Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

The Ethos of Humor: A Study of the Narrator in Northanger Abbey

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

The Ethos of Humor: A Study of the Narrator in Northanger Abbey

Article excerpt

IN THE RHETORIC OF FICTION, Wayne Booth writes, "Even the most unconscious and Dionysian of writers succeeds only if he makes us join in the dance" (xiv). All writers and narrators must be rhetors who persuade their readers to participate, if only for a moment, in their dance. The rhetorical narrator in Northanger Abbey invites her readers to join the dance by appealing to a humorous ethos. (1) We grow to like and trust her as we laugh together at the excesses of the Gothic, the detractors of the novel, her own characters, and her playful moralizing. By using humor responsibly, the narrator reveals her intelligence, establishes intimacy, and ultimately persuades us to see the world as she portrays it--comically.

With her opening strike against Gothic conventions, the narrator begins to win our admiration and trust through her ethos that, though it does reveal her intelligence, first charms because of its humor. (2) She begins with a startling declaration about her heroine and a comic assault on Gothic fathers:

   No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would
   have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the
   character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition,
   were all equally against her. Her father was a clergyman, without
   being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his
   name was Richard--and he had never been handsome. He had a
   considerable independence, besides two good livings--and he was not
   in the least addicted to locking up his daughters. (13)

Though there is a logical structure to this passage, the reader first perceives the humor. A vast knowledge of Gothic novels is not required to appreciate their silliness; indeed, we learn about the genre through the narrator's humor. The detail contained in the subordinate clause--"though his name was Richard"--mocks the propensity of Gothic novelists to give their characters exotic names. The coordinate conjunction in the last line is particularly amusing in its juxtaposition of Mr. Morland's solvency and parental tenderness; most heroines' fathers, we realize, are either impecunious and tender or wealthy and cruel.

Neither her father nor Catherine's own disposition befits a traditional heroine. After announcing that Catherine's abilities "were quite ... extraordinary," the narrator explains, "She never could learn or understand any thing before she was taught; and sometimes not even then, for she was often inattentive, and occasionally stupid" (14). The irony is apparent. Catherine sounds like an ordinary young girl, not the extraordinary scholar of Gothic novels. The rest of the chapter continues to emphasize Catherine's ordinariness. As a child, she prefers the outdoors to books, and novels to scientific works; though she reads scraps of poetry, she never evinces any skill with the paintbrush. Throughout the first chapter, we are constantly told what Catherine is not. Henrietta Ten Harmsel calls this technique "demonstration by negation" and explains that "[b]y emphasizing the qualities which the leading characters ... do not possess, [Austen] encourages the reader to call to mind and judge for himself the absurdity of the qualities with which popular fiction often endowed them in her day" (15). By calling to mind the absurdities of Gothic fiction, the narrator reveals her ethos. Intelligence and perspicacity are required to recognize the ridiculous; a clear sense of the conventional is necessary to understand the humorously abnormal. The narrator must understand typical fathers and ordinary young girls to laugh at the extraordinary characters of Gothic fiction. But the narrator's humorous tone inclines us to accept what she says before we have fully understood it. As Cicero observes, "cheerfulness by itself wins goodwill" (2.236). We like people who make us laugh, and we tend to trust (whether wisely or not) people we like. Because of its power to establish trust quickly, humor is both effective and dangerous. …

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