In Northanger Abbey, the Gothic setting is in the very title of the novel. As Catherine approaches Northanger, “her impatience for a sight of the abbey... returned in full force... with solemn awe to afford a glimpse of its massy walls of grey stone, rising amidst a grove of ancient oaks, with its... high gothic windows.” However, Catherine’s expectations are met with disappointment as the abbey comes into view and she realizes that the Abbey has been modernized. This “struck her as odd and inconsistent.” Even the Gothic windows, which Catherine had heard were preserved, are not what she had expected. “To an imagination which had hoped for the smallest divisions, and the heaviest stone-work, for painted glass, dirt, and cobwebs, the difference was very distressing.” Her expectations from the fiction she has read of what Gothic architecture is contradicts the reality.
Catherine is repeatedly let down by her expectations. They are so wild and extravagant, like in the Gothic Romance she reads, that the stark difference between her expectations and reality is comical. This is Austen’s parody of Gothic tropes and it exemplifies her theme, the dangers of fantastical literature and their power of suggestion. Another Gothic convention is horror.
Instead of horror there are only mystery and suspense, the narrative precursors of horror. Henry teases Catherine on their way to Northanger Abbey, emphasizing her reading as he asks, “And are you prepared to encounter all the horrors that a building such as ‘what one reads about’ may produce?” He sarcastically continues to lead her on, drawing very well from the Gothic tropes that he knows Catherine is fond of reading, “We shall not have to explore our way into a hall dimly lighted by the expiring embers of a wood fire... gloomy passages... an apartment never used since some cousin or kin died in it... only the feeble rays of a single lamp... its walls hung with tapestry exhibiting figures as large as life, and the bed, of dark green stuff or purple velvet, presenting even a funereal appearance... Will not your heart sink within you?” Henry continues to josh Catherine and by the end of it Catherine humorously both asks him to stop and continue. “Oh! No, no -- do not say so. Well, go on.” Contradicting herself with an insatiably morbid curiosity.
In another example, fueled by her wild imagination and a thunderstorm, Catherine arrives in her room at Northanger Abbey suspecting the worst. However, all of her irrational fears are dashed by practical reasons. She anxiously inspects a chest in one corner, only to find a collection of old hats; there are frightening creaks and groans, but they are simply explained by the weather; and, after discovering papers within a cabinet that she expects to be a secretly hidden manuscript, she finds that it is merely a list of laundry and washing bills most likely left there by a maidservant.
In Northanger Abbey, there never is a horrifying reveal, but this is to the point. Instead of horrifying reveals, Austen rather creates moments of mystery and suspense that only hint at a horrifying reveal. In parody of the Gothic trope, these horrifying reveals comically fail to occur. The effect of this exemplifies Austen’s theme of how, instead of formulating rational reasonings, Catherine’s obsession with fantastical Gothic literature has made her highly susceptible to suggestion.
Gothic literature had become clichéd, and Jane Austen appropriates Gothic conventions in order to mock them. This parody then heightens the purpose and meaning of her novel, illustrating the folly of a quixotic obsession with fantastical literature that makes one susceptible to suggestion.
Some Observations on Character, Setting and Perspective
One of the novel's main themes is the unjust treatment towards the supposedly monstrous, towards someone or something that is different; in this case physically different. However, while the Monster is certainly a physically revolting abomination, he is not necessarily a moral monster or, at least, not an unreasonable monster. Indeed, the Monster’s immoral crimes and faults can be seen not necessarily as his own but are the consequence of his being so thoroughly ostracized.
Despite the Monster’s physical deformities, it is Dr. Frankenstein who proves himself the more monstrous, ill receptive and unreasonable. It is Dr. Frankenstein who cannot get past his creation's horrible, physical nature, to sympathize with or at least listen to his creation's plight. This seemingly contradictory interaction between one who is reasonable but physically repulsive, and one who is unreasonable but physically normal, helps to communicate the novel's main theme of the unjustly accused monster.
The language that Dr. Frankenstein uses about and towards his creation is consistently inflammatory: ‘wretch; too horrible for human eyes; vile insect; abhorred monster; fiend; devil; detested’. On the other hand, the Monster, attempting to create a dialogue with and appeal to Dr. Frankenstein, uses mitigating, reasoning, empathetic language: ‘thou are bound by ties; do your duty towards me; comply with my conditions; be calm; I entreat you; I will be even mild and docile; justice; clemency and affection; benevolent and good; virtuous; entreaties’.
Not just for the sake of a richer, more interesting read are Dr. Frankenstein and his Monster not simple, one-dimensional characters but, in order to further illustrate the main theme of the novel, they are also multifaceted and oxymoronic. By contrasting the Monster’s physically freakish appearance and Dr. Frankenstein’s obstinate refusal to accept him as anything but a devil, with the Monster’s fluency and sound reason, Shelley here brings home her novel’s theme of, ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’, so to speak.
One important setting is deep in the French Alps. The introductory chapter to the French Alps setting especially abounds with descriptions of the glacial mountain-scape, but even during the dialogue between Frankenstein and his creation there are ample descriptions of its awe-inspiring, fearful nature: 'the crevices in the ice; the cold gale; the temperature of the place is not fitting to your fine sensations; snowy precipices; the air was cold, and the rain again began to descend'.
There is an ironic difference between how Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster experience this setting. To Dr. Frankenstein it is hostile and uninhabitable, but to the Monster it is homely: “the desert mountains and dreary glaciers are my refuge... the caves of ice, which I only do not fear, are a dwelling to me... These bleak skies I hail...”. That the Monster can make a comfortable dwelling of what we would certainly find, and which Shelley’s language describes as, an inhospitable wasteland, exemplifies the Monster’s inhuman or otherworldly nature.
This novel is largely written from the first-person perspective of Dr. Frankenstein and, because of this, the Monster can only be described to us through Frankenstein’s particular viewpoint. Shelley’s task is to describe and illustrate the Monster’s virtue to us strictly through what he says and does to Dr. Frankenstein, since it is only through Dr. Frankenstein’s inner monologue that we come to know the Monster. Dr. Frankenstein, however, is an unreliable narrator. He is furious and hysterical, albeit not without good reason, and seems eager to sooner engage in “mortal combat” with his enemy than heed his words.
On the other hand, the convincingly persuasive and reasonable language that the Monster uses would make him seem more of a classical rhetorician than a brute beast. In light of all the Monster’s eloquence is revealed the biases and unreasonable, malicious ill will present in Dr. Frankenstein’s first-person narration. This again supports the theme, ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. If the reader had up to this point the idea of the monster as nothing but pure evil, their misconceptions might also be dispelled along with the character of Dr. Frankenstein who, as it were, concedes to the Monster’s request and follows him to the hut to listen to his story.
Also, I think that the cold settings in much of the novel serve as a metaphor for the cold, emotionally detached sterility of the scientific method.
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