Northanger Abbey is a text that does not take itself, or any of its characters, too seriously. In fact, its main character is most often the butt of the joke. The novel makes fun of its characters, its plot points, its subject matter...OK, it's basically making fun of itself. But while the novel pokes fun at anything and anyone, it does so in a teasing, light-hearted way. The narrator doesn't do cruel or biting humor. Rather, the narrator seems to like all the characters, even though many, likes Mrs. Allen, are treated with a touch of exasperation and an eye-roll. Despite this overall fondness for the cast, no one is immune from mockery, albeit fairly kind-hearted mockery. And while the narrator frequently indulges in highly ironic observations and commentary, the irony is also tempered with a good-natured delivery.
Northanger Abbey is primarily a light-hearted comedy with lots of scenes specifically designed for a laugh. While it isn't a slap-stick, laugh-a-minute, Northanger Abbey does have all the elements of classic comedy. It's a series of humorous mishaps and misunderstandings that get resolved in a happy (and rather amusingly convenient) ending. The other genres that represented are also infused with comedy. In fact, comedy serves as something of an umbrella genre here.
First, we get a comedic coming-of-age narrative. The entire narrative trajectory of works as Catherine's coming of age story. She starts out as a naive and inexperienced youth and ends up a lot wiser and more adult. Most of the major plot points and incidents, both comedic and more serious ones, are linked to this theme of growing up. This is a novel about the often humorous experience of being young and growing older, mentally and emotionally.
We also get a very comedic portrayal of the Gothic genre here. OK, so Northanger Abbey is primarily spoofing Gothic novels, but it does have some things in common with them, deliberately so. Gothic novels are all about the dread. Suspense, anxiety, looming disaster, and all that stuff are at the core of the Gothic genre, from Dracula to The Turn of the Screw. Northanger Abbey lacks supernatural and horror elements that generally make up the Gothic, but it does have lots of suspense and anxiety. Catherine spends a lot of the novel dreading things, whether they be the consequences of a major social mishap or the latest actions of a crazy General, who lives in a "Gothic" Abbey. Unlike the traditional Gothic genre, Northanger Abbey uses Gothic tropes, or elements, for humorous effect.
Romance is also depicted humorously here. Love and relationships abound in Northanger Abbey, which is largely about the relationship and eventual marriage of Henry and Catherine. We see a lot of other relationships and marriages depicted as well: Isabella and James, Isabella and Captain Tilney, John and Catherine, General Tilney and his dearly departed (and fortunately not murdered) wife, Mr. and Mrs. Allen, etc. Romance and love are complicated, messy, and above all very funny here.
Northanger Abbey also boasts of all the hallmarks of satire. The text mocks human folly in general as much as it mocks over-the-top Gothic novels specifically. From start to finish, the text is one giant parody of the standard Gothic novel. The text is also a bit of a mocking free-for-all too. Everything from friendship to romantic love to youth to courtship is ridiculed.
Northanger Abbey refers to the castle-like building that one of the book's main families, the Tilneys, call home. With a title like this, it seems like the whole book would be taking place at, well, the Abbey. But, actually, no one even goes to Northanger Abbey until Chapter 20. So what's up with this title? Well, first off, it's important to note that Jane Austen didn't actually pick out the title herself. The book was published after Austen's death, and her brother decided to title it Northanger Abbey. Austen was leaning towards naming it Catherine, after the protagonist. This still begs the question as to why Austen's brother decided that Northanger Abbey would be a good title, though.
Well, one possible explanation lies in the book's content. Northanger Abbey satirizes popular novels of the early 1800s, known as Gothic novels. (Satire here basically means making fun of something.) Gothic novels, incidentally, often took place at creepy old castles (and abbeys). (Want to learn more about Gothic novels? Check out the "Genre" section.) Lots of popular Gothic novels had titles that reflected where the action happened, like The Castle of Otronto which took place at, um, Otronto's Castle. Similarly, Northanger Abbey, the title, helps to clue readers in to the type of novel that Jane Austen is satirizing.
Here's another possible explanation for this title: it reflects one of the novel's major thematic concerns. The book's protagonist, Catherine, is obsessed with Gothic novels and with Northanger Abbey. Over the course of the book, Catherine learns that life is not a Gothic novel and that Northanger Abbey is really just the Tilneys' nice house, not ground zero for Gothic excitement.
Northanger Abbey has a very neat and tidy and rather clichéd ending: all the nice main characters get married to other nice characters and live happily ever after. All the mean characters end up alone. It's like a Disney movie.
Aside from being rather predictable, this ending is also a little weird. What's odd about this ending is that the entire novel spends a lot of time undermining the various clichés of popular Gothic novels. But it ends with a series of giant clichés, including a deus ex machina, which is a fancy Latin term meaning a convenient plot element that is dropped in out of nowhere. The deus ex machina here is that one of the nice and long suffering characters happens to marry a wealthy Viscount who has never before been mentioned. It's completely random. And the narrator even admits that this is pretty weird and random.
The novel's ending isn't just clichéd, it's totally over-the-top clichéd. So, rather than being out of step with the rest of the book, the ending actually bumps the satire up a notch and goes for broke. Like the rest of the book, the ending is still highly satirical – it exaggerates and mocks the types of sentimental and even ludicrous endings often found in Gothic novels. The ending just accomplishes the satire in a different way than the rest of the book, which relies more on clever dialogue and humorously disrupted expectations. Instead of letting the characters supply the humor through their words and actions, the ending utilizes outrageous plot devices and ironic narrative commentary. Still, why Jane Austen decided to go with an over-the-top ending instead of a more subtle ending is debatable.
Jane Austen really loved her threes in Northanger Abbey. The book prominently features three families and three sets of siblings. The action in the book also occurs in three distinct places: Fullerton/Woodston, Bath, and Northanger Abbey. OK, so that is technically four places – Fullerton and Woodston are two villages. But Fullerton and Woodston are also similar types of places, which contrast to the types of places Bath and Northanger Abbey represent. Hence, the threes triumph again.
To begin with, all the action occurs in an unspecified year in early nineteenth century England. All the characters are relatively well off, though some more so than others. The Tilneys are extremely wealthy. The Thorpes and the Morlands, meanwhile, definitely do not have as much money. The Morlands and the Thorpes would qualify as lower gentry; they are at the bottom of the upper class, but they are still at a higher social station than the growing, middle class – or merchant class – that was rising in this period. We've got the social classes set up, so let's see where they hang out. The novel opens and closes with Fullerton, the small village where Catherine grew up. Intriguingly, she explicitly compares Woodston, Henry's home, to Fullerton. Country life and domestic life are generally praised in the text:
Now, there was nothing so charming to her imagination as the unpretending comfort of a well-connected parsonage, something like Fullerton, but better; Fullerton had its faults, but Woodston probably had none. (26.16)
Urban life and high society are depicted in Bath, which is where Catherine has lots of adventures and misunderstandings. Arguably, Bath is the actual epicenter of Northanger Abbey, in spite of the title. The bulk of the action happens in Bath, both good and bad. Being in Bath allows Catherine to socialize in a way that would have been inconceivable in Fullerton – she goes to plays, goes shopping, goes on unchaperoned carriage rides, meets eligible young men, and interacts with totally new people. Bath is definitely where the action is at in this novel.
Northanger Abbey, both the place and the book, could not have happened without Bath. Bath allows for Northanger Abbey. Catherine never would have gotten an invite to go to Northanger Abbey if she hadn't been socializing in Bath. She also never would have gotten an invite if she hadn't been the subject of some rather interesting rumors (thanks, John Thorpe) that really could have only been spread in a place like Bath. Unlike Fullerton, Bath is an urban space full of strangers. In the days before Google searches, it was hard to get solid information on people. People could lie and could get away with it without worries of ending up on someone's blog. So the urban environment of Bath made Catherine known to new people and put her in a position to actually go to Northanger Abbey
Northanger Abbey functions as a real place and a slice of upper-class life and parental tyranny. It also functions as an imaginary construct, a place that Catherine confuses with the books she reads and infests with tragic murder mysteries and secret manuscripts. Bath is where Catherine got into lots of mishaps and misunderstandings and Northanger Abbey is where she gets to learn some lessons and do a bit of growing up. All of this in turn allows Catherine to return home at the end, and later move to Woodston with Henry, as an older and wiser individual. If Bath and Northanger Abbey are the places of comedic adventures, then Fullerton and Woodson are the places where people go to settle down once the hijinks are done.
In terms of plot and style, Northanger Abbey isn't that hard to follow. Sure, the language is a bit old fashioned and some of the speech patterns do take a little getting used to, but the book is pretty straightforward overall. It's also relatively short too, and makes for a fun, and funny, read. The only major difficulty with reading Northanger Abbey is the abundance of historical and literary allusions. Of course, not getting all of those totally doesn't detract from the book overall. It's just funnier in places if you do get the references. Other than the occasional pause to read a footnote (or Shmoop's very own handy "Shout Out" section), this book is a relatively quick and entertaining read.
You might be wondering how those three items go to together. It's a bit of a strange mix, but Austen pulls it off. Northanger Abbey is an undoubtedly witty book. The dialogue and the narration are very clever and clear. Stylistically, Austen is mastering the art of brevity here. She's a pro at using succinct phrases and quick observations to elicit a laugh. She's also a pro at letting her characters' dialogue do the heavy lifting of garnering laughs. Each character has their own unique speaking style, from John's blustering exclamations to Catherine's tumbling phrases, to Henry's endless wit, to Isabella's rapid-fire chatter. The narrator's style, witty, clear, and often succinct, rises above her character's often chaotic exchanges, bringing everything together.
So we've got witty and clear covered. Now, for the layers. Northanger Abbey has a lot going on in terms of plot and themes: it's a love story, it's a comedy, it's a tale of friendship, it's a tale of growing up, it's a parody. The style reflects these plot layers as well. Or styles plural, rather.
The narrator often uses different styles to narrate the plot and to directly address the reader. When narrating the plot, the narrator's style is generally clear, witty, and relatively concise.
For example, when describing John Thorpe's reunion with his sisters, the narrator's style is fairly concise and to the point, with a brief humorous clause tossed in for a laugh:
On his two younger sisters he then bestowed an equal portion of his fraternal tenderness, for her asked each of them how they did, and observed that they both looked very ugly. (7.43)
When indulging in asides, the narrator often adopts a more rambling and overtly mocking style. This more rambling and wordy style also crops up in instances where the narrator is spoofing the Gothic genre and directly commenting on the links between typical Gothic novel plots and her own. These asides are making fun of the styles of Gothic novels and moralizing tracts that were popular in Austen's era. These tracts were really pedantic, which means that they showed-off by using big words and long sentences. While parodying social commentators who lectured on the "proper" behavior for young ladies, the narrator uses lengthy phrases with lots of clauses. One sentence goes on for nine lines in the last paragraph of Chapter 2. During one aside on the virtues of novels, the narrator again uses lengthy sentences and numerous clauses that are only occasionally broken up by a shorter sentence or phrase. This goes on for almost two pages.
Sentence length, the number of clauses, and use or lack of narrative direct address are all key indicators of what the narrator hopes to accomplish in any given passage, be it a humorous account of events, a satirical rant aimed at the reader, or a parodic rendition of a Gothic text.
Austen uses, and disrupts, a lot of the symbols and images that characterized popular Gothic novels in her spoof of the Gothic novel. The Abbey itself serves as a symbol of the Gothic, and of Catherine's own hyperactive imagination, which mistakes fiction for reality. Within the Abbey, Catherine continually sees and misinterprets Gothic symbols: an old chest (that turns out to be empty); a mysterious manuscript (that is really a laundry list); a secret passageway (that's really an innocuous staircase). Other Gothic images and symbols, like thunderstorms and portraits of the deceased, also turn out to be much less exciting than Catherine initially suspects. These symbols and images of the Gothic become part of Austen's skewering of the Gothic novel genre, as well as part of her thematic focus on Catherine's overactive imagination and faulty assumptions.
Aside from Gothic objects and images, Jane Austen also uses lots of Gothic plot devices, or events, in her book. Generally, these plot devices are used to make readers laugh, and they represent the ridiculousness of the Gothic novels that Catherine takes seriously – which is ridiculous, on her part.
The trouble with these Gothic plot devices is that they were aimed at readers who read lots of Gothic novels, like Anne Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho. So how can we go about spotting these events and plot devices? Well, these Gothic events are usually accompanied by really witty commentary from the narrator. Also, these plot devices are usually gigantic clichés. They are lame and ridiculous.
A great example of a Gothic event is Eleanor's engagement to that random rich guy in the very last chapter. That sort of thing happened in a lot of popular Gothic novels, and Northanger Abbey is making fun of it through Eleanor. Another example is the sequence in Chapter 21, where Catherine "discovers" a secret manuscript that turns out to be a laundry list. Catherine's anxious and excited search of her room is a parody of what heroines often did in Gothic novels.
Books, especially Gothic novels, are important symbols here. They are so important that they symbolize, or represent, a lot of different things. So there are a ton of different ways to interpret books and Gothic novels in Northanger Abbey.
Books and Gothic novels play an important role in a lot of the books' major relationships. Catherine and Isabella bond over Gothic novels. Books also help us to better understand the characters. For instance, both John and Henry read Gothic novels, though John insists that they are stupid, while Henry insists that people like John are stupid for thinking such things.
The way characters talk about novels and read them often provides insight into their personalities. We can see a definite contrast between John and Henry based on their reading habits. Here are John's views:
I took up the first volume once and looked it over, but I soon found it would not do; indeed I guessed what sort of stuff it must be before I saw it [...] I was sure I should never be able to get through it. (7.40)
John judges too quickly here and goes on to bash a book that he hasn't actually read. He basically sounds ill-informed and ridiculous. John also calls Gothic "stupid," even though he has read a lot of them. Henry, meanwhile, has very different reading habits:
I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and most of them with great pleasure. 'The Mysteries of Udolpho,' when I had once begun it, I could not lay it down again; - I remember finishing it in two days - my hair standing on end the entire time. (14.7)
Henry sounds a lot like Catherine here – he enjoys reading and finds Gothic novels fun and exciting. So the way characters discuss books and read them reveals a lot about who these characters are. Books, and Gothic novels especially, also play key symbolic roles in the books' various relationships. Catherine, after all, discusses Gothic novels with nearly everyone in the book.
Carriages, and the way people drive them, are one of the main symbols of status employed in Northanger Abbey. James Moreland, who is low on cash, has to rent a carriage while the wealthy Tilney's of course own very nice ones. John Thorpe makes an overt link between social status and carriages when he comments on James Morland:
"Morland is a fool for not keeping a horse and a gig of his own."
"No, he is not," said Catherine warmly, "for I am sure he could not afford it." (11.56-7)
People with less money are forced to rent shoddy carriages and horses here, which John finds annoying. Since John himself has little money and yet keeps his own horse and carriage, it is most likely that he is in some debt. Back in the day carriages were like your car – so James is driving around a beat up old station wagon, essentially. And John has blown all of his money on the equivalent of a snazzy new car.
Carriages, and how they are driven, also symbolize the character of some of the leading male figures in the book. Catherine even notes the contrast between her two suitors, John and Henry, based on their driving skills:
Henry drove so well, - so quietly - without making any disturbance, without parading to her, or swearing at them; so different from the only gentleman-coachman whom it was in her power to compare him with! (20.5)
Carriages, and how they are driven, comment on character's personalities as well as their respective class statuses.
The third person narrative is primarily filtered through Catherine, hence the limited part of the omniscience. We get most of the story through her eyes and we are also privy to some of Catherine's inner thoughts and feelings, which is an experience we lack with most of the novel's other characters, like Isabella.
The third person narrator has limited omniscience in the sense that we don't have full access to all the characters. But we are also hindered by Catherine's limitations and blind spots – to a point at least. Since Northanger Abbey is a comedic satire, it relies on irony. Irony is a pretty big term that can mean lots of things. So let's see what kind of irony the narrator uses. Basically, irony is all about opposites. If you are being ironic, or sarcastic, you say the opposite of what you actually mean. The narrator uses irony to be funny, like Juno. Here's an example of irony at work:
imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms. (14.28)
Jane Austen doesn't really mean that. If she did, she probably wouldn't have sat down to write a bunch of really intelligent novels. There are also lots of instances of dramatic irony in the book. Dramatic irony is where the narrator lets the readers know what's up, while the characters remain clueless. For example, we get lots of hints that James and Isabella like each other before Catherine figures it out. So the narrator often indirectly clues the audience in to events and actions that elude, or escape, Catherine.
Austen is a tricky narrator, and the book's narrative is complicated by the fact that it is a satire. The narrator often tells us information about characters in order to make fun of them. Some of the "inner thoughts" we receive from characters are not so much actual thoughts as they are Austen's witty, interpretive spin on them. Hence, the limited omniscience here. Omniscience might be stretching it a bit at times, too. Austen's narrative technique is often something akin to third person psychological profiling for the purpose of mockery.
The narrator also ditches the third person as well. Often, the narrator directly addresses the reader Ferris Bueller-style and uses the first person "I." So Northanger Abbey is mainly an example of third person limited omniscient narration, in that we primarily stick with Catherine and get the story from her perspective. But the narrator often departs from this model, which makes classification a little tricky, albeit interesting.
This stage encompasses the entire time in Bath where misunderstandings abound. Catherine spends her time misunderstanding what the Thorpes are up to and apologizing to the Tilneys for confusions about social engagements. Catherine is falling for Henry here, but John Thorpe's pursuit of her is proving troublesome. Isabella gets engaged to James Morland, but there are hints that the greedy and socially ambitious Isabella is less than satisfied with the match.
The confusion worsens, and shows little sign of abating, from John's proposal to Catherine, which Catherine totally misses, to the scene where General Tilney throws Catherine out of his house. Catherine is mystified by Isabella and her behavior around Captain Tilney, doesn't understand John's interest in her, and is really confused by the General. Catherine also mistakenly suspects the General of murder during this period as well, which leads to some odd and awkward interactions between her and the Tilney siblings.
Though the confusion over Isabella was resolved a bit earlier, all the other misunderstandings and confusions are resolved when Henry comes to propose to Catherine. We learn that John lied to the General about Catherine's income, which is why Catherine was both invited to and later tossed out of Northanger Abbey. After clearing everything up and finding a rich man for Eleanor to marry, Catherine and Henry finally get married.
This part of the novel screams initial situation – the stage is being set with all the necessary characters in the same place so that comedy and confusion can ensue. We meet nearly all the major players in the novel here, and we also get a good deal of expository detail about Catherine's personality and the histories of the three major families featured in the book – the Morlands, the Tilneys, and the Thorpes.
Love triangle drama ahoy. Catherine is falling for Henry, but is plagued by John and his overbearing attempts at courtship. Conflict extends to the friendship front at well, as Catherine's new BFF Isabella works with her brother to maneuver Catherine away from the Tilneys. The conflict is really hammered home by the fact that Catherine spends a large portion of this section stressing about misunderstandings or apologizing for them.
Ah, the plot thickens. Isabella's seemingly fortuitous engagement is complicated by her disappointment with her future husband's income. It's complicated even further by her flirtation with Captain Tilney. Another seemingly good event also goes awry here. Catherine gets to go visit the home of her crush, Henry, and her new friend Eleanor. But General Tilney is really starting to make her nervous.
Catherine learns a lesson. The climax is a bit of a moral one – that doesn't mean it's not exciting. Catherine accuses General Tilney of being a murderer to Henry, albeit in a round about way. Probably not the best thing to tell your crush, but there you go. Henry calls her on her behavior and Catherine realizes the error of her ways. Catherine's entire trajectory in Bath was colored by her faulty assumptions and the ways in which she mistook fiction for reality. In the aftermath of her confrontation with Henry, Catherine grows up a lot and becomes much more self-aware. Lesson learned, but Catherine's personal relationship with Henry is cast into some doubt after her blunder, temporarily at least.
Even though Catherine has learned some valuable lessons, a number of tense situations still have to be resolved. Catherine and Henry's relationship seems like it's still fine. But Catherine, Henry, and Eleanor weather a tense couple of days after learning about Captain Tilney and Isabella's relationship. Just as this situation is resolved, Catherine is expelled from Northanger Abbey in extremely mysterious circumstances.
Things are finally winding down and resolutions abound here. Catherine returns home in disgrace, only to be followed by Henry, who puts her out of her misery by proposing. A happily ever after conclusion seems to be in the works, but there's still the problem of the disapproving General Tilney.
We finally learn why General Tilney overreacted to Catherine's presence in his house. Eleanor fortunately marries a rich man and, since the General has one rich in-law, he doesn't mind having a less rich one. So Catherine and Henry get married.
Catherine travels to Bath and meets the Tilneys and the Thorpes. She falls for Henry Tilney, but she is pursued by John Thorpe. Isabella Thorpe gets engaged to Catherine's older brother James, but Isabella begins flirting with Captain Tilney shortly after getting engaged.
Catherine is invited to travel to Northanger Abbey with the Tilneys. Catherine lets her imagination run away from her at the Abbey and ends up embarrassing herself. Things are cleared up, but another crisis arises when she learns that Isabella and James are no longer engaged.
Catherine is mysteriously expelled from Northanger Abbey by General Tilney. Henry chases after her and proposes. After Henry's sister Eleanor gets married to a wealthy man, the General gives his approval to Henry, who then marries Catherine.