By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
Ancient castles, ghostly sounds, and dark and stormy nights. Heroes, villains, and damsels in distress. These were the building blocks of the Gothic fiction that was immensely popular in the late 18th century. Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is a gothic parody, a comic send-up of the suspense-filled works of Gothic fiction in vogue in the politically volatile 1790s.
Catherine: A Gothic Heroine?
Northanger Abbey begins by introducing the heroine Catherine; she’s unusual in having both a father and a mother. Many heroines in Gothic novels were orphans. It quickly signaled their vulnerability. But Austen’s Catherine is not a damsel in distress. Also, unlike most heroines in Gothic novels—stunningly beautiful, virtuous, dutiful, accomplished, and modest—Catherine is nothing special to look at.
Moreover, in a Gothic novel, the heroine would often be made into an immediate object of pity. But, Catherine’s parents are caring. Her father isn’t what Northanger Abbey mockingly calls ‘addicted to locking up his daughters’.
When Catherine meets a young woman just her age on her first trip to Bath, she believes that the two of them must immediately become each other’s trusted confidantes. That’s precisely what would happen in a typical Gothic novel. As a result, Catherine consistently misreads the motivations of her fast friend, Isabella Thorpe, who turns out to be a very false friend.
Gothic elements in Northanger Abbey
In a Gothic novel, just as the first young female a heroine meets might become her best friend and sidekick, the first eligible young man she meets might become her future husband, after they overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
The reason Northanger Abbey isn’t only a gothic parody is because its story employs many Gothic elements, in a new key. It’s a formula we might even call half-Gothic or ‘Gothic light’.
The first young man whom Catherine meets does turn out to be her hero: the witty, sarcastic, and novel-loving Henry Tilney. The couple’s obstacle to love proves to be not a villainous criminal, or a supernatural force, as you’d expect to see in a Gothic romance, but instead proves to be the hero’s brash, materialistic father, General Tilney.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Mock-gothic elements in Northanger Abbey
The last third of the Northanger Abbey takes place in an incredibly Gothic setting: the abbey of the title. Most British Gothic novels chose settings in Italy, France, or another far-away location, often in a faraway time, too.
Austen’s abbey is a private home, 30 miles away from the fashionable resort town of Bath. Austen takes the trappings of the Gothic genre and moves them into the present, pulling them closer to home. She recycled its narrative elements, while gently mocking the form as a whole.
The best place to see mock-gothic elements is in Northanger Abbey’s two pivotal, climactic scenes. In the first pivotal scene, Catherine does some nosy and very rude sleuthing in the Tilneys’ abbey-home. Having read so many Gothic novels in which victimized wives are locked up or murdered by evil husbands, Catherine wonders if General Tilney’s late wife may have died an unnatural death—or not died at all.
When Catherine trespasses in this part of the house, she is caught by the hero. When Catherine uses the precise language of the Gothic and suggests directly that the General could have been a criminal, Henry loses his composure. He lectures her thus: “Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from?”
Henry opened her eyes with this lecture, to what is improbable in life and in literature. Real lives aren’t like a Gothic novel, Henry seems to be saying, both to Catherine and to the reader.
Northanger Abbey‘s Most Gothic Element
When General Tilney learns that Catherine isn’t the wealthy heiress he’s mistakenly supposed, he sends her home precipitously and angrily, to take a long trip alone on a post-chaise.
Catherine’s Gothic predicament is that she’s a vulnerable young girl forced to travel, without a chaperone. It’s the opposite of a Gothic kidnapping. The General sends Catherine packing, to punish her and bring her low, as well as to make sure his son Henry doesn’t marry a woman without money. The General thrusts Catherine into a position that’s ungenteel at best and potentially dangerous at worst.
What the novel shows is a world filled with people who are neither entirely evil nor entirely good. In Austen’s stories, heroes may disobey their parents and still be heroes. Villains may make poor choices but then walk them back to make better ones. In standard Gothic novels, it was all black and white thinking: Good triumphed over evil, villains were vanquished, the virtuous and modest remained so and were rewarded for it.
Austen’s Treatment of Gothic Elements
Northanger Abbey is sometimes called a comic parody of the Gothic, but that label doesn’t capture Austen’s novel fully. Its exaggerations aren’t only there to poke fun and entertain. The features of the Gothic are also repurposed and made part of the fabric of the plot.
Northanger Abbey exposes and rejects the most outlandish parts of the Gothic formula—its frequent storms, impossible coincidences, and ubiquitous violence. She deliberately retains the Gothic genre’s commitment to suspense, keeping its focus on thwarted family relationships and frustrated courtships. From there, Austen goes in her own distinctive and inimitable direction.
Common questions about Northanger Abbey as a Gothic Parody
Northanger Abbey is not a gothic novel per se. While it does use many of the gothic elements, it also deviates from the gothic standards in many places. The novel takes up gothic elements and uses them in its distinctive manner, giving it the semblance of a mock-gothic or a gothic parody.
Northanger Abbey is sometimes called a comic parody of the Gothic, but that label doesn’t capture the novel fully. The features of the Gothic are also repurposed and made part of the fabric of the plot. The novel exposes and rejects the most outlandish parts of the Gothic formula and retains the Gothic genre’s commitment to suspense, keeping its focus on thwarted family relationships and frustrated courtships.
Jane Austen employs many gothic elements in her story but in a new key. In her own unique and inimitable style, she repurposes the gothic elements to make the formula half-gothic. While the outlandish elements are done away with, she uses exaggeration and suspense to poke fun at it.