Gothic fiction is a genre of literature that combines both the horrific and the romantic, elements which intertwine and present the reader with a sense of escapism that is as pleasing as it is terrifying. When gothic novels first emerged in the eighteenth century, upper society looked down upon them, labeling them (just as they did novels in general) as trashy, sensationalist forms of literature, for they merely existed as a form of entertainment, while more serious types of writing (such as historical or educational literature) were seen as being much more substantial and relevant. In her 1817 novel Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen makes it quite clear that she is aware of these preconceived notions of the novel, and uses the conventions of eighteenth-century gothic literature (i.e. mysteries that need to be solved, secrets and evil-doings that need to be discovered, etc.) in order to examine society from a unique perspective. Her heroine, Catherine Morland, is a plain and undistinguished girl from a middle-class family and enjoys reading such escapist literature; when she becomes bored and disappointed with the reality of her everyday existence, she allows her imagination take over and begins to view her life as if it fit into the conventions of the gothic novels that she loves so dearly. While gothic literature use these various conventions to merely maintain the readers interest and/or progress the plot, Austen is more interested using them more for something more substantial: she uses elements of the gothic to examine how such literature effects society, both celebrating and critiquing the way it influences people and the way that they perceive the world. In Northanger Abbey, Austen presents the novel as a gothic parody in order to both examine the growth and maturation of her heroine and critique the society she lives in.
From the start, Austen takes a defensive stance against critics of the novel, claiming that they function as both a legitimate form of literature and as an escape from the oppression that women such as Catherine face in their everyday lives. Early on in the novel, the protagonist strikes up a friendship with another young woman named Isabella, and they plan to, among other things, read novels together. After this is established, Austen, as a third-person narrator, pauses the narrative and takes a moment to reflect on how such fiction is an essential part of these young ladies development, and asking if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? (Austen, 30). Since, during this time period, women were expected to be submissive creatures and were not allowed the same freedoms as men, these novels offered females an escape from their oppression and a chance to enjoy an excitement that they would rarely ever face in their everyday lives. Early in the novel, Catherine discusses her fondness for Mr. Tilney with Isabella, and bemoans how their relationship is unable to progress due to various circumstances; she then shrugs this off, claiming that while she has Udolpho to read, [she feels] as if nobody could make [her] miserable (34). While in reality her romantics pursuits are governed by social rules and expectations, through reading gothic novels she is able to escape the tedium of her society and experience the things that she desires (if only in her imagination). This oppression is further established when, while discussing these novels with John Thorpe, he insults them, claiming such literature to have no use and calling them the horridest nonsense you can imagine (43). During this time period, women were expected to remain sensible and devoid of flights of fancy, and Thorpes condemnation of novels is representative of this: he, and society, are so strong in their belief of confining women to their societal roles, that even the escape from this oppression through the reading of novels was disapproved of.
In the second half of the novel, Austen takes the conventions present in the novels discussed in the first half of the work, and uses them in her own way in order to examine the effect that such literature has had on Catherine. When Catherine and Mr. Tilney first journey to the Abbey, Tilney, who is quite aware of Catherines love of gothic literature, impresses her by describing his family home as if it were a location in one of her novels, full of secrets and mysteries for her to discover (161-164). When she discovers that this is untrue and that the Abbey is no more exciting than any other building in her world, Catherine takes it upon herself to bring excitement into her life through viewing the world as if she were in a gothic novel. For example, in one scene she discovers a mysterious cabinet in her bedroom and spends much time fantasizing about what horrible secrets it may contain; when she finally does open it, however, she finds nothing but a pile of old laundry bills (172-177). Later, Catherine invents paranoid fantasies about the death of Mrs. Tilney, thinking that General Tilney actually murdered her or is keeping her locked up in the basement (185-194). Austen writes these scenes as if they were straight out of a gothic novel, but since there is no truth behind Catherines suspicions, it becomes clear to readers that she is merely letting her imagination run away with her, and makes one realize just how unreliable her judgment is/has been throughout the novel thus far. Once Henry finds out about Catherines paranoid ideas, however, he scolds her and she is able to see the error of her ways. This marks a major turning point in the development of Catherines character, because it makes her realize that she cannot read people as if they were characters in one of her novels, and inspires her to leave her overactive imagination behind her. This propels her to start viewing things for realistically; for example, while she no longer views the General as a murderer, she is now able to realize the true reasons behind her dislike of him namely his snobbery and cruel treatment of his children.
Clearly, Austen references this gothic literature in order to emphasize Catherines development as a heroine throughout the novel and make her character arc evident to the reader. For example, during the first part of the novel, Catherine spends so much time contemplating and fantasizing about her relationships with both John Thorpe and Henry Tilney that she fails to recognize the relationship growing between Isabella and her brother. While she is an expert at reading novels, we discover that she is not as skilled at reading people, and thus remains oblivious to her Isabellas true intentions (i.e. to marry rich). She discovers this too late, however, and it is only after her experiences at Northanger Abbey that she is able to sense Isabellas manipulative nature (which is made clear in the letter that she writes to her) and see her for who she really is someone that is more interested in pursuing money than in pursuing love (222-226). This realization marks Catherines journey into adulthood; having gone through these experiences, she discovers that in the real world, things are not presented in black and white (as they are in novels she reads), and that in order to rid herself of her naivet she must start viewing the world as it is and not how she would like it to be.
In conclusion, in Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen combines her usual critique of social manners with the gothic, using conventions from both genres to examine both her protagonist and the society she lives in. Through studying the way that the characters both react to and are affected by these gothic works, Austen is able to both emphasize the importance that these fictional works have, and display the character development of her heroine with clear insight, presenting a coming-of-age story in a unique and unforgettable way.