Enclosed in Openness: Northanger Abbey and the Domestic Carceral by Paul Morrison

Many times reading Jane Austen’s novels results in focusing on the efforts of the heroine to secure the domestic prize of a husband and a home, often an estate. Seldom do readers end Austen’s novels with the same feelings of fear for the heroine as they might experience while reading the dark gothic novels popular in Austen’s day. In his article “Enclosed in Openness: Northanger Abbey and the Domestic Carceral,” Paul Morrison contends that rather than being the opposite of the conditions of the gothic novel, that is, centering on a place of darkness and secrecy, Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey is, in Morrison’s terms, unheimlich.

By using this term, Morrison is saying that there is not the dispensation of light and openness in England that the hero in Northanger Abbey, Henry Tilney, suggests there is to the novel’s heroine, Catherine Moreland. Ultimately, Morrison contends that Northanger Abbey subtly mirrors the gothic conditions found in works such as Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, the novel used as a kind of backdrop or measuring device for Catherine Moreland’s growth. For the most part, Morrison supports his thesis with interesting and fairly accessible discussion that is useful to study on both an amateur and scholarly level.

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Given the gothic aspect of both Northanger Abbey and the subtext of gothicism that he argues Northanger Abbey contains, it makes sense that the critical methodology that Morrison primarily uses is a feminist lens. For example, Morrison asserts that Catherine, like the heroines in gothic novels, is acting outside parental and paternal control. Thus, he contends that, in the same way that the gothic novel heroine is subject to mistakes due to her naivete and lack of guidance, many of Catherine’s assumption are also incorrect (3).

Morrison continues by pointing out that separating the heroine from paternal guidance is a standard of the gothic novel; therefore, Morrison contends that Henry Tilney must separate Catherine from the gothic novels in order to correct her erroneous behavior. Morrison’s argument here is interesting and strong, except for the fact that it seems to assume Henry Tilney takes on the role of guide merely because he is male and ignores the fact that he is also older than Catherine and that he has already read The Mysteries of Udolopho.

Additionally, Morrison fails to fully acknowledge the role that Catherine’s brother James plays. For example, Morrison’s contention that Catherine acts outside of paternal control is not entirely correct as her older brother James does occasionally serve as advisor. Additionally, the fact that James also makes mistakes due to lack of guidance and/or naivete, again, is a point that Morrison ignores. Further evidence that it is useful for Morrison to use a feminist lens to advance his thesis can be seen in his discussion of Catherine’s discovery of the “inventory of linen.

Morrison points out that, in Austen’s novel, this “the most mundane and domestic of all possible ‘texts’” is meant to contrast with the more fantastic text of Radcliffe’s novel (13). Morrison uses the contention of critics Gilbert and Gubar to assert that the linen list represents the “real threat to women’s happiness” (13), and that the circumstances that would produce this most unromantic text serves as the equivalent to the confinement or imprisoned state of the gothic carceral.

Specifically, Morrison says that … if the specific content of the inventory suggests the recuperation of the gothic carceral in terms of the workaday world of a domestic female lot, the inventory itself, the principle of an inventory, suggests a generalized economy of surveillance, an economy that encloses precisely by its ability to note, to render visible or legible, each and every of its operations. (13) Here Morrison connects the feminist lens with Michel Foucault’s discussion of “panoptic. Morrison uses Foucault’s discussion of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, a circular prison constructed so that all the prisoners can be seen by unseen guards located in a central watchtower, to suggest that the domestic situation of women in open, enlightened England is similar. This is the most interesting and well-articulated portion in an essay that is, for the most part, solid. One reason for the strength of this portion of the essay is the way Morrison uses earlier threads of discussion.

He does this by introducing Foucault’s complex mechanism by associating it with roads and newspapers, which were established as instruments of domesticity earlier in the essay. He then reminds the reader of Catherine’s search for the “real” fate of Mrs. Tilney, which leads to her (Catherine) finding the linen list. Ultimately, Morrison says, Catherine’s bringing the linen list out into the open mirrors the way her own “dirty linen” is brought into view as Henry finds her secretly searching for Mrs . Tilney.

Morrison then moves the discussion of space so that Catherine’s intentions and actions (and, thus, her growth) may be contrasted with those of Isabella, also a female acting outside of paternal guidance. The difference between the two, Morrison points out, is that Isabella wants to be seen but wants for it to appear otherwise. Although not indicated in the title, Morrison’s thesis implies that he will also research the “unheimlich” movement between Northanger Abbey and The Mysteries of Udolpho. This portion of the essay was more difficult to access or understand.

Morrison spends three and a half pages in the beginning of the essay (pages 4 – 7) discussing The Mysteries of Udolpho as a novel of another place and time to contrast with the domestic place that Catherine is being led to occupy. Admittedly, it does make sense to discuss the “here” and “there” aspect that Morrison points out are present in gothic novels; however, it took reading back through the aforementioned pages several times to understand that this was Morrison’s intention. Further, at several points the information given seems irrelevant to the ensuing discussion.

Specifically, Morrison’s discussion of the Longinian aspects of Mysteries’s heroine’s dreamscapes and landscapes and his allusion to Freud’s “two sets of ideas” (6) seems irrelevant to the conversation in the majority of the essay. Ultimately, centering the discussion of Radcliffe’s novel risks losing amateur readers as they struggle to comprehend points that are not integral to the thesis implied by the article’s title. Paul Morrison’s article offers an interesting discussion of the domestic conditions of Austen’s 19th century heroine, Catherine Moreland.

By employing a feminist lens and placing Northanger Abbey next to the genre of the gothic novel, Morrison illuminates some of the darker aspects of the domestic world in 19th century England. Although there are points that the article digresses to discussion that is irrelevant to the larger thesis and can be difficult for the novice reader to grasp, overall the essay not only provides an informed reading of Austen, but also of the genre that Austen is supposedly parodying, the gothic novel.