Since Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen is a comedic satire, it relies on irony. Irony is the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, usually for humorous or emphatic effect. Although Austen uses irony in all of her characters in this novel, Catherine Morland is seen as one of the most ironic characters. Irony is used to portray Catherine as the unheroic heroine, the comedic figure, and the distorter of reality through Gothic fiction.
First of all, from the beginning, Austen portrays Catherine as the unheroic heroine through irony. In the first sentence of the novel, Austen says that, “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine.” (I.i). Austen describes Catherine to not be the ravishing heroine from Gothic novels, but an ordinary and rather pleasing girl who faces society for the first time. When Catherine is described at the beginning of the novel, Austen suggests that she is an unlikely gothic heroine:
She had a thin awkward figure, a sallow skin without colour, dark lank hair, and strong features; - so much for her person; - and not less unpropitious for heroism seemed her mind. She was fond of all boys’ plays, and greatly preferred cricket not merely to dolls, but to the more heroic enjoyments of infancy, nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush. Indeed she had no taste for the garden; and if she gathered flowers at all, it was chiefly for the pleasure of mischief – at least so it was conjectured from her always preferring those which she was forbidden to take (I.i).
Austen portrays Catherine as an ordinary girl, which is the opposite to the portrayal of heroines in Gxothic novels. The first chapter continues to tell the reader that she is not prodigiously clever as a child, not strikingly pretty as an adolescent; not at all wicked, but not very well behaved either. However, at the start of the second chapter the reader is offered a positive description of Catherine by the narrator who is surprised that such an unheroic heroine is possible. The narrator describes these circumstances as ‘extraordinary’ and ‘remarkable’, which is used to extend the use of irony where it is intended that the reader take the terms opposite to their literal meanings. What is ‘extraordinary’ and ‘remarkable’ is in fact ordinary in “common life” (I. ii). The irony is subject to the reader’s recognition of the gap between the world that is represented in novels and what is seen as ‘common life’ in that world.
Second of all, Austen uses Catherine as a comedic figure to poke fun at Gothic novels and the heroines within the novels through irony. Since Austen expresses her portrayal of Catherine as ironic, Catherine is, unlike the heroines of Gothic novels, realistically portrayed as deficient in experience and perception. Catherine, in failing to recognize the developing relationship between her brother, James, and her friend, Isabella,...