In her critical analysis, “From Involuntary Object to Voluntary Spy: Female Agency, Novels, and the Marketplace in Northanger Abbey,” Susan Zlotnick states, “Catherine’s novel reading endows her with a genuine sense of agency, one that offers a better prospect for increasing her self-determination”(Zlotnick 288). Zlotnick sites the scene in which Catherine uncovers the hidden water bill in the chest as the chief example of Catherine being a very active detective whose Gothic novel-influenced imagination leads her to “uncover terrible family secrets”(Zlotnick 289) and formulate questions about her surroundings. While novels do act as the catalyst for Catherine’s actions in this scene, I argue her motives are foolish and misguided, reflecting satire of Gothic plots much more than female agency.
A stormy night in the comfort of her room is greatly exaggerated and embellished. Austen uses Catherine’s action, demeanor, and emotion to mimic and satirize the tropes of Gothic novels. Upon discovering the black cabinet she seizes its key with a “tremulous hand,” sets her candle with “great caution,” and, finding the door immovable, pauses “in breathless wonder”(Austen 139). Finally she opens and finds a “mysterious manuscript:” “her heart fluttered, her knees trembled, and her cheeks grew pale”(Austen 140). When her candle inexplicably snuffs in awful effect, Catherine is “motionless with horror,” then “tremble[s] from head to foot”(Austen 140). Austen establishes Catherine as a female who outwardly projects her emotions—she is “open, candid, artless, guileless, with affections strong but simple, forming no pretensions, and knowing no disguise”(Austen 171)—and exploits this trait in playing up Catherine’s emotions, prompting her along a foolish quest. The esoteric melodrama is disguised as surface-level suspense.
To be sure, as Zlotnick argues, Catherine is taking action in the scene, but falsely interprets her surroundings from preconceived ideas of manufactured, clichéd Gothic stories and operates purely from the emotions that arise. The stormy night prompts her to listen to “the tempest with sensations of awe”(Austen 138) and feel, “for the first time that she was really in an Abby”(Austen138). Later the narrator explicitly states she is “well read in the art of concealing a treasure”(Austen 140), whole-heartedly believing herself to be a detective. Her view and understanding of the Abby is derived purely from the Gothic novel. Though she has been in the Abbey for many hours, it is only when the night turns dark and stormy that she connects with the setting.
The Gothic parody leads the chapter to a contrived end as Catherine tosses, sleeplessly through the night, and reaches comic proportions when she learns the mysterious manuscript is only a sheaf of laundry receipts. Catherine is made a fool as the pawn in a plot to satirize Gothic novels. The narrator remarks, “nothing could now be clearer than the absurdity of her recent fancies”(Austen 143), commenting not only Catherine’s actions, but also the stories that fueled them.
Novels cannot be the sole influence of actions, and, to this point in the story, Catherine has used her extensive reading as the primary lens of which to view her world. Ignorance cannot lead to agency—Austen implies as much. While female agency, as Zlotnick suggests, is certainly important, Austen is not so much concerned with using her heroine for a feminist agenda as she is for Gothic satire.
Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. 2002 Modern Library Paperback Edition ed. New York: Modern Library, 2002. Print.
Zlotnick, Susan. “From Involuntary Object to Voluntary Spy: Female Agency, Novels, and the Marketplace in “Northanger Abbey”” Study in the Novel 41.3 (2009): 277-92. 2009.