for her friendship with Isabella Thorpe. The discussion the two girls have about Gothic novels in Chapter 6 reveals a key dynamic of their relationship: Isabella, as the older and more dominant of the duo, confidently recommends books for Catherine to excitedly absorb, much as she wonderingly listens to Isabella’s opinions about men and fashion. At a glance, it appears that perhaps observant, worldly Isabella will be the one to help Catherine grow out of her immature reading. However, Isabella’s view of novels hints at her shallow, manipulative nature, a side Catherine is too naive to spot at this point in the story. Isabella is clearly no avid reader and keeps trying to steer the conversation to herself, hinting at the selfishness she will continue to demonstrate throughout the novel. For her, literature is nothing more than a “fashionable display, a commodity to be conspicuously consumed” (Benedict) but not truly digested and understood. Distracted by Isabella’s laundry list of horror novels and the plot of Udolpho, Catherine doesn’t notice, but Austen’s reader quickly sees the way Isabella can't help but slowly bring her sweet acquaintance Miss Andrews, and then an event she attended, and then the captain she danced with, and so on, into their supposed book discussion (39). Her kind of “reading” is superficial, merely a tool for socializing; in this case, a feigned interest in literature serves as an easy way to capture Catherine’s affections (Benedict).

Indeed, when considering Catherine’s reading tastes, her quick adoration for Isabella is no surprise. Isabella, linked both explicitly through her conversation and implicitly through her behavior to the genre, is a veritable incarnation of the Gothic novel. Catherine tells Isabella, “I assure you, if it had not been to meet you, I would not have come away from [my book] for all the world” (39); it is only to meet Isabella that Catherine is willing to put away her Gothic novel, further identifying Isabella with the unreality, drama and sentimentalism of the Gothic genre. Both are passionate, sentimental and unrealistic; Isabella’s dialogue overflows with superlatives, dramatic declarations such as “My attachments are always excessively strong” (39) and blatant contradictions to her actions. They are both rewarding in the short-term and deceive Catherine, who must realize their falsity in order to mature later in the story. Just as she mistakes Gothic novels for reality at Northanger Abbey, so she mistakes Isabella’s manipulation for true friendship. Isabella’s betrayal illustrates the importance of being a critical reader not only of books, but also of people; open, accepting Catherine is “little . . . in the habit of judging for herself” (65), and absorbs Isabella’s opinions (and deceptions) with hardly a second thought.

As Austen introduces her readers to John Thorpe, it becomes clear that the literary devices of hyperbole and allusion run strong in the Thorpe family, and that Catherine has no more success reading John than Isabella. John is constantly exaggerating everything from the speed of his horses to the quality of his gig, throwing out pompous assertions and often complete falsehoods (64). When referring to James and Isabella’s gig, John tells Catherine, “I would not be bound to go two miles in it for fifty thousand pounds,” and then practically in the same breath, swears, “I would undertake for five pounds to drive it to York and back again, without losing a nail” (64). Catherine is left utterly confused, not knowing how to “reconcile two such very different accounts of the same thing” (64). Unfamiliar with the idea that not every source, whether written or real-life, is credible, she is unable to see that such extreme, conflicting statements can have little merit coming from John’s brash, ignorant personality. Likewise, she completely misreads John’s blundering attempt to propose to her. He asks awkwardly as they discuss Isabella’s wedding, “Did you ever hear the old song ‘Going to One Wedding Brings on Another?’ . . . You know, we may try the truth of this same old song” (117). Catherine completely misses his allusion to marriage and replies innocently, “May we? But I never sing” (117). As with Isabella, Catherine completely misreads the greedy motives beneath the surface in her relationship with John.

Henry’s relationship with Catherine is a fundamental part of her maturation as a reader. As a far more sophisticated thinker, he shows her how to look beyond surface meanings to the more complex truth beneath. His specialty is dealing in double meanings, which is precisely the skill that Catherine lacks. From the very beginning of their relationship, his unique, ironic brand of humor “[interests], though it [is] hardly understood by” Catherine (25). In that first conversation, he introduces Catherine to satire by making fun of Bath social conventions and imagining the stereotypical journal entry she is sure to write about him (25-27). She is slightly confused by his satirical wit, “not knowing whether she might venture to laugh” (26), but she is making progress, able to grasp at least that she should not take him completely seriously. In another conversation, Henry tries to teach Catherine to understand another key literary device: symbolism. He explains to her that a “country-dance” can be seen as “an emblem of marriage”; both involve a mutual agreement to be pleasant and faithful, and men who choose not to marry or dance should not interfere with the wives or partners of others (74). Literal-minded Catherine is not yet able to grasp the comparison, protesting, “People that marry can never part . . . People that dance only stand opposite each other in a long room for half an hour” (74). Finally, when Catherine misreads General Tilney’s character and her wild imagination begins to suspect that he has locked up or murdered his wife, Henry teaches her the importance of reading in context. “Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you” (186), he urges her.

Eleanor, too, teaches Catherine to grow as a reader. One of the most important aspects of her instruction of Catherine is her demonstration of true friendship. The more time Catherine spends with Eleanor and Henry, the more clearly she can read Isabella’s deception for what it is, until finally she is disgusted and “ashamed of having ever loved her” (204). Interestingly, Eleanor is actually the female character who most clearly fits the model of a stereotypical Gothic heroine—a virtuous young woman who has lost her mother and lives with an overbearing, greedy father, ultimately rescued from her troubles by a miraculous marriage to “the most charming young man in the world” (234). Yet she is the opposite of Isabella, Austen’s caricature of the negative aspects of the Gothic genre. A far cry from Isabella’s exaggerated flattery, Eleanor’s conversation with Catherine is filled with “simplicity and truth, and without personal conceit” (70). Through Eleanor, Austen makes the important point that pieces of genuine truth can be found even when mixed with fiction, as Eleanor proves genuine though she falls into the Gothic heroine stereotype that has been so often satirized as fake throughout Northanger Abbey. As Catherine learns, containing truth does not mean the entire stereotype, book, or person can be completely accepted at face value.

Despite their reading prowess and kindness to Catherine, the Tilneys are not perfect teachers nor perfect examples. They clearly see that Catherine is misreading the greedy motives behind their father’s hospitality; when she gushes, “Your father is so very liberal! He told me the other day that he only valued money as it allowed him to promote the happiness of his children,” they glance at each other, knowing the opposite to be true (193). Yet, perhaps out of embarrassment, they fail to correct her misreading. And, experienced reader though he may be, even Henry isn’t able to come up with an accurate analysis of his brother Frederick’s entanglement with Isabella. He says that he can “only guess at” his brother’s motives (143), and wrongly predicts that the affair will soon blow over (144). Austen uses Henry’s mistakes to illustrate the importance of humility in reading; even the most sophisticated of readers is not free from the danger of misinterpretation. Through their flaws as well as their virtues, both of the Tilneys aid Catherine on her journey to becoming a mature reader. A key sign of her maturation is the moment when Catherine recognizes that unlike the flawless protagonists and villainous fiends of her Gothic novels, in real people there is a “mixture of good and bad,” and even her beloved Henry and Eleanor are likely to have “some slight imperfection” (188). With this realization, she has finally come to see that the real world is a much more complex read than the world of a Gothic novel (Hall).

As Austen resolves the plot at lightning speed in the final pages of Northanger Abbey, one could argue that it feels almost too contrived. Henry’s appearance in Fullerton, the proposal, Eleanor’s marriage, the General’s approval, and then Henry and Catherine’s marriage—it all seems to fall into place just a little too easily. Yet in those closing chapters, Austen hints to the reader that she is actually emphasizing this feeling on purpose. Though it permeates the novel as a whole, her recognition of the fictions she herself is creating becomes especially explicit towards the end: she “[leaves] it to [her] reader’s sagacity” (230) to work out all the details of the plot resolution, admits that Henry and Catherine’s love story is “a new circumstance in romance” (227), and even openly states that “the rules of composition forbid the introduction of a character not connected with [her] fable” (234) so near the end. By emphasizing the fictional aspects of her story, Austen points out the inherent artifice of her craft as a fiction writer. It is as if she is winking at her readers, offering a reminder as the story closes that they, too, could fall into the same pattern as Catherine: uncritically accepting everything they read, whether in their favorite books or in the people around them, without recognizing the extent of the fiction intertwined with the truth.

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