"How fearfully will you examine the furniture of your apartment! -- And what will you discern? -- Not tables, toilettes, wardrobes, or drawers, but on one side perhaps the remains of a broken lute, on the other a ponderous chest which no efforts can open, and over the fireplace the portrait of some handsome warrior, whose features will so incomprehensibly strike you, that you will not be able to withdraw your eyes from it...you listen to the sound of her receding footsteps as long as the last echo can reach you -- and when, with fainting spirits, you attempt to fasten your door, you discover, with increased alarm, that it has no lock."
Thls quote is spoken by Henry to Catherine during their carriage ride to Northanger Abbey. Drawing on his knowledge of Gothic novels--particularly the work of Anne Radcliffe--Henry attempts to spook Catherine by placing her in the position of a fictional heroine. Ancient family relics (such as locked chests) are a common motif in Gothic novels. Henry is a skilled storyteller, assembling the most compelling details of the various novels he has read. He is so successful that, upon arriving at Northanger Abbey, Catherine attempts to translate the story he has told her into a sensationalized reality by seeking the causes of his mother's death.
I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding -- joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?
Jane Austen's defense of the novel must be considered in the context of her time: in 18th century England, novels were generally considered to be a mere form of entertainment rather than serious works of art. But Austen does not agree with the trivialization of novels; instead, she is arguing for their intrinsic worth and their right to be considered with respect. This is why she depicts Catherine as an avid reader who place a high premium on the fictional worlds she encounters. Although Catherine later makes the mistake of believing too much in the Gothic novels she has read, Austen wants us to see her avid interest in novel-reading as admirable in itself, even if her imagination sometimes fails to distinguish between fiction and reality.
And such is your definition of matrimony and dancing. Taken in that light certainly, their resemblance is not striking; but I think I could place them in such a view. -- You will allow, that in both, man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal; that in both, it is an engagement between man and woman, formed for the advantage of each; and that when once entered into, they belong exclusively to each other till the moment of its dissolution; that it is their duty, each to endeavour to give the other no cause for wishing that he or she had bestowed themselves elsewhere, and their best interest to keep their own imaginations from wandering towards the perfections of their neighbours, or fancying that they should have been better off with anyone else.
This quote is spoken by Henry to Catherine as they are dancing at a ball in Bath. Henry's analogy between dancing and marriage is a sophisticated metaphorical construction designed to display his rhetorical skill. Much like a marriage, Henry asserts, dancing is a mutual contract between a man and a woman, yet there is an inherent imbalance of power in both arrangements. While a man may ask any woman to dance with him or to marry him, a woman can only say yes or no to the men who propose to her. Henry believes that both dancing partners and married couples should be faithful to each other and content that they have made the right choice. Since he is dancing with Catherine at the time, we may interpret his extended metaphor as an indirect compliment to her: after all, he has chosen to ask her to dance over the other girls at the ball.
Woman is fine for her own satisfaction alone. No man will admire her the more, no woman will like her the better for it. Neatness and fashion are enough for the former, and a something of shabbiness or impropriety will be most endearing to the latter.
Austen's critique of female vanity takes place as Catherine is preparing to dress for a ball in Bath. Although Catherine is not nearly as vain as Isabella, she is still eager to impress others with her appearance, especially Henry Tilney. However, Austen tells us that Catherine's efforts are essentially futile for two reasons. First, men may notice that she is dressed well, but they probably won't like her anymore for that reason alone. Second, women generally take pity on those whose clothes are a little less expensive than their own. Thus, Catherine's reputation will not really be raised in the opinion of her community by her choice of a new ribbon or hat.
Catherine did not know her own advantages -- did not know that a good-looking girl, with an affectionate heart and a very ignorant mind, cannot fail of attracting a clever young man, unless circumstances are particularly untoward. In the present instance, she confessed and lamented her want of knowledge, declared that she would give anything in the world to be able to draw; and a lecture on the picturesque immediately followed, in which his instructions were so clear that she soon began to see beauty in everything admired by him, and her attention was so earnest that he became perfectly satisfied of her having a great deal of natural taste.
On their walk to Beechen Cliff, Henry is teaching Catherine how to see the surrounding landscape through the eyes of an artist. Although Catherine knows nothing about the aesthetics of sketching a scene, her ignorance is precisely what endears her to Henry. He uses this occasion to serve in the role of a mentor, and he takes satisfaction when his lesson appears to be successful. Austen leads us to believe that Henry is attracted to Catherine in part because she validates his own tastes by mimicking them. Catherine appreciates the details of the landscape that he points out to her, but she would be unable to do this by herself. Henry relishes his role as an older and more experienced man teaching a younger and less knowledgeable woman.
The Abbey in itself was no more to her now than any other house. The painful remembrance of the folly it had helped to nourish and perfect, was the only emotion which could spring from a consideration of the building.
Catherine's disillusionment with Northanger Abbey marks the end of her Gothic fantasy about the house's secret history. She regrets imagining that Mrs. Tilney was brutally killed or locked away by her husband, and without this unwarranted suspicion the house's mysterious nature has vanished. Aided by Henry's rebuttal, Catherine has retracted her slander against General Tilney's character, and she now sees the house through the light of retrospection: she acknowledges how silly she was to invest it with an unrealistic fantasy, and she wants to forget the incident as quickly as possible. If her folly was to imagine Northanger Abbey as a fictional place of suppressed horror, then her redemption lies in seeing it for what it is--an ordinary family home.
To begin perfect happiness at the respective ages of twenty-six and eighteen, is to do pretty well; and professing myself moreover convinced, that the General's unjust interference, so far from being really injurious to the their felicity, was perhaps rather conducive to it, by improving their knowledge of each other, and adding strength to their attachment, I leave it to be settled by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience.
At the conclusion of her novel, Austen sums up the marriage between Catherine and Henry as a foregone event before asking us to reconsider the consequences of General Tilney's initial disapproval of the match. Rather than interpreting the General's actions as a roadblock to their happiness, Austen asks us to reconsider the situation. By turning Catherine away and refusing to grant Henry his approval of their marriage, General Tilney may have inadvertently strengthened their bond by giving both of them more time to mature. In this light, the happy ending of the novel, and the couple's future life together, was enabled by General Tilney's behavior (coupled with Henry's transgression of his father's dictates).
Of course, Austen's take-away lesson is neither to suggest that parents should be unnecessarily strict nor that children should disobey their parents. Rather, the last line of her novel is a humorous and ironic aside to the reader. In typical fashion, Austen asks us to see characters from multiple perspectives and judge the morality of their behavior for ourselves.
Catherine attempted no longer to hide from herself the nature of the feelings which, in spite of all his attentions, he had previously excited; and what had been terror and dislike before, was now absolute aversion. Yes, aversion! His cruelty to such a charming woman made him odious to her. She had often read of such characters.
At this point in the novel, Catherine and Miss Tilney have just been barred from entering Mrs. Tilney's bedroom by the General's insistence that they end their tour early. After talking to Miss Tilney about her mother's death, Catherine jumps to hasty conclusions about the General's character and comes to believe that he played a role in his wife's demise. Catherine wants to make the General's character conform to her expected notions of evil and cruel husbands, ones that she inherited from reading Gothic novels. Without considering the lack of evidence surrounding her case, she surmises that the General's behavior of refusing to enter his wife's bedroom--coupled with Miss Tilney's admission that her mother died suddenly--are enough to support her budding accusation.
Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remembering the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you--Does our education prepare us for such atrocities?
This quote is spoken by Henry to Catherine after she admits to her suspicions of his father. Henry admonishes Catherine for harboring false accusations against General Tilney and appeals to her rationality in order to show her the nature of her mistake. While Gothic novels are generally set on the Continent in locales such as the Swiss Alps or the Italian countryside, Henry asks Catherine to consider their familiar, domestic surroundings and their modern age. Coupled with their religion, their nationality would make it highly unlikely for a real murder mystery to take place among them--Henry is framing England as a safe place governed by logic and technological progress rather than melodramatic emotion and archaic family histories.
"I do not understand you."
"Then we are on very unequal terms, for I understand you perfectly well."
"Me? yes--I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible."
This witty exchange between Henry and Catherine takes place during their walk to Beechen Cliff. Before this exchange, Catherine has just been speculating that Henry's brother asked Isabella to dance because he saw her sitting down alone and thought she might want a partner. Henry is amused by Catherine's inability to decipher other's motives accurately (his brother was obviously motivated by attraction, and not pity). Henry hints to Catherine that she is not a very good judge of people, and this is when she professes ignorance. For much of the novel, Henry's role is to expose Catherine to a variety of insights and conclusions that she cannot arrive at on her own. However, we see from this dialogue that Catherine is sometimes capable of delivering very clever lines. Her paradoxical formulation of not being able to "speak well enough" that others don't understanding her meaning greatly amuses Henry.
Northanger Abbey Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Northanger Abbey is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
As far as I can see, insecurity largely comes via the theme of youth. Northanger Abbey is concerned with young people and their feelings. Heroines in other Austen novels—Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice and Emma Woodhouse in Emma, for...