Northanger Abbey: How to Read a Gothic Novel Properly – Part 2

Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic novel, The Romance of the Forest (1791), also utilizes the abbey to uncover deeper issues. As La Motte explores the underground part of an abandoned abbey in order to find a place to hide from his creditors, he discovers something else:

Upon the ground within [the door], stood a large chest, which he went forward to examine, and, lifting the lid, he saw the remains of a human skeleton. Horror struck upon his heart, and he involuntarily stepped back. During a pause of some moments, his first emotions subsided. That thrilling curiosity which objects of terror often excite in the human mind, impelled him to take a second view of this dismal spectacle. La Motte stood motionless as he gazed; the object before him seemed to confirm the report that some person had formerly been murdered in the abbey. (Radcliffe 53-54)

La Motte here, having been walking through dark corridors with a feeble light, stumbles upon a skeleton that embodies the mystery of the abbey: who had been murdered and who was the murderer. The skeleton stands for corruption and murder and destruction, and because La Motte is faced with the unknown in the dark, this causes him horror. Even though at first repulsed, La Motte is drawn to have a second look. The narrator attributes this to an aesthetic pleasure for that which frightens, the natural “thrilling curiosity” for “objects of terror” that human being have. Interestingly, this is the curiosity that draws readers to Gothic novels, however terrified they may be when they encounter a decaying corpse or a skeleton. La Motte’s curiosity is also the curiosity of the reader, who sees the skeleton through La Motte.

After leaving the skeleton and exploring other subterranean areas of the abbey, the man analyzes the structure: “La Motte, in his then depressed state of mind, thought [the cells in the most ancient parts of the abbey] the burial places of the monks, who formerly inhabited the pile above but they were more calculated for places of penance for the living, than of rest for the dead” (Radcliffe 54). Having seen the skeleton, La Motte can only think of death (“in his then depressed state of mind”), and perceives what used to be the monks’ cells as their burial place. The abbey, once a place of activity and community, now is turned into a burial ground, even those places which were not meant to contain the dead. One skeleton keeps the living away from the abbey and has turned the whole place into a tomb, and yet, paradoxically, the skeleton drives the living back to the abbey with an insatiable curiosity to discover the abbey’s mystery. Until the mystery of the skeleton is revealed, the reader will not end the exploration of the abbey and will not stop thinking about the skeleton, returning in his mind again and again to have a second look at that spectacle.

The end of the passage quoted above also contains irony. That the cells were “more calculated for places of penance for the living, than of rest for the dead,” at first glance, seems to refer to the monks who used to inhabit the abbey. In other words, their cells were not their tombs, but their places of penance. But the syntax is ambiguous, and therefore, can also point to the current inhabitants of the abbey. In this sense, the “dead” skeleton does not have “rest” until his mystery is solved, and La Motte is at the abbey “doing penance” or “purging” his sins of greed and pride which led to his having to run away from his creditors. His metaphorical “journey to the underground” through the abbey vaults where a skeleton is also evokes this image of going through purgatory. Only when the mystery of the skeleton is solved and when La Motte does his part to save Adeline and bring justice to the murdered will La Motte finally be seen as purged. In the end, even though he is condemned for his crimes, Adeline’s intercession softens his sentence to banishment and gives him money, “a sum more than sufficient to support his family in a foreign country” (353). Adeline’s mediation before the law on behalf of La Motte also evokes ideas of purgatory and prayers for those being purged. The abbey, then, hides two criminals—the murderer and La Motte–, but the abbey also serves as purgatory for one of them. So, what seems to be a superficial exploration of the abbey results in an exploration into sins and crimes and purification and bringing about justice.

 

Radcliffe, Ann. The Romance of the Forest. Chloe Chard. Ed. Oxford: Oxford Press, 2009. Print.

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