Gothic Style as a Representation of Women’s Fear and Anxieties in Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Bronte’s Jane Eyre

March 4, 2021 by Essay Writer

In both Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the authors use the gothic style to represent fears or anxieties their female protagonists’ lives. Both Jane Eyre and Catherine Morland suffer from gothic delusions when they are frightened or anxious about something (although, for Jane, the delusions are sometimes real). From ghosts in the Red Room to tyrannical murderers in the Abbey, Catherine and Jane’s imaginations, accentuated by their heightened fear, these gothic scenes are holistic representations of the mental state of each of these women. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine intentionally seeks out the gothic elements in her life. She imagines on her way to Bath that their carriage will be attacked, and is actually disappointed when they arrive without incident. Once they arrive in Bath, Isabella fuels Catherine’s over-active imagination by giving her gothic novels. Catherine is seeking out a gothic narrative in her life, not because of her fear or anxiety, but rather because she yearns for adventure and excitement. Catherine is able to use her imagination to twist everyday commonplace events into completely over-exaggerated gothic scenes (Glock 35). Catherine says, “Oh! I am delighted with the book [Udolpho]! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it! I assure you, if it had not been to meet you [her friend Isabella Thorpe], I would not have come away from it for all the world” (Miller 131). Catherine’s speech here is very similar to Isabella’s usual way of speaking, which is very over the top. She hyperbolizes her emotions, saying she would like to spend her “whole life” reading Udolpho and that she would not have stopped reading it for “all the world” except to see her friend. Catherine’s exaggerated speech is typical of gothic heroes or heroines of the time. This shows the influence Isabella has on Catherine, but also Catherine’s deep desire to be the heroine of a gothic romance herself. Her wish to never come away from her gothic novel foreshadows later events where her imagination leads her to suspect her life actually becoming the plot of a gothic novel (Miller 131). Jane Eyre differs from Catherine in that she does not specifically search out the gothic elements in her life. Rather, she is more concerned with social relationships (Gribble 283). Jane’s life, however, is actually full of real gothic scenes. When Bronte first introduces the reader to Jane at Gateshead, she is sitting alone in the window seat of a small breakfast room by the cold, wet window. In contrast, her aunt and cousins are sitting in the other room together by a nice, hot fire. There is a curtain dividing the two rooms, signifying the divide between Jane and her “family”. This is a very bleak and depressing scene because Jane is in complete social isolation, disgraced and alienated by the very people who are supposed to be taking care of her. She says she felt “humbled by the consciousness of [her] physical inferiority to Eliza, John and Georgiana Reed” (Gribble 283) Her exclusion as a child affects how she views herself later in her life, especially in her relationships with others. It is is one of the main reasons for her deep desire to belong. Mr. Rochester says to Jane “I saw you had a social heart” (Gribble 283). Feeling lonely and out of place is one of the main sources of fear anxiety for Jane Eyre. Much of Northanger Abbey is about a young lady’s entry into the world. The scenes at Northanger Abbey, however, are in contrast with the rest of the novel (Glock 34). By the time Catherine has arrived at Northanger Abbey, her imagination is filled with the gothic fiction she is reading (Miller 132). At certain times while Catherine is at Northanger Abbey, the novel itself seems to turn towards the gothic style. Since the story is told from Catherine’s point of view, and her view of reality as been clouded through her reading of gothic novels, the reader’s experience is also clouded. For example. during Catherine’s first night at Northanger Abbey, there is a thunderstorm and Catherine is alone in her room. She spots a sealed trunk that she had not noticed before and with some difficulty, manages to open it. Inside she finds some old papers with writing on them. Before she can read them, however, the wind blows her candle out, and Catherine, scared half-to-death, runs for her bed. In the morning when she reads the mysterious letters, they turn out to be only laundry lists. This scene, although exciting for Catherine, is also quite frightening. Austen is warning against the unfettered exercise of a gothic imagination, because it causes unnecessary fear, and in certain situations, it can have more lasting consequences (Miller 135). One of the most strikingly gothic scenes in Jane Eyre is when Jane is in the Red Room. Jane has been sent there as punishment. It is the room that her uncle died in and she associates it with death. She catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror and sees “glittering eyes of fear” (Gribble 284). Poor Jane is terrified. For her, this ‘punishment’ is really more like child-cruelty which adds another gothic layer to the scene. Catherine’s imagination is fueled by her terror of being in the room where her uncle died and her anxieties over what will happen to her now that he is gone and she is left with people who do not like her. Therefore, when she sees a light in the room, on a night when there is no moon, her young mind, “prepared for horror”, thinks that it is a ghost (Gribble 286). In retrospect, Jane realizes it was probably only someone walking by the window with a lantern casting a light on the wall, but because of her over-developed anxiety, she interpreted this moment as something more sinister. This scene is a lot like the one in Northanger Abbey when Catherine discovers the papers in the trunk. Both girls are terrified over nothing, and think themselves quite silly once they realize this. Catherine’s willful imagination, unwisely fed on a diet of gothic novels, persuades her that gothic terror actually exists in her life and the lives around her (Glock 46). Henry Tilney plays upon Catherine’s “raised, restless and frightened imagination” by describing all the horrors that a building such as “what one reads about may produce” (Glock 40). Catherine’s active imagination reaches a dangerous peak in the gothic setting of Northanger Abbey, fueled by Henry, her gothic romance books, and her anxieties about being far from home and surrounded by people she does not know well. The novel reaches its climax as Catherine begins to suspect General Tilney of murdering his wife. Catherine becomes so convinced of this that she takes it upon herself to sneak into Mrs. Tilney’s old room, even though she is aware that the General does not like people going in there. While she is investigating the room, Henry catches her and demands to know what is going on. Catherine shamefully confesses her suspicions, realizing her delusions were voluntary and self-centered (Glock 39). “The visions of romance were over. Catherine was completely awakened. Henry’s address, short as it had been, had more thoroughly opened her eyes to the extravagance of her late fancies than all their several disappointments had done. Most grievously was she humbled. Most bitterly did she cry” (Miller 132). At Thornfield, Jane experiences several gothic-inspired events as well. On Jane’s very first day, as she is exploring Thornfield Hall, she describes the place in a sinister light by using words like narrow, low, dim, with little windows and closed doors, like Bluebeard’s Castle. While she is thinking this, she hears an intrusive noise, a laugh that she describes as mirthless and formal (Gribble 285). This laugh presumably comes from Bertha, whom some scholars believe is Jane’s alter-ego. There are various haunting, gothic scenes at Thornwood involving Bertha, like when Jane finds Mr. Rochester’s bed on fire with him still sleeping in it, when Bertha rips Jane’s wedding veil in half after trying it on in the mirror, and also the simple laughs and other sounds Jane hears while walking near Bertha’s room. It is as if Bertha is responding to Jane’s fears and anxieties, because Jane cannot respond to them herself. Jane is anxious about her wedding, knowing it will be an uneven match, and Bertha tears up her wedding dress. Mr. Rochester talks about topics that are inappropriate for Jane to hear and that night, Bertha sets his bed on fire. When Mr. Rochester tries to marry Jane while Bertha is still alive, she sets fire to the house, maiming Mr. Rochester and dying in the process. Unlike Catherine in Northanger Abbey, these events are not figments of Jane’s imagination, but they are very real. The gothic events still are fueled by Jane’s fears and anxieties. When Jane is uneasy about something, the scene has a more gothic feeling to it. The difference between Jane and Catherine is that Catherine only imagines her life as being gothic, while Jane’s life actually does embody gothic elements. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine, trying to be a romantic heroine, learns that 19th Century fantastic cruelty and extravagance only exists in gothic novels (Glock 37). She realizes that evil does exist, but it is more often than not a calculating and low-spirited evil designed for such un-exalted purposes as financial gain (Glock 37). Henry, upon realizing Catherine’s suspicions, exclaims, “Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities?” (Glock 42). Catherine is mistaken in the ways in which evil is manifest, but not in the fact that is IS manifest (Glock 43). “Such violence and insecurity can indeed arise, even in tranquil and law-abiding England, from the unrestrained fantasies of one’s own mind and the terrors of the sub-consciousness” (Glock 42). Catherine is a modern, real heroine because she suffers inwardly (Glock 37). The gothic adventures at Northanger Abbey emphasize the fact that Catherine cannot find happiness in fantasy. She only finds it once she accepts general ordinariness (Glock 38). Once Catherine realizes her foolishness, her true self comes through in the novel, unclouded by fantasy. It is ironic that once Catherine realizes her life is not a gothic romance that the real gothic elements start to emerge. General Tilney forces Catherine to return home on her own without warning straight away. This goes against Henry’s claim that nothing gothic happens in England. During her ride home, Catherine is very anxious about her life. She is mortified about what she assumes is the reason she has been sent home, her belief that General Tilney has committed murder. She is scared about leaving so suddenly and her separation from the man she loves. All of these elements add up to make a truly Gothic scene. In Jane Eyre, after John’s proposal of marriage, Jane’s anxieties return. She still loves Mr. Rochester and does not want to enter into a passionless marriage with John (Gribble 287). In an eerily gothic scene, Jane believes she hears Mr. Rochester calling to her. She hears him calling multiple times and eventually, she leaves to find him. When Jane and Mr. Rochester are united, the tone of the novel changes completely. Jane is no longer anxious or fearful. She and Mr. Rochester are free to marry and they become more equal because of his deformities. When Jane is really happy, her surroundings feel lighter and more cheerful as well. When Jane is in the garden with Mr. Rochester, her naturalistic surroundings are almost Eden-like (Gribble 291). In this sense, Jane’s emotions resemble Pathetic Fallacy, only instead of the weather changing, the shift is in the setting itself. When Jane is frightened or anxious, the scene is more gothic, and when she is happy and contented, the scene is lighter as well.Overall, the fears and anxieties of both Jane Eyre and Catherine Morland manifest themselves through gothic elements in their lives. For Catherine, the gothic events in her life are often false, although they feel very real to her, displaying her heightened sense of anxiety. In Jane’s life, however, most of the gothic events are real as her anxieties intensify, the scale and intensity of the gothic events also increases. Works Cited:Glock, Waldo S. “Catherine Morland’s Gothic Delusions: A Defense of “Northanger Abbey”.” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 32.1 (1978): 33-46. Web. 18 Nov 2010. .Gribble, Jennifer. “Jane Eyre’s Imagination.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 33.3 (1968): 279-293. Web. 18 Nov 2010. . Miller, Kathleen Ann. “Haunted Heroines: The Gothic Imagination and the Female Bildungsromane of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and L. M. Montgomery.” The Lion and the Unicorn 34.2 (2010): 125-147. Project MUSE. 18 Nov 2010. .

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