Northanger Abbey: How to Read a Gothic Novel Properly – Part 5

When Catherine arrives at the abbey and investigates her room, she sees a familiar object: “This is strange indeed! I did not expect such a sight as this! An immense heavy chest! What can it hold? Why should it be placed here? Pushed back too, as if meant to be out of sight! I will look into it—cost me what it may” (Austen 166). Of course, the chest is meant to recall Radcliffe’s and, perhaps, Oakendale Abbey’s chest scene, something that Tilney and Catherine had already discussed. Like La Motte and Laura, Catherine is curious to discover what is inside the chest, even though she is afraid of what she may find: “Her fearful curiosity was every moment growing greater; and seizing, with trembling hands, the hasp of the lock, she resolved at all hazards to satisfy herself at least as to its contents” (Austen 167). Again, here is the Gothic curiosity for that which is terrifying, the desire for the spectacle. However, Catherine’s search inside the trunk will not produce a skeleton, but she will learn through her exploration of the abbey that evil is found in more common places.

Catherine arrives at the abbey with a focus on the building itself, which is seen in her conversation with Henry. He observes that she has formed a “very favorable” idea of the abbey, to which she replies:

“To be sure, I have. Is not it a fine old place, just like what one reads about?” “And are you prepared to encounter all the horrors that a building such as ‘what one reads about’ may produce? Have you a stout heart? Nerves fit for sliding panels and tapestry?” “Oh! yes—I do not think I should be easily frightened, because there would be so many people in the house—and besides, it has never been uninhabited and left deserted for years, and then the family come back to it unawares, without giving any notice, as generally happens.” (Austen 161)

While Catherine thinks abbeys are “fine old places,” Henry points out that they may produce “horrors,” that they may unearth unknown things that cause fear. Catherine’s reply is that when abbeys contain people in the house, the abbey cannot produce horrors. Ironically, the number of people in Northanger Abbey does not change the evil in it, because, much like the abbey in Ethelinde, the relationships within Northanger Abbey are broken and cold. Although the abbey is inhabited, its residents often keep to their own rooms and the house seems uninhabited. The Tilneys are not always at Northanger Abbey, and Captain Tilney and Henry, ironically do often come back to it “without giving any notice.”

Thus, Catherine arrives at the abbey focusing on the building itself, but the night before Catherine is pushed out of Northanger Abbey, she perceives the space of her room in a very different way than she did upon her first night there:

Heavily passed the night. Sleep, or repose that deserved the name of sleep, was out of the question. That room, in which her disturbed imagination had tormented her on her first arrival, was again the scene of agitated spirits and unquiet slumbers. Yet how different now the source of her inquietude from what it had been then—how mournfully superior in reality and substance! Her anxiety had foundation in fact, her fears in probability; and with a mind so occupied in the contemplation of actual and natural evil, the solitude of her situation, the darkness of her chamber, the antiquity of the building, were felt and considered without the smallest emotion; and though the wind was high, and often produced strange and sudden noises throughout the house, she heard it all as she lay awake, hour after hour, without curiosity or terror. (219-220)

Both the first and last night at Northanger Abbey had been affected by Catherine’s thoughts (“agitated spirits and unquiet slumbers”), but on the last night the space she is in does not take her notice. She has learned to see past the building and into deeper things. The first night, the abbey itself is the center of mystery and the source of fear (because of noises, dark places, etc.), but the fears are merely the result of an overactive imagination nourished by Gothic novels (“her disturbed imagination had tormented her”)—they have no real foundation. On the last night at the abbey, the source of fear is “mournfully superior in reality and substance,” based on “fact” and “probability,” and in “actual and natural evil.” The words “fact” and “probability” in Austen’s time belonged to scientific and mathematical language which left no room to doubt. Catherine here discovers the mystery of the abbey: the cruel character of General Tilney and he and his power to remove her completely from Miss Tilney and Henry is the source of her fears. Catherine is finally able to “read” a Gothic novel in all its complexity: she is able to transfer the mystery of the abbey (space) to the General (psychology), which gives her a grounded fear because it is based on something real. As Catherine becomes a better Gothic novel reader, so does the reader.

Because of these things, it is misguided to read Northanger Abbey as a dismissal of Gothic novels. If one takes seriously the complexities of Gothic novel, one discovers that they were never just about horror and carcasses and old buildings, but rather, about deeper issues in society. The exploration of abbeys, both in Gothic novels and in novels before them, were used as tools to reveal values and relationships and to critique them. As a good reader of Gothic novels, Austen explored these complexities and provided a book to help naive readers learn how to read these complex novels, for one thing Northanger Abbey does well is to make one think about Gothic novels and go back to them for a second look with a more careful reading.

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. Claire Grogan. Ed. Ontario: Broadview, 2002. Print.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: