The Parodies of Gothic Conventions in "Northanger Abbey" by Jane Austen

Bachelor Thesis, 2009

52 Pages, Grade: 1




CHAPTER I Conventions of the Gothic Novel
1. Gothic as a reaction against Neoclassicism
2. The Castle of Otranto as the first example of the Gothic novel and the development of the genre
3. Ann Radcliffe as a conventional Gothic writer and The Mysteries of Udolpho as a representative of the conventional Gothic fiction
3.1 The plot
3.2 The setting
3.3 The Gothic atmosphere
3.4 The characters

CHAPTER II Northanger Abbey as the Parody of Gothic Fiction
1. The origins of Northanger Abbey
2. The nature of parody
3. Jane Austen’s methods of parody in Northanger Abbey
3.1 The characters
3.1.1 The heroine
3.1.2 The hero
3.1.3 The villain
3.1.4 The minor characters
3.2 The setting
3.3 The plot





The genre of the novel began only in the 18th century but since its very beginnings it developed extremely rapidly. Different types of the genre emerged, for example a novel of manners, a domestic novel or a Gothic novel. The Gothic novel is a well recognizable type among the others and possesses an important impact on the development of the whole genre of the novel. Contrary to Neoclassicism which praised rationalism, Gothicism did not trail the rules of decorum, did not apply didactic features but put emphasis on mystery, wonder and sublimity. Therefore, Gothic fiction gained enormous popularity among the readers. However, after many novels of the kind being published, they turned out to be conventional as well - all the stories applied the same set of features for the setting, plot and characters. That brought a wave of criticism of the Gothic novel and initiated the practice of parodying its conventions. One of the greatest parodists of Gothic became Jane Austen with her novel Northanger Abbey. This dissertation presents the important features of Gothic fiction and Jane Austen’s methods of parodying them.

The first chapter focuses on the presentation of the Gothic conventions. It is crucial to understand the conventional principles governing the Gothic novel because only then does the necessity of parodying them become clear. The first chapter shows the reasons for the emergence of the Gothic and presents the first novel of the kind, i.e. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. Then the development of Gothicism is showed and different writers’ contribution to the genre, for example the influence of Clara Reeve, Matthew Gregory Lewis, Mary Shelley or Charles Maturin is discussed.

After that the focus is turned to Mrs. Radcliffe and the Gothic conventions are presented on the basis of her most famous novels. Mrs. Radcliffe’s ways of presenting setting, characters and plot are the main point of interest in the first chapter as basically her novels are parodied by Jane Austen.

Jane Austen (1775-1817), who was a daughter of a country clergyman, born at Steventon in Hampshire, often described large families from countryside and their everyday concerns. That was a result of her provincial life in a family of eight children with a limited income (Cornish: 1913, 1; Leyland: 1972, 5). Such subject is also a leading theme in Northanger Abbey, where the process of maturing of the heroine and her entrance to the world are portrayed. Moreover, the story is also parodying the Gothic conventions by the creation of anti-Gothic characters and games with the elaborate setting and plot. The second chapter shows how the novel was created, what the term “parody” means and how Northanger Abbey fulfills the definition of it. Then it presents the methods used by Jane Austen to parody the Gothicism with the specification of parts like the characters, which is divided into the characterization of a heroine, a hero, a villain and minor characters, the setting and the plot, in which also the love-subplot is discussed about.

CHAPTER I Conventions of the Gothic Novel

The eighteenth century was the time of a rapid development in the field of literature, which especially concerned the genre of the novel. This chiefly new literary genre underwent numerous changes and various types of the novel emerged. Among them, Gothic novel finds a special place. Although the time of its existence in the literature is roughly short, because it encompasses only about sixty years - from The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764) to Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin (1820), the Gothic novel possesses a number of characteristic features which distinguish it from the other kinds of the genre. The aim of this chapter is to present the reasons for the growth of the Gothic novel and to discuss its characteristic conventions.

1. Gothic as a reaction against Neoclassicism

The most important reason for the rise of the Gothic was its dissimilarity to the Neoclassicism. The Age of Reason demanded that everything was rational and understandable, the literature had to posses didactic features, be ordered and well organized. Reverse to this, Gothicism applied mystery, supernatural elements and purely entertaining purpose. The interest of people went into the direction of wonder, they started to appreciate the dark past years, especially the Medieval Ages which were filled with mysteries; “the things wild, bloody and barbarous of long ago” (Cuddon: 1976, 381). Boredom with the order of Neoclassicism pushed the writers to create something different, something appealing to emotions and feelings of the reader. The breakthrough was a publication of Richard Burke’s essay A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757). In this essay Burke states that whatever causes pain and is a source of terror, is also a source of the sublime (Sage: 1990, 33). He created a new point of view on the beautiful and the sublime, from that moment, everything what could cause fear, could also be marvelous. His essay was a turning point in breaking up with rationalism, gave priority to feelings and emotions. The sublime, according to Burke, was associated with “the vast, the powerful, the terrible and the obscure”, an example of which may be a thunderstorm or a craggy mountain (Meyer Spacks: 2006, 197). Terror was indispensable, because everything terrifying was also astonishing, obscurity was necessary to make anything terrible, and the modifications of power were an immediate source of the sublime (Sage: 1990, 33). Such elements helped to create the effects of astonishment, admiration, reverence and respect. Burke in his essay stated a perverse logic which assumed that sublime is “a contradictory feeling that derives a certain pleasure from the depiction of events or effects that are in themselves terrible” (Markman: 2000, 10). For the abovementioned reasons, the terrifying elements became the source of awe and astonishment what gave rise to the elaborations on Gothic trappings and creation of wicked villains petrifying the heroine and the readers.

2. The Castle of Otranto as the first example of the Gothic novel and the development of the genre

The stereotypical characteristics of a Gothic novel were introduced by Horace Walpole. Although probably Ferdinand Count Thomas (1753) by Tobias Smollett was the first novel proposing horror and terror as its main theme, Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto is the first best well-known example of Gothic fiction, opening the period of literature called “Gothicism” because of its contrast to other works of the times (Cuddon: 1990, 381). In this novel Walpole attempted to rouse reader’s imagination, to involve him emotionally. In his Preface to the First Edition of Otranto he wrote that “terror is the author’s principal engine” which serves to grip the attention and affects the reader (Hume: 1969, 282). In the same Preface, Walpole used the term “Gothic” to describe the novel which creates terror, fear and suspense in order to shock and fear the reader (May: 1980, 1).

Walpole’s techniques and his “Gothic machinery” were often repeated and became popular among other Gothic novelists. Otranto takes features from old poetry, drama and romance, moves away from Neoclassical values and touches the values of Romanticism, i.e. it reveals the emotions and feelings (Botting: 1996, 31). Walpole’s inventions concerned the setting, the plot and the creation of characters. First of all, he put the action into an ancient, ruined castle which brought the Medieval Ages into life. The dilapidated castle was not only frightening but it also indicated the decaying state of the family and the villain living there. Then, the plot presented a noble line of a family which was often shattered by some dissension. The hero was of a hidden identity that became revealed later while the beautiful and weak heroine was pursued by a wicked usurper of the castle, a villain. The dangers and alarms followed one another causing an atmosphere of fear and terror which was placated by a peaceful outcome - true loyal love was justified and position restored to its proper owner (May: 1980, 1). The plot of The Castle of Otranto fulfills all the abovementioned conventions.

The novel starts with a wedding of Manfred’s only son with beautiful Isabella. Unluckily, the groom is killed by a giant helmet falling out of nowhere and Manfred, determined that his line cannot extinct, decides to divorce his wife Hippolyta and marry Isabella. To escape from her pursuer, Isabella runs down through an underground passage, where Theodore, a nobleman in disguise of a peasant, helps her. In the meantime in the palace appear several pieces of giant armour. At last, the thunderstorm shakes the castle to its foundations and portrait of Alfonso, a murdered proprietor of Otranto, walks out of its frames. Alfonso demands Manfred to leave Otranto and surrender it to the truly heir - Theodore. Then pacified Alfonso ascends into heaven, Theodore finds love and peace with Isabella as his beloved Matilda was previously accidentally killed by her father Manfred, and the order is restored (Birkhead: 1921, 16-.).

Walpole used supernatural elements like a giant helmet or a walking portrait whose task was to introduce the atmosphere of gloomy apprehension, to convince that everything can happen to restore the order. Although such elements are grotesque and hardly believable, Walpole takes them for granted (Meyer Spacks: 2006, 193). In his creation of characters, Walpole decided to look more in the interior mental processes, to display how would they behave in extraordinary situations. In the Preface Walpole justifies his use of supernatural: “Allow the possibility of the facts and all the actors comport themselves as persons would do in their situation” (Hume: 1969, 283). Such approach to the psychology of characters is indebted to Richardson and his Clarissa and although it is not as delicate, it moves into deeper and more complex situations (Hume: 1969, 283).

Location of the action in an ancient castle became the trademark of a Gothic novel. What is more, the terrifying corridors and trappings of a castle like Otranto became a recurrent motif in other novels. Dungeons and secret passages, torture chambers and sliding panels were not rare in the Gothic landscapes. In such a setting, the heroine could feel terrified enough and the atmosphere was convincing also for the reader. Walpole’s techniques were later reused by writers like Clara Reeve, Ann Radcliffe, William Beckford or Charles Maturin in their novels.

In the eighteenth century there were present three types of novels: sentimental­domestic (the novel of manners), Gothic and didactic, but the great popularity of the Gothic novel caused that the genre influenced all the other kinds of the novel. Consequently, it is often said that there are three types of Gothic novel itself: sentimental-Gothic, Terror-Gothic and Historical-Gothic. Sentimental-Gothic novels are just domestic tales where the spooky events and the presence of the ghosts are only used to enliven the atmosphere. An example of such a novel is The Old English Baron by Clara Reeve. In Historical-Gothic the only “historical” part is the setting where the events take place, like in The Recess by Sophia Lee. The Terror-Gothic novels are considered as the most nearly pure Gothic and to this strain belongs Mrs. Radcliffe and The Mysteries of Udolpho (Hume: 1969, 282-283). These three types of Gothic fiction left a place for an advance in different directions what brought numerous Gothic works.

After the publication of The Castle Otranto many other writers started to work on their novels, the first being Clara Reeve with The Old English Baron (1778). In this novel she limits supernatural events and introduces only one ghost, makes natural explanations for all shocking events, does not want to terrify the reader too much but keeps the story within the boundaries of probability (Birkhead: 1921, 16-.). Reeve’s type of writing was followed by other writers like Sophia Lee with her The Recess (1785), who added the historical setting, or Charlotte Smith with The Old Manor House (1793). Mrs. Radcliffe also continued this type of fiction, however she introduced a few innovations into the Gothic novel which placed her in the Terror-Gothic strain.

The following Gothic authors went into the direction of horror rather than terror, where the apprehensive suspense was replaced by ultimate horrifying events. The Monk (1796) by Matthew Gregory Lewis takes as its subject the theme of man’s evil side of nature, of making pact with the Devil, of physical and mental torture. Here the dungeons and tombs are a metaphor for dark human subconscious. The school of horror is continued in Vathec (1796) by William Beckford. These writer used an oriental tale and a well-known motif of selling the soul to the Devil in order to possess the ability of penetrating Heaven and gain all the human knowledge (Meyer Spacks: 2006, 200-202).

Mary Shelley is the author of the best world known Gothic novel: Frankenstein (1817). She preserved elements like horror and terror but her innovation is an attempt to trace the experiment of Frankenstein and its effect which turn out to be a gradual degradation of both the creature and its creator (Birkhead: 1921, 157-.). The last and probably the greatest Gothic novel is Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Maturin. The story masters all the horrors of Gothic setting and atmosphere but the most powerful ones are the evil processes in human minds. Melmoth, an unusual hybrid of the Wandering Jew, Milton’s Satan and Flying Dutchman, wanders in search of a salvation but is constantly prevented by his self-centered character. It is his own pride and disbelief in salvation and forgiveness that cause his damnation. Maturin created an outstanding portrait of a Gothic villain who evokes contradictory feelings in the reader - repulsion by Melmoth’s sadism, but also compassion for his immense suffering (Hume: 1969, 286).

Beckford, Shelley and Maturin are considered as horror-Gothic writers. In their novels there is no suspense preparing for the horrifying events but the reader’s mind is ultimately attacked and shocked, the villains are men of extraordinary capacity into evil purposes, and the themes deal with sadism - moral, physical, religious and social (Hume: 1969, 285). Their novels show the change that occurred in the Gothic fiction, from domestic tales with haunting ghosts they developed into fully-fledged horrors intended to shaken the readers.

The Gothic novel brought a lot to the literature and although it disappeared relatively fast, its elements were visible in later works. The Gothicism influenced much Romantic writers by breaking with rationalism and introducing supernatural elements into fiction, it had also changed the way of creating characters what led to the foundation of a famous Romantic hero (Slawihski: 1988, 169).

3. Ann Radcliffe as a conventional Gothic writer and The Mysteries of Udolpho as a representative of the conventional Gothic fiction

Among the Gothic novelists of the eighteenth century, Ann Radcliffe (1764­1823) gained the greatest popularity. Her novels possess a special place in Gothic fiction and Mrs. Radcliffe herself is often considered as the most important Gothic writer. She continued the strain started by Clara Reeve; her novels are mostly sentimental romances, domestic tales about love and family relationships. However, Mrs. Radcliffe’s outstanding achievement, which places her in the school of terror, was the use of suspense. What is more, taking into account the construction of her most popular novels, characteristic traces can be found which make her the best recognizable Gothic writer.

All Mrs. Radcliffe’s publications were a major success: The Castle of Athlin and Dunbayne (1789), A Sicilian Romance (1790), The Romance of the Forest (1791), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797) (Markman: 2000, 49).

Her later works in comparison to the earliest ones show how much she advanced in her writing, how she mastered the creation of characters, setting and plot.

Her first work, a Scottish tale The Castle of Athlin and Dunbayne, is still very immature: the characters here are only ghostly shadows, are characterless, the action is led in a childish way. This novel is the earliest one of Mrs. Radcliffe and by contrasting it with the later ones, we can observe a fascinating gradual advance in skill and power of the writer (Birkhead: 1921, 38-.).

A Sicilian Romance is more ambitious but not yet fully developed. The action takes place in the palace of Ferdinand, the fifth Marquis of Mazzini, on Sicily. In this novel Mrs. Radcliffe for the first time explains the sources of the supernatural and discovers the mystery at the end. The protagonists are better characterized but their motives are not gradually explained; they can be described with only one adjective - the marquis is autocratic, the marchioness envious, the hero vapid and the two sisters virtuous. Being no longer characterless shadows they are adroitly manipulated to fit in the plot (Birkhead: 1921, 38-.).

In the next novel, The Romance of the Forest, Mrs. Radcliffe develops even further. She makes an attempt to discuss the motives and verify how the temperaments change in different conditions. Here Mrs. Radcliffe introduces her most powerful tool in creating the mood of the Gothic story - suspense. The unfinished events, delays in explaining the mysteries cause that the readers’ curiosity is roused, for example the secret visits of La Motte in a Gothic sepulchre - after wearing imagination with considering horrible possibilities, the reader is told that La Motte became a highwayman and stores his valuables there. Also the characters here are more complex, their features change in the circumstances, for example Madame La Motte changes considerably her attitude to Adeline when she has reasons to suspect her husband (Birkhead: 1921, 38-.).

The Mysteries of Udolpho have no “romance” in the title - this change is significant, Mrs. Radcliffe suggests that she wants to apply more mystery and go into the direction of wonder (Birkhead: 1921, 38-.). Udolpho was the most popular among all Mrs. Radcliffe’s novels and it became an important part of English literature of the eighteenth century. The story starts in the idyllic world of Emily living with her father in the Chateu le Vert. Here she develops the features of a sentimental heroine - gets education in music and arts, is moody and pensive, prone to sensitivity and brought up in the atmosphere of simplicity and domestic harmony (May: 1980, 15; Botting: 1996, 42). But then her father dies and she is taken under the protection of her aunt who married a tyrant Montoni. Instead of marrying Valancourt, a similar sensitive noble man, Emily is taken by Montoni to Venice, to his gloomy castle of Udolpho. The road leading there is very dangerous and terrifying, through lowering mountains and dark woods, bumpy roads infested with banditti (Birkhead: 1921, 38-.; May: 1980, 23). In the castle Emily is in absolute power of Montoni who tries to secure her properties by means of threatening and menacing. However, she manages to escape from the castle through mouldering vaults of a ruined chapel. Then Emily returns to France, to an aristocratic family living in a region she was born in. The return to a simple rural life is not complete until the terrifying secrets are revealed. Then Valancourt, who fled to the city after losing Emily and fell to the charms and corruptions of society, returns and domestic happiness is restored (Botting: 1996, 42-43).

The Italian, the last and most advanced novel of Mrs. Radcliffe, tells the story of a monk Schedoni and a beautiful lady Ellena. Even though the Inquisition scenes at the end are extended, this novel is far more adroitly constructed, coherent and does not go beyond the reader’s belief.


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The Parodies of Gothic Conventions in "Northanger Abbey" by Jane Austen
University of Gdansk
English Literature
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parodies, gothic, conventions, northanger, abbey, jane, austen
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MA Magdalena Przytarska (Author), 2009, The Parodies of Gothic Conventions in "Northanger Abbey" by Jane Austen, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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