Why is Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey often referred to as a parody of the Gothic novel?

Essay, 2003

9 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Why is Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey often referred to as a parody of the Gothic novel?_

Jane Austen (1775-1817) is often regarded as the greatest English female novelist. Her novels are praised for their underlieing social comedy and thorough description of human relationships. She lived and worked during a time predominated by novels of sentiment, sensation and sensibility. However she stayed aloof from this literary style and especially her novel Northanger Abbey is often regarded to as a parody of the Gothic novel.

Main authors of these so called ‘Gothic’ romances are for example Ann Radcliffe, Horace Walpole and M.G. Lewis. The Gothic novel has its origins in the Middle Ages and deals with mysterious, frightening, fantastic, supernatural, sexual and sublime things. The stories seem rather ridiculous to us today. The reader always finds similar characters and plots in those novels: “the tyrannical father, the importunate and unscrupulous suitor, the hero and heroine of sensibility and of mysterious but noble birth, the confidante[...], the chaperone.”[1] The heroine is always unbelievable beautiful but weak and virtuous. Then she is threatened by a veil man and saved by the hero in the end. In contrast to such a story Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is often considered as a “amusing and bitingly satirical pastiche of the ‘Gothic’ romances popular in her day.”[2]

The heroine of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is Catherine Morland, a seventeen year old girl that visits Bath and is confronted with society and social life of people there. Provided with an unspoiled charm and vivid way of thinking she tries to come along with vacuous Mrs Allen, coquettish Isabella Thorpe and the very ‘unromantic’ hero Henry Tilney. During her stay in Bath she becomes corrupted by Gothic novels, starts thinking in Gothic manners and tries to behave like a real Gothic heroine. Then she receives an invitation from the Tilneys to stay with them in Northanger Abbey. Completely wrapped up in thoughts of mysterious and frightening stories she has to learn that Northanger Abbey cannot fulfil her forced up expectations. She realizes that Gothic novels are fictional and unreal and therefore she progresses towards maturity and self-knowledge.

To parody the Gothic romance Jane Austen uses mainly two ways. At first she creates a logical and genial domestic story with several domestic characters. But all these characters are anti-types of characters we know from Gothic novels. And therefore the reader is able to reveal the underlieing comedy if he reads closely having this thought in mind. The second thing is that she inserts a small Gothic-like adventure into the novel. Catherine’s experiences

in Northanger Abbey are really Gothic-like during her first evening there, but all her expectations –and those of the reader- end up in disillusionment. At this point Jane Austen has ridiculed the sentimental and affected feelings that are common in Gothic novels.

Already in the first chapter Jane Austen commences writing in a dual way. “She places before us both what a character should be if he were to conform the Gothic mode, and what he really is.”[3] She points out distinctly that in reality everything and everybody is common, normal and unromantic. This contrast between reality and fictional sentimental life (about which Catherine and Isabella read in novels by Ann Radcliffe) is described in a very funny and ironical way.

In the very beginning nobody but the author knows that Catherine is a potential heroine: “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.”[4] Even if introduced as our heroine she represents an anti-heroic and anti-romantic type of character we know from Gothic romances.

In contrast to a real Gothic heroine there is nothing remarkable about Catherine. Her birth is no mystery, her father is “a very respectable man, though his name was Richard, and he had never been handsome.”[5] Her mother did not die after Catherine’s birth and had six children more. Catherine herself -during her childhood- was neither a very beautiful appearance: “She had a thin awkward figure, a sallow skin without colour, dark lank hair, and strong features.”[6] Nor did she behave like a girl (she was fond of all boys’ plays) or could show any kind of intelligence: “She never could learn or understand anything before she was taught, and sometimes not even then, for she was often inattentive, and occasionally stupid.”[7]

A first change in Catherine’s mind and behaviour, and even in her outward appearance, happens at the age of fifteen. Here the reader is able to suspect Catherine as a possible heroine: “At fifteen appearances were mending; she began to curl her hair and long for balls, her complexion improved, her features were softened by plumpness and colour, her eyes gained more animation, and her figure more consequence.”[8] And people start saying that she is almost pretty. Jane Austen then marks funnily that from fifteen to seventeen Catherine


[1] Mudrick, Marvin: Irony versus Gothicism. In: Jane Austen: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Edited by B.C. Southam. MacMillan Education Ltd. Hampshire, London. 1986 (Casebook Series); page 75

[2] Austen, Jane: Northanger Abbey. Penguin Popular Classics. London. 1994; blurb

[3] Mudrick; p.77

[4] Austen; p.1

[5] Austen; p.1

[6] Austen; p.1

[7] Austen; p.2

[8] Austen; p.3

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Why is Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey often referred to as a parody of the Gothic novel?
University of Duisburg-Essen
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Jane, Austen, Northanger, Abbey, Gothic
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Melanie Strieder (Author), 2003, Why is Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey often referred to as a parody of the Gothic novel?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/38643


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