Neither Northanger Abbey: The Reader Presupposes

By Hermansson, Casie | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Neither Northanger Abbey: The Reader Presupposes


Hermansson, Casie, Papers on Language & Literature


We knew better but it was wrong to use a language that named ghosts, nothing you could touch.

And this is why we came to love the double negative --Vern Rutsula, "Words"

The prevalence of negative constructions in Jane Austen's notoriously problematic Northanger Abbey is well noted. In Terry Castle's introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition, he observes, representatively, that the novel is "fraught with negatives" (vii), that Northanger is "a site of negation" (viii), and that the novel "might be described, in a number of senses, as an experiment in negation" (x). Equally noted is the "compound" nature of many of these negatives, which of course contributes to their prevalence. The negative constructions of Northanger Abbey echo its parodic sense; this novel is not a Gothic romance, Catherine Morland is not a typical heroine, and Henry Tilney is not a typical hero. What has not been remarked, however, is that the compounding of negatives not only creates the novel's stylistic expression of its thematic activities but also effects a systematic undoing of the novel's terms--terms that have been read at best as problems, and at worst as *aws. Such escape artistry provides a prescient model for ongoing formulations of intertextual reading and their own problematic--or *awed--terms.

Compound negatives offer the most important hermeneutic lessons of the novel, both for Catherine Morland its thematized reader, and for the novel's implied reader. What is at stake is a presuppositional model for reading, and as such the stylistic work of the novel has contemporary relevance to the still-emerging pragmatics of intertextual reading--the activity in which Catherine is deeply engaged--where presupposition has been accorded a crucial role. Thus, compound negatives do not merely echo this thematized activity and its attendant dilemmas; instead, they create and undo presupposition. Presupposition is the double bind of intertextual reading, since the intertext is presupposed in order to be present yet it is not possible to say whether it is the text or the reader who is doing the presupposing. Presupposition tends to make intertextual reading a binarism of "like" versus "unlike"-- a version of what Roland Barthes calls the "continuous metonymic skid" that is reading (92)--and we see how it creates difficulties not only for Catherine but also for readers of Northanger Abbey as they try to determine the novel's positioning of its (interrelated) intertexts: Gothic and parody. Yet double and compound negatives evoke this binarism specifically to create alternative positions characterized by "not unlike," and these very structures characterize the novel. "Presupposition" is a linguistic term describing one of the means by which information other than that stated in the assertions of a sentence is nevertheless conveyed. The sentence, "General Tilney regretted murdering his wife," is an assertion that presupposes that General Tilney murdered his wife. The sentence, "General Tilney did not regret murdering his wife," is a negative assertion that, nevertheless, also presupposes that General Tilney murdered his wife. The negation has left the presupposition unchanged. The sentence, "General Tilney murdered his wife, which he regretted / did not regret," does not presuppose that General Tilney murdered his wife; rather, this information is now conveyed as an assertion. Presupposition differs from implication in that the sentence depends semantically on its presuppositions: they are (indirectly) stated, whereas implicit meaning is not (Prince 25). Linguistic presupposition, whether of the type describing the word's relation to its "world" context (the "real world knowledge" every text and utterance presupposes), or to its word context (those local, semantic presuppositions that bridge the informational gaps), is simultaneously both context-defined and context-defining.

Presupposition works in narrative terms in that it situates the speaker with regard both to the audience and to the utterance. …

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