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In Jane Austen’s novel, Northanger Abbey, we see Austen using understatement and irony in the portrayal of her leading character Catherine Morland. Catherine is a modest, genuine, kindhearted heroine who misinterprets the social world around her. She is nothing like Isabella Thorpe who is self seeking, manipulative with questionable morals and values.
Henry Tilney, Catherine’s soon to be lover, spends his time educating Catherine of the social world she is ignorant of and uses his knowledge of common social norms to manipulate her. Catherine desires to be a Gothic heroine as she spends countless hours of her time reading gothic novels. Jane Austen implies Catherine does not withhold the desirable traits of a Gothic heroine and that she’s unexceptional, but Catherine has extraordinary traits unraveled throughout the novel, making her a feminist of her time. Feminism by definition is, “Advocacy of equality of the sexes and the establishment of political, social, and economic rights of the female sex”(Hill 1).
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Austen uses her narrative tactics as a device of empowerment not only for her self but also for woman living in a patriarchal society. She uses ironic understatement in the first line of the novel when she writes, “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her”(Austen 15). In reality, Catherine is an exceptional character who is pure and withholds the essence of a true woman. Henry falls in love with her not for what she is valued in society but for her innocence of heart and frankness about life. A typical Gothic heroine is subjected to terrors inflicted by a man usually in the setting of a graveyard or remote castle.
The characteristics of such a heroine is young, fearful and helpless in dangerous situations. Gothic heroines are caught in their unfortunate situation and can’t break free. You often don’t witness anytime type of development or coming of age for a Gothic heroine like you do for Catherine. In Regina Roche novel Clermont, she gives us a perfect depiction of a stereotypical Gothic heroine: “She was delicately made…her eyes, large and of the darkest hazel, ever true to the varying emotion of her soul…gave an expression of the greatest innocence to her face”(Roche 8).
This quote depicts a woman who is timid, innocent, passive and fragile. You can’t have a Gothic heroine without a male dominating evil figure and that is where the father’s role in a Gothic novel often comes in. In order to escape such a trap, the heroine needs to marry to be saved by another man because she can’t save herself. General Tilney represents the evil figure in Austen’s Gothic parody novel. Juliann Fleenor, author of The Female Gothic, argues that Gothic romance portrays that the most important thing in a woman’s life is the male and quest for romantic love. Fleenor writes, “these values reduce women’s lives only to their relationship with men” (Widmark 9).
The horror of Gothic novels is a representation for the women who are trapped in society and their entrapment in the patriarchy. There are some similarities between Northanger Abbey and Gothic novels. All the women in this novel and Gothic novels aim for marriage as their highest achievement in society. Unfortunately in the eighteenth century, the only way these women can feel secure in society is based upon if they get married and to whom they marry. Isabella Thorpe is a perfect example of woman who doesn’t know where to place her identity but in a man and comes off desperate. As a reader, we are able to identify why she feels compelled to act this way considering her situation as a women in this kind of society.
Ironically, Catherine does withhold desirable traits of a Gothic heroine such as her natural beauty and innocence yet Austen portrays her in the novel to be “plain.” Catherine’s external self is described as, “a thin awkward figure, a sallow skin without color, dark lank hair, and strong features”(Austen 15). When Catherine first arrives to Bath, she is eager to explore and meet people. Finally away from home, she begins her journey of maturation. When she meets Henry for the first time, she acts quietly reserved rather than revealing any emotion that she is excited to be noticed by a man.
In the second half of the novel, the Tilney family to Northanger Abbey invites Catherine because she is mistaken for an heiress. As the story unfolds, Catherine is not the innocent girl we were introduced too who is obsessed with Gothic novels, but rather a young woman adapting the reality of the world. Catherine grew up in diverse environment with three older brothers, no sisters and was constantly surrounded by boys and their games. She diverges from your current ideals for girls because she prefers games like cricket, horse riding and baseball to, “nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary bird or watering a rose bush”(Austen 13).
Reflecting on Catherine’s upbringing, Joanne Cordn argues, “Having escaped the traditional pursuits for girls, Catherine has not been warped into an artificial social female and grows into a solid young woman”(Cordn 5). Her parents are, “plain matter-of-fact people”(Austen 65) and so is she. Catherine did not achieve any typical feminine accomplishments and avoided literature her mother wanted her to read like, “The Beggar Petition” by Thomas Moss. This is significant to recognize because Catherine’s own mother wanted her to memorize a poem where women are domestic, suffering, unsuccessful or disgraced in some type of way. Cordn argues that, “Catherine’s aversion to the prescribed literature of her childhood gives her a kind of immunity to the “masculine” ideals inscribed by her culture”(Cordn 4).
Catherine’s upbringing plays a vast role in why she is the way she is and it’s significant that Austen pointed these out in her writing. One of the main arguments for Catherine’s role as an unlikely Gothic heroine according to Widmark is that she matures and develops throughout the novel, which a typical Gothic heroine is not capable of doing. Her education begins in Bath when she begins to mature from her new experiences. This is the first time Catherine leaves her family to go live with the Allen’s. Things get even more interesting for Catherine when she meets Isabella and John Thorpe who are constantly lying to her. Catherine by nature is virtuous and has an honest heart, so being used, manipulated and lied to is foreign to her because she wouldn’t do that herself. It takes time, but she gradually begins to see Isabella’s cold heart seep through the mask she wears.
The common people of Bath disappoint Catherine because they are shallow and boring. By engaging with Henry Tilney, Catherine is able to interpret the social context of Bath because Henry is constantly, “educating” her. In the next stage of Catherine’s education, the novel setting changed completely when they arrive to the Abbey. Her mind is so warped by the Gothic novels she reads, she truly believes that General Tilney killed his wife and is later ashamed by such false assumptions. This humbling experience teaches Catherine to put a handle on her imagination instead of letting it run wild like a child would do.
Catherine proves that she is unlike a Gothic heroine with her sense of independency and maturity to learn from past mistakes. Her parents are pleased with her returning home as a new woman who has grown from her childish ways. Almost ever character in Northanger Abbey has some type of influence on Catherine and can be associate with a Gothic heroine. Henry Tilney teaches Catherine common sense social norms and she looks up to him because he is a mentor for her.
Isabella Thorpe, desperate to be with a rich man, shows us the reality for women at that time and the lengths she’ll go to achieve marrying man, which she utterly fails at. Witnessing Isabella’s unfulfilling lifestyle and seeing her true color teaches Catherine how not to be. Eleanor Tilney plays a small role in the novel but is significant because Catherine looks up to her even though she passive and lack initiative much like a Gothic heroine. General Tilney plays the villain in novel, as he tries to separate true love between Catherine and Henry because she doesn’t come from money.
The General plays a significant role for Catherine and the audience of the novel because she still wins over the all powerful, patriarchal villain by not letting the bad him beat her to the ground. This type of reaction is what makes Catherine a feminist. Devoney Looser argues for a new direction of feminist scholarship and suggest focusing on the gender politics in Austen’s novel. To deliver a outline for gender politics, Helene Cixous’s offers us the idea feminine writing called, “écri- ture feminine? “feminine writing” or language that challenges misogynistic rhetorical norms for women? offers an underexplored approach to the feminist dimension of the book’s heroine”(Cordn 2).
Catherine lives during a time where women are preferred to be silent much like a Gothic heroine. However, Catherine directly voices what she is feeling and speaks her mind in the way a feminist would. Her exceptional characteristics not only make her stand out but rather her effortless ability to transform Henry Tilney and challenge his own feelings within the cultural constraints that they are both living in. Cordn writes, “Miss Morland’s speech shows the possible transformative reverberations of Cixous’s insight, for Catherine’s language lets her navigate the whole matrix of social power”(Cordn 4).
It is Austen’s intention to use the power of feminine language in her writing to help women find their voice. Margaret Lenta describes a married woman during the Austen’s time as a, “legal infant, under the guardianship of her husband, and an infant who could never in her lifetime attain adult status”(Lenta 1). An English wife was compared to an Asiatic slave. Forbidden to receive a college education or enter a profession, women were considered unfit to receive an education in classical language, and if they did they were considered unattractive.
Many women writers struggled to publish their work especially under their female name, including Austen. “The transcendence of limitation imposed on her sex makes Jane Austen’s work of great formal interest to the feminist critic: previous female writers had distorted what they perceived into what the world considered a woman should know, whereas Jane Austen has shown the world how it presents itself to women”(Lenta 4).
For instance, she shows how women can view men such as John Thorpe acutely and critically. In Northanger Abbey, Austen portray the world through the lens of Catherine, which allows the reader to understand the reality of masculine society and how it affects not only her but the women surrounding her. Ka Yan Lam reflects on women’s authorship and the position of novelists of Austen’s time, which greatly influences the development of Catherine’s character. Narrative strategies in Northanger Abbey reflect the position for women and female authorship during Austen’s life. Austen being a female author greatly contributed to her style of writing and the production of her work. Robyn Warhol, author of The Look, the Body, and the Heroine of Persuasion: A Feminist-Narratological View of Jane Austen, argues, “the study of narrative structures and strategies in the context of cultural constructions of gender is what feminist narratology is about”(Lam 4).
This can account for historical and social context under which Northanger Abbey was produced. Lam is able to highlight Austen’s self-consciousness of gender concerns in fiction writing by reading Northanger Abbey from a feminist narratological perspective. In Northanger Abbey, Austen explicitly interrupts the narration of the novel and uses understatements as a form of exaggeration and overstatement.
This type of narrative practice has us believing that this tool to minimize the authority of the narrator. Claudia L. Johnson argues that Austen uses understatement as a form of overstatement to minimize the authorial voice by woman writers during this time. We see this type of narrative strategy so clearly in the first like of Northanger Abbey, “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her” (Austen 15).
The intention of overstatement indicated Austen’s self-consciousness in her writing. Austen also uses phrases like, “not remarkable” or “occasionally stupid”(Austen 16) but as Catherine grows up, Austen switches to positive traits like, “almost pretty” and “quite a good looking girl” (Austen 16).
Catherine is not your typical Gothic heroine, which is Austen’s way of developing a feminist character. Catherine is a perfect portrayal of a feminist because she represents inner beauty, which is far more valuable than a pretty face. She is herself without the influences of a male dominated society and that makes her a gem in this novel. “Morland is not like the beautiful orphan heiresses of gothic or sentimental fiction; she is an ordinary young woman who lives with both her fairly sensible parents and the rest of her large affectionate family”(Cordn 5).
Austen and many other female writers struggled with restrictions imposed by patriarchal society, which led her to using narrative tools such as understatement to adapt to her social context. Feminist narratology takes Austen’s style of writing into account when focusing on gender concerns and the conditions for woman in society. Austen also uses humor and Irony to make a bold statement upon the events of her time to describe the condition for women. As much as Catherine aspires to be a Gothic heroine, she is the total opposite. Catherine may not be a heroine associated with the clichés of Gothic novels but Tony Tanner makes a remarkable point that, “She is the heroine of Jane Austen’s novel, prey to all the anxieties, agitations, embarrassments, disappointments-and hopes and happines which would naturally beset a young lady entering the world”(Widmark 21). Despite many troubles for Catherine throughout the novel, she triumphs over all obstacles with her independency and strong willed spirit which Patriarchy can’t break. Catherine is feminist character we’ve been waiting for and she delivers with elegant class and grace.
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