Northanger Abbey: Satire That Almost Doesn’t Feel Like Satire

I find it extremely interesting that Northanger Abbey is considered a satire of gothic novels. If no one had told me this, I would have thought it was Gothic Novels: Easy Mode™. It didn’t quite feel like a gothic novel, though I suppose that would make sense considering what it was trying to accomplish. That being said, how are we supposed to know Northanger Abbey is satirical literature? Looking back on the novel after finding out it’s satire, a few things jump out at me, but I feel as though it’s a stretch to say these things definitely mean it’s satirical. For example, in chapter one (and throughout), she repeatedly refers to Catherine as a “heroine” when she is obviously not a heroine or does anything remotely heroic throughout the story. In fact, Austen’s use of the word “heroine” repetitively seems to make the word lose meaning throughout the story. She starts by stating that there was “nothing heroic about her,” then “from fifteen to seventeen she was in training for a heroine,” and then “heroines must read to supply their memories” (Austen ch. 1) all in the same, short paragraph. 

Another element of Northanger Abbey that might tip one off to this being satirical gothic would be Austen’s portrayal of women in general, but especially Catherine, in the story. According to Nabi in “Gender Represented in the Gothic Novel,” gothic novels typically present women one of two ways: “victimized” or “predatorial.” Thinking back to other gothics such as Carmilla, I completely agree with this statement, but back to Northanger Abbey. Catherine is neither portrayed as “victimized” or “predatorial.” In fact, she’s more presented as “ordinary” and “plain.” This is also stated by the author numerous times. While one could argue that Catherine is victimized due to her interactions with John Thorpe, I disagree and here’s why. When she interacts with John, she stands up to him when she is uncomfortable. She doesn’t let him have his way. For example in chapter 8, they dance and afterwards, Catherine chooses not to dance again, saying “Oh, no; I am much obliged to you, our two dances are over; and, besides, I am tired…” John eventually leaves. “Again Catherine excused herself; and at last he walked off to quiz his sisters by himself. The rest of the evening she found very dull.” The words to describe the scene don’t hold any kind of negative emotions, either, pointing to the whole ordeal being very (you guessed it) ordinary and plain. What about the predatorial representation? Catherine is anything but predatorial. She doesn’t jump around and play with men’s emotions or manipulate her friends (like a certain Thorpe girl). 

The only thing that seems to make Northanger Abbey into a “gothic” novel would be Northanger Abbey itself and Catherine’s not-actually-unreasonable assumption that General Tilney murdered his wife. Looking at Northanger Abbey, we can see the way it’s described actually hints that this is not a gothic novel. Sure, the outside is similar to the gothic style, but the inside is much different (much to Catherine’s disappointment). The Abbey has been redone and there’s only one “creepy,” gothic-style hallway. In fact, Catherine eventually succumbs to reality, admitting that real life (this novel) is not like the gothic stories she’s been reading. This could potentially be breaking the fourth wall, which happens a few times in Northanger Abbey with the author interjecting her own opinion on novel-reading. 

Jane Austen’s writing of this novel almost seems convoluted. Why write a nearly 300 page novel just to say that gothic novels are dumb and people can read without resulting in the fall of humanity? Did it need to be this long? It almost feels like a long joke that ends with a very short, obvious punch-line. Or, perhaps, it’s a slap in the face from someone who explicitly stated they’d slap you- you kind of expected it but didn’t entirely. It truly makes me wonder: were people in the romanticism era required to write novels that were this long if they wanted their opinion to be taken seriously or does Jane Austen just like trolling us?

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