Jane Austen's intelligence and sophisticated diction made her a revolutionary author, and her mastery surpasses most modern authors. By challenging conventional stereotypes in her novels, she gives the open-minded reader a new perspective through the message she conveys. Her first novel, Northanger Abbey, focuses on reading. However, she parallels typical novel reading with the reading of people. Catherine Morland's coming of age hinges on her ability to become a better reader of both novels and people.
Austen first introduces Catherine as an unlikely heroine: "No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be [a] heroine" (13). This is the introductory line of Austen's first book, giving the reader the responsibility to realize this is a novel by stating Catherine's heroism. This is important for the reader to understand because Catherine, who loves to read fiction, considers herself to be a heroine in a gothic novel. Therefore, this sets the tone of the story as the reader recognizes the metaphorical gap between the ideal fictional heroine and the flawed Catherine Morland.
The modern reader must be aware that, at this point in literary history, the novel was looked down upon as an inferior form of literature, particularly because of the grim and sensational content of gothic novels. Therefore, Austen finds it necessary to argue the vital importance of the novel:
"Oh! it is only a novel!" replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with momentary shame--"It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda;" or, in short, only some work in which the thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delinea...
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...The strength displayed by Catherine shows her ability to make her own judgments, which parallels her becoming a woman.
With Catherine Morland and Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen has set a new benchmark for what a heroine and novel can be. Through Catherine, Austen shows the danger of becoming immersed in reading and its ability to hinder the judgment between fact and fiction. Reading is a dominant theme throughout the novel, as in both the reading of the gothic novel and the reading of a person's character. When these two notions clash, the reader is forced to decide which activity holds more importance. Austen ingeniously gives the reader an interactive role as a main character in her story by making one realize Catherine's reading ability is directly proportional to her coming of age.
Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.
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