Book Reviews Northanger Abbey -- Irony

Northanger Abbey -- Irony

Artists and the Arts mirror life and provide us with the means to observe ourselves, gain objectivity and influence the way we shape our lives. In reflecting our strengths and weaknesses, they allow us to examine the meanings we make of existence and find new and better ways of being. Artists, builders of mirrors, invent and use techniques that awaken consciousness and turn us into participant-observers of the human condition.

The technique that Jane Austen uses in her novels is irony – a figure of speech which infers the opposite of what is perceived, thus giving us a double view of situations in the contradiction between words and circumstances, between appearance and reality. Double meanings create uncertainty and lead to questioning. Irony, therefore, is a declaration that we are not to take things at face value. And cloaking character and situation in irony, Austen exposes hypocrisy or eccentricity and invites us to laugh with her at human frailty and to question social conventions and beliefs.

Irony, the means she uses to entertain as she questions taken for granted attitudes, emanates from the mind of an observer and we are made aware of the author as observer from the very first sentence in Northanger Abbey. She tells us right at the start, with an amused twinkle in her eye, that she is going to turn someone, with little potential to be so, into her heroine “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.” (p.1) Though this opening remark casts doubt on Catherine, the word “heroine” automatically raises expectations of exceptional qualities. But the opening sentence is followed by a catalogue of Catherine’s shortcomings. She is not ravishingly beautiful, does not like to study, hates playing the piano, cannot draw, is not industrious, is quite naive, and being highly impressionable, takes things at face value. And she enjoys reading sensational literature – Gothic novels.Gothic novels appeal to the instinct and enthral thrill-seekers like Catherine. They do not require objective evaluation, only total unquestioning involvement in events. Austen, however, being an intellectual, wishes to engage our intellect more than our emotions. So she speaks directly to us and as her ironic view distances us from events and characters, we do not become embroiled in intrigues and machinations. It is her purpose to show us the effects of sensational literature on impressionable, unquestioning minds. She brings her readers to stand next to her to observe as Catherine attempts to turn reality into mindless horror.

And we are required to see that Catherine has to be quite ordinary and naive as she is the mirror through which the excesses of the Gothic novel, as well as the hypocrisy of her society, are reflected. Northanger Abbey thusbecomes a critique of the Gothic romance genre. But it is more – it is a critique within a critique. Austen places her parody of the Gothic novel, within her ironic view of a crassly materialistic society and playfully suggests that the imagined horror of the one is the underlying reality of the other. This is vividly demonstrated in Catherine’s visit to Northanger Abbey.

Her head filled with images from Gothic horror romances, and Northanger being an Abbey, reminiscent of a castle from a Gothic novel, Catherine sees it only in terms of fiction rather than the reality it presents. Though part of the Abbey, where the Tilneys live, has been renovated and the Tilneys live in modern comfort, Catherine is determined to turn Northanger into an environment of secret horrors. In addition, General Tilney’s unpleasant character gives rise to her view of him as some kind of villain. So when she hears of the death of the General’s wife, she translates it immediately into murder and starts searching for evidence of the crime. As she views everything through the Gothic mirror, she finds in ordinary human weaknesses the exaggerated horror of sensational fiction.

Blinded by her romantic fantasies, she is unaware that the General is excessively attentive to her as he believes she is an heiress and is eager to ensure that she marries Henry and brings an inheritance that will help with the upkeep of the Abbey. Catherine has no idea of his motives: one, her head is filled with romantic nonsense, and two, she is not an heiress and has no idea that this is how the General sees her. She sees him as a villain and he sees her as an heiress and both want to preserve the Abbey; he in fact, she in fiction.

In the 1990 BBC film version of Northanger Abbey, starring Peter Firth as Henry Tilney, the focus is on Catherine’s wild imaginings and the General comes across as more sinister than mercenary. Film being a visual medium, the screenwriter has had to find visual means to convey the rich irony and humour of the author’s verbal expression. To make the parody of Gothic horror clear, the screenwriter has embellished Austen’s novel with a ghoulish marchioness, intimate friend of the General, a black page boy in a kind of dream sequence, and dreams of the General dipping his hands in blood, and carrying Catherine’s inert body. As the visual is not as subtle as the verbal, the General’s crassly mercenary motives are made to seem much more sinister and even suggestive. This is reinforced in the scene in which Catherine is made to don the riding habit that belonged to the General’s late wife. None of this is in the novel. It is the film’s attempt to make obvious Catherine’s filtering of reality through the Gothic mirror. When Catherine asks Eleanor about her mother’s “corpse”, however, it becomes inappropriate; Austen would not allow her to be so crude.

Being a very young, naive, ingenuous, impressionable girl without great beauty, accomplishments, sparkling wit and intelligence, what is it that makes her attractive to Henry Tilney? Henry is accomplished, intelligent, sophisticated, and can see beneath the surface unlike Catherine who takes words at face value. He is quite the opposite of Catherine. The cliché – opposites attract – comes to mind, but that would be an oversimplification; it would mean that Henry wants her simply as a foil to his excellence. That would result in an unequal relationship similar to the Allens, (or the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice) where the husband has to endure the silliness of a simple wife and takes refuge away from her in card games or in his library.

But Austen doesn’t leave us with what we may perceive as inconsistent. She explains Henry’s interest in Catherine as another of her strategies to ground her novel in everyday reality and remove it completely from Gothic or fairy tale romance.In other words, Henry’s love is based on gratitude – he responds to the fact that Catherine is attracted to him – he likes her because she likes him; and that is seen as the normal way in which attachments happen. This is the finishing irony in a novel that intends to disabuse us of romantic nonsense.

  • I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude; or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought. It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of an heroine’s dignity; but if it be as new in common life, the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own.” (206)

But Henry, unlike most of the other characters in the novel, stands outside situations and is able to evaluate them. He is introduced to the reader as “a teasing young man” and his teasing takes the form of ironic commentaries. His use of irony makes him akin to Austen herself; like her, he sees the truth beneath dissembling and effusive behaviour. In the Gothic novel, evil is exaggerated and made obvious through violence; in Austen’s novel, evil is of an everyday variety, and Henry, like Austen, is aware of its demure residence under social convention – in Isabella’s effusive expressions of affection, John Thorpe’s pretended interest in Catherine and General Tilney’s excessive politeness to her.

In Catherine, Henry sees someone in sharp contrast to the hypocrisy around her. She is frank, has the courage of her convictions and most of all is instinctively honest. She does not dissemble and is a breath of fresh air in an environment of affectation and insincerity. And, of course, she openly likes him, genuinely likes him for himself and has no ulterior motive.

What makes Jane Austen’s novel enjoyable is her obvious enjoyment in delineating her world and its people. And her ironic view exposes the foibles of people chiefly for amusement and entertainment.

Reference

Jane Austen. Northanger Abbey. Guide Novel Series. 1977. London; Heineman Educational Books Ltd.

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