Persuasions #7, 1985 Pages 82-88
Global and Contextual Humor in Northanger Abbey
I’m taking a terrible risk talking to you today about humor. It’s a risk because there’s no universal formula for humor. What’s funny to one person may not be funny to another.
Humor is a very private thing. It is so private that sometimes we should keep it to ourselves. So private a thing is humor that it is apt to tell us a great deal about an individual.
The understanding of literature is as personal and private a thing as one’s reaction to a comic situation. Let me borrow from Louise Rosenblatt’s The Reader, the Text, the Poem to explain what I mean: “The reader’s attention to the text,” writes Rosenblatt, “activates certain elements in his past experience … that have become linked with the verbal symbols. Meaning will emerge from a network of relationships among the things symbolized as he senses them ….” Rosenblatt concludes, “built into the raw material of the literary process itself is the particular world of the reader” (p. 11). In other words, Northanger Abbey means for me what my past experiences on this planet permit it to mean.
My past experience with humor and my past experiences with presentations on humor have some bearing on how confidently I approach my task today. If Thorpe had understood the nature of humor in the novel he stomps through, he might, indeed, have brought to Catherine and a century and three-quarters of Jane Austen readers “universal pleasure.” After weeks of reading and re-reading, writing and re-writing, thinking and re-thinking, my only hope now is that, as I discuss Northanger Abbey, you will see that I have, in fact, read the same novel you have read and that we are able, as a result, to share pleasurable recollections of several of its most memorable and “humorous” passages.
Let’s agree, first, on a working delineation of what we might call humor. Let’s use the term in its loosest sense as we apply it to Northanger Abbey to refer to anything that results in a chuckle, a grin or a belly laugh. Let’s agree, at least so we have a starting place, that humor results in an emotion variously named amusement, amused pleasure, fun, merriment, or joviality. I would argue elsewhere, assuming I had time, that a person hoping to achieve humor wants a combination of two or more of the following: “observation, discernment, judgment, fire, genius, and wit” (p. 95). But in the absence of time enough for a truly risky definition of humor, let us agree upon the obvious: that humor is popular among most people, that some people behave in awful ways to be considered humorous, that many people are humorous without even knowing it, and that we learn a great deal about people by noting what they consider to be humorous and to what extremes they will go in an attempt to create humor, understanding all along that two people might not find the same scene funny.
The pressing question, of course, is how does all this relate to Northanger Abbey? Let’s argue that humor works not in one but in several ways in Northanger Abbey: one way global in its reference outside the story, the other way contextual and inherent in the characters, their interactions, their dialogue and most importantly in their judgments about each other. In fact, we might argue that these two views of humor though they may at times complement each other may at other times be mutually exclusive. Critics have long argued that “the chapters devoted mainly to literary burlesque and parody form detachable units, and the other references to Gothic fiction and Catherine’s role as a ‘heroine’ could easily have been inserted into the original story of Catherine’s entrance into the world” (Litz 59). But whether the subplot was added later or not, the two kinds of humor reinforce the same general notions we hold to be true about the story’s characters and their actions.
Global humor arises from Jane’s well-known burlesque of Gothic novelists of the time, as in the following passage where Catherine and Henry discuss Gothic literature.
“I never look at it,” said Catherine, as they walked along the side of the river, “without ever thinking of the south of France.”
“You have been abroad then?” said Henry, a little surprised.
“Oh, no, I only mean what I have read about it. It always puts me in mind of the country that Emily and her father travelled through in the ‘Mysteries of Udolpho.’” (pp. 89-90)
Catherine here in some ways warns us of characters to come, including Huysman’s character in Against the Grain who sat by the sea, entirely intoxicated, and so intensely imagined a trip to England, that he left for home a short while later convinced he had traveled for a several week’s vacation. One of the best-known effects of this passage and Catherine’s naive but charming admission of her limited real-world experience is played upon by Henry as they journey later in the novel to Northanger.
He smiled, and said, “You have formed a favourable idea of the abbey.”
“To be sure I have. Is it not a fine old place, just like what one reads about?”
These lines come to create for us a characterization of Catherine as an inexperienced, and completely vulnerable, young lady at this early point in the novel. She is easily manipulated as the following scenes show.
Henry continues, “And are you prepared to encounter all the horrors that a building such as ‘what one reads about’ may produce?” And Henry, in the best fashion of burlesque, speaks for Jane Austen a catalogue of experiences that “could” happen at night in Northanger Abbey, experiences so stock at the time that they formed, in effect, a recipe for Gothic literature. And this experience of global humor in Northanger Abbey arises when, as readers who have become familiar with Gothic novels in the Radcliffe tradition, we feel some pleasure in recognizing Jane’s satirical treatment of that tradition.
But there is more going on than simple burlesque and global humor. While it is abundantly clear that Catherine’s misapprehension, her search for proof that the abbey is a place where terrifying secrets are hidden, is a vehicle for burlesque, this novel benefits from a second kind of humor. While global humor points outside the text for its success, what I will call contextual humor points back into the novel, at actions and dialogues as well as the judgments of those we come to trust in the novel. I would like here to discuss one aspect of contextual humor, that arising from judgments made about characters in the novel by those we come to trust and whose observations we read as though they are truth.
Of all the novel’s characters, there are but two who make judgments we find to be both humorous and believable: the narrator, on the one hand, and Henry Tilney, on the other. The narrator generates humor by treating satirically those characters who Catherine does not understand. And such satire continues until such a time when Catherine has grown enough to understand these characters and the irony present in the world. Soon after she recognizes her own folly in the wild search for something to fear in the abbey, Catherine is able to laugh at herself, mature as a character, and replace by means of her own understanding of the world what the narrator provided her earlier in the novel. Henry helps in the development of those characters he favors – most notably, Catherine – by teaching them that they can laugh at themselves. We can assume that the author prefers those Henry treats with loving sarcasm, better than those the narrator makes laughable in the reader’s eyes.
In any event, let me remind you now of some of the best and most humorous parts of Northanger Abbey so you can nod and smile in recognition, and whisper to each other, “Yes, he did read the same novel I read.” And, once I reach exhaustion – which I feel is near – I hope you will share with me your observations about the way other characters in the novel develop in our minds through humorous passages they enter and create.
One of the truths we must accept about the narrator of Northanger Abbey is one Wayne C. Booth encouraged in his reading of Emma: that is, the narrator mediates between Jane Austen and the reader. As a result, we would be mistaken to assume that Jane holds all the values and attitudes implied by her narrator’s judgments. Rather, Jane’s narrator functions in the novel as a kind of consciousness or awareness Catherine does not possess. In short, the narrator serves in two roles in generating humor. In one, she demonstrates Catherine’s lack of self-knowledge by ridiculing Catherine early in the story. In the other, the narrator points out what Catherine cannot see or will not acknowledge about various characters in the first half of the novel until such a time when Catherine has matured in her judgments about others.
The narrator’s persistent ridicule of Catherine in the novel’s opening pages has several effects. First, it introduces the narrator as a character in the novel. In this role, the narrator makes judgments we come to trust as we might an accurate observer and interpreter of the events that unfold. Second, the narrator’s satiric treatment of Catherine as an underdeveloped heroine evokes from the reader laughter as well as sympathetic attachment to Catherine. And, third, the narrator’s presence serves as a constant reminder to the reader that this is, after all, just a story and is, like all stories, meant to be fun.
Fun in Northanger Abbey or what we call humor is most effectively created when the narrator develops, albeit implicitly, a standard by which heroic behavior might be measured. The narrator makes certain Catherine falls short of that standard and, in her failure, Catherine becomes the object of our chuckles, grins, and occasional belly laughs.
For example, we find out through the narrator that Catherine “had a thin awkward figure, sallow skin without color, dark lank hair, and strong features – so much for her person; and not less unpropitious for heroism seemed her mind.” This brings to my memory a college football coach who has been attributed as having said: “That Bizzaro isn’t very fast, but he isn’t very strong either.” My sympathy – the sympathy of those of us who have silently suffered what we politely call “the human condition” – goes to Catherine. After all, as the narrator states clearly in the novel’s first sentence, “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.”
But, even as we read these lines, we know Catherine will be a heroine. Even if at times we laugh at her equipment – “she never could learn or understand anything before she was taught; and sometimes not even then, for she was often inattentive, and occasionally stupid” – the equipment of a perfectly average human being, we know she will be a heroine. Let’s face it, after the narrator’s biting treatment of Catherine’s personal attributes, her departure and trip to Bath, we suspect we will face 200 or so blank pages. Still, we know Catherine will be a heroine. Why? Because the narrator, who we have come to trust the way we might an airline pilot, the way we might the airline pilot who has had a drink or two, tells us so: “when a young lady is to be a heroine, the perverseness of forty surrounding families cannot prevent her.”
Part of the reason we respond as we do to Catherine is because, by allowing the narrator to portray her as she does, Jane Austen echoes in Catherine some of the traits of characters from Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads. The humor in the passages arises from the violation of what we and the narrator expect to find in a heroine – and here global and contextual humor merge. What we do get is the description of a rather common person, one who is at the novel’s start basically indiscriminant because by her nature she is too sweet, too easily distracted, or just too naive to understand and respond appropriately to herself and to those around her. And the primary function of the narrator early in the novel is to discriminate where Catherine cannot or will not and to do so in a way that forces a reader to accept – and love – this fallible character, the young Catherine.
If we had time enough, it might be fun to explore the possibility that humor, early in the novel, arises from the satiric treatment of the idea that a common person could become a heroine. Imagine for an instant Wordsworth’s Idiot Boy – who is “but half-wise,” who mounts a horse which “for his life cannot tell / What he has got upon his back” – in the role of Knightley, Bingley, or Tilney. Rather than paying homage to the Romantic milieu around her, Jane satirizes the principles espoused by others of her time. Catherine does not become suitable as a heroine until she does, in fact, become less the Idiot Girl in her responses to those around her. But what an idiot she is, at first, made out to be.
Though Catherine is the one who interacts with Thorpe, it is the narrator who responds appropriately to him. We know well before Catherine does that Thorpe is more than a bit of a fool. How do we know? The narrator tells us so, immediately upon Thorpe’s entrance into the novel. The narrator intrudes by telling us that Thorpe
… was a stout young man of middling height, who, with a plain face and ungrateful form, seemed fearful of being too handsome unless he wore the dress of a groom, and too much like a gentleman unless he were easy where he ought to be civil, and impudent where he might be allowed to be easy. (p. 36)
This effect on the pure Catherine seems to go unnoticed as Thorpe talks first of his horse, the best horse in the history of travel.
“Such true blood! Three hours and a half indeed coming only three and twenty miles! Look at the creature, and suppose it possible if you can.”
“He does look very hot, to be sure.”
True, Catherine, but not what Thorpe wants to hear: “Hot! He had not turned a hair till we came to Walcot Church ….”
And, again, in chronicling his shrewd purchase of his carriage – the best carriage in the history of travel – Thorpe victimizes the young Catherine who is too senseless to know she is a victim:
“He asked fifty guineas; I closed with him directly, threw down the money, and the carriage was mine.”
“And I am sure,” said Catherine, “I know so little of such things that I cannot judge whether it was cheap or dear.”
Again, not the correct answer, but the honest answer one would expect from the pure-at-heart, the person not yet corrupted by the world around her.
Catherine has at first no idea Thorpe is a fool. She has, after all, little prior experience, let alone experience with fools. Only her intuitions tell her correctly how to feel towards Thorpe, though she cannot respond intuitively until later in the novel where, for instance, she has rightly sized up General Tilney but has attributed to him the wrong crime. Still, only after Thorpe in seeing his mother for the first time during his visit to Bath rudely asks “Where did you get that quiz of a hat? It makes you look like an old witch,” do we find out – and this through the narrator, not through Catherine herself – that “These manners did not please Catherine.”
But she is powerless to respond to Thorpe appropriately, and when the narrator tells us why, we find humor in Catherine’s lack of strength and identity: “ … he was James’s friend and Isabella’s brother; and (Catherine’s) judgment was further bought off by Isabella’s assuring her … that John thought her the most charming girl in the world.” Of course. And who could find fault with anyone who comes so highly recommended?
Add to this weakness on her part her brother’s influence. Though she would like to tell James that she finds Thorpe a less-than-desirable companion, she ends up saying “I like him very much; he seems very agreeable.” And James adds to the confusion that comes to characterize Catherine: “He is as good-natured a fellow as ever lived; a little of a rattle; but that will recommend him to your sex, I believe ….” And what must James think of Catherine’s sex?
Still we have the narrator to lean on when we need an accurate and truthful evaluation. Gradually, and this is one of the points of the novel, Catherine comes to understand her intuitions, makes judgments like the narrator’s, and becomes better suited to her role as heroine.
The contextual humor found in many of Henry Tilney’s observations and judgments present a very different technical problem for Jane Austen. Critics have pointed out that “Jane Austen never seems quite sure of her relationship to Henry Tilney. She frequently allows him to usurp her authority, to voice her judgments and wield her irony, and the result is considerable ambiguity concerning her attitude toward the novel’s ‘hero’” (Litz 59). Henry does, however, possess sophistication and world-awareness comparable to that possessed in the novel by only one other, the narrator. Henry holds an ironic and often biting orientation to the word as does the narrator, and is masterful in pointing out the most comic in the personalities of those around him. He is, in short, a great teacher for Catherine of those values we can assume by the novel’s outcome to be Jane’s values as well.
On the other hand, Henry’s gentle sarcasm is intended to show those he loves and Jane Austen approves of – most notably Catherine – how to laugh at themselves whereas the narrator’s biting sarcasm is used to disapprove of the conceit of characters such as Thorpe, Mrs. Allen, and Mrs. Thorpe, and of course to disapprove of many of the personality traits of the early Catherine.
How does Henry teach Catherine and, thus, contribute to her growth into the role of suitable heroine? Henry’s humorous interactions with Catherine are, first of all, understandable to Catherine and, second of all, intended to show her the subtle ironies of human behavior and of the world that surrounds her. The narrator, by contrast, would observe that “To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others” and that “imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms” and conclude that “Catherine did not know her own advantages – did not know that a good-looking girl, with an affectionate heart and a very ignorant mind, cannot fail of attracting a clever young man” (p. 94). These observations point toward an orientation to the world that results in surprise in the unsuspecting “clever young man.”
Henry is more shrewd than the “clever young man” to whom the narrator alludes. We come to see Henry as a wise teacher of human nature because he presents himself as a teacher, assured in his knowledge and ability to affect others. “As far as I have had opportunity of judging,” says Henry, “it appears to me that the usual style of letter-writing among women is faultless, except in three particulars.”
Note that Henry speaks here of three particulars, not two or five or almost four. Henry’s certainty in all matters pertaining to his observations is a uniquely endearing quality both for the reader and for Catherine. I nearly fall in love with him myself when he tells Catherine about her journal. Catherine innocently protects herself: “… perhaps, I keep no journal,” she says. To which Henry, in absolute certainty, in the certainty of a man who has been successfully certain in the past, says: “Perhaps you are not sitting in this room, and I am not sitting by you. These are points in which a doubt is equally possible. Not keep a journal! How are your absent cousins to understand the tenour of your life in Bath without one?” (p. 20). Henry has even convinced me to keep a secret record of my experiences in Savannah, so certain is he that those frail by nature need such a record.
And what of other of his observations? “I consider a country-dance as an emblem of marriage,” says Henry (p. 64). And, in defiance of what seems logical, he convinces us: “Fidelity and complaisance are the principle duties of both.” And he argues this seemingly preposterous position so patiently and confidently I find myself echoing Catherine when she says, “ … indeed, I never thought of that.”
Humor arises in Henry’s judgments most often disguised as serious insight into the human condition. Of course, Henry can plant by suggestion fears in Catherine about Northanger Abbey. Of course, he can manipulate the naive and inexperienced. But to what end? To help her better understand herself, to help her learn to laugh at and thus overcome her frailties.
Catherine says to Henry, “I do not understand you.” Henry responds: “Then we are on very unequal terms, for I understand you perfectly well” (p. 110).
Let us consider together, then, what we understand perfectly well about humor in Northanger Abbey so that we may learn now from each other.
The above is a truncated, version of Professor Bizarro’s speech which inspired the audience into vigorous and active participation in the following questions.
1. What do you consider to be the central purpose of Jane Austen’s use of humor in the novel?
2. What are your responses to the notion that one aspect of global humor in the novel comes from Jane Austen’s response to the Romantic milieu surrounding her?
3. Do you agree that the narrator satirizes the young Catherine to satirize as well the notion that poetry and/or fiction can be about and in the language of the common man?
4. We have not yet discussed other instances of contextual humor, specifically Mrs. Morland during the scene in which Catherine leaves for Bath, Mrs. Allen and her vanity and inappropriate responses, Mrs. Thorpe in her relative blindness to what seems obvious around her. Could we discuss the ways in which Jane Austen manipulates these minor characters in the novel?
5. What is humor in this novel? Does it differ from humor in other works of the period? In other works of the genre? What dictates the kind of humor used by a writer?
6. Is there a kind of humor idiosyncratic to Jane Austen? If so, can you describe it by referring to Northanger Abbey?