Study Guide

Northanger Abbey Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Jane Austen

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Markers of the Gothic: Images and Objects

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.

Markers of the Gothic: Events and Plot Devices

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

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

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.