In Northanger Abbey, Austen narrates a story of the protagonist, Catherine Moreland, in which the terror that is seen, is born out of her imagination. The novel parodies and exploits the characteristics of the Gothic throughout. This can be shown in particular through the opening scene of the novel.
The exposition of the novel immediately sets up the reader’s preconception of Northanger Abbey. When Austen opens with “No one who had ever seen Catherine in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine”, it suggests that Catherine is, or is going to become, the heroine; however, that she is an unlikely one. In this passage, Catherine is introduced as a realistic character, while contrasting that realism to her role, as the heroine of the novel. However, it is evident that Catherine transgresses the boundaries of social class and gender that inhibited the heroine we have come to acknowledge in the gothic. Leading on from the first sentence, the narrator makes the distinction between how things should be in the ideal life of a fictional heroine and how things actually are for the flawed character of Catherine. While Austen allows us to recognise that we are engaging in a novel, it also addresses itself to the readers of its time, who were accustomed to female protagonists being consistently portrayed as paragons of passivity, beauty, and domestic virtue. It is therefore of high importance for Austen to challenge such conventions of the Gothic. The narrator’s use of Catherine challenges the stereotypes of the late seventeen-hundreds. Women during this time were seen to attempt to navigate the structures of polite society, however, Catherine breaks the mould by her ‘heroic dreams’ as unlike other females in the novel, she “plays, and greatly preferred cricket not merely to dolls.” Throughout the text, the scenery is depicted through the overall atmosphere. For instance, Austen describes that “The night was stormy; the wind had been rising at intervals the whole afternoon and by the time the party broke up, it had been raining violently”, which, through the use of pathetic fallacy, demonstrates the weather as a tool to launch into the anxiety and uneasiness of the night as well as it being reflective of Catherine’s imagination gradually rising. This goes hand in hand with the gothic, as Austin appears to mock the traditional convention of the gothic genre. Towards the ending of the novel, Catherine learns that the drama of her real life is no less vivid than the worlds she reads about in her novels. For example, she becomes influenced by Gothic novels, begins thinking in Gothic ways and attempts to act like a real Gothic heroine. When she is invited to stay in Northanger Abbey, she is completely wrapped up in thoughts of mysterious and frightening stories until she has to learn that it cannot fulfil her forced up expectations. She realises that such novels are fictional and that “it had been all a voluntary, self-created delusion”, and therefore she eventually progresses from disillusionment through a nonchalant tone, towards maturity and self-knowledge in a more serious one.
In Austen’s Northanger Abbey, the narrator satirises the form and conventions of the typical Gothic novels that were popular during the era when she wrote it. It can be suggested that this novel is partly a parody of Gothic novels, whereas Austen’s story is realistic, and ironic humour comes from an attempt to examine ordinary events and people from the perspective of a “heroic” novel. Therefore, it is able to both defend and parody novels because the novel itself is an innovation in the novel form.