Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Close Reading Questions for Austen's Northanger Abbey, Chs.9-15

(above: "The Morning Walk" (1785) by Thomas Gainsborough, a painting roughly contemporary with this novel.  Note the somewhat Romantic landscape surrounding the couple and the increasing darkness; though both appear to embody Enlightenment ideals, they are venturing into a possibly Gothic landscape that threatens to engulf them.  Also--are they haughty English aristocracts or uncertain inheritors of the turbulent turn of the century?)

1. In what way does Austen distinguish Henry Tilney from the other characters in Bath (esp. Thorpe, Mrs. Allen, and Isabella)? Is she, as Aaron suggests in his response, closer to the voice and wit of the narrator? How do we feel the narrator, herself, feels about him (besides the fact that he is only “very near” being handsome)?

2. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “sensibility” as “In the 18th and early 19th c. (afterwards somewhat rarely): Capacity for refined emotion; delicate sensitiveness of taste; also, readiness to feel compassion for suffering, and to be moved by the pathetic in literature or art.” Austen wrote about this capacity in her early novel, Sense and Sensibility, where a younger sister’s “sensibility” is tempered by her older sister’s “sense” (meaning a more 18th century rationality, objectivity). Which quality do you think Catherine most embodies and why? Do you feel Austen celebrates or censures her for this attribute?

3. A consistent theme in Austen’s novels is the entrance of a young woman into society. However, such a rite of passage requires “experienced” chaperones to guide her on her way. How does Austen satirize the entrance and education of a young woman into society—and in this case, into the social wilds of Bath? What dangers or missteps does she encounter that were all too real for women in Austen’s time?

4. Chapter 14 is a delightful discussion of books and taste, in which Catherine seems to come up a bit short. Is this truly the case? Does Henry represent Austen here, the arbiter of true taste; or does Catherine also possess her own legitimate (if still unformed) aesthetics? Who gets the upper hand (if anyone) in this discussion—and be sure to note the narrator’s occasional interruptions.


  1. Brandon Frye

    The main question here seems to be this: is Catherine more SENSE or SENSIBILITY; sense being driven by reason, logic, and rationality / and sensibility being driven by emotions, compassion, and taste.

    In my opinion, it seems like every woman figure in this piece so far is driven by SENSIBILITY. What do they worry about? How do they think? Taste, or what is tasteful, seems to be a big moving force with the women. "Which dress should I wear to the rooms, would it be proper to ride in an open carriage with a male who isn't my brother? Oh how awful it is to walk after it rains, what with the unmeasurable amount of dirt which is involved," these things are what the women of this novel worry and think about. And Catherine is no different - aside from her fascination with Gothic Novels like Udolfo.

    (2. continued and 3.)
    A good example of her being driven by sensibility is her dilemma she faces - or I should say dilemmas: two separate dastardly mistakes which might possible shame her image in the eyes of the Tilneys. Her first mishap in the land of Bath, and in the world of the women of this time, is missing a walking date with the Tilneys. Her friends, the Thorpes, and her brother falsly persuade her to take a trip all around - a trip which (to Catherine's liking) is to end at a rather Gothic castle. She refuses to go, because she's worried about what the Tilney's would think - but a lie frees her of her convictions and she sets off. On the way she sees the Tilneys and feels just awful, so bad she doesn't enjoy the evening.

    Her second miss step runs along the same lines. A male tells a lie in order to get her to go on another trip. She almost shames herself once again before the Tilneys. However, this time she runs right to their house and sets things right (and subsequently gets to go on a walk with her lover interest and his sister, which leads to her being able to completely overlook the assbaggery hurdling out of her love interest's mouth in favor of holding him up as the bee's knees in spite of it all).

    It's a good thing though, that she straightened it out - she might have had a family slightly perturbed with her. Of course, if she weren't a creature of sensibility (or as we might call it, a mammal worried about other mammal's opinions and feelings) such follies might not play such a large role in the novel.

  2. Alex Taussig

    I do agree that Catherine has much more sensibility than sense, but I think we have to give her credit for being able to change her ways: the main reason that she had so much sensibility could be just that she was never let out of the house. Anyone living as a shut in is going to be pretty innoccent, and also fairly emotion-driven. Catherine eventually does decide that she doesn't like Thorpe, and makes the decision to avoid him. I think any other 18th century woman would have a much more difficult time resisting him out of duty to find a suitable husband.

    Also, I would say that her annoyance with Thorpe lying to her and keeping her from Tilney is an increase in sense, even though she did -want- to go with Tilney in the first place, she is rejecting the polite, demure attitude than any other young woman would have and is trying to do what is right and keep her word.

    So yeah, I think there's hope for our heroine yet.