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Sympathetic Imagination In Northanger Abbey Essay

3097 words - 12 pages

Sympathetic Imagination in Northanger Abbey

Critics as well as the characters in the novel Northanger Abbey have noticed Catherine Morland's artlessness, and commented upon it. In this essay I have chosen to utilise the names given to Catherine's unworldliness by A. Walton Litz in Jane Austen: a Study of her Artistic Development,[1] and Christopher Gillie in A Preface to Jane Austen.[2] Litz refers to "what the eighteenth century would have called the sympathetic imagination, that faculty which promotes benevolence and generosity" (Litz, p. 67). Gillie calls this same quality "candour", and states the importance of it to Jane Austen herself, gleaning a definition of it from one of Austen's own prayers:

Incline us, oh God! to think humbly of ourselves, to be severe only in the examination of our own conduct, to consider our fellow-creatures with kindness, and to judge of all they say and do with that charity which we would desire from them ourselves (cited in Gillie, p. 22).

Both critics recognise that Catherine's possession of this quality is problematic; it is desirable, but it must also be regulated if a heroine is not to be frequently duped by the harsh world. Both Gillie and Litz also acknowledge that an investigation of this enigma is at the heart of all Jane Austen's work.

I believe that the exploration of this fundamental conundrum is at the core of Northanger Abbey, and that this should be so dismisses the claims of those who believe that the lessons Catherine learns in the Gothic section of the novel are thematically most important.[3] I maintain that Northanger Abbey is not merely a curiosity, a burlesque of the Gothic style, a remnant which looks back to the parodic style of much of the juvenilia. Rather it is the herald of a new phase in Jane Austen's development of the theme of the heroine's transition from girlhood to womanhood because it is in Northanger Abbey that the theme that is perennially associated with Jane Austen--the importance of the education of judgment--becomes pre-eminent.

This article will first define the term candour as it would have been understood at the time Jane Austen was writing. I will then explore key words arising from this definition which illustrate the importance of the idea of candour as a thematic concern in Northanger Abbey. Finally I will consider Jane Austen's equivocal attitude to the quality of candour as it is evidenced in Northanger Abbey, with the intention of being able to judge whether or not by the end of the novel Austen regards candour as a good or bad quality with which to be endowed. Catherine Morland's candour gains her the friendship of Henry and Eleanor Tilney, and ultimately causes her to win Henry's heart, but candour also allows Catherine to be manipulated by Henry and raises queries about Henry's position as the hero of the novel.

The OED lists five possible definitions for candour, three of which could legitimately be applied to the quality...

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