Thursday, August 15, 2013

Book Review: Northanger Abbey

NORTHANGER ABBEY: The story just exists. There is no immediate conflict

Northanger Abbey is Jane Austen’s first novel to be completed. However, it is among the last ones to see the light of publication, together with Persuasion.  It follows Catherine Morland, a gothic novel enthusiast, as she visits Bath with family friends Mr. and Mrs. Allen. There, she meets new friends like the Thorpes and the Tilneys, the latter inviting her to their estate, the Northanger Abbey, which, from being a gothic novel enthusiast, she expects to be a place full of horror and mystery.

My problem with this book is its lack of immediate conflict. The story just portrays Catherine Morland’s visit to Bath, where she attends balls and meets new people. There is no clear direction in the story -- there is simply no goal to achieve. Sure, she is trying to gain the acquaintance of her love interest, Henry Tilney, but this is not a conflict at all. Aside from that, the story delves in to random adventures that don’t contribute to the overall story. The only adventure that seems to supply a legitimate plot point is when John Thorpe lied to her that the Tilney’s have already postponed their supposed walk with her. This has led to a misunderstanding between Catherine and the Tilney’s, as they have seen her with the Thorpes while they have been walking. This misunderstanding is perhaps the first legitimate conflict in the book, which happens just before the book hits the one-hundred-page mark. It is safe to assume that readers will not be thoroughly entertained when a book’s conflict takes too long to establish itself. Just as the book has been getting interesting with the misunderstanding, the conflict has been resolved as fast as it has risen -- and the book is back to having no conflict at all. If it isn’t for the plot development where Isabella Thorpe and James Morland have been engaged, I would have lost interest entirely.

The second half of the book focuses on Catherine’s visit to Northanger Abbey, which starts out interestingly. What makes it interesting is Catherine’s assumption of horrific and fantastical elements in the abbey. It adds a unique flavour to the book. However, like the misunderstanding with the Tilneys, this has been suspended early as well, as Henry Tilney dismissed her assumptions. But the story remains fairly interesting, as new plot developments have been introduced, like when James Morland has given Catherine the news that his engagement with Isabella has been broken. The real spice of this plot development is how it has been used to introduce the true nature of Isabella Thorpe. The readers are brought in to the concept of false friendships and feelings.

Personally, I find the last chapters problematic. They have been successful in introducing new conflicts, but the way they have been presented is not of my taste. The reason for this is a slight shift of the writing style. The last chapters are presented as a flat narration, wherein no dialogues have been included. They just tell the readers what has been happening. I couldn’t help but find this problematic because they seem to be a bit rushed; I think there could be room for expansion.

            Speaking of the writing style, Jane Austen’s is on the ‘more complicated’ side of the classic writers’ map. She exploits commas and dashes well. What makes her prose even harder to read is the fact that she immediately shifts in her pronouns. This is most evident when Catherine is the subject of the sentence, but the next sentence’s subject is a ‘he’. Personally, I find this a little confusing, so I search for the ‘he’ she is referring to in the earlier part of the paragraph. As a result, I couldn’t speed-read this book. However, this is just a personal matter, and does not mean that her writing style is generally confusing.

Overall, Northanger Abbey is not a book that will drive the readers forward through conflicts, but through interesting plot developments. This could be problematic for some, for the lack of conflict could bore them; but this could be gripping for others, for the interesting plot developments could put them on the edge of their seats.

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