Friday, February 5, 2010

Close Reading Questions for Austen's Northanger Abbey, Chs.16-22

As usual, answer TWO of the following...

1. In Chapter 21, we encounter Austen’s spot-on imitation of a Gothic novel, complete with many of the hallmarks we recognize from The Castle of Otranto. How do you read this chapter in particular—as a parody (or satire) or a legitimate attempt to conjure up a sense of horror and the sublime? Does the tone of a giggling narrator lie behind this, or is Austen yielding to her own admiration of the genre and its possibilities?

2. How do you feel the Catherine/Henry romance is progressing in these chapters? Is it a dance of mutual respect and admiration, or does he appear more condescending and dominating? Consider their conversation in Chapter 20: is he teasing (mocking) her Gothic sensibility or using it to woo her more effectively? In other words, does he want to tame her or does he want to get “Gothic” with her?

3. Do you feel Austen is more critical toward the women in the novel than the men? Discussing Isabella’s change of heart, Henry notes, “It is probable she will neither love so well, nor flirt so well, as she might do either singly. The gentlemen must each give up a little” (II.19.143). Is this view of women (as inconstant flirts) one espoused by the narrator, or does it suggest a certain misogyny on Henry’s part?

4. The painting above, Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse (1784) depicts a famous actress in theatrical mode. Though she is clearly acting here, more a character than the woman herself, the painting is still startlingly realistic—we can “see” her. Might this be true of the Gothic itself: that we need to see the “clockwork” behind the genre for it to have its full effect? Is the sublime in literature created by knowing it’s not real—that someone dreamed it up?


  1. 2.
    It is clear that Henry has an attraction to Catherine even though his actions are often misinterpreted by her. It becomes clear in these chapters that Catherine is even more naive then one might have thought. At the very beginning of the novel the narrator states that Catherine was unable to learn even if she was taught. Throughout chapters 16-22 this statement becomes more accurate. While it is true that Henry spends much of their walk in Beechen Cliff “teaching” Catherine, it is only after she openly admits that she doesn’t know as much as she wish she did. In this moment Henry takes the time to show Catherine how he views the world through his more artistic mind. Some suggest that Henry’s behavior towards Catherine is similar to that of parent teaching a child, but isn’t he the more adult figure? After all he is, I believe, 23 and Catherine is only 17. Such an age difference would create a wide range of experience versus innocence.
    I do think perhaps Henry might look down on Catherine a little bit because she isn’t aware of the things going on around her, however, that put aside, it is clear that he truly does find her endearing and a compliment to his more rigid world. Because Catherine is much younger and has filled her head with all sorts of imaginary happenings she presents herself as a much more free spirited creature who wishes to solve the questions she wishes to know while letting her imagination open-ended. Due to Catherine’s outlook on the world, Henry is drawn to her, and even though he is teaching her how he sees fit, at least it is him, someone who truly cares for her and not someone who has contorted ideals such as John Thorpe.
    Some might think the ride to Northanger Abbey to be a scene in which Henry is mocking Catherine, I think that it is simply him flirting and trying to scare Catherine. If anything I would say that during the ride Henry is more like a child than Catherine. He knows how susceptible she is to the Gothic World, so he takes advantage of the situation to spook Catherine or even make her like him more.
    Basically, I don’t believe that Henry has any ill motives towards Catherine, he simply wants to know her better and teach her the ways of the world so that she isn’t taken advantage of. I would think that Henry deserves a bit of gratitude.

  2. 4.
    The Gothic World is one of dark imagination that could happen, and typically this genre would like to depict that such encounters do actually take place in the world. However, Austen’s views on how to create a Gothic work appears to be very different to me. During the carriage ride to Northanger Abbey Catherine’s mind is filled with all sorts of fantasies of what it will be like from the stories that Henry knows Catherine to read. When Catherine arrives at the Abbey she is displeased with the fact that the Abbey isn’t Gothic at all. However, she still becomes spooked at night and spooks herself with what may happen.
    I think the Gothic World becomes sublime because you never know what is around the corner. Something evil could be lurking, or it is just a boring bedroom. The actress in the painting to me doesn’t appear to be acting at all. She is done up beautifully, however the look on her face doesn’t appear more dramatic then those of the faces behind her. Over her right shoulder is some kind of servant bringing her a drink, but the look on his face is scared, shocked, even horrified. The female servant over her left shoulder is also much more dramatic than the actress, her somber, placid face seems to know more than the actresses. Could they be revealing her subconscious thoughts? The idea of not knowing the truth seems more sublime to me. The tragic beauty in life is typically not seen, not in humans anyways. Most tend to put on a smiling face and act as if they are happy. It’s when a person goes mad from hosting catastrophic ideas that they become beautiful from such emotion, such insanity. Austen’s Gothic appears much more subtle than explosions of emotion and more prevalent in the references that she makes to Gothic works of her day.
    I do not think that Gothic is Gothic because someone dreamed it up, it is much more complex. The emotions that Catherine has throughout her journey into adulthood are much more Gothic than the actual events in the text; something I am sure lots of teenage girls, such as Catherine, and once upon time, Jane Austen herself, can relate to.

    -Megan Cooper
    I hope all of this is understandable....

  3. Excellent comments here--very insightful and worthy of class discussion! I agree with you in many respects about Henry; though he does instruct her, he is older (and has the priviledge of going to Oxford--which no woman had then!). He is obviously aware of her Gothic silliness and tendency toward extreme sensibility, which he both admires and tries to slightly curb. But ultimately, I think he sees the Gothic as a sign of her true humanity, and wants to reach out to her through it, and ultimately use it to woo her, as he does in the coach on the way to the Abbey. He also proves himself something of a novelist, which is yet another connection between him and the narrator!

    Great points too about the Gothic sublime and where its true source of power lies. There is very little of the true Gothic in this novel (in reality), though Catherine carries it all in her imagination, as imbibed through all of Radcliffe and Walpole's stories. Like Coleridge's Kubla Khan, she can only catch glimpses of this world (a strange box here, a locked cabinet there), but through these incomplete "things" she can create an entire world--a world that powerfully evokes the supernatural and the sublime. Indeed, one can argue that she writes much of the novel herself, as her imagination fills in the blank walls of Northanger Abbey, the narrator simply sitting back and letting her go at it. This begs the question, does the Gothic have to be real? Does a ghost have to haunt the hallways, or do people simply have to believe it could? Do vampires have to be caught and staked, or is it enough (or even more sublime) to be haunted by the fear of them--and have that fear determine some part of your reality? These are all ideas that Austen conjures up in her novel, reminding us that Gothic is not a reality, it is a state of mind, an inconclusive, never-to-be-proved conundrum. As Coleridge writes, it is a dream terrifying in its beauty, but impossible to fully remember or describe in the world of the living.

  4. Though I am not in class today, I did want to throw in my two cents here from the sublime perspective on Dr. G's questions above:

    Does there need to be a ghost in the hallway or do we just have to BELIEVE there could be?
    I think that the power of belief--of thought forms is incredible (consider mass-hysteria, for example). One does not have to "feel" Vlad the Impaler, breathing on the neck, to FEAR him. All that is totally necessary is the belief in the supreme evil of the personage/character to fear him. Feed in a bit of history and folklore and do we STILL.. pensively wonder, perhaps sleep with the light on or wear a crucifix/cross, after reading Dracula or Salem's Lot? You know it.

    If you consider as a "loose source" The Kybalion of Three Initiates for example, you see the theoretical laws of the Universe of "like attracts like" and "balance of good/evil" etc...
    The fact is--that which we believe, becomes REAL (even if in our own minds). We tackled that sublime question not long ago when we spoke of Kubla Khan and Castle of Otranto . It is not a popular thought to many, but philosophers throughout the ages, all the way to today, have said that perhaps God only exists because there is an allowed Devil (or vice verse). If one is negated, is the other needed?
    I agree completely that the state of mind is enough to produce and invoke the response. We fear, because we believe. We "see" it, thus "making it so."
    These were also psychological/emotional questions that Freud and Jung both addressed (Jung being a good fit with our gothic question). The archetypes of 'supreme evil' and 'supreme good', Gods/devils, right/wrong, black/white were all things that Jung held, existed because of what has been called the "Akashic Record"...or the place in the Universe in which every thought, feeling, emotion has been cached and stored and all we feel and think now--is nothing new.

    Austen created Catherine who is an archetype of the needy,responsive, sensible female. She will always NEED Henry, because this is who she IS.
    Catherine creates within her mind the gothic good/evil drama.. because it is another of the archetypal realms--that are often seen in the folklore and myths of humanity.
    The Good/evil creates the question of gods and demons.. these too, archetypes.
    The Good/evil creates a balance in which all things are suspended, seeking a point of conclusion and .. hmm..homeostasis. (Not unlike the early figures seen in the astrology signs or the tarot cards that displayed the Major/minor Arcana.

    Seems to me that as long as humanity survives the battle will be waged to reach this balance...
    Fortunate really, considering that it gives an immortality to people like Walpole, Stoker, Shelley and yes, even our Jane Austen. :)