While I’ve grown up surrounded by people who constantly said to me, “Oh, you are a girl. Oh, you enjoy reading. Oh, you must LOVE Jane Austen!” (I’m paraphrasing slightly), I never shared their sentiments. While I’ve read Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, I was never captivated by her charming, subtleties or ironic way with words.
Northanger Abbey, much in the same way of her other books, is a critique on high English society, the reliance on social connections, the importance of money, and of course, the utter pathetic helplessness of the heroine of the novel. Northanger Abbey does that, but in addition it is also a critique of the rise of the gothic novel, which was “all the rage” at the peak of Austen’s writing career. With such titles as The Mysteries of Udolpho by Anne Radcliffe and others; people were beginning to see ghosts in every corner. In Northanger Abbey, Austen ridicules the unrealistic aspect of the gothic novel: prime, unsolved mysteries or supernatural occurrences that only the heroine has the courage and intelligence to solve.
However, it is ridiculous to suppose that a girl of seventeen can stumble onto a mystery and through sheer luck and audacity solve what has riddled people for hundreds of years. Austen obviously agrees, as the main character Caroline finds herself in more than one embarrassing situation after another because of her quickly-raised ideas of mystery and horror. In this way, she learns that the books she reads are not always accurate, nor are they to be taken literally.
Northanger Abbey focuses, too, on the growth of Catherine herself as she grows up, emotionally and socially, in the frame of little under 4 months. Under the care of her wealthy neighbors, the Allens, and then under that of the Tilney’s, Catherine learns that one cannot always take at face value the opinions or sayings of others. Thus, she learns to understand irony, duplicity, and lying, achieving a much more worldly understanding of human nature than she had at the beginning of the novel.
Northanger Abbey, in a way, is a novel about learning to read and differentiate between truth and lie. We, as unbiased readers, take the novel at face value, but as we progress through its pages we learn less and less to trust the opinion of Catherine (as we see her to be insanely naive and ignorant of others’ motives) and to rely on what we can understand for ourselves. The more we as readers know about human nature, the better we can understand the true motives of those that Catherine finds herself engaged with. She learns that her novels are altogether ridiculously fictitious through her own failed attempts at detective work; her woes at the hands of Isabelle and her brother reveal to her that there are people who are false and crooked in their ways (also by Henry’s instructions into how to discern truth from irony) and finally, we as readers, as we experience these changes with Catherine are alerted to our own follies and misguided, naive attempts, and not only can we sympathize with Catherine, we are alerted to our own memories of growing up, of falling in love, of betrayal, and more.