Jane Austen Writing Styles in Northanger Abbey

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This section contains 1,239 words
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Point of View

The novel is narrated from the third-person, omniscient point of view by an unnamed narrator. Interior thoughts of characters are frequently revealed, though deep thoughts of only the primary protagonist, Catherine Morland, are considered at any length. The narrator is reliable and frequently intrusive, using the meta-fictional "I" in self-reference: the identity of the narrator is unknown and forms one of the more puzzling but enjoyable aspects of the novel. The narrator has special knowledge of all events and relates the narrative in the past tense, often intruding to provide heavy foreshadowing or explanations of symbolic elements in the text. Although highly reliable, the narrator obviously withholds facts until such a time as they can be delivered with greater impact upon the reader; humorously, the narrator bluntly states that this procedure is deliberate.

The third-person point of view is appropriate for the novel and makes the narrative engaging and appealing. The narrative portrayal of Catherine is sympathetic and likable, and the third-person structure allows Catherine's naïve nature to be presented without unnecessarily complicating the plot development. As a protagonist Catherine is enjoyable, believable, and compelling. The presentation of her outlook on life and her response to love's complications are the focus of the novel and, coupled with the development of plot, provides the basic structure of the novel.

Setting

The novel's general setting is southwestern England, circa 1790, and has the feel of lightly urbanized areas featuring resort spas and pastoral scenes. Within the general setting, four specific locations are developed in greater detail—Fullerton, Bath, Northanger Abbey, and Woodston. Fullerton and Bath are real places, as is Gloucestershire, the surrounding area for Northanger Abbey and Woodston. Fullerton is the least developed of the four principle settings. It is the childhood home of Catherine Morland—indeed, the entire Morland family—as well as the Allen family. It is presented as a lightly urbanized center surrounded by rural farmlands. Fullerton is respectable if unexceptional and projects a distinctly middle-class atmosphere. Families are apparently large and customs conservative, if the Morlands are representative. Indeed, the childless Allens are presented as something of a notable exception. Fullerton briefly appears in the first and final few chapters of the novel and is lightly referenced otherwise.

Bath was and is a famous resort spa town, centered on the site of a series of natural hot springs. Aside from the steam and heat pools, the town at the time of the novel featured at least a few social gathering places, the most-mentioned of which is the Pump House where, presumably, the hot water is captured and pumped from the ground. Ironically, Catherine and the rest never visit the bathing yards for which Bath was so famous. Instead, they spend time mostly in the so-called lower-rooms where dances and balls were held nearly nightly. An upper balcony surrounds the dance floor and is used for observation. Card rooms—apparently strictly for men—sit to the side of the building's main halls. Bath featured numerous apartments and homes for rent as well as unpaved streets which became very muddy after rainfall. Bath is the setting for the first fifteen or so chapters of the novel.

Northanger Abbey, the structure for which the novel is named, is the dominant setting for most of the concluding chapters of the novel. Before visiting, Catherine imagines it to be a brooding and crumbling structure full of secret passages and perverse secrets. Instead, she is disappointed to find it a wholly modern building with rich and elegant appointments. It is clearly an impressive building on a large estate, and it is kept in perfect repair. Catherine comes to enjoy it as comfortable and appealing. Woodston is the name given to a house and village near to Northanger Abbey where Henry Tilney lives. It was provided for Henry by his father, General Tilney. The house is much smaller than Northanger Abbey but is surrounded by beautiful orchards and fields. Catherine visits the house—it will be her own once she marries—and finds it entirely agreeable.

Language and Meaning

The novel is presented in easily accessible language with modern construction and remarkably modern sentiment. Within this basic construction of meaning the novel uses some anachronistic language and social customs which convey a historic atmosphere and tone. The essentially modern tone of the novel does allow it to be understood by a wide range of readers but its social mores, firmly based in the late eighteenth century, might seem unnecessarily restrictive to modern readers. For example, Catherine's chaperone Mrs. Allen declares that single young women riding with men in an open carriage through the city streets would likely be viewed as slightly scandalous. And, later, Catherine may not get married without her prospective father-in-law's express consent. While many modern-day readers would perhaps not submit to such social customs, Catherine is of course a creature of her environment and views them as not only appropriate but desirable.

The narrative structure itself is highly aware of language and meaning and contains many elements of meta-fictional self-reference. For example, the unnamed narrator intrudes constantly into the narrative to offer advice or proffer foreshadowing. Word choice is delightfully rich and the narrative construction is subtle, creditable, and exceptionally pleasant. The author is obviously a master of language and construction and plays with the idea of meaning through narration, tone, and even dialogue. For example, when Catherine complains that Henry's speech is too complicated to understand, he replies "'Then we are on very unequal terms, for I understand you perfectly well.'" Subsequently comes Catherine's famously funny—though unintentionally so—reply, "'Me? Yes; I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible."' (p. 129). That Catherine fails to see the unintentional humor in her reply, even after Henry explains it, makes the exchange so much the more enjoyable.

Structure

The brief novel, written in 1798 and revised in 1803, was originally entitled Memorandum, Susan, but was re-titled prior to its first publication. The novel was the author's first completed work and was sold quickly for a tiny sum to a London bookseller that sat on the text without publishing it for several years. The same bookseller then resold the rights to the author subsequent to her publication of other novels and her meteoric rise in the public eye. Thus, although it was the first-written novel, it was among the last-published novels of the author, appearing posthumously by a few months. The complicated publishing history involved several major revisions and thus disparate versions of the manuscript exist. Further, the novel—though already short—is often presented as two volumes, with the first fifteen chapters comprising the first volume and the latter sixteen chapters comprising the second volume. This summary assumes the novel is presented in a single version composed of thirty-one consecutively numbered chapters.

The 237-page novel is divided into thirty-one enumerated chapters of fairly equal length, though notable exceptions exist. For example, the final chapter is very brief and differs in construction from the remainder of the work. Each chapter describes events in a strictly chronological order which makes the narrative very easy to follow. Indeed, much in contrast to the Gothic novels which the narrative simultaneously emulates and denigrates, narrative access is remarkably and consistently easy. The only exception to this concerns multiple events which happen simultaneously but at different locations. These events are always presented as having happened in the past and are introduced into the narrative via conversation or through the textual presentation of letters received. Thus, the chronology strictly adheres to Catherine Morland's perception of the events.

This section contains 1,239 words
(approx. 4 pages at 400 words per page)
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