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An Investigation into the relationship between Reading and Influence in Northanger Abbey

Updated on August 7, 2013

An Investigation into the relationship between Reading and Influence in Northanger Abbey

‘It seemed as if the whole might be traced to the influence of that sort of reading that she

had there indulged’ (Austen, Northanger Abbey, p.137). An investigation into the relationship between reading and the influence of in Northanger Abbey.

The link between "influence" and "reading" in the novel Northanger Abbey is clear throughout, and can be seen as a comment on the historical context in which it is set. At the time that the novel was written, there was a great deal of concern and social disquiet surrounding the influence that certain works could have upon readers, particularly women. The way in which the characters are presented in the text of Nothanger Abbey draws upon a specific reading of each character, which then directs them through the narrative. It offers us as readers an explanation of their qualities and personality. I will argue that the relationship demonstrates the effects a text can have on its readers, and to suggest that this effect is often exaggerated by society at large.I will do this first by addressing the context of the novel, and the writer's own context when writing it. I will then address the influences of reading on the main characters of the novel in order to illustrate my point. I will also demonstrate a counter argument to provide a debating point. This will then allow me to conclude.

In Northanger Abbey, Austen makes it clear almost immediately that her work explores the connection between reading, particularly of novels, and influence on readers. Austen makes use of the narrator's voice, although it is arguably in fact Austen's own voice, as it defends the positions of novels from scathing comments about one another. Due to the general view of novels as poor quality entertainment, the stance of many novelists was to claim that only their novel or novels were worth reading and that any other work of the same ilk was indeed of poor quality and likely to put bad thoughts into the heads of whomsoever read them. Austen however in a brief paragraph makes a statement as to the validity of novels as entertainment and decries the general consensus of novelists perpetuating the negative stereotypes attached to them. She makes this case for her and other novelists writings "work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language"[i] (Austen, 1817, p22)[1]. This staunch defence of her of her art form is a reaction to, as mentioned above, the zeitgeist of the time that decried the reading of novels and claimed that to do so was harmful to the reader. The critic Wallace, writes that this is Austen's attempting to show "the emergence of a new kind of novel based on probabilities and psychological realism"[2](Wallace, 1988, p262). This is clear in Austen's narration as she praises the novel's ability to mirror and inform on humanity.This sets the tone of the novel when it regards those who make judgements upon others who claim novels are not worth reading, as well as those who do. This is an attempt to direct our feelings toward particular characters that we are intended to identify with.These characters are those who are honest in their appreciation of the novel art form, thus drawing our attention to the influences of reading. Those who looked down upon the novel are seen to be foolish and arrogant, whereas those who undertake the reading of them display a deeper intellectual complexity.

An example of greater intellectual complexity than is first apparent is made clear early in the novel, when our protagonist shows her greater knowledge of literary themes than that of her peers. As Catherine engages in a conversation about gothic novels, Isabella compares Sir Charles Grandison (Samuel Richardson, 1753) to The Mysteries of Udolpho (Radcliffe, 1794)[3], which Catherine quickly points out as a moot comparison[4][ii] (Austen, 1817, p27) as one is an atypical Gothic text with physical and psychological peril, containing dark castles and the like, whilst the other is a work of psychological realism. This subtly demonstrates Catherine as very well versed in literary terms, and can distinguish different sub-genres within an overarching one, that being the Gothic novel. This also shows the ignorance of her other characters who simply refer to novels as "novels" considering them all of one type or brand. Catherine demonstrates her intellectual superiority in that she is evidently aware of nuances and distinctions that those around her fail to perceive.

An example of a character with whom reading allows an insight into their qualities and worth is that of Henry Tilney. Throughout he is shown to be the antithesis of John Thorpe, an arrogant and boorish character who thinks nothing of novels. Tilney, however, is shown by Austen to approve of novels once again creating a positive link between the appreciation of text with quality of character. Austen writes "The person, be it gentlemen or lady, who has no pleasure in a good novel must be intolerably stupid" (Austen, 1817, p73). Once again, a comment is made on those who would dismiss novels as childlike and not worth reading but this time it is directly aimed at those who consider them harmful. This also shows the influence novels have had upon Henry himself who is both intelligent and honest, freely admitting that he reads novels despite the social censure against men who do so. This is progressive, as not only were novels considered a woman's pastime, they were harmful to intelligence and morals. The view conveyed by Austen is contrary to this however, as we are shown that Henry has been educated at Oxford[5] (Austen, 1817, p73), and has been reading novels far longer than even Catherine. This illustrates the positive influence of novels upon the reader, which is certainly the intention of Austenthroughout the novel.

A counter example would be the aforementioned character John Thorpe. He reads no novels, or so he claims, and is shown through his language and action to be brash and stupid. When Catherine raises the subject of novels, Thorpe responds "they are the stupidest things in all creation"[6] (Austen, 1817, p31). This opinion, comes immediately after Thorpe criticizes an author and their works, and then inconsistently praises one of them displaying ignorance of that author. This is done in order to impress Catherine by pretending he was uninterested in the novel. His attitude toward novels is mirrored in his attitudes to almost most everything and he is shown throughout to be unaware of saying the most foolish things. This is another demonstration of influence of reading or not reading, as Thorpe reads no novels. Without the positive influence of novel reading he is a boorish and unintelligent character. This demonstrates the relationship between influence and reading clearly when contrasted with the other characters who have different influences due to different reading habit and ability. Our protagonists are well versed in Gothic literature, such as Camilla[7] (Burney, 1796) and The Mysteries of Udolpho[8](Radcliffe, 1794), and the triumph of good over evil in these texts along with the moral constitution of the characters within said texts has shaped them into better people. Those who ignore the novel as a genrecan not gain the helpful influence that they bring and are thence shown to be arrogant, ignorant and often amoral characters, such as the John Thorpe.

It can be argued that the influences that reading has within the novel are not completely orientated towards showing the positives of doing so. The protagonist Catherine is shown throughout the novel to be exceptionally moral, however she also has a number of flaws that stem from her constant consumption of novels. She is consistently shown to be naïve in real world matters, with those around her having to educate her. For example, when Henry Tilney discovers Catherine was searching his late mother's rooms in order to discover evidence of some kind of foul play regarding her death, he gives Catherine a small speech. This concerns the probability of his father murdering his mother, and how Catherine must ensure she observes the reality of things and not the romance she infers from her many Gothic readings[9] (Austen, 1817, p136). This demonstrates a potentially dangerous power of influence from reading, and this is not the only point in which Catherine is shown to be deceived by the novels that she spends so much time with. Another example is when she discovers a chest in her room, and convinces herself that something valuable must be contained within[10] (Austen, 1817, p118). Upon investigating, she finds a number of what she believes to be ancient manuscripts that are unreadable in the darkness. When morning comes Catherine finds they are simply bills and lists of washing. This might suggest that Austen cannot be making the point that the reading of novels is a positive influence, as shown here they lead Catherine to make a fool of herself on more than one occasion as she believes that she might live out one of her Gothic tales.

This leaves us in a difficult position, as we have conflicting examples as to the relationship between influence and reading. Some evidence suggests that to read novels provides positive influence as it broadens one's perspective. On the other hand we have evidence that shows Catherine's ability to function in the real world has been hindered by her reliance on novels. On balance however, there is still evidence of the constructive influence in reading novels.To find evidence to support that the influence of reading is a positive thing within the context of both the society that Austen lived in and the novel as a form in itself, one need only look at the conclusion of the novel. Here Catherine becomes married to Henry Tilney despite her naïve transgression at the Abbey. Henry marries Catherine for her honesty and open moral nature. This is a result, as mentioned previously, of Catherine reading novels. Whilst cause and effect is difficult to prove, she is honest and trustworthy just as the protagonists in the novels she that reads are.It is tempting to argue, and Austin certainly wishes to propose this, that those fictional characters have influenced her into being so.

By not ending in some form of punishment, the structure of the novel shows the reader that Catherine is not to be penalised for her actions, only taught that what she did was naïve, and neither correct or rational. Catherine becomes aware of when she has been foolish, and acts accordingly, such as when she realizes that Isabella has deceived her and then rejects her correspondence[11].One critic, Schaub, refers to Catherine's attitude as evolving, as she gains experience and is taught by other characters about reality in contrast to novels[12] (Schaub, 2000, p20). This journey is what leads her to real rewards and it is the result, at least in part, of the influence of novels. Austin clearly demonstrates that Catherine learns from her mistakes in keeping the thesis that the relationship between influence and reading is a positive one.

In conclusion, I have demonstrated that the relationship between text and context is positive, first of all by referencing the context of the work itself and Austen's voice throughout the novel. The speech by the narrator at the outset of the play defends novels from the broad contextual criticism of novels by the great majority and by those who wrote novels themselves[13] (Austen, 1817, p22). By doing this, Austen defends the influence of the novel upon its readers, arguing that the effect novels have is a good one. She argues that novels are not dangerous entertainment but demonstrate great skill and insight, they are an art-form. This is re-enforced by the fact that those characters in the novel who themselves read novels, are shown to be of greater reliability and moral standing than their peers, most notably Catherine and Henry Tilney.

Despite her naiveté Catherine is still capable of intellectual perception such as when she realises the flaws in John Thorpe's assessment of novels as a genre. Henry, whilst different in many ways to Catherine, is also deeply intellectual, and claims to have read hundreds of novels. He decries those men who claim not to read novels. This is in keeping with the narrator's speech in the beginning of Northanger Abbey as it insinuates that everyone reads novels, yet there are those however who do not admit to it. This again shows Henry's perceptiveness, which is linked to the reading of and the enjoying of novels. John Thorpe is an example of a character who does not read or appreciate novels, and he is shown throughout to be impolite and not as understanding as he claims to be. This once again affirms the point made that the influence of reading novels within this work is shown to be positive.

There are negative points associated with reading however. Catherine's inexperience with the real world is compounded by her love of novels and her wish for her life to mirror fiction. This leads her to appear foolish on more than one occasion, however but she learns from these encounters and moves forward, once again showing the positive relationship between influence and reading. Finally, the novel ends in the happy marriage of Catherine and Henry, a reward for Catherine for pushing through the difficulties she has encountered. Henry values Catherine because of her moral strength, which is itself is that of a heroine of a novel. These points demonstrate that the relationship between "influence" and "reading" in Northanger Abbey is despite its complexities, a good one.

[1]Austen, J. (1817) Northanger Abbey. 7th ed. New York: Norton and Company Inc., p.22

[2]Goshal Wallace, T. (1988) Northanger Abbey and the limits of parody. 3rd ed. Denton: University of North Texas, p.262.

[3]Radcliffe, A. (1851) The Mysteries of Udolpho. 6th ed. London: Penguin Classics.

[4]Austen, J. (1817) Northanger Abbey. 7th ed. New York: Norton and Company Inc., p.27

[5]Austen, J. (1817) Northanger Abbey. 7th ed. New York: Norton and Company Inc., p.73

[6]Austen, J. (1817) Northanger Abbey. 7th ed. New York: Norton and Company Inc., p.31

[7]Burney, F. (1851) Camilla. 5th ed. Oxford, U.S.A: Oxford University Press.

[8]Radcliffe, A. (1851) The Mysteries of Udolpho. 6th ed. London: Penguin Classics.

[9]Austen, J. (1817) Northanger Abbey. 7th ed. New York: Norton and Company Inc., p.136

[10] Austen, J. (1817) Northanger Abbey. 7th ed. New York: Norton and Company Inc., p.118

[11]Austen, J. (1817) Northanger Abbey. 7th ed. New York: Norton and Company Inc., p.150

[12]Schaub, M. (2000) Irony and Political Education in Northanger Abbey. Madison: The Jane Austen Society of North America, p.20.

[13] Austen, J. (1817) Northanger Abbey. 7th ed. New York: Norton and Company Inc., p.22


Austen, J. (1817) Northanger Abbey. 7th ed. New York: Norton and Company Inc

Goshal Wallace, T. (1988) Northanger Abbey and the limits of parody. 3rd ed. Denton: University of North

Texas, p.262

Radcliffe, A. (1851) The Mysteries of Udolpho. 6th ed. London: Penguin Classics

Burney, F. (1851) Camilla. 5th ed. Oxford, U.S.A: Oxford University Press

Schaub, M. (2000) Irony and Political Education in Northanger Abbey. Madison: The Jane Austen Society of North America, p.20.


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