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Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey as Satire

Updated on February 11, 2013

Overview

From the beginning, it is obvious that Jane Austen has created a work that is meant to poke fun at the novels of her time. In addition, it is equally obvious very early in Northanger Abbey that the work is also intended to comment and satirize other works of romantic sentiment that Austen would most certainly have been aware of. The descriptions of her characters and use of plot, while in many ways conforming to a pattern that has since become indicative of a typical Jane Austen novel, are in other ways a means of directing irony at such works as The Monk, The Sorrows of Werther, A Sentimental Journey, and to some small extent to Tristram Shandy.

From the first page, parallels can be found between Austin’s characters and those found in the typical romance or gothic novel of her time. Her descriptions provide more in the way of what traits the characters do not possess than in what they do, and are given in such a way as to demonstrate a lack of drama and an abundance of the commonplace rather than the supernatural or extraordinary. For example, the description of Catherine’s father as a clergyman, “without being neglected, or poor,” and of her mother remaining not only alive but healthy through the births and upbringing of ten children gives the idea very early in the work that Austen is intending to ridicule and satirize the ideas that prevail in other works of her time, specifically the notion that a hero or heroine can not be important unless they have endured some form of suffering or neglect. The description of Catherine herself as being the heroine of the work, but also being described as rather plain, not industrious, lacking in talent in those things that a young lady of good breeding should be expected to know in that time; all parts of a description intended to poke fun at such female counterparts as Lotte in The Sorrows of Young Werther or Antonia in The Monk.

Austen on Goethe's Werther

In contrast to the character of Catherine, Isabella initially appears favorably to be both independent and intelligence, both ways in which she can be seen to compare favorably with women such as Lotte in The Sorrows of Werther or any number of Sterne’s female characters. However, in Isabella’s case, her intelligence and independence is intentionally paired with a calculated artifice and avarice, making her very quickly into one of the more unsavory characters of the work. This serves Austen’s purpose for satirizing specifically The Sorrows of Werther, in that Lotte is also not all she seems to be or as Werther sees her to be. In Austen’s case, the suitors of Isabella are neither mindless nor childish where she is concerned, but rather eventually catch on to the games she is playing and move away of their own accord. In the case of Catherine’s brother, James, he was smitten with Isabella to the point of proposing marriage, but there is no indication that he would continue to pursue her after her rebuff nor that he would resort to suicide because of her rejection. Rather, it is hinted that he will come to realize that he is better off without her and will move on to better choices, unlike Werther.

Austen and Matthew Lewis' Monk

Austen specifically satirizes The Monk in her discussion and description of the architecture of Northanger Abbey. In contrast to the architecture of The Monk, the descriptions of Northanger Abbey are intended to deflate any ideas of darkness or supernatural qualities held by both Catherine and possibly the reader. As Catherine has obtained her ideas about what an abbey should be like from the novels she reads, novels that are very similar to The Monk, this is a direct poke at Lewis’ work. From Austen’s point of view, it seems she considered a work like The Monk to be so fantastic as to border on the ludicrous in its methods of taking the dark and gothic elements and then making them even darker and more gothic, to the point of including the supernatural more for shock value than as a valid necessity. As such, her descriptions of the various parts of Northanger Abbey, as seen through Catherine’s eyes, are intended to disillusion someone with an overactive imagination rather than feed that imagination.

Austen and Sterne; Satire on Satire

Further satire can be argued against A Sentimental Journey in Austen’s choice of a journey to Bath in search of entertainment and ultimately a marriage proposal. This journey could be seen to mimic Yorick’s journeys, initially intended to improve his health and possibly prolong his life. The intimate encounters of Yorick’s journey are mimicked by the very artificial atmosphere of Bath in Northanger Abbey in that Bath is understood to be a place where encounters are calculated and planned while Yorick’s sentimental encounters are generally spontaneous. Austen’s work serves to unmask the artifice that is also present in the travels of Yorick and his eternal search for eternal life, a goal that he knows is impossible but one that he pursues anyway. In addition, the marriage market atmosphere of Bath and the ambitions of the Thorpes very much mimic the efforts of the Widow Wadman in Tristram Shandy to first ascertain whether Uncle Toby is able to meet her needs physically while also attempting to elicit a marriage proposal.

Finally, the character of the General can be seen as a parody of the character of Uncle Toby in Tristram Shandy, and to a lesser extent, the other characters as they all get carried away on their hobbyhorses. Similar to the description of Toby as a most gentle being, one who wouldn’t hurt a fly, but who is obsessed with warfare, the General often says exactly the opposite of what he means, particularly where finances are concerned, and is equally obsessed with the maintenance of his home and gardens.

Sources

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. London: Penguin Books, 1995. Print

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang Von. The Sorrows of Young Werther. Trans. Michael Hulse. London: Penguin Books, 1989. Print.

Lewis, Matthew. The Monk. London: Penguin Books, 1998. Print.

Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. London: Penguin Books, 1978. Print.

---. A Sentimental Journey and Continuation of the Bramine’s Journal. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2006.

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