Northanger Abbey

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A Novel Handbook
Narrative Techniques In
Northanger Abbey
Critics have often dismissed Northanger Abbey is Austen’s “earliest and least perfect” (Dwyer,43);claiming that “it lacks the narrative sophistication of the later works”(Litz, 59). Briefly, and within the usual Gothic parody context of such opprobrium, Frederic R. Karl, in A Reader's Guide to the development of the English novel in the eighteenth century, suggests that the Gothic genre operated as an antithesis “. . . to the main tradition of the realistic novel in Fielding [and] Richardson”(237). Austen’s response, particularly when we consider its conception as concomitant with the height of Radcliffeian popularity, demonstrates something of a literary landmark. And yet this only partly explains Northanger Abbey’s importance, for it achieves much more than simply dubunking sentimental Gothic. Certainly, Austen sets out to depose the chimerical with a narrative technique that synthesises Richardson’s stress on character and Fielding’s omnipotent control; but Austen’s realism is offered not only as an alternative to Gothic, but as the beginnings of a new tradition of realism. Northanger Abbey through a variety of narrative techniques, which ironically disturb the realistic flow, not only offers realism but realism in a self-reflexive light, effectively producing not only a novel but a novel handbook. Northanger Abbey then is, amongst other things, a discursive description of what, precisely, a novel might be and how, precisely, a novel might be read. Perhaps the most striking narrative feature of Northanger Abbey occurs in the novel’s opening pages: Catherine, we are told, despite initial indications, was born to be a heroine. In addition to the prolepsis created by this assertion, which effectively requires the narratee to re-examine the meaning of heroine and the kind of narrative to which she might belong, the self-reflexivity that has Catherine “in training for a heroine”(3), initially presents her memorising quotations of Pope, Gray, Thompson and Shakespeare. Her inability to write sonnets, besides offering a connotative hint of meta-narrativity, reveals both her romantic proclivities and limitations. Indeed, when we notice the examples she has gleamed from Shakespeare: “The poor beetle, which we tread upon

In corporal sufferance feels a pang as great
As when a giant dies,”(4)
we discover a collection of clichés and mundane meditations. This then is the introduction of Northanger Abbey’s primary theme: the appropriation and practice of reading skills. Catherine’s misreading the real world is perhaps indicative of her sense of personal insignificance, a prospective heroine who initially welcomes her status as someone “almost pretty today”(3) with a satisfied exclamation mark. Her yearning for heroineship is, in effect, a desire to achieve significance, and her significance is realised not by becoming a heroine per se, but rather by becoming a good reader. For the present, however, Shakespeare exists not as the creme de la creme, but as the prosaic skimmed off the top. If Catherine is described in terms of textual heroines, her domain is similarly narrated in the context of novel: a world in which Fielding’s Tom Jones--”There was not one family among their acquaintance who had reared and supported a boy accidentally found at their door”(4)--would find himself doubly orphaned; where Richardson’s Clarissa--”she neither insisted on Catherine’s writing by every post, nor exacted her promise of transmitting the character of every new acquaintance(6)--would lack a correspondent. Chapter XI’s excursion to Blaize Castle quickly turns into a Richardsonian parody of abduction, though results not in an emblematic Möbius strip but in mud caked shoes. The importance of this allusion arises from the rewriting of the more likely dangers of misreading. Indeed, such allusions indicate that Northanger Abbey will provide something of a break with literary precedence,...
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