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Jane Austen’s use of Gothic Traditions in Northanger Abbey Essay

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The term ‘Gothic’ was first really used by Italian writers who ‘accredited’ what they thought was the ugliness of the art and architecture of the twelfth to fifteenth centuries. They often related this art and architecture to the northern tribes of German Barbarians known as the ‘Goths’; these were the first to corrupt the style of the grand architecture back. They would make towers that were too tall, walls that were too thick and arches that were too steeply pointed – thus destroying the architecture of the generation.

By adding such grotesque and mysterious objects such as gargoyles, the Italian writers seemed as though they were just adding insult to injury. They were horrified.

But just as ‘Gothic’ was at its peak around the mid-fourteenth century, it seemed to decline slowly and make its way into a history book, never to be seen again. But by the late eighteenth century, the Gothic revival was back in business, and more popular than ever before!

The Gothic revival was first started by a man named Horace Walpole (1717-1797), as a reaction against the Classicism of the previous era.

Horace was a writer who transformed his simple home into the most Gothic building of its age. It had pillars, vaults, arches, and a great tower. This signalled the beginning of a new cultural era.

Walpole’s Gothic house was inspired by a dream, which he could only describe as ” I had thought myself in an ancient castle…” Inspired by his vision, Walpole sat down and produced ‘The Castle of Otranto’, the world’s first Gothic novel and named one of the most influential novels in the history of English literature. In response to this, there were of course many other Gothic novels to be published, among these, was the very popular ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ by Ann Radcliffe. Gothic novels between 1790 and 1830 fell within the category of romantic literature, and you could say it was a rebellion against the formality and rigidity of how other kinds of literature were written at that time.

Ever since ‘The Castle of Otranto’, many Gothic novels have followed the similar pattern: the terrifying old castle on the hill or the misty graveyard. The setting is always greatly influential in Gothic novels. It not only evokes the atmosphere of horror and trepidation, but it also portrays the dramatic deterioration of what used to be a beautiful piece of architecture. At one time the abbey, castle or mansion was something treasured and appreciated, but now it is just a mere shadow of its former self.

As for traditional Gothic characters, there is always a hero, usually a female, who has no idea of how to deal with the situations put towards her, and you are always able to see a pattern in their characterisation. There is almost always an isolated protagonist, and their part in the story is mainly summarised nearing the dramatic end of the story. Then, there is the villain, who is the epitome of evil. This character could be anyone you could think of; mad scientist, inn keeper, or baron of the manor house.

The Gothic novel could be seen as a description of a fallen world and we experience this world through all aspects of the novel: plot, setting, characters and theme. In order for a novel to be Gothic, it must be accurate to Gothic traditions, impeccable language, possibly of old chapters in history.

But with great novels come great sceptics; Jane Austen was not altogether pleased with this new genre of writing. She did not regard Gothic novels as ‘proper literature’. She criticised the readers of the novels (mainly young teenage girls).

Jane Austen went about her earlier criticisms of Gothic novels to little avail; people still enjoyed reading them and by 1798, Gothic novels were at their peak in fashion although it was never taken seriously as literature. Jane Austen knew she had to do something drastic to proclaim her annoyance of this new genre; so she wrote a parody, Northanger Abbey.

Yet the characteristics shown in Chapter 1 do not suggest that Catherine Morland was a Gothic Heroine at all! Catherine Morland is the heroine of the book. She is described as having “a thin awkward figure, a sallow skin without colour, dark lank hair, and strong features–” and that “and not less unpropitious for heroism seemed her mind”. Her behaviour was equally inept: “She was fond of all boy’s plays, and greatly preferred cricket not merely to dolls, but to the more heroic enjoyments of infancy, nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rosebush”. Jane Austen employs great irony to describe her, satirising “her abilities” as “quite as extraordinary”. Austen ends with the comment “She never could learn or understand anything before she was taught; and sometimes not even then, for she was often inattentive, and occasionally stupid”.

By Chapter 5, Catherine is taken to Bath by some wealthy godparents for her first experience of high society, attending various balls and parties. Catherine meets Isabella Thorpe, an attractive, flirtatious young lady, who introduces her to Gothic novels, such as the ‘Castle of Otranto’ and Catherine is ‘enchanted’ by them.

But most of the Gothic moments happen during Catherine’s visit to the Abbey itself. For example, in Chapter 21, during the day, Catherine notices a large chest, standing at one side of the fireplace in her bedroom: ‘The sight of it made her start; and, forgetting everything else, she stood gazing on it in motionless wonder, while these thoughts crossed her’. In classic gothic style, Catherine questions herself: ‘An immense heavy chest! What could it hold? Why should it be placed here?’ This is an example of Austen’s Gothic parodying of the gothic characters and literary style it is, aimed to mock the traditional Gothic heroines who followed this curiosity, usually a feature in all Gothic novels.

But it also mocks the way the novels are written. Panting punctuation, excessive exclamation marks and ridiculous hyperbolic adjectives. We see an example of her gothic language when she speaks to herself (concerning the chest): “I will look into it; cost me what it may, I will look into it, and directly too—-by daylight”. We cannot deny that Catherine is somewhat ‘over-doing it’ with the ridiculous questions “What could it hold? Why should it be placed here?”.

The Chest is described with ridiculous accuracy: “The lock was silver, though tarnished from age; at each end were the imperfect remains of handles also of silver, broken perhaps prematurely by some strange violence; and, on the centre of the lid, was a mysterious cipher, in the same metal”. This over-descriptive language creates a tense gothic-style passage yet in a way, is ‘too gothic’. By doing this, Austen succeeds in making a ‘spoof’ as it were, of gothic novels written previous to this novel. Catherine decides to investigate, by opening the chest: “and seized, with trembling hands, the grasp of the lock” and “she raised the lid a few inches; but at that moment a sudden knocking at the door…”. This is when the maid enters; this build-up of tension, and sudden interruption is very anticlimactic, and we see this not only once in Northanger Abbey. When Catherine dismisses the maid, she goes at the chest once more, only to find that it contains white linen! Once again, an anticlimax, which leaves Catherine very surprised (and embarrassed, when Miss Tilney enters shortly afterwards).

Later on in this Chapter, Catherine comes to discover a Japan Cabinet: “She took her candle and look closely at the cabinet. It was not absolutely ebony and gold; but it was Japan”. Catherine (like any other Gothic heroine) is intrigued by this new discovery, and decides to open it, hoping the contents would be more exciting than them of the chest. Thr sequence of events happen by night, giving the cabinet an almost mysterious awe about it, which would only add to the tone of the passage. Austen uses words like “mysteriously”, “the wind roared” and “the rain beat down in torrents against the windows” to give the scene an even more gothic-like tone.

Catherine finds that however hard she turns the key on the cabinet, however she manages to open it “the door suddenly yielded to her hand: her heart leaped with exultation at such a victory” revealing a series of lesser bolts and doors within the cabinet. Catherine’s curiosity would not stop there. She decided to delve further into the cabinet of mystery! A lot of the text on the page is devoted to the examination of this cabinet. “With less alarm and greater eagerness she seized a second, a third, a fourth–each was equally empty”: this was describing the many smaller drawers within the Japan Cabinet, all with seemingly obvious, predictable outcomes – they contained nothing.

The tension has become somewhat lost however in one of the other drawers Catherine finds a parchment: “her eyes directly fell on a roll of paper pushed back into the further part of the cavity”. There is an air of tension, as Catherine reaches out to unveil what the manuscript beholds. But suddenly (dramatic tension), “The dimness of the light her candle emitted made her turn to it with alarm; but there was no danger of its sudden extinction” – the candle was flickering yet she did not think it would go out. However the flame did go out: “Alas! it was snuffed and extinguished in one”. Catherine was now submerged into complete darkness (very much gothic; darkness and candles becoming suddenly snuffed out). Austen uses words like “horror” and “trembled” to create an atmosphere of terror and uncertainty.

As Catherine stood “motionless with horror” she thought she could hear “receding footsteps”. This usage of noises in a perfectly still, quiet and dark atmosphere is used to scare not just Catherine but the reader also. “A cold sweat stood on her forehead, the manuscript fell from her hand” and she hastily jumped back into bed. This is very anticlimactic, and very unlike a gothic heroine to come running back to a place of safety. One would expect a gothic heroine to relight the candle and look at the parchment nevertheless.

However, that is not the case in this instance. A sense of tension is still apparent in the text when Catherine can still hear the slow ‘ticking’ of the clocks in a silent atmosphere – this is bound to be unnerving for Catherine. The weather is still apparent, keeping the tone a tense and restless one: “The storm still raged, and various were the noises, more terrific than the wind, which struck at intervals on her startled ear”. Austen also uses “Hollow murmurs seemed to creep along the gallery” to keep the tension on tenterhooks. However, the sheer fact that Catherine falls asleep destroys the atmosphere and tension completely, as we turn to a completely new chapter.

Jane Austen’s uses of Gothic traditions are very apparent in this text: she describes the room and the Cabinet so vividly. She adds the traditional gothic tone, the pathetic fallacy, the weather, at night, the rain, and the storm, ” The night was stormy; the wind had been rising at intervals the whole afternoon: and by the time the party broke up, it blew and rained violently” all Gothic traditions yet Catherine running back to her bed scared left on a gothic cliff hanger of suspense, however when Catherine ran back to her bed it was totally anticlimactic.

In the morning (and the opening of Chapter twenty-two), the scene is completely different. Sun is pouring through the windows and birds are singing. Catherine discovers the precious lists are only laundry bills, “‘To poultice chestnut mare,’ a farrier’s bill!”: this is very anticlimactic. But this is why Northanger Abbey is a parody, continually acting against what Gothic novels are based around and may contain.

Later in chapter twenty-two, Catherine is talking to Eleanor about the death of her mother, and her father’s relationship with her mother. Many of these questions were very rude and personal. As the conversation led on, Catherine drew new conclusions about Mrs Tilney’s death: that General Tilney had murdered his wife and was hiding her away secretly somewhere in the Abbey. This is another example of Catherine’s strange and vivid imagination. “Was she a very charming woman? Was she handsome? Was there any picture of her in the abbey? And why had she been so partial to that grove? Was it from dejection of spirits?”. These were some of the questions Catherine was asking herself. This is very insensitive, whilst talking on such a delicate matter as a family member.

This is unlike a gothic heroine to ask so many questions. The two come onto the subject of a portrait of Mrs Tilney, and how General Tilney most not have valued her, “A portrait, very like, of a departed wife, not valued by her husband” and that because of this microcosm, “He must have been dreadfully cruel to her”. Catherine relates these misunderstanding to those of characters she had read in other gothic novels previous to her visit to the abbey: “She had often read of such characters; characters, which Mr. Allen had been used to call unnatural and overdrawn” . Right now Catherine is mixing fact with fiction, and lets her imagination run wild with vivid ideas of how General Tilney is an evil baron of some sort.

Catherine often hears the slightest microcosm, yet turns it into a macrocosm, and lets these new ideas go to her head, and we see this is exactly the case in Chapter 24. Jane Austen’s use of questions and thoughts in Catherine’s head gives us an insight into how the mind of a gothic heroine works, however Catherine has been too taken in by other novels that she actually dreams of becoming a gothic heroine and wants to have a passion for danger (thus the investigations at nightfall in chapter 21 and yearning for answers to the ‘mystery’ which never was). Yet her profile (in Chapter 1) tells us otherwise; it mentions she is nothing at all like a gothic heroine!

This new wild passion for mystery and conspiracy led Catherine to enter Mrs Tilney’s room in chapter twenty-four, just when General Tilney was out on a walk: “The general’s early walk, ill-timed as it was in every other view, was favourable here; and when she knew him to be out of the house, she directly proposed to Miss Tilney the accomplishment of her promise. Eleanor was ready to oblige her; and Catherine reminding her as they went of another promise, their first visit in consequence was to the portrait in her bed-chamber” When she ventures in “On tiptoe she entered” she notices that the room is entirely normal: “She could not be mistaken as to the room; but how grossly mistaken in everything else!–in Miss Tilney’s meaning, in her own calculation!”, Catherine expected to enter a room full of mysterious torture instruments and dungeon-like atmosphere.

Instead, there was normal furniture, paintings and various other decorations: “She saw a large, well-proportioned apartment, an handsome dimity bed, arranged as unoccupied with an housemaid’s care, a bright Bath stove, mahogany wardrobes, and neatly painted chairs, on which the warm beams of a western sun gaily poured through two sash windows” – yet again we see the over descriptive language which is ever present in the novel. This is an anticlimax and not Gothic because Catherine was expecting something very different.

Northanger Abbey is the epitome of Gothic Spoof. Jane Austen succeeds in mocking what Gothic novels are all about, the content and the way the characters act, as well as the young teenage girls who read them. The description of places and objects is amusingly hyperbolic, and excellent as a parody of a gothic novel. It has to be, because the trend of Gothic novels is to have deep descriptions, and Austen is able to utilize the gothic traditions and add to them somewhat ridiculously! Austen makes good use of the characters i.e. Catherine, and you are able to see what they do and what they think. Austen is good at writing in a gothic style – she builds up tension and pulls us in, only to let there be an anticlimax and let us down. She makes good use of Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Uldopho and the way she entwined some of the ideas from that book to this novel.

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Jane Austen’s use of Gothic Traditions in Northanger Abbey. (2017, Oct 30). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/jane-austens-use-of-gothic-traditions-in-northanger-abbey-essay

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