Northanger Abbey is fundamentally a parody of Gothic fiction. Austen turns the conventions of eighteenth-century novels on their head, by making her heroine a plain and undistinguished girl from a middle-class family, allowing the heroine to fall in love with the hero before he has a serious thought of her, and exposing the heroine's romantic fears and curiosities as groundless. Austen biographer Claire Tomalin speculates that Austen may have begun this book, which is more explicitly comic than her other works and contains many literary allusions that her parents and siblings would have enjoyed, as a family entertainment—a piece of lighthearted parody to be read aloud by the fireside. Moreover, as Joan Aiken writes,
- "We can guess that Susan [the original title of Northanger Abbey], in its first outline, was written very much for family entertainment, addressed to a family audience, like all Jane Austen's juvenile works, with their asides to the reader, and absurd dedications; some of the juvenilia, we know, were specifically addressed to her brothers Charles and Frank; all were designed to be circulated and read by a large network of relations."
Austen addresses the reader directly in parts, particularly at the end of Chapter 5, where she gives a lengthy opinion of the value of novels, and the contemporary social prejudice against them in favour of drier historical works and newspapers. In discussions featuring Isabella, the Thorpe sisters, Eleanor, and Henry, and by Catherine perusing the library of the General, and her mother's books on instructions on behaviours, the reader gains further insights into Austen's various perspectives on novels in contrast with other popular literature of the time (especially the Gothic novel). Eleanor even praises history books, and while Catherine points out the obvious fiction of the speeches given to important historical characters, Eleanor enjoys them for what they are.
The directness with which Austen addresses the reader, especially at the end of the story, gives a unique insight into Austen's thoughts at the time, which is particularly important due to her letters having been burned at her request by her sister upon her death.