Study Guide

Northanger Abbey Language and Communication

By Jane Austen

Language and Communication

"My dearest creature, I have been looking for you this hour. What could have induced you to come into this set, when you knew I was in the other? I have been quite wretched without you."

"My dear Isabella, how was it possible for me to get at you? I could no even see where you were."

"So I told your brother all the time - but he would not believe me. Do go and see for her, Mr. Morland, said I - but all in vain - he would not stir an inch. Was it not so, Mr. Morland?" (8.12-14)

Isabella excels in verbally disconcerting, or confusing, people. She talks constantly in an effort to keep everyone else off balance, and in an effort to keep herself in the position of never being wrong.

Catherine's silent appeal to her friend, meanwhile, was entirely thrown away, for Mrs. Allen, not being at all in the habit of conveying any expression herself by a look, was not aware of it being ever intended by any body else. (9.6)

Non-verbal communication is often the most problematic and the most frequently misunderstood in this text. Mrs. Allen is shown to be someone totally oblivious to it. Catherine has a much more hit-and-miss record with non-verbal cues.

She followed him in all his admiration as well as she could. To go before, or beyond him was impossible. His knowledge and her ignorance of the subject, his rapidity of expression, and her diffidence of herself put that out of her power; she could strike out nothing new in commendation, but she readily echoed whatever he chose to assert. (9.27)

Different personalities often have trouble communicating in this text. John practically steamrolls the shy Catherine here. Communication is frequently a matter of finding common ground, but in this instance John opts to dominate the conversation, forcing Catherine to become an echo.

She reflected on the affair for some time in much perplexity, and was more than once on the point of requesting from Mr. Thorpe a clearer insight into his real opinion on the subject; but she checked herself, because it appeared to her that he did not excel in giving those clearer insights, in making those things plain which he had before made ambiguous. (9.31)

Unclear communication stem from two places here. On the one hand, Catherine herself is perplexed and can't interpret what John is saying, or not saying. On the other hand, John is not expressing himself clearly. Learning how to be a good translator is a key aspect of Catherine's development here.

"I am glad of it, for we shall all be there." - This civility was duly returned; and they parted - on Miss Tilney's side with some knowledge of her new acquaintance's feelings, and on Catherine's, without the smallest consciousness of having explained them. (10.20)

Catherine is once again unconsciously communicating her sentiments to someone else, in this case the perceptive Eleanor Tilney. Catherine had been attempting to question her about Henry, but subtlety is definitely not Catherine's strong suit.

The three others still continued together, walking in a most uncomfortable manner to poor Catherine; sometimes not a word was said, sometimes she was again attacked with supplications or reproaches, and her arm was still linked within Isabella's, though their hearts were at war. At one moment she was softened, at another irritated; always distressed, but always steady. (13.8)

Catherine faces up to some intense peer pressure, where the Thorpes and James alternate between an array of persuasive tactics: flattering her, sweet-talking her, attacking her. This war of wills is fought with language, and Catherine is essentially under siege.

"Henry," said Miss Tilney, "you are very impertinent. Miss Morland, he is treating you exactly as he does his sister. He is forever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language [....] The word 'nicest,' as you used it, did not suit him [....]"

'"I am sure," cried Catherine, "I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a very nice book, and why should not I call it so?"

"Very true," said Henry, "and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! it is a very nice word, indeed! - it does for everything." (14.14-16)

Henry's obsession with word choice is a recurring theme. Henry ridicules people, especially Catherine, for using words incorrectly, or for using vague words. Henry seems to be commenting on lazy word-choice here, since 'nice' is such a generic word that it practically means nothing at all.

"I do not understand you."

"Then we are on very unequal terms, for I understand you perfectly well."

"Me? - yes; I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible."

"Bravo! - an excellent satire on modern language." (16.20-23)

Catherine makes one of the best thematic statements of the entire book here, with her assertion that she can't speak well enough to be unintelligible. Catherine implies that overeducated speakers are often the least intelligible, though this text gives us plenty of examples of idiotic speakers as well. Henry agrees with Catherine, since he is often satirizing, or making fun of, the way people speak.

"A famous good thing this marrying scheme, upon my soul! A clever fancy of Morland's and Belle's. What do you think of it, Miss Morland? I say it is not a bad notion."

"I am sure I think it a very good one."

"Do you? - that's honest, by heavens! I am glad you are no enemy to matrimony however. Did you ever hear the old song, 'Going to one wedding brings on another'?

[....]

"And then you know" - twisting himself about and forcing a foolish laugh - "I say, then you know, we may try the truth of the same old song."

"May we? - but I never sing. Well I wish you a good journey." (15.31-36)

This is one of the funniest scenes in the whole book, and one of the best examples of communication gone hilariously awry. John and Catherine each mistakenly assume they are on the same page here.

"Well, then, I only meant that your attributing my brother's wish of dancing with Miss Thorpe to good-nature alone, convinced me of your being superior in good-nature yourself to all the rest of the world."

Catherine blushed and disclaimed, and the gentleman's predictions were verified. (16.27-28)

Here Catherine's opinions and assumptions about other people tell Henry more about herself than about Captain Tilney and Isabella.

"You are a very close questioner."

"Am I? - I only ask what I want to be told."

"But do you only ask what I can be expected to tell?"

"Yes, I think so; for you must know your brother's heart."

"My brother's heart, as you term it on the present occasion, I assure you can only guess at."

"Well?"

"Well! - Nay, if it is to be guess-work, let us all guess for ourselves. To be guided by second-hand conjecture is pitiful." (18.20-26)

Catherine assumes Henry is able to communicate and explain things that he in fact cannot. Henry's "guess-work" is quite good, but he isn't omniscient, or all-knowing, in the way that Catherine is thinking here.