An Ecofeminist Reading of Northanger Abbey and the Critical Discourse

Note: The following piece serves as a companion to another of Shollenberger’s works, The Moral Landscape of the Gothic Heroine. Together, the pieces provide a comprehensive, and thrillingly new reading of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. ‘Moral Landscape’ is a detailed historical and textual unpacking, while the text you are about to read examines Northanger’s critical reception and challenges accepted views on traditional readings.

If Jane Austen’s critics have unequivocally agreed that the final line of Northanger Abbey was satiric, the vast majority have also failed to see themselves as the butt of the satire. “I leave it to be settled by whomsoever it may concern,” Austen says, “whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny or reward filial disobedience.” The critics, it seems, have unwittingly taken Austen, on this point, at face value.

Traditionally, Northanger has been read as a Bildungsroman or as a novel of education in which the heroine, Catherine Morland, begins as an overimaginative reader of Gothic novels, who mistakes the ‘mannered’ citizens of Fullerton, Bath, and Northanger Abbey for heroes, damsels, and villains, and learns from the sober and meticulous Henry Tilney to navigate the ‘true’ social and moral landscape of her world. In a simultaneous parody of the Gothic genre that perverts Catherine’s judgment, the ‘heroine’ of Northanger Abbey expects at every breathtaking turn to find hidden chests and forbidden treasures, Laurentina’s skeleton[1] in her closet, and the bloody corpse of General Tilney’s late wife in his dedicated mariticide chamber, in a climax neither short of the Gothic novel nor its literary predecessors—mythology, fairy tale, and theodicy. Yet at every turn Catherine is disappointed by a world of modern comforts and quotidian concerns that pointedly does not correspond to her expectations; her parents’ only admonitions, when they ‘should’ warn the heroine about villainous lords and baronets, are practicalities like ‘wear a warm coat,’ and ‘spend money wisely.’

The most obvious critical reading of Northanger, has also been the most widespread, viewing Catherine’s expectations as her primary folly in a calm and rational late eighteenth century landscape, and Henry’s instruction as “an impressive defense of social convention [that] shows the egotism and futility of ignoring or scorning it” (Kiely 27). Henry’s logic offers an obviously clearer vision of many of the novel’s events than Catherine’s fantasies, as the novel makes explicit stops for his instruction, most famously in his ‘We Are English’ speech, in which Henry disabuses Catherine of her assurance that the General had murdered his wife, a notion which she formerly found ‘impossible to dismiss’ (130). Tilney says:

“If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to—Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you—Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our lives connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing; where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay every thing open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?” (136)

In most cases, Tilney’s rationality, which might be defined as his intricate understanding of the laws and manners of polite society, leads him in Northanger to recognize the ‘proper’ place for Catherine’s Gothic expectations (in novels) and the place for the pointed normalcy Austen paints (the real Northanger Abbey). This distinction was the pervasive view in Austen’s time; Gothics were fictions, breezy entertainment at best and at worst morally depraved romps in rape, incest, and necrophilia, and the works from which “nothing like useful knowledge could be gained” (Northanger 7). Critics of Northanger cite Austen’s flat burlesquing of the plots and characters of Gothic and Romantic tradition in Northanger’s second volume as well as Catherine’s Gothic expectations, her “unconquerable horror of the bed [in her room]” (108), as proof that her obvious delusions are a product of Austen’s rigid attention to Gothic tropes. Yet in Austen’s time, the conduct book writers warned that the reader of Gothics would be curious, immoral, impractical, and lack a social compass, and so rather than read as a strictly Gothic heroine, Austen manages to implicate the dull Gothic reader, the contemporary female, in her characterization of Catherine. Though Catherine will follow the romantic marriage plot, and the tale will be as dark as any Gothic, her characterization is a pointedly average English girl: she is not beautiful, talented, intelligent or situationally predisposed to heroic events (her mother didn’t die, her father isn’t a tyrant, and not a single local boy has a dark, mysterious past).

The traditional reading has seen Henry’s mockery of Catherine’s literal application of fictive convention to reality as Austen’s call for a complex understanding of the society illustrated in the first volume, and thereby as proof that Austen champions ‘good sense’ over fictional delusions. The classic reading has heralded Mr. Tilney as Austen’s mouthpiece and thereby positioned Northanger as a liminal work between the burlesque mode of Austen’s juvenilia and the measured complexity of Austen’s masterpieces, her late social satires like Emma and Mansfield Park, which are glimpsed in Northanger’s satisfying first volume. Yet if recent critics have begrudgingly admitted that Henry’s socialization misleads him on occasion, and that even he is not above a bit of Austen’s light ribbing when he relies a too heavily on conventional assumptions, the critics have done so defensively, making certain to forgive Henry, to call him heroic, and to maintain that his teachings are as successful as Austen’s. Critics like Andrew Wright have held that “Like all parodies the book exhibits two sets of values [fictive aestheticism vs. conventional wisdom]: one is satirized, the other (by implication) is shown to be ‘truer’” (3). If these critics have concluded that Northanger somewhat transcends this basic structure by displaying the limitations of ‘good sense,’ or ‘conventional wisdom,’ they have maintained a dichotomous split between the novel’s values, and lauded Tilney’s social rationality as exclusively superior. If Austen’s message is one of balance, if Northanger proves that conventional wisdom cannot be relied on absolutely as Isabella Thorpe and General Tilney manage to divorce manners from the underlying morality they ought to, in Tilney’s eyes, have, then these critics have maintained that Henry is balanced, that Henry’s attendance to convention is moral, and that only through Henry’s instruction can Catherine understand the General’s perversion of propriety. If only everyone were a Mr. Tilney.

The logic of these arguments is inherently flawed; in one breath, these critics say that Austen’s message is balance and in the next that balance is achieved through absolute reliance on social convention. These critics have maintained the basic patriarchal logics of domination pervasive in Austen’s time—that humans are ‘perfectly rational’ and society is a moral bastion; Henry Tilney has been praised as a triumph of society. Rather than read Henry’s conventionalism and Catherine’s romanticism as parallel forms of fundamentalism, the critics, it seems, are still entrenched in Henry’s patriarchal submission, as they maintain the “futility of scorning it.” They have often failed to see that Henry’s cheery assurance in a calm, quiet England where Christian morality keeps wife murderers at bay leads him to a decidedly uncritical position in which he refuses to perceive the novel’s most important aspects of his mother’s death and father’s tyranny. It has not been until recent feminist criticism of Northanger that critics’ defenses of Henry Tilney have been read as participatory in Henry’s dualized language of blindness and insight, darkness and light, fiction and reality; far from holding up Henry as the victory of ‘Enlightenment,’ he is as blind, lost in his own fictions. Henry’s patriarchal submission misleads him as much as Catherine’s Gothic literalism; he is placated by tales of his own with plots as predictable as the Gothic novel’s. Both are rigid, invariable constructions. If in the largely unvaried Gothic register, the nobleman must be villainous and his wife must be victimized, in polite, moral England, in “a country like this,” as Tilney says, the characters and plots were equally homogenous. In Victorian England, the ‘real’ General Tilney of the novel could only exist in fiction, and despite the dark events of Northanger, Austen presents the happy ending, a smiling married couple fully willing to believe in their security and “perfect felicity.”

In a very real sense, Catherine’s Gothic expectations have unwittingly led her to the clearest vision of the novel’s plot; the comforts of Northanger Abbey continue to be funded by a wife’s imprisonment in a loveless marriage, familial neglect, and death just as surely as Sir Thomas Bertram’s Antiguian slaves provide the pleasures of Mansfield Park in Austen’s 1814 masterpiece. Far from Catherine being “completely awakened” (136) by Henry Tilney’s logic, as the narrator humorously assures us, Catherine’s eventual persuasion that in England, “Murder was not tolerated [and] servants were not slaves” (137), is evidence that, in a clever inversion of the novel of education, Catherine’s socialization has taught her little. She has merely switched from one fictional lens to another—from her Gothic literalism to Henry’s patriarchal submission. In Austen’s time, knowledge of the poor’s plight was repressed beneath a cheery patriotism and the ultimate justice of the patriarchal structures descended from the Bible; Mary Wollstonecraft likened the logic of women’s domination and that of the lower classes:

“In the same strain have I heard men argue against instructing the poor; for many are the forms that aristocracy assumes. ‘Teach them to read and write,’ say they, ‘and you take them out of the station assigned them by nature.’ […] But they know not, when they make man a brute, that they may expect every instant to see him transformed into a ferocious beast. Without knowledge there can be no mortality!” (286)

As the critic Paul Morrison explains, Austen’s reader can see General Tilney’s true nature, his disregard for his wife’s life and happiness and his greedy and villainous entrapment, “not by piously aping the opinions of Henry Tilney, but by accepting the gothic as a legitimate, if highly circuitous, mode of comprehending [Austen’s] sociopolitical reality” (67). Though Morrison and others maintain that Catherine achieves this different form of ‘enlightenment,’ I will not. I will argue that Catherine’s classic mistake, her Gothic literalism, questions the absolute attention to social convention and patriarchal submission that had pervaded Austen’s England while Northanger Abbey masterfully operated behind a guise that appeared to champion the very structures it sought to upend. Since no character in Northanger espouses the feminist reading, I will argue that Austen has enabled the nearly ubiquitous critical misreading of her work and simultaneously undermined it; through a deconstruction of Austen’s language, the entire work can be read as a triumph in social satire.

The main critical debate surrounding Northanger has been the question of its aesthetic unity. Generally, the novel is seen as a disjointed work, partitioned into a fulfilling social satire set in Bath and a flat Gothic burlesque set at Northanger Abbey. Just as Austen illustrated in Northanger, in Austen’s England the Gothic novel’s fictions were seen as separate and irrelevant to social concerns, even potentially damaging to an otherwise rational and moral society. The same mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive divides between reality and fiction, meaning and insignificance, still exist in the works of the critics that champion Tilney, who have, in their readings, likened the social satire volume to Austen’s canonical masterpieces and regarded the Gothic satire volume as trivial humor. Though nearly 200 years have passed between Austen’s publication and the time of this writing, the Gothic novel’s position as low entertainment has survived to haunt Northanger’s critical reception, with Northanger’s genre parody existing on the fringes of canonical literature, implying that an ecofeminist reading of Northanger Abbey, which disassembles the dualisms prevalent in Austen’s work and social milieu, holds parallel implications for the classic critical discourse, and confers analogous meaning on our own patriarchal arrangment.

In Austen’s time, mainstream writers and thinkers characterized the Romantic and Gothic trends in literature and art as medieval fictions—invented family histories, mock castles and plaster battlements, and landscapes painstakingly designed to appear untouched by humans. In the face of the Gothic’s artificiality, conduct books postured polite society as a moral, practical, and realistic opposite. ‘Rational concerns’ included money, family, land, class, balls, dress, manners and propriety; these things were ‘real,’ ‘moral,’ and thereby, important, where the fast-paced and immoral Gothic fictions were idly escapist. They might not be harmful indulgences here and there, but they were “so full of nonsense and stuff” (31), as John Thorpe explains, and nothing meaningful could be accomplished by them. The Gothic inspired a love of novelty that could only be satiated by the awful forces that threatened humankind—massive mountains, erupting volcanoes, violent storms, gloomy oceans, tidal waves—features that the rational world framed as instruments of God’s displeasure. Enjoyment of sublime landscapes and exciting novels were an indulgence for the idle rich, an aesthetic hobby horse that was at best a socially tenuous luxury and at worst actually dangerous for the baron that forced approaching carriages to proceed through rocky ravines in order to reach his estate. Even the  bibliophile, Henry Tilney’s, famous ‘We are English’ speech is laden with this distinction; though Henry might enjoy a novel that makes his hair stand on end, he warns Catherine of the literal dangers of applying Gothic convention to social convention.

Gothic literature, medieval architecture, sublime landscapes, and picturesque beauty were, in their masterful renditions, a new type of aesthetic delight that suggested a vast, unpredictable, and terrifying natural order, though they were also dangerous, blasphemous, immoral, and untrue. The Gothic form in architecture was reinitiated by Horace Walpole, who also initiated the trend in literature, describing his new genre as a blend of the “old” romantic tradition, which presented its fantastical events as entirely magical or unbelievable, with the “new” mainly epistolary romantic novels pioneered by the likes of Samuel Richardson, which were meant to serve as narrative-styled conduct books, teaching propriety to young women. The Gothic novel adopted the supernatural aspects of the old tradition and illustrated the events with the rational explanations of the new; Gothics thereby presented serious concern for the conduct book writers in its confounding of the moral and the immoral, the realistic and the hyperbolic, the supernatural and the natural. This conflation of fact and fiction implied the inseparability of the two, which worked in tandem to create new and different realities, immoral realities, and the conflation itself was itself postured as the most dangerous fiction of all; reality, the conduct books and great writers said, had nothing to do with Gothic suggestion.

Yet even the emerging sciences had Gothic implications, pointing to immeasurable supernatural forces as electric jolts galvanized severed frogs legs and set corpses smiling; medical plants magically relieved physical disorders like epilepsy; and natural scientists began to discover a far more complex and seemingly infinite natural order rife with new species, “many of which seemed as strange as monsters or mythical beasts” (Nichols 5). As the Gothic heroine and her ancestors looked into forbidden rooms, chests, and jars, these sciences looked into God’s forbidden rooms and jars, wishing, like Eve, for the forbidden knowledge of the composition and operation of the physical world, which chemical and physical scientists suggested could be understood and altered. Horrifically, scientists were declaring “the principal parts of men and plants are the same” (La Mettrie 77), directly challenging man’s Biblically ordained superior position in the Great Chain of Being, and presenting humans, instead of as God’s children, as the victims of an unconcerned and infinite universe, the organization of which could not be guessed.

The supernatural implications of the Gothic threatened rip off the sheet of polite societal organization and to expose the grotesque natural struggle beneath: a species with pretensions to exceptionalism in which the most admired person was the dominating Gothic figure, Napoleon, and transgressions against society’s victims (women, the poor), who were most honorable when passive, were often, by law, silenced. Though Gothic style was exaggerated enough to appear a burlesque of its own terrifying insinuations, the Gothic novel became, as a necessary means of controlling knowledge, a kind of forbidden fruit in itself, a forbidden genre, with its ‘absurd’ and ‘blasphemous’ connotations that gestured towards the notion of Western society’s own arbitrary, artificial, and oppressive organization. Yet the Gothic by no means held the type of control that it could have, as even their novelists themselves described the works as trivial novels of escapism. Though novels were as widespreadly read as Henry Tilney would have us believe, among the institutions of polite society and even among the great writers themselves, with, perhaps, the sole exception of Jane Austen, the consensus was that of John Thorpe: novels were “the stupidest things in creation” (31).

Yet Austen’s own work was a queer, and even more troublesome mixture of fact and fiction than the ordinary Gothic. While it masqueraded as a silly attack on an already defeated genre, and did not affirm fiction as a clearer lens than ‘good sense,’ it confounded Gothic absurdity with the absurdity of good sense, thereby likening social constructions to ‘the stupidest things in creation,’ ‘from which nothing like useful knowledge could be learned.’ Rather than the Gothic’s traditionally remote geographic and temporal settings, Northanger Abbey occurred (at its initial conception) in contemporary England. The abbey itself, rather than being “just like what one reads about” (107), is fine gravel rather than looming mountain, modern hallways rather than long damp pages and narrow cells in a ruined chapel. The heroine and hero, as Austen pointedly illustrates, are not the stock romantic characters, but rather, are decidedly average. And yet, in spite of the rational appearance of England’s moral characters and modern locales, the plot itself shares the horrors of the Gothic, though the horrors can barely be heard beneath Henry’s obnoxious protestations, “We are English! We are Christians!” Even Austen’s narrator is imprisoned in the text’s calm exterior, managing to betray her own sarcasm from behind bars. Though the narrator ends with the common romantic fiction of “perfect happiness” (174) through marriage, Northanger itself is a tale of marital villainy and parental tyranny, which, Austen’s narrator assures us, are actually conducive to happiness. Only her phrasing betrays her patriarchal puppetry.

As both a Gothic parody and an education novel centered on self-deception, Austen draws attention to the expectation that Northanger’s events will be fictional and fantastic, existing between covers alone, and playfully denies both her heroine and her audience many of the fearful literary tropes they expect, questioning the line between fiction and reality. Traditionally, the stark division between the real and the fictional has been upheld in criticism; if Northanger’s reader should expect the Gothic elements, Catherine’s own expectation of them have been read as her primary mistake. Catherine as a character is pointedly normal, Austen assures us in the first chapter; she is not beautiful, talented, intelligent or situationally predisposed to heroic events (her mother didn’t die, her father isn’t a tyrant, and not a single local boy has a dark, mysterious past). Yet if Catherine is meant to be ‘realistic,’ that is, closer to a representation of the average English girl than to the fictional Gothic heroine, Austen draws attention to the created fictions of her own England, a world in which the ball beaux had begun affecting the manner and dialogue of lovers in romance novels. What many critics have failed to notice is what the majority of writers and thinkers in Austen’s time attempted to deny—far from the Gothic and Romantic trends expressing fictional concerns separable from reality, reality and fiction blurred together into something new as they created new fictions about one another. As the Gothic novel created ulterior readings of England with dangerous implications for its oppressive societal structure, England fictionalized the genre’s merits with enough power to create a new reality in which they were nothing more than silly tales whose implications couldn’t actually upend Biblical patriarchy.

Rather than Northanger’s Gothic satire and social satire being somehow distinct, to satirize the Gothic novel was to satirize a pervasive societal force, and, moreover, to satirize the authority that made it impossible to openly defend the Gothic, the poor, women, wild landscapes, or aesthetic beauty on ‘rational’ grounds. The Gothic novel was work for the modern female, filled with stupidity, immorality, curiosity, and caprice; these descriptors were also the classic descriptors of women and the Gothic sharpened female vices. In a society where the moralists and proper conduct writers advised against profligacy of any kind, where “[A woman] who is first a prostitute to Wine, will soon be to Lust also,” (Allestree 14), the extravagant and trendy gothic, it was feared, would lead a woman to a fondness of novelty that very literally would become the most vile excess of all—sexual excess, a curiosity in other men and conjugal infidelity. Conduct books, dominantly written by men and often clergy, prescribed this moral self-discipline with the underlying motive of fitting women to a role that would allow her to reproduce the dominant structures of patriarchy—the economic, social, cultural and political order. She had to remain faithful to a husband so that wealth and power were passed down to their rightful male heirs. The moralists were self-proclaimedly necessary guardians of society because women could not determine moral action on their own. ‘The power of women,’ as a common idiom went, ‘[was] her sensibility,’ (the power of feeling or emotion), as contrasted with the strictly male power of reason, which the protofeminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, described as “the power of discerning good from evil” (285); she reiterated, “sensibility is not reason” (288). Since woman could not reason for herself, and yet she was paradoxically capable of being the male’s moral superior according to Puritan doctrine, which became prominent in the 17th and 18th century, she was relegated to helpless acquiescence to male advice.

The Gothic entered into these interlocking logics of the female character, creating a kind of synergy that made it impossible for the contemporary woman to see these descriptors—stupidity, immorality, caprice—as created description. By the time the Gothic hit the scene, its position as a dominated, female genre was implicit; it, as well as the many structures that reinforced female domination, profoundly shaped the nature of Catherine’s reality as it profoundly shaped the nature of Austen’s. If young women were expected to read novels because they were not expected to be intelligent, it was a social reality that the same powers that forced Austen to write within the structures of patriarchy forced a young woman, if she be damned with “the misfortune of knowing any thing [to] conceal it as well as she [could]” (76).

In ecofeminism as a critical discourse, these interlocking dualisms are the defining structure of patriarchy:

Capitalist patriarchy or ‘modern’ civilization is based on a cosmology and anthropology that structurally dichotomizes reality, and hierarchically opposes the two parts to each other: the one always considered superior, always thriving, and progressing at the expense of the other. (Mies 429)

As I have briefly illustrated here, and I illustrate in more detail in my essay, “The Moral Landscape of the Gothic Heroine,” Austen’s work illustrates the illogicity of these absolute divisions. Henry Tilney’s logic is a fictional reality when it cannot move beyond a strict and literal standpoint that the Gothic plotline can only be fiction. Austen’s clever intermingling of fiction and reality not only models their enmeshment in Victorian England, but also suggests parallel faults between them when portrayed as distinct. The structures of patriarchy ficticiously bolstered themselves through religion and law; from Biblical sanction to preachers’ conduct books, from primogeniture to coverture, the system insisted upon its own equity and oppressed evidence otherwise. As Marilyn Gaull explains,

“While the aristocracy and some clergy enjoyed the personal liberties of a gothic villain, dramatists were prohibited by law from presenting them on the stage, while journalists and publishers were imprisoned, sometimes without trial, for protesting their loss of freedom, or the hunger and deprivations of the working classes.” (231)

If Catherine’s literal application of Gothics to daily life was understandably absurd, the oppressive aspects of power that attempted to perpetuate patriarchy through the silencing of its victims, have lead Henry to very really misjudge his own family’s situation. Henry’s denial that “in the country and age in which we live” that there could possibly be any forbidden knowledge for Catherine to uncover in his mother’s room unwittingly reminds the reader that the General used Henry’s mother, the former Miss Drummond, as he has attempted to use Catherine Morland, merely for economic purposes. “His value of her was sincere,” says Henry, “and if not permanently, he was truly afflicted by her death” (136). Certainly, his mother’s £20,000, at most twice what the General thought Catherine was worth, was highly valued by the patriarch whose incessant doting on Catherine was coupled with “an almost positive command to his son [Henry] of doing every thing in his power to attach to her [Catherine]” (169). Yes, Henry is correct; his education has not prepared him to understand how to confront the notion that his father used his mother as a disposable asset. His education has not prepared him to see the structural domination of women as anything other than the proper arrangement of society; if Henry Tilney is romantic enough to see that in marriage the man has the advantage of choice, his conclusions stopped short of a Jeremy Bentham, who likened the position of women to that of the slaves that toiled to supply the extravagances of Mansfield. His education does not prepare him to accept the suggestions of the emerging sciences and arts—that nature does not privilege one species and that societal arrangement is entirely human-sanctioned and curiously dark. Henry will not see his villainous father as the man who used his mother for economic gain, overtook her legal person under coverture, and imprisoned her in a marriage that may have ultimately killed her.

Austen attacked her society’s absolute, dichotomized notions of masculinity and femininity, fiction and reality, humans and nature, the moral and immoral, conduct books and Gothic novels, the sublime and the beautiful, religion and science, the public and the private, and gestured towards a worldview which recognized the multiplicity of reality. Just as Catherine’s judgment becomes equally murky in the switch from Gothic aestheticism to patriarchal submission, Northanger does not recommend the either/or tendencies of the society it illustrates. Rather than Henry’s facetious claim to think “very highly of the understanding of all the women in the world” (79), Austen suggests that such a view would be as misleading as dismissing the rationality of an entire gender.

If the classic critics had to choose between parental tyranny and filial disobedience, it seems they must choose the former, as Henry says, “to torment and to instruct might sometimes be used as synonymous words […] That little boys and girls should be tormented […] is what no one at all acquainted with human nature in a civilized state can deny” (75). Though Henry’s argument here is on the importance of education, and notably satiric, he is ultimately the victim of his own satire as his instruction robs him of objective clarity. His classic education, which has taught him these roles, has indeed tormented him, albeit in minor ways in comparison to the structural domination of other groups in Austen’s England. Parental tyranny, it seems, is the only means of achieving ‘good sense’ and the romantic marriage, as Austen’s plot makes literal the notion that General Tilney’s overbearing greed could facilitate the marriage between Henry and Catherine that otherwise would not have been. If the effect of Northanger Abbey then is not to recommend parental tyranny, if the classic critics’ logic is to be extended, and one set of values is to be satirized and the other, by implication, shown to be truer, then the work must recommend filial disobedience. Of course, such an absurd argument must show the illogicity of the dominant trend in Northanger’s criticism.

The effect of this essay, and my detailed ecofeminist reading of Northanger Abbey, “The Moral Landscape of the Gothic Heroine,” has been to illustrate the need for not only a new reading of Jane Austen’s text, but also to display through such a reading that Austen’s work was her own condemnation of the pervasive critical readings of the text. Feminist readings of the text, analyses of Austen’s treatment of landscape, and deconstructions of Northanger’s fictions have made this analysis possible, and I have adopted a similar reading in many important aspects, including the newly dominant analysis, incorporated in the recent Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, which views General Tilney as a gothic tyrant akin to Montoni.

This reading has weighed in on several central critical debates in new ways. I have suggested that not only is the text unified on a thematic level in its interlocking web of delusions, as recent critics have suggested, but that its normally perceived division into genre and social satires is actually a full-fledged social satire incorporating fiction as a central aspect of Austen’s England. This reading views fiction and reality in England as helplessly entrenched, as they historically were, and suggests that far from the view prevalent in Austen’s time and the criticism that followed, that patriarchy was a repressive fiction shaped by the tales of religion, conduct book writers, and, of course, novelists as well. The effect of this masterfully unified social satire is a condemnation of patriarchy as strong as in Austen’s late works; this reading naturally presumes that much of this text is the result of late edits, the impact of which are not agreed upon in the critical debates.

Much as readings of Austen’s language have in the past, this reading recognizes Austen’s distaste for absolute and hyperbole, extending these fictions to conventionalism. The effect of Austen’s work is to recommend neither parental tyranny or filial disobedience, neither man or woman, neither human or nature, et. alia, but to recommend balance, objectivity, and a critical eye.

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Wright, Andrew H. “Heroines, Heroes, and Villains.” Jane Austen’s Novels: a Study in Structure (1953): 83-172. Print.

Zimmerman, Everett. “The Function of Parody in Northanger Abbey.” Modern Language Quarterly XXX (1969): 53-63. Print.


[1] A reference to Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), the primary work satirized in Northanger Abbey. Along with her later volume, The Italian (1797), Radcliffe was a rare critical darling in a genre dominantly complained about for its formulaic monotony. In Volume I, Chapter VI, Isabella Thorpe rattles off a list of lesser, largely forgotten works, the titles of which characterize the explosion of unvaried, opportunistic works in this niche that occurred in the 1790s. Isabella’s list manages to offer, among seven titles, horror, mystery, orphans, indecipherable warnings, the supernatural, villainous nobility, gloomy and medieval settings, and of course, these descriptive titles. Austen had originally titled her work Susan, after its protagonist, and later, Catherine, as she was renamed, making Northanger sound more like the novels of society that its first volume is modeled after (ex. Pamela (1740), Clarissa (1748), Evelina (1778), Camilla (1796), &c.). The novel was posthumously renamed by Austen’s brother, Henry, rooting the text in the Gothic tradition, among which, the Austen scholars Barbara Benedict and Deirdre Le Faye’s count, there were thirty-two novels published between 1784 and 1818 containing the word ‘Abbey’ in the title. Though in her famous defense of the novel, Austen remained conspicuously silent on the value of the Gothic, mentioning only social novels in her list of the works “in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, [et al.]” (23), Austen remained fair regarding Radcliffe’s critical accomplishments. If Austen sent up the absurdities of Gothic convention, she utilized Radcliffe’s successful trope, the logical explanation of the supernatural, which helped the genre gain traction. In Northanger’s typical satire, the trope is inverted, with the supernatural offering a clearer view of General Tilney’s character and the fate of his late wife than Henry Tilney’s patriarchal and patriotic logic ever could.

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The Moral Landscape of the Gothic Heroine

An Ecofeminist Reading of Northanger Abbey

Literary Climate Approved Editions (Norton Critical and Longman Cultural)

Literary Climate Approved Editions (Norton Critical and Longman Cultural)

As a satire of the Gothic novel, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey quietly subverts the systems of Western patriarchy reinforced by the genre and its literary predecessors, questioning the structural domination of women and nature. The plots, tropes, characters, and conclusions of the Gothic romance derived from forms popular in Austen’s England: Greek mythology (Cupid and Psyche, Orpheus and Eurydice, Demeter and Persephone), fairytales popularized by oral tradition and by the collections of Charles Perrault (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Cinderella”), and narrative theodicy (the Eve story in Genesis, Pandora). Like these tales, Northanger relates the adventures of a favorite daughter (the “heroine”), whose heroic acts are modesty and submission. She is sent by her family to overcome monumental dangers hardly short of trips to the Underworld, transactions with Satan, and enormous helmets falling out of open skies, and, faced with such terrors, falls to the ground weeping until she is saved by the strength and ingenuity of the significant male characters, including, generally, the hero himself.

The heroine of these tales earns her troubles through curiosity and disobedience of the male figure. Psyche looked at the husband who forbade her to; Lot’s wife turned back to the city the angels forbade her to; and Bluebeard’s wife nearly became the next victim in her husband’s dedicated mariticide chamber—where she discovered the skeletons of his past wives under the inscription, “The Punishment of Curiosity,” in George Colman the Younger’s dramatization of the popular tale, “Blue-Beard; or Female Curiosity.” This snooping disobedience became the outright damnation of the female sex in narrative theodicy, a genre that explained the presence of evil in the world as a punishment for Eve’s appetite for forbidden fruits or Pandora’s inability to let alone the forbidden jar. In Eve’s case, female curiosity and disobedience of male figures released evil into a world created by an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent Judeo/Christian Creator; that is, the Genesis story offered one resolution to “the problem of evil” puzzled by centuries of theologians. Genesis resolved God’s perfect knowledge, power, and benevolence, and instead rested the blame for evil solely on female shoulders, reinforcing, through these often etiological genres, the Scriptural patriarchy that seemed the immutable organization of humanity to early modern English historians.

In 1764, the basic tropes of these stories evolved into the inaugural Gothic romance, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. “Gothic” was a widely used term in the mediæval period that had been displaced by Enlightenment rationality, but had, in the seventeenth century, been largely associated with architecture, and meant crude, unpolished, barbaric, or in bad taste, as reprobatively contrasted with refinement, morality, and manners. In 1749, Walpole had reinstated the gothic trend in architecture into England, as he remodeled his cottage at Strawberry Hill into a “gothic castle,” whose battlements and pointed arches, towers and decorative weaponry lining the halls were artificial; the baptismal font, though painted to look like stone, was made of plaster. Gothic novels were similarly entrenched in excess and artifice; they were fast-paced, gory, terrifying and sensationalist, favoring quick and twisted plots over poignant and realistic characters, and horrific emotional stimuli to the reigned control of the elder writers, the Shakespeares and Miltons, complained Wordsworth and Coleridge and Byron. At their most debauched, Gothic novels like Gregory Lewis’ The Monk were filled with rape, necrophilia, incest, and a lurid description of the broken-limbed, but still lucid monk’s week-long death being devoured by insects and eagles.

In a society where the moralists and proper conduct writers advised against profligacy of any kind, where “[A woman] who is first a prostitute to Wine, will soon be to Lust also,” (Allestree 14), the extravagant and trendy gothic, it was feared, would lead a woman to a fondness of novelty that very literally would become the most vile excess of all—sexual excess, a curiosity in other men and conjugal infidelity. Conduct books, dominantly written by men and often clergy, prescribed this moral self-discipline with the underlying motive of fitting women to a role that would allow her to reproduce the dominant structures of patriarchy—the economic, social, cultural and political order. She had to remain faithful to a husband so that wealth and power were passed down to their rightful male heirs. The moralists were self-proclaimedly necessary guardians of society because women could not determine moral action on their own. ‘The power of women,’ as a common idiom went, ‘[was] her sensibility,’ (the power of feeling or emotion), as contrasted with the strictly male power of reason, which the protofeminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, described as “the power of discerning good from evil” (285); she reiterated, “sensibility is not reason” (288). Since woman could not reason for herself, and yet she was paradoxically capable of being the male’s moral superior according to Puritan doctrine, which became prominent in the 17th and 18th centuries, she was relegated to helpless acquiescence to male advice. She could not possibly act until the male told her how; she was, as the preacher Thomas Gisborne described, to become a mirror, with no image of its own, only receiving its stamp from the onlooking face (122-23).

Men advised her against all excesses—overeating, dressing provocatively, gambling, coquetting, speaking immodestly, craving flattery, frivolous or trifling employment, or even referring to her body; an average article in the Spectator read, “even the Maid who was dressing my Hair, burst out o’ laughing at the Idea of a Lady saying her Stomach ach’d, or that something stuck between her Teeth” (Spectator 217). Indulgence in one appetite implicitly and explicitly fueled a desire for others, as it became an overarching demeanor of cravings. Women were characterized as creatures ruled by desire, and a woman’s education was meant to govern temptations, which in large part meant reigning in the two dangerous characteristics that defined the Gothic heroine and her predecessors: curiosity and disobeyal of the male will.

Indulgence in excessive, trashy novels therefore became idol and immoral. In the Gothic, familiar themes from Greek tragedy (false inheritance, vengeance, mistaken identity, all themes that threatened male dynasty) were hyperbolized by the supernatural and the inexplicable animation of the inanimate (statues bleeding, skeletons offering advice, portraits exiting their frames)—a summation of Western terrors. The Gothic was a particularly dangerous read, moreso than its predecessors because it did not present fantastical events as entirely magical or unbelievable (in what Walpole called the “old” romantic tradition), but rather merged the supernatural of the “old” with the realism of the newer, mainly epistolary forms pioneered by the likes of Samuel Richardson, who conceived of his own works, which had licentious elements, as narrative-styled conduct books much in the vein of letters to the Lady’s Magazine wherein a lady might describe how she learned a lesson in propriety by making a mistake. Yet the type of mistakes “forbidden” by the male figure in Gothics (forbidden fruits, rooms, jars) was not the harmless female learning experience of the Lady’s Magazine, and the Gothic presented serious concern for the conduct book writers in its confounding of the moral and the immoral, the realistic and the hyperbolic, the supernatural and the natural, which would confuse the female judgment.

Even more terrifying were the Gothic possibilities suggested by the emerging sciences as electric jolts galvanized severed frogs legs and set corpses smiling; medical plants magically relieved physical disorders like epilepsy; and natural scientists began to discover a far more complex and seemingly infinite natural order rife with new species, “many of which seemed as strange as monsters or mythical beasts” (Nichols 5). These sciences looked into God’s forbidden rooms and jars, wishing, like Eve, for the forbidden knowledge of the composition and operation of the physical world, which chemical and physical scientists suggested could be understood and altered. Horrifically, scientists were declaring “the principal parts of men and plants are the same” (La Mettrie 77), directly challenging man’s Biblically ordained position in the Great Chain of Being, and presenting humans, instead of as God’s children, as the victims of an unconcerned and infinite universe. Rather than themes to upset a single male lineage, the supernatural implications of the Gothic threatened rip off the sheet of polite society and to expose the grotesque natural struggle beneath: a species with pretensions to exceptionalism in which the most admired person was the dominating Gothic figure, Napoleon, and transgressions against society’s victims (women, the poor), who were most honorable when passive, were often, by law, silenced. Though Gothic style was exaggerated enough to appear a burlesque of its own terrifying insinuations, the Gothic novel became, as a necessary means of controlling knowledge, a kind of forbidden fruit in itself, a forbidden genre, with its ‘absurd’ and ‘blasphemous’ connotations that gestured towards the notion of Western society’s own arbitrary, artificial, and oppressive organization. The Gothic was defamed as idle, extravagant, ‘full of nonsense,’ or, in Austen’s satiric voice, the genre from which “nothing like useful knowledge could be gained” (Northanger 7). The conduct book postured itself as the salutary alternative to a type of Gothic disease—wherein readers’ realities became distorted; their judgment clouded, overimaginative, ignorant, impractical, self-interested, and immoral.

Despite or perhaps bolstered by the moralists’ warnings, the genre exploded in the 1790s. In 1796, the Critical Review complained, “Since Mrs. [Anne] Radcliffe’s justly admired and successful romances [most notably The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and the then-forthcoming The Italian (1797)], the press has teemed with stories of haunted castles and visionary terrors; the incidents of which are so little diversified, that criticism is at a loss to vary its remarks” (Garside 629). Though recent criticism has emphasized the heterogeneity of the genre, as the Austen critic Thomas Keymer explains, certain tropes were widely shared:

Gothic fiction was characterized in general by temporally or geographically remote settings – often mediæval, often Mediterranean – in which enlightened modern constraints on plot and action – manners and morals, customs and laws – were conveniently in abeyance. By locating climactic plot events in the winding labyrinths and gloomy recesses of ancient monasteries or ruined castles, it cultivated an atmosphere heavily laden with enthralling psychosexual connotation. (24)

In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, the author cleanly evokes and avoids many of the criticized clichés that had become disposable and interchangeable, playing not on a single novel, but rather on the formula of monotonous extravagance and hyperbole.

In her parody, Austen subverts the tropes her audience would have expected of a number of genres, from novels of sensibility to adventure novels to the Gothic novel itself, by pointedly commenting on the heroine, Catherine Morland’s, apparent elusion of all hackneyed devices. “No one,” Austen informs her readers, “who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine” (5). And the list begins. Catherine’s father had no addiction to locking her up, she wasn’t the overwhelming beauty catching the eyes of princes at the ball, and the only potentially “evil” quality of her predominant female role model, Mrs. Allen, who ought to have “promote[d] the general distress of the work,” and “reduce[d] poor Catherine to all the desperate wretchedness of which a last volume is capable” (10), was merely a happy stupidity that any conduct book of the day would have called a woman’s natural inclination. Far from being the traditional Gothic heroine, Austen emphasizes, Catherine Morland was average, even boring. Her family “were in general very plain” (5), and among the neighboring boys—the potential heroes of Catherine’s tale—not a single one had a dramatic or mysterious background (“There was not one family among their acquaintance who had reared and supported a boy accidentally found at their door—not one young man whose origin was unknown” (8). Yes, Catherine Morland was as pointedly unexciting as a novel’s heroine could be.

Yet if Northanger’s narrator pretends that Catherine was the unlikeliest of all possible subjects for the romantic, upwardly mobile marriage plot, by avoiding the supposedly most excessive, artificial, and unrealistic tropes of the Gothic genre, Austen is teasing her readers with false conclusions built on incomplete premises. Austen dramatically underlines Miss Morland’s evasion of regulated plot points with authorial commentary in lines like, “[Mrs. Morland] had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on—lived to have six children more” (5, my emphasis), yet she still sneaks in important conventions without calling similar attention to them, like Catherine’s affinity for forbidden flowers, the villainous General Tilney, and the romantic marriage plot. And though Catherine is not initially fond of the activities Austen’s narrator calls “heroic,” like “nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush” (5), and moreover enjoys the non-heroic activities, “cricket, base ball, riding on horseback, and running about the country” (7), in Austen’s typically underwritten satire, Catherine is quickly equipped with all the requisite tools to become a heroine as she begins to curl her hair and pine for balls, becomes “almost pretty,” and fills her mind with a smattering of quotations from Pope to Shakespeare, (that is, with a female education ironically deemed by Austen’s narrator as sufficient).

By the end of the first chapter, though Catherine has avoided the thrilling Gothic opening, she simultaneously fits the formula for the Gothic heroine and the collective description of the ‘naturally desirous female’ beginning to be refined into the socialized Lady. She is affectionate, cheerful, emotional, stupid, and curious—all the traits that the conduct book sought to temper, and all those required for the Gothic heroine to get herself into a mess and cede to the male authority. In the controlled Gothic register, Austen here confounds the realistic and the hyperbolic; with the traditional “excesses” of the genre’s plot thrown off, the remaining Gothic conventions starkly mirror the absurd formula of the female as heroism is equated with femininity. Even the notion that Catherine could be a heroine arises in the text out of the literal manifestation of the conduct book’s warning that Catherine, as a reader of Gothic novels, would suffer the overactive imagination that would allow her to imagine herself a heroine. Ostensibly, Catherine will not suffer the Gothic’s terrors in this Bildungsroman, as Austen has pointedly expressed. Catherine will learn to navigate the manners and morals of English society through a trip to Bath, chaperoned by the harmless Mrs. Allen and the level-headed Mr. Allen; be the welcomed guest of the wealthy Tilney family; learn that her own judgments have been clouded by Gothic novels; and ultimately marry the romantic Henry Tilney. Yet If Northanger’s opening initially denies its own adherence to tropic fictionality, its elusion of the genre’s readily criticized excesses (violent noblemen, fearful abduction, entrapment) draws quiet attention to the conventional characterization and the analogies between the rigid artifices of the Radcliffean adventure and the no-less-confining or superfluous expectations of the quotidian trials of female conduct (reading, education, the ballroom, the theatre, an engagement to a friend). Through her own mockery of the ‘anti-realism’ of the Gothic, Austen seems to align herself with the moralists, or to be writing within the genres of institutional repression, wherein her plot will unveil to Catherine the absurdity of her convictions, and Catherine will emerge the social, moral adult, disabused of fantasy and “completely awakened” (136) to the righteous realities of England; on the surface, this is exactly the plot of Northanger. Yet disarming the Gothic and exposing its own shortcomings will only be a piece of the work, since Catherine, who may become the most enlightened of the novel’s characters, will never become ‘completely awakened,’ and will in fact be hardly better able by Northanger’s close to accurately judge the events of the novel, in an ironic commentary on English novels of education.

As a parody of such a novel, Northanger can be challenging for the modern reader to embark upon because its heroine is deeply enmeshed in her “anti-realism,” her own Gothic fantasies. The narration is complicated by its stylistic free indirect discourse, in which the third person, rather offer an omniscient or impartial standpoint from which to judge Catherine’s confusion, is itself infused with the dialogue and thoughts Catherine and her companions. Since Miss Morland acts as a caricature of both the Gothic heroine and the Gothic reader, whose judgments are ignorant and overimaginative, the narrator’s mention of avoided Gothic tropes acquires a dramatic irony only as the reader discovers through indirect discourse that Catherine’s love of Gothic novels has led her to confuse Gothic convention for societal reality. When the narrator explains that “[Catherine’s mother] knew so little of lords and baronets, that she entertained no notion of their general mischievousness, and was wholly unsuspicious of danger to her daughter” (9, my emphases), it is not an objective narrator that believes Mrs. Morland ought to warn her daughter of the dangers she will surely face as she leaves home for Bath, but Catherine herself, who is disappointed that her mother directs her only towards practicalities—wearing a scarf at night and keeping an account of her expenses. Here Austen utilizes Ann Radcliffe’s successful Gothic trope, in which the absurdities of the form are explained by rational causes; Catherine Morland becomes so caught up in her artificial reality, as the conduct books warned the Gothic reader would, that she cannot accurately judge her situation.

Yet in Northanger’s introduction, Austen has opened a very narrow gap in the free indirect discourse between author and character, and the modern reader may find herself as lost as the heroine. Catherine, who is too romantic and fearfully imaginative to provide accurate information, is given almost free reign over the third person narration. As if the reader herself has read too many Gothic novels, Austen reports that Mrs. Allen has probably invited Catherine to Bath in order to facilitate the proper novelistic tropes, that Catherine’s father should have given her an unlimited order on his banker, and that the journey which was likely to be overrun with robbers and tempests was unfortunately no more alarming than a pair of forgotten clogs. Austen forces the reader to inhabit Catherine’s confusion and refuses correct it, to offer a state of non-confusion that would make the reader privy to the dramatic irony. To one of Austen’s contemporaries fluent in Gothic tropes and the modern social climate that warned against them, the irony would have rung through large gaps in the narration as in a children’s book like Robert McCloskey’s Make Way For Ducklings in which Mr. Mallard, met with a swan boat in the Boston Public Gardens, quacks, “Good morning,” and McCloskey explains, “the big bird was too proud to answer.” Yet the modern reader, uncertain of the blurred line between fact and fiction that the Gothic revels in, is forced to muddle, as Catherine, through the world with nothing more than a dramatically incomplete female education. The reader is forced to feel Mary Wollstonecraft’s criticism: “And will the moralists pretend to assert, that this is the condition in which one half of the human race [women] should be encouraged to remain with listless inactivity and stupid acquiescence?” (285).

Catherine will continue to literally apply her Gothic expectations to her experiences, allowing the appearance of situations and general formula to dictate her perceptions. She will imagine that Northanger Abbey must be a gothic castle, exactly as one reads of, and will be disappointed by the rational comforts—handsome marble and pretty English china—of the maintained modern home. She will judge an old-fashioned black cabinet, on the tropic grounds that she had never noticed it before despite its conspicuity, as containing an untold treasure in its false linings; she will uncover a washing-bill. She will remain suspicious of the General, who fulfills her every wish and showers compliments upon her, until, led by clues like an undervalued portrait and a forbidden room, she eventually entertains no uncertainty that he had locked up and murdered his own wife in a tale not short of Blue-beard. Finally, ‘the visions of romance’ will shatter, as, satirically, Henry Tilney offers the cure for female misconception: the proper explanation of reality, male rationality.

Fortunately, the modern reader does not need to bumble along with Catherine the entire time. If Austen refuses to offer a clean window through which to view the events of Northanger, the complexities of free indirect style can at least guide the reader to Austen’s irony by unraveling which words belong to the characters’ colloquial tongues and misperceptions, and which words are the aesthetic choices an author acutely attuned to her social milieu. In free indirect style, the literary scholar, James Wood, displays how a line in which the narrator has remained primarily objective can be complicated by a character-driven modifier, such as, “Ted watched the orchestra through stupid tears” (10). In this sentence, the reader does not assume that the narrator has scoffed at Ted for crying, but the reader could imagine Ted thinking to himself how stupid it is to cry in public. ‘Stupid’ is not the poetic choice of Wood, the author, but rather the degraded language of Ted’s colloquialism. Wood has sacrificed a more precise or literary word choice in order to simultaneously allow the reader to inhabit the Ted’s point of view and the author’s omniscience, drawing attention to the dramatic irony and offering a chance for the reader to better understand Ted than he can understand himself.

For Austen’s characters, hyperbolic and absolute word choices present a more complex style of corrupt language in their appearance of honesty complicated by an almost deliberate ability to misguide or confuse. The polite conversation of Austen’s England, though seemingly dressed up and logical, is loaded with its own excess and artifice, and creates, like the Gothic novel, its own alternative and misleading realities. From Austen’s juvenilia onward, characters’ speeches are pretty, yet perplexing; in “Jack and Alice,” Lady Williams says:

“What say you to accompanying these Ladies: I shall be miserable without you—t’will be a most pleasant tour to you—I hope you’ll go; if you do I am sure t’will be the Death of me—pray be persuaded.” (Minor 24)

Though linguistically sound, throughout Austen’s work, and dominatingly in Northanger, these hyperbolic statements regularly imply the opposite of what they intend or are so contradictory that no sense of the speaker’s intent can be drawn. Lady Williams’ tautological tongue vacillates between absolute certainty in one and another conflicting idea in a manner that can only confuse; yet by Northanger’s publication, which indisputably gained elements of Austen’s mature free indirect style in its later editions, Austen attacks an ultimately more misleading speech pattern—not speech which contradicts itself, but speech which is later contradicted by action. In “intentional inversion,” a character’s apparent intention will lead to an inverted reality every time they speak absolutely. Every time Isabella says she will always do one thing, she never keeps that specific promise. In the juvenilia, where a character was explicitly unreliable by way of blatant contradiction, the ideological corruption created by absolute statements was not nearly as profound would be in Northanger’s intentional inversion. “Did you ever see such a little tittuppy thing in your life?” (43, my emphases), asks John Thorpe regarding James’ carriage. “You might shake it to pieces yourself with a touch. It is the most devilish little rickety business I ever beheld!—Thank God! we have a better. I would not be bound to go two miles in it for fifty pounds” (43). Thorpe’s statement is bold and assured, and Catherine is forced to believe him until proven otherwise. Only when Thorpe’s needs shift from bragging about his own carriage’s superiority to the need to reassure Catherine that James will be fine does Thorpe change his tune: “[it] will last above twenty years after it is fairly worn out. Lord bless you! I would undertake for five pounds to drive it to York and back again, without losing a nail” (44). As readers, we note how Thorpe’s absolute certainty shifts to support his interests, yet as Catherine puzzles out social convention, such hyperbolic speeches leave her “[uncertain] how to reconcile two such very different accounts of the same thing” (44), and uncertain about the nature of her reality.

In Northanger’s plot, this model of reliably unreliable intentional inversion gestures towards a postmodern inquisition of the potential for any absolute reality. James Morland, Catherine’s brother, is the only man Isabella ever did or could love, (even though she left him for Captain Tilney, the greatest coxcomb she’d ever seen) (149). John Thorpe describes Blaise Castle (misspelled by Austen ‘Blaize’) as the finest place in England, the oldest in the kingdom when in a reality Catherine never sees (though Austen’s contemporaries would have known about), it was a modern folly akin to Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, complete with fake battlements and pointed arches rather than the towers and long galleries Catherine imagines (57). Likewise Thorpe finds novels “the stupidest things in creation,” as per the mainstream view, and yet the only one he likes is Lewis’ horribly depraved and characteristically telling, The Monk. This hyperbolic and absolute language is the same type that Catherine will eventually learn to call “a strain of shallow artifice […] rife with inconsistencies, contradictions, and falsehood” (150); and Henry Tilney will call it “an excellent satire on modern language” when Catherine confusedly says, “I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible” (91).

As we uncover this linguistic aversion towards absolutes in Austen’s texts, it becomes apparent that when an absolute invades the third person narration, the hyperbolic thought distances itself from the narrator’s personal judgment and aligns with the misleading constructions of polite society. As with Wood’s example of ‘stupid tears,’ it is not the narrator that says Mrs. Morland entertained “no notion” of the mischievousness of lords and baronets (9); instead, Austen steps away, and lets Catherine speak. As with Ted, Austen’s narration allows the reader to imagine a line of Catherine’s dialogue that is almost linguistically identical to the provided third person narration, in which the young, shatter-brained heroine might say to her equally confused friend, Isabella, ‘My mother knows so little about barons! She entertains no notion of their general mischievousness! She is wholly unsuspicious!’ In such a case, Austen’s inclusion of colloquial ‘so’ and the absolutes ‘no’ and ‘wholly’ in the third person draw attention to themselves as non-authorial speech patterns; Austen’s own writing is clean, straightforward, and objective where the dialogue of her stupidest characters is excessive and artificial, despite being dressed up in the guise of polite speech. Likely, the pragmatic Mrs. Morland recognizes the Gothic convention of the villainous baron, and so entertains some notion of their general mischievousness in novels, and the existence of the hyperbolic modifiers ‘so,’ ‘no,’ and ‘wholly,’ rather than emphasize the veracity of the narration, are left where Austen’s sparse style would have trimmed them to underscore Catherine’s absolute immersion in the artificial realities created by Gothic novels and polite speech. But without authorial qualification, not only are lords and barons mischievous because Catherine’s mind has been corrupted by Gothic convention, but also because the narration has been infected with society’s absolute speech patterns, leaving no other options for the reader to imagine. The statement emanates from the narration, our authoritative guide, and thereby a proxy for society itself, and if the reader knows no better than Catherine, there can be no maneuvering around the narration’s insistence. Austen herself can speak well enough to be unintelligible as the reader’s authority, and if she will not choose objectivity in her narration, she leaves the audience to perform the male role, to judge for ‘himself,’ or, to assume the helpless nodding acquiescence of the female. Even when the reader senses something is askew, and cries out in upset, “How could you deceive me so, Mr. Thorpe?” (59), the text remains silent regarding any other possibilities. If anything, it is obstinate, defending itself, like Mr. Thorpe, very stoutly, in its winking refusal to have been wrong. Yet when all is said and done and the reader has, like Catherine, located herself within the world, she may damingly use the narration to imagine the inverted, yet ultimately identical diction a conduct book writer might have penned, ‘Catherine knew so little about barons that she entertained no notion of their wholly righteous characters.’ As the literal application of Gothic tropes muddled Catherine’s judgment at Northanger, the hyperbolic and absolute dialogic patterns of polite society become associated with Gothic absurdity as they turn out to be as false, confining, and misleading to Catherine’s conclusions.

If in Northanger, Austen illustrated the commonly decried warnings against the false realities created by the Gothic, she also questioned the possibility of any unconditional truths, or ‘facts universally acknowledged’ through the inversion of absolute statements. If Austen indicated the illogicity of an absolute’s always being true through intentional inversion, then the narrator’s few direct addresses to the audience betray Austen’s own skepticism of the unqualified prescriptions of women’s conduct books. As Catherine prepares herself for bed to dream of Henry Tilney, whom she has just met, the narrator, in an aside, mockingly attempts to maintain her audience’s perception of her heroine’s innocence:

“I hope it was no more than a slight slumber, or a morning doze at most; for if it be true, as a celebrated writer has maintained, that no young lady can be justified in falling in love before the gentleman’s love is declared, it must be very improper that a young lady should dream of a gentleman before the gentleman is first known to have dreamt of her.” (17)

Of course, by the end of the novel, Austen addresses the audience again to note the inverted reality; “I must confess that [Henry’s] affection [for Catherine] originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought” (168). Austen presents proper conduct as a neatly wrapped narrative with all the Gothic’s easy predictability, and just as deftly as she overturned the fearful tropes of the genre, she dissolves the unconditional prescriptions of polite society, suggesting an infinite spectrum of potential societal arrangement. Quickly, the Biblically ordained and immutable structures of patriarchy look as artificial and excessive as the Gothic tropes. The absolute language of the conduct book was the norm, not the exception, and far from being removed from its own argument that the Gothic offered an absurd, oppressive, and dangerous vision of reality, Austen here incriminates every ‘moral’ statement descended from on high that reinforced the domination of women and their culturally conditioned ignorance like, “[A wife] must not only obey [her husband’s] commands, but must bring unto him the very Desires of the Heart” (Utter 25), “Every appearance of vice in a woman is something more disgusting than in a man” (Reeve, quoted in Tompkins 154), and “if in [the injustice of women being held to a higher moral standard than men] the Sex lies under any Disadvantage, it is more than recompensed by having the Honour of Families in their keeping” (A Lady 2:73).

For Austen, the habitually criticized excesses of Gothic fiction were an easy target and a strong metaphor for the constructed nature of polite speech, of manners and morality, of dress and art, of propriety and patriarchy. If only in Catherine’s reading of marriage novels could she unrealistically dream herself an impoverished Camilla that might prove herself to be virtuous and innocent and thereby deserving of the fortunes and affections of an Edgar Mandlebert[i], then the patriarchal class striations of England would have, in their own created class reality, blocked so uneven a match as Catherine Morland to Henry Tilney, which is even visible in the declaration that such a plot was ‘romantic,’ ‘unrealistic,’ or ‘overimaginative.’ If the marriage novel, by convention, necessitated the Cinderella story, the real strictures of power diligently worked (as conduct books did, as General Tilney does) to disable so gross an upending of the dominant order. If the heroine was dictated by Gothic formula, the Proper Lady was governed by the no less constraining convention of conduct books. In this way, the dominant order could continue with ‘everything in its proper place,’ and Austen’s indictment of patriarchy echoes Mary Wollstonecraft’s:

“In the same strain have I heard men argue against instructing the poor; for many are the forms that aristocracy assumes. ‘Teach them to read and write,’ say they, ‘and you take them out of the station assigned them by nature.’ […] But they know not, when they make man a brute, that they may expect every instant to see him transformed into a ferocious beast. Without knowledge there can be no mortality! Ignorance is a frail base for virtue! (286)

If Austen is not as forthright as Wollstonecraft, the effect of her metaphoric linking of the heroine and the Proper Lady is the same. The Gothic heroine was stupid because convention dictated it; Catherine and her gender were only stupid because they had been socialized to be so.

Under Austen’s pen, moral socialization and acculturation become as brutally damaging as the Gothics that the moralists warned would upend “civil” society. Rather than illustrating the polite and wealthy patrons of Bath as residents in a hub of righteousness, Austen presents the Thorpes, whose moral perversion is created by (in John’s case) or barely concealed behind (in Isabella’s) their outrageously constructed masculinity and femininity. John Thorpe’s boorish behavior, from his vile treatment of his mother and sisters to his extraordinary need to dominate all conversation, to be declared the best coachman; the heaviest drinker; and the owner of the most complete equipage in England, the neatest carriage, and the best-going horse, are hardly above the grotesque caricature of an anti-villain. Like Catherine’s unnerving stupidity and misguided trust, the despicable qualities of John Thorpe read just as Wollstonecraft suggested they would, as a societally inflicted disease of masculinity. His cartoonish need to be the stereotypical intelligent, rational male leads him to lie rather than admit ignorance; what he doesn’t know he makes up for with feigned information and “rapidity of expression” (43). Thorpe speaks with assurance on all subjects, often leading to what would have been humorous dramatic irony for Austen’s contemporaries—he declares his distaste for The Mysteries of Udolpho because it wasn’t written by Ann Radcliffe (it was), and describes Blaise as a mediæval castle (it wasn’t). If anything, we feel a bit badly for the buffoon, whose lack of diabolical foresight does not allow him to be mistaken for the greedy Gothic tyrant, and whose puppy-like attendance to the convention of the dominant male masks little more than a bit of misguided and underdeveloped romanticism; unlike his sister, he seems to earnestly believe that “to marry for money […is] the wickedest thing in existence” (86). Though perhaps good-intentioned, he has been socialized to think he is somehow an appealing mate to Catherine when he disregards her wishes, and only “laugh[s], crack[s] his whip, encourage[s] his horse, make[s] odd noises, and [drives] on” (59). Yet armed with only a bit of childish, trembling desire to have “the girl [he likes]” (86) and, moreover, without the villain’s sinister lust for the heroine’s massive inheritance, Thorpe becomes, in spite of his disgusting behavior, as much the comic victim of his prescribed gender role as Catherine.

With Isabella Thorpe, it is instead evident how the apparent observation of propriety can create dangerously misleading alternate realities. Isabella’s guise of decorum affords her the convenient character traits that went along with the Proper Lady; she and her mother somehow manage to unironically refer to her as modest, innocent, and unconcerned with herself. Yet we quickly see that far from having “no disguise,” “we [may still] perfectly see into [her] heart” (93). She is all appearances, all innocent show and all hardened economic substance, always doing whatever it is she says she won’t (and, of course, “of all the things in the world, inconstancy is [her] aversion”) (89, my emphases). The feigned humility, smiles and compliments, rather than indicative of some moral ends, are used instead to affect the requisite manner of polite and moneyed society to ensnare the most economically desirable mate and cover her tracks. The appearance of the romantic, sentimental girl that would be happy with “a much smaller income [than James Morland’s],” thinly veils Isabella’s tooth-and-claw fiscal brutality unconcerned to step on a few James Morlands in the same way that the English aristocracy looked to manners and civility as proof their removal from the terrifying violence and vastness of the natural struggle and secluded themselves in polite comforts from the escalating crime and poverty of the lower classes that resulted from the ongoing warring with France. Through intentional inversion, Isabella is reliably unreliable, and her constructed purity presents anti-realities of happy ignorance as treacherous as any Gothic.

Just as an 18th century critic would have implicitly understood the Gothic expectations—the dead parent, the daughter abandoned or sent away with a strange chaperone, the need to save the family in some way, curiosity-fueled transgression—Isabella recognizes the social expectations of propriety and femininity, which in Austen’s time were hardly less rigid. For a middle-class English woman like Catherine Morland, abiding the moral and social standards advised by women’s periodicals and conduct books had become increasingly significant as the middle class, English woman’s social import had reached its nadir in the shift from the domestic economic system of the Tudor era to the industrial capitalist system of the mid-1700s. In the resultant economic devaluation of the female, women lost a sense of purpose and self-worth that Puritanism, and later Evangelicalism, would come to replace with a meaningful—even superior—position in family life, domestic duties, and as the moral guardians of society that Protestantism had not offered. The importance of family and morality emphasized by Puritanism even suggested the notion of equality between the sexes despite the actual restrictions the faith imposed on women’s duties and actions. Moreover, as the industrial economic system enabled the upper-middle classes to attach larger and larger dowries to daughters in pursuit of the family’s upward mobility, the daughter’s increasing drain on the family’s wealth pressured her to acquiesce to behaviors that indicated celibacy, modesty, and fidelity, and that would, by extension, maintain the dominance of her husband’s lineage by ensuring wealth and power was passed to his own legitimate heir. It had therefore become increasingly socially fulfilling and economically necessary for the middle-class woman seeking purpose and upward mobility, like Catherine Morland, to model her own humors in the monolithic image of the ‘Proper Lady,’ who bore salient similarities to the Gothic heroine—ladylike; modest; emotional; virtuous; naturally desirous and curious, but constantly cultivating a morality and spirituality in order to rise above these destructive appetites. But as this social role evolved into an (often gratefully) accepted definition of essential female nature, women would find it “increasingly difficult to recognize that the stereotype was prescription, not description” (Poovey 15), and thus to resolve their own deviance from expectation into a cohesive and respectable definition of self.

The need for feminine propriety had arisen as a direct function of male, class-based power in a shifting economic system. Under the domestic economic system, the middle-class female had been needed by the middle-class male, who could not afford to sustain himself in a profession alone, and took her as a wife often out of the necessity for free labor. Yet with the shift to the factory system and division of labor that marked industrial capitalism, the middle class woman became increasingly devalued as the middle class man became increasingly wealthy outside of the home. Though the legal system of “coverture,” descended from Roman law, had remained throughout the Tudor period, and had long decreed that “the very being or legal existence of the woman [was] suspended during the marriage, or at least incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose protect and cover she performs everything” (Blackstone 442), woman had, under the domestic division of labor, retained some tenure on equality through her economic indispensability, which now faded.  Consequently, women’s relegation to the domestic sphere became a gendered shift, and the female’s position was further denigrated by the new possibility for the increasingly wealthy upper-middle class families to fulfill their ultimate dynastic ambitions of purchasing their way into landed gentility through a large dowry attached to a daughter, who was reduced to a marital bargaining chip.

Since land acted as the primary indicator of class in England, superseding even its potential cash yield, and because the number of estates was effectively static due to the practices of primogeniture (the right of a first-born son to inherit the family estate), and strict settlement (a law that prohibited eldest sons from selling land, leasing land for extended periods of time, and made mortgaging difficult), dowries attached to middle-class daughters increased dramatically in competition for the limited number of first-born sons. The economic historian John Habakkuk illustrates that the average ratio of a bride’s dowry (money, assets, and/or land brought to the husband through marriage) to the husband’s jointure (an economic provision for the wife proceeding the husband’s death) was £660 to £100; by the early 1700s the ratio was £1,000 to £100 (Habakkuk 21); by the late 1700s, the time Austen was writing, the critic Joyce M. S. Tompkins explained that a financially “suitable” wife for a landed son “should bring her husband a dowry large enough to enable him to pay his younger brothers and sisters their portions under his father’s will, without altering his own style of living” (Tompkins 165-6). These grossly inflated marriage settlement prices eroded the female’s social purchasing power, while the financial gains of the landed, distinctly male lineages acquired through these marriages further distanced the economic class gap and reinforced a landed family’s social dominance. Meanwhile, a daughter like Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, would have been pressured to model herself into the socially prescribed female if she heard remarks like those from Clarissa’s brother, James Harlowe, “A man who has sons brings up chickens for his own table, whereas daughters are chickens brought up for the tables of other men” (13). The social function of land both encouraged the ‘proper’ female role and perpetuated its own structural patriarchy as the middle classes sought to attain upward mobility through financial support of the upper classes.

Due to the complex organizations of these economic, class, and inheritance systems, and coupled with a persistent male psychological fear that only a female could be biologically certain which of her children were her own, it is not surprising that these structures dovetailed to create the role of the female out of the male’s primary desire in a wife: fidelity. The fear that “A woman could, by one act of infidelity, imperil both a man’s present security and his dynastic ambitions” (Poovey 5), lurked in the minds of many male writers, whose fears of inconstancy, fraud, and self-control undermined by sexual desire caused woman to absorb the accusations that these traits were her character. Joseph Swetam wrote in 1617, “women deuour [men] aliue, for a woman will pick thy pocket & empty thy purse [… they are] full of fraud, flouting and decit, vnconstant, waspish, toyish, light, sullen, proude, discourteous, and cruell” (43). Samuel Johnson expressed more lucidly, “Consider of what importance to society the chastity of women is. Upon that all the property in the world depends” (Boswell 250) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau illustrated the male fear:

“Can any position be more wretched than that of the unhappy father who, when he clasps his child to his breast, is haunted by the suspicion that this is the child of another, the badge of his own dishonor, a thief who is robbing his own children of their inheritance?” (324-5)

The hero of Northanger echoes the same fear in his linking of the duties of a country-dance to the fidelity and complaisance of marriage and his questioning, “Have I not reason to fear, that if the gentleman who spoke to you just now were to return, or if any other gentleman were to address you, there would be nothing to restrain you from conversing with him as long as you chose?” (52). The need to control dynasty through female fidelity arranged the feminine duties; propriety served to harness the vagabond female appetite under the will of the male. As the critic Mary Poovey explains, “Most of the activities that moral essayists consistently described as ‘unladylike’ or ‘unnatural’ were the ones that might jeopardize conjugal fidelity: frequenting the theater or masquerades, coquetting, or dressing provocatively or immodestly. All attacks on female ‘appetite’ were also, implicitly, defenses of female chastity” (19-20). The belief echoed by the moralists was that any indulged appetite would become insatiable and degenerate into illicit romantic affairs. Even novels were an indulgence; the preacher, Thomas Gisbourne, issued a sober reminder:

“[A woman should] not be seduced from a habitual study of the Holy Scriptures […] at other parts of the day let history, let biography, let poetry, or some of the various branches of elegant and profitable knowledge, pay their tribute of instruction and amusement. But let her studies be confined within the strictest limits of purity.” (402)

By impurity, Gisbourne of course meant the extravagant Gothic, with its blasphemous implications that threatened to upend the dominant order.

As the upper-middle class female dowry towered over the few potential landed sons’ jointures, the notion that a Catherine Morland, a young, lower-middle class girl, arguably conceived by Austen in 1798[ii], might marry a Henry Tilney, a clergyman, as second sons from wealthy families often were, with a parsonage at Woodston, would have been daydream. The same land-thirst that drove the upper-middle classes would have also urged a landed patriarch like General Tilney to pursue a wealthy match for his son, Henry, to prevent “attrition [of the estate] through debts or taxation” (Poovey 12) and thereby reinforce his own power. The thrust of the second half of Northanger’s plot, the General’s warm invitation to his estate at Northanger Abbey, derived from the happy felicity that the hyperbolic braggart, John Thorpe, secretly believed he would soon marry Catherine, and in conversation with General Tilney, exaggerated the size of her dowry (ten or fifteen thousand pounds) and insinuated that she was “the almost acknowledged future heiress of [Mr. Allen’s estate at] Fullerton” (169), since the Allens had no children of their own.

Yet the General’s lust for what he believes to be Catherine’s towering inheritance also mirrors the motives of Udolpho’s prototypical villain, Montoni. Upon General Tilney’s discovery of something closer to Catherine’s real fortune (the rejected and bitter John Thorpe has now called her impoverished), the General ejects Catherine from Northanger in an inversion of the classic abduction trope Austen’s readers would have expected early in the novel, and Austen brushed off in the second chapter. As Catherine is forced to leave Northanger Abbey, in a rented carriage, in disgrace and without money, which the editor Susan Fraiman explains would have been a “real threat to Catherine’s physical safety” (158), the English class and socials structures acquire the horror of the Gothic that Austen has alluded to throughout the novel in her linking of Gothic expectation and proper conduct. In the most important sense, Catherine’s sense of fear and suspicion instilled by novels has in fact allowed her the best perception of the General’s kinship with the Gothic villain. Suddenly, Henry Tilney’s ‘rational’ speech, which disabused Catherine of all misjudgments, has itself misjudged. Far from Catherine being “completely awakened” (136) by the unquestionable male reason, as Austen’s narrator purports, the presence of the absolute modifier completely in Austen’s third person narration should already have evoked Austen’s inverted intent in Henry’s exceptionally cheery and trusting speech:

“Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you—Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated in a country like this […] where roads and newspapers lay every thing open?” (136)

If Henry’s speech finally elucidated to Catherine the absurdity of allowing the Gothic to be literally applied to modern England, as Keymer notes, it is “also a masterpiece of double meaning on Austen’s part, and [Henry] inadvertently implicates General Tilney even as he exonerates him on the surface” (30). If the General did not have Blue-beard’s mariticide chamber, he was at least metaphorically implicated in the Gothic’s imprisonment, confining his wife in a marriage without “tenderness of disposition” (Northanger 136). It is not unlikely, given his own children’s low spirits in his presence, that while he did not literally murder his wife, that the anxieties of common life again provided the Gothic trope; his temper injured her if his judgment did not, and perhaps being chained to a neglectful, violent, and angry husband did not provide sufficient reason for the long-diseased General’s wife to continue fighting.

Moreover, Henry’s speech illustrates the repressive political climate of the period. The structures of patriarchy bolstered themselves through religion and law; from Biblical sanction to preachers’ conduct books, from primogeniture to coverture, the system insisted upon its own equity and oppressed evidence otherwise. As Marilyn Gaull explains,

“While the aristocracy and some clergy enjoyed the personal liberties of a gothic villain, dramatists were prohibited by law from presenting them on the stage, while journalists and publishers were imprisoned, sometimes without trial, for protesting their loss of freedom, or the hunger and deprivations of the working classes.” (231)

If Catherine’s application of Gothics to daily life was understandably absurd, the oppressive aspects of power that attempted to perpetuate patriarchy through the silencing of its victims, have lead Henry to very really misjudge his own family’s situation. Henry’s denial that “in the country and age in which we live” that there could possibly be any forbidden knowledge for Catherine to uncover in his mother’s room unwittingly reminds the reader that the General used Henry’s mother, the former Miss Drummond, as he has attempted to use Catherine Morland, merely for economic purposes. “His value of her was sincere,” says Henry, “and if not permanently, he was truly afflicted by her death” (136). Certainly, his mother’s £20,000, at most twice what the General thought Catherine was worth, was highly valued by the patriarch whose incessant doting on Catherine was coupled with “an almost positive command to his son [Henry] of doing every thing in his power to attach to her [Catherine]” (169). Yes, Henry is correct; his education has not prepared him to understand how to confront the notion that Northanger’s luxuries continue to be funded by his mother’s hefty dowry as earnestly as Sir Thomas Bertram’s slaves on his Antiguan plantation will provide the comforts of Mansfield Park. His education has not prepared him to see the structural domination of women as anything other than the proper arrangement of society; if Henry Tilney is romantic enough to see that in marriage the man has the advantage of choice, his conclusions stopped short of a Jeremy Bentham, who likened the position of women to that of the slaves that toiled to supply the extravagances of Mansfield. His education does not prepare him to accept the suggestions of the emerging sciences and arts—that nature does not privilege one species and that societal arrangement is entirely human-sanctioned and curiously dark. Henry will not see his villainous father as the man who used his mother for economic gain, overtook her legal person under coverture, and imprisoned her in a marriage that may have ultimately killed her.

That Henry will not declare the oppression of women to be tyranny and imbecility as Bentham did is unsurprising. Henry’s authoritative patriarchal worldview has forced him, on other occasions, into too much happy confidence in the ultimate righteousness of the system; he defends conventional wisdom down to the ‘proper’ definition of the word ‘nice’ in the Beechen Cliff scene. Interestingly, the word, which had then recently generalized into its modern, nearly ornamental usage (“this is a very nice day, and we are having a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a nice word indeed!—it does for every thing,” Henry quips), originally referred specifically to “propriety, delicacy, or refinement” (74), that all too authoritarian ‘proper’ arrangement of society. Eventually Henry will prove his sister right; he is “more nice than wise” (74), more conforming than critical. We recall the Tilneys’ belief in male-dominated history, which Catherine declares must be mostly invention, and the Tilneys qualify as only a little embellished (74). Where Catherine questions Henry on Fredrick’s flirtations with Isabella, which are plainly visible and lead to James and Isabella’s eventual split, Henry is made uneasy by Catherine’s close questioning. He asks, “Are you not carried a little too far? […] Real jealousy never can exist between them [James and Isabella]; depend upon it that no disagreement between them can be of any duration” (104 my emphases). By now Henry’s use of the absolute ‘never’ appears to the reader to be Henry’s desperate attempt to bolster his own happy ignorance in the face of damning evidence that James and Isabella’s break will be as much Frederick’s fault as the coquetting woman’s. Moreover, his speech seems to suggest the “cool reasonings of family partiality” (151) that Catherine is not attuned to. Henry’s speech betrays none of the worry he expressed during the country-dance that Catherine would leave him for another partner, in which her leaving would have been caused by her female caprice. Instead, Henry blames James for not keeping his fiancé interested enough (“is [James] only to be secured by her seeing nothing of Captain Tilney? Is he safe only in solitude?—or, is her heart constant to him only when unsolicited by anyone else?”) (103).

Where Henry does appear to be defiant of cultural norms, or to occupy the position of a protofeminist like Bentham or Wollstonecraft, it seems he is as posturing as John and Isabella Thorpe. If he recognizes that he will not achieve Catherine’s friendship through John’s brute attitude, and he seems to have a relatively romantic disposition for Austen’s time, some of this attitude is certainly painted for appearances. He does marry the lower-middle class heroine and ostensibly challenges the general opinion on novels (“The person, be it a gentleman or a lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid”) (72). Certainly, Henry has read enough Gothics to blend convention in his scintillating description of the conventional tale and Eleanor even recounts an incident in which Henry was so excited to continue reading while she herself took a break that he ran away with the book. Yet there is still a bit of uneasy overstatement on Henry’s part in the admission (‘intolerably stupid’) and at least a few jabs at the classic excesses (‘my hair standing on end the whole time’). If Henry genuinely enjoys these tales, he still seems to be made a bit uneasy by their association as female literature. There is even greater playful sarcasm as Henry panders to Eleanor and Catherine, his female audience, regarding his feelings on ‘the understanding of women:’

“Miss Morland, I think very highly of the understanding of all the women in the world—especially those—whoever they may be—with whom I happen to be in company. […] Miss Morland, no one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much that they never find it necessary to use more than half.” (79)

Henry’s speech is supported by his sister’s affirmation that he must be misunderstood if he appears to say an unjust thing of a woman; “His manner might sometimes surprise, but his meaning must always be just” (79), yet we recall that Henry lived in a society in which it was ‘just’ to condescend on the female ability. Damningly, Henry is here hyperbolic, and noted to be facetious by to his sister. His littered use of absolutes is uncharacteristic, and suggests that Henry is only playing to his female audience—the females with whom he happens to be in company—while opening interpretation to any eavesdropping ear of his being blatantly sarcastic. It seems that Henry understands that his female audience will prefer the flattery associated with the emerging protofeminist view the way Isabella understands that the guise of propriety will win her a favorable image, and that Henry has postured himself here to gain Catherine and Eleanor’s favor. His previous statement in the same conversation is more straightforward, less damningly hyperbolic, and likely closer to his actual views:

“I will be noble. I will prove myself a man, no less by the generosity of my soul than the clearness of my head. I have no patience with such of my sex as disdain to let themselves sometimes down to the comprehension of yours. Perhaps the abilities of women are neither sound nor acute—neither vigorous nor keen. Perhaps they may want observation, discernment, judgment, fire, genius, and wit.” (78)

Ultimately, Henry will seriously suggest that he has disabused Catherine of her overly romantic views, and that his male rationality offers a clear lens through which to see the world.

The true Gothic tragedy of Northanger will be Austen’s final attendance to the comforting artificialities of the courtship novel, and the structures of patriarchy that rendered Catherine’s “perfect felicity” only achievable through submission to Henry’s warped assurance in his society’s general integrity. That Catherine, who has best discerned the despicable realities of Isabella and General Tilney, accepts Henry’s acquiescent version of the novel’s events as literally correct, is an ending as dark as any Gothic, and suggests that she has learned little. Through Catherine’s education, she has merely shifted from one misguided mode of judgment (Gothic literalism) to another (patriarchal submission). As Catherine accepts a more realistic version of her world, she suffers all the pains of patriarchal reality while forced to submit to them – Fredrick Tilney’s cheating, Catherine’s acknowledgement of Isabella’s true character, General Tilney’s unexplained dismissal of her from Mansfield. Supposedly she is comforted, at last, by what she has wanted all along—the “perfect happiness” (174) of a marriage to Henry Tilney.

Yet, of course, Austen’s final absolute acts as her last redflag of intentional inversion.  Here, rather than the conventional happy ending, which Austen ostensibly provides, we are left with the cleverly punctured cliché, through which we see the dark ending, a silenced Catherine, whose superior judgment suggested by Wollstonecraft and made literal by Austen, is ultimately suppressed. In Northanger Abbey, Austen alludes to the ways in which her cultured world, though seemingly free of the corruption and imprisonment that the Gothic openly operated on, utilized the same devices, quietly functioning instead behind a veil of polite society, feminine propriety, male dominance, and assured rationality. Austen has warned against the black and white absolute realities created both by Gothic novels and polite society; if Catherine’s original fears of the General were “self-created delusion” (137), her terrors were not, as she says, “causeless.” Henry’s sunny assurance in patriarchy is as flawed as Catherine’s gloom, and Austen has illustrated a woman whose literal potential to be more ‘rational’ than a man, is both halted by her lack of education and her eventual need to submit to her husband’s perceptions. As Catherine numbs herself with Henry’s comforting delusions, Austen presents this imagery of her enslavement to them; Catherine:

“Would contend no longer against comfort. She had resisted its approaches during the whole length of a speech [and the novel], but it now carried her captive. Henry Tilney must know best. She blamed herself for the extent of her fears, and resolved never to think so seriously on the subject again.” (104)

If Austen is finally as silenced as Catherine in her need to conclude with an affirmation of the system’s continuation, she is not resigned to the same ends as her heroine. If her prose is locked up in patriarchy, if she cannot openly publish the ending in which a defiant Catherine questions the oppressive structures of her society, then Austen invites us in on her final joke. As usual, Austen draws attention to the excesses of her own language, and questions such a neatly concluded meaning. Are the comforts of patriarchy ultimately worth enslavement? A muted heroine? Austen leaves us finally with the ironic question, whether her work “recommend[s] parental tyranny, or reward[s] filial disobedience” (174). As is traditional in satire, Austen asks her readers to conclude what she does not. She speaks within the bounds of patriarchy, curtseys in all the right places, and allows the male critics their fortuitous delusion in which Austen’s works were a happy accident by an inspired amateur, yet her intentional inversion also affords her a cleverly permeable disguise that allowed her, as a woman with “the misfortune of knowing any thing [to] conceal it as well as she [could]” (76). With her questioning of absolute meaning, Austen seems to imply, though does not provide the structure for, the potential for a superior social and cultural structuring built on transparency and equality. As a meticulous, though muted social documentarian, she has left us with all the necessary pieces to dissect her society, and gestured forward to a more explicit ecofeminist interpretation of the structures which necessitated this ending.

As a parody of the Gothic novel, Northanger Abbey cleverly bound itself up in the prominent 18th century tendency to equate aesthetic and ethical values. If the Gothic’s aestheticism expressed an immoral excess, it embodied an argument that Austen entered, spanning the age’s most representative arts, architecture, and landscape gardening, in which control equated to morality. Throughout Western history, wilderness, like women, connoted a fecundity in need of taming. Uncontrolled nature and uncontrolled women terrified. Wilderness could only useful in the ways it could be turned to human use, farmland, a city upon a hill; it was wrapped in Biblical undertones as the location of Christ’s temptation. Wild nature was vast and dominating, the land outside of civilization in which one lost their way, a treacherous moral landscape that described the fallen life on Earth and contrasted with Heaven’s salvation. In 1684, Thomas Burnet described mountain ranges “as being the physical manifestation of God’s displeasure with mankind” (Garrard 63); and throughout the Renaissance, into the 1700s, the trend in Italy, France, and England was one of formal gardens, rigidly ordered into geometric patterns spoken of in architectural terms. Walls of hedges and stairways of water were joined by hallways that led to other rooms and vestibules.  In the late 1600s and early 1700s, writers and thinkers like Anthony Ashley Cooper and Alexander Pope began to describe such gardens as unnatural or ugly; true order, they said, was God’s order, and they called for the harmony of a simple, unadorned nature. Such a seemingly relaxed gardening style could become the moral trend because it still expressed safety and control; it more closely resembled, after all, God’s plan, and did not call for the frightening overgrowth of nature run rampant. Even as the new trend connoted a dangerous love of variety, that is, a ‘curiosity,’ the emergent ‘picturesque’ landscape meticulously controlled its variety with books of suggestions derived from the painting aesthetics of Salvator Rosa and Nicolas Poussin describing, “three cows are picturesque while two will hardly do and a fourth must be a little detached from the rest to prevent heaviness in the scene” (Gilpin, Observations 254). A landscape designer still improved the landscape, which became a work of taste, decorum, order, harmony, proportion, and simplicity—the prevalent aesthetic terms, which mirrored those of polite society. Through these dual connotations, a landscape designer could improve a wild landscape as he trimmed it into a serene pastoral scene reminiscent of Eden or Arcadia, and Catherine Morland could “sometimes [hear] her father and mother remark on her personal improvement,” as her “noisy and wild [disposition that] hated confinement and cleanliness” (6) gave way to hair primping, an inclination for finery and hygiene, and a longing for balls and the male counterparts to be found there.

Increasingly, however, the assured control of the 1700s gave way in fashionable society to a hobby-horse lust for the sublime; Edmund Burke’s definition in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful was the age’s authority:

“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” (39)

Burke contrasted ‘sublime’ nature with ‘beautiful’ nature, which was “loved for its smallness, softness, [and] delicacy” (Garrard 64), and explicitly linked the beautiful to the female for the same reasons (“The beauty of women is considerably owing to their weakness, or delicacy”) (Burke 219). The sublime, for the same reasons as the Gothic, was considered irrational or impractical; its seekers loved the feeling of smallness and helplessness illicited by volcanoes, mountains, violent storms, tidal waves, and vast oceans, all of which were still tied to notions of God’s wrath. The mind and soul were elated by immense and mysterious phenomena and drawn to the sense of something larger than the human from which they appeared to shrink. Astronomy newly suggested an infinite universe in the sublime and geology new suggested an Earth born from the infinity. At root, the sublime urge, Burke explained, was curiosity, which he defined as ‘pleasure in novelty,’ binding the sublime to the same feared lack of restraint as infidelity and Gothic transgression.

By Austen’s time, a prominent public debate raged between landscape gardeners regarding proper mediation between sublime aesthetic principals and the rational concerns of the human habitation. The most famous designer of the time, Humphry Repton, criticized “scenes of horror […which] did not suit the comfort of his clients,” such as rocky ravines through which a carriage had to pass on the approach to the estate (Blaise). Such features, he said, “ignored the […] social considerations of a garden” (Blaise). These terrifying landscapes were both the settings of the Gothic novel and the backdrops of the estates of many of the idle and extravagant rich. Austen herself mocked the absurd decisions informed by an aestheticism free of practical social concern as Catherine fashionably rejected the entire city of Bath for its unworthiness to be included in a landscape in the Beechen Cliff scene, further entrenching the character in her stereotypical construction as the ‘impractical’ aesthete. While Repton’s criticism of other designers like William Gilpin, Uvedale Price, and Richard Payne Knight therefore echoed the moralists’ calls for control, Repton’s critics warned that his use of geometric formality in the French fashion risked rendering all landscape interchangeable in a mirror of Northanger Abbey’s suggestion that like the nearly homogeneous Gothic, England abounded with identically constructed, ordered, and oppressed “Proper Ladies.” Repton’s critics had their own vision of morality, calling his “readiness to impose self upon the world […a] failure of moral sympathy” (M. Price 268) in its own right. Just as Northanger Abbey challenged the absolute prescriptions presented by the dominating ideologies of patriarchy, criticisms of Repton expressed, “[Repton] asserts so much, and assumes so much, as to make me irritable, for he is one (of the many) who is never wrong; and therefore why debate with him?” (Byng 9). In such a view, the “improvements” of “improvers” like Repton and his intellectual predecessor Lancelot “Capability” Brown, could only be considered so to themselves; and Northanger links Catherine’s female socialization into these critical debates regarding male and human control. Though Catherine’s (mis)education was useful in its deflation of her purely aesthetic sensibility, it was ultimately as damaging in its lack of concern for non-male, non-human principles. Through Northanger’s political consciousness and adoption of an oppressed genre, Austen displayed the theoretical, linguistic, and experiential similarities between the structural domination of women and nature and the multitude of cultural associations shared between them.

Though a critical discourse like ecofeminism was unavailable to Austen, her careful documentation of the society in which she lived illustrates the linked logics of domination that existed, in which:

“Capitalist patriarchy or ‘modern’ civilization [was and] is based on a cosmology and anthropology that structurally dichotomizes reality, and hierarchically opposes the two parts to each other: the one always considered superior, always thriving, and progressing at the expense of the other.” (429)

Austen attacked her society’s absolute, dichotomized notions of masculinity and femininity, humans and nature, the moral and immoral, conduct books and Gothic novels, the sublime and the beautiful, religion and science, the public and the private, and gestured towards a worldview which recognized the multiplicity of reality. Just as Catherine’s judgment becomes equally murky in the switch from Gothic aestheticism to patriarchal submission, Northanger does not recommend the either/or tendencies of the society it illustrates. Rather than Henry’s facetious claim to think “very highly of the understanding of all the women in the world” (79), Austen suggests that such a view would be as misleading as dismissing the rationality of an entire gender. If Austen patronized the majority of Gothic novels, she lauded the achievements of its most esteemed contributions, which were above the head of the generalizing John Thorpe and those who “slight[ed] the [novels] which [had] only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them” (22). If she mocked the absurd and fashionable extremes of the picturesque in Catherine’s rejection of Bath, Austen’s brother, Henry, assures us she “was enamoured of Gilpin on the Picturesque” from a very early age (Biographical Notice). It seems that Austen recognized that a simple up-ending of the dualistic structures of society was to implicitly support its dichotomizing and subordinating logic by perpetuating its discourse. Rather than othering or villainizing males and morals, of recommending parental tyranny or filial disobedience, Northanger Abbey motions towards the dissolution of patriarchal dualisms while managing to speak within them. If the ending was dark, it was hopeful; if the Benthams and Wollstonecrafts were the minority discourse and the Gilpins, Prices, and Knights were too, at least they had begun to imagine a liberating, plural reality.


Endnotes

[i] The plot of Frances Burney’s Camilla was conventional; also see Evelina and Cecilia (Burney), Belinda (Maria Edgeworth), or the central work parodied in Northanger Abbey, Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho. These works, and numerous others not mentioned in Northanger were linked by the common themes of romantic love and, often, a female’s upward mobility via marriage.

[ii] Northanger’s publication history is rife with critical debate, though it is generally agreed that it was written about the years 1798-1799. As a work of historical fiction, these are the primary years that concern my argument.

Works Cited

A Lady. The Ladies Library. 5th Ed, 3 vols. London: J. & R. Tonson, 1739.

Allestree, Richard. The Ladies Calling. 12th impression. Oxford: n.p., 1727.

Austen, Henry. Biographical Notice of the Author. 1817. Print.

Austen, Jane, and Claudia L. Johnson. Mansfield Park. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1775. Print.

Austen, Jane, and Claudia L. Johnson. Sense and Sensibility: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. New York: Norton, 2002. Print.

Austen, Jane, and Marilyn Gaull. Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2005. Print.

Austen, Jane, and Donald Gray. Pride and prejudice an authoritative text, backgrounds and sources, criticism. New York: Norton, 2001. Print.

Austen, Jane, and R. W. Chapman. Minor Works. Vol. 6 of The Novels of Jane Austen. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1954.

Austen, Jane, and Susan Fraiman. Northanger Abbey backgrounds, criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. Print.

Blackstone, Sir William. Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book the First. Oxford, 1765.

Boswell, James. Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. Boston: Houghton Mifflin/Riverside, 1965.

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1958. Print.

Burney, Fanny, Edward Alan Bloom, and Lillian Doris Bloom. Camilla, Or, A Picture of Youth. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Byng, John. The Torrington Diaries. Vol. 3. London, 1936. Print.

Byron, George Gordon, Lord. The Works of Lord Byron. Letters and Journals A New, Revised and Enlarged Edition, with Illustrations. Volume 2. New York: Adamant Media Corporation, 2002. Print.

Coleridge, Samuel. Biographia Literaria. 1817. Print.

Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Garside, Peter, James Raven, and Rainer Schowerling. The English Novel 1770-1829: A Bibliographical Survey, 2 vols. Oxford University Press, 2000. Vol 1, p. 629, quoting the Critical Review (February 1796) on Austenburn Castle (1795).

Gilpin, William. Observations, relative chiefly to picturesque beauty, made in the year 1772, on several parts of England; particularly the mountains, and lakes … London, 1792. 278pp. Vol. 2, p. 44.

Gisborne, Thomas. An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex, 4th ed. London: T. Cadell, Jr. & W. Davies, 1799.

Habakkuk, H. J. “Marriage Settlements in the Eighteenth Century,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 4th ser. 32. London: Royal Historical Society, 1950.

Keymer, Thomas, Edward Copeland, and Juliet McMaster. “Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility.” The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2011. Print.

La Mettrie, Julien Offray de. Man a Machine and Man a Plant. Trans. Richard A. Watson and Maya Rybalka. Indiana: Hackett, 1994.

Lewis, M. G., Howard Anderson, and Emma McEvoy. The Monk. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

McCloskey, Robert. Make Way for Ducklings. New York, NY: Puffin, 1999. Print.

Mies, Maria, and Vandana Shiva. Introduction to Ecofeminism.

Nichols, Ashton, William Wordsworth, and Charles Darwin. Romantic Natural Histories: Selected Texts with Introduction. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004. Print.

Poovey, Mary. The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1985. Print.

Pope, Alexander. Essay on Verdant Nature. 1713.

Price, Martin. “The Picturesque Moment.” Essays Presented to Frederick A. Pottle. New York: Oxford UP, 1965. Print.

Price, Uvedale. Essay on the Picturesque, As Compared With The Sublime and The Beautiful. 1794. Print.

Radcliffe, Ann Ward, and Jacqueline Howard. The Mysteries of Udolpho: a Romance. London: Penguin, 2001. Print.

Reeve, Clara, quoted by J. M. S. Tompkins. The Popular Novel in England, 1770-1800. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961.

Repton, Humphry. Blaise Castle Red Book. Bristol, 1795-96. Print.

Richardson, Samuel. Clarissa, Or, The History of a Young Lady. London: Dutton/Everyman 1932.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques. Emile. Trans. Barbara Foxley. New York: Dutton/Everyman, 1974.

Swetnam, Joseph, quoted by David J. Latt. “Praising Virtuous Ladies: The Literary Image and Historical Reality of Women in Seventeenth Century England.” What Manner of Women: Essays on English and American Life and Literature. New York: New York University Press, 1977.

Tompkins, J. M. S.. The Popular Novel in England, 1770-1800. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961.

Utter, Robert Palfrey, and Needham, Gwendolyn Bridges. Pamela’s Daughters. New York: Macmillan, 1936.

Walpole, Horace, and W. Stanley. Lewis. The Castle of Otranto: a Gothic Story. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print. Walpole’s discussion on “old” and “new” romantic traditions appears in the preface.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. “From A Vindication of the Rights of Women.” Sense and Sensibility: Authorative Text, Backgrounds, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002. 284-90. Print.

Wood, James. How Fiction Works. New York: Picador, 2009. Print.

Wordsworth, William. Preface to the Second Edition of Lyrical Ballads. 1800. Print.

Works Consulted

Alexander, Christine. “The Prospect of Blaise: Landscape and Perception in Northanger Abbey.” Persuasions. Vol. 21. Print.

Altick, Richard. “The English Common Reader A Social History of the Mass Reading Public 1800-1900.” University of Chicago Press. Print.

Appleton, Jay. The Experience of Landscape. London: John Wiley, 1975. p. 73.

Austen, Jane,. Emma an authoritative text, backgrounds, reviews and criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000. Print.

Blake, William. Auguries of Innocence. 1863. Print.

Clarke, Stephen. “What Smith did at Compton: Landscape Gardening, Humphrey Repton, and Mansfield Park.” Persuasions. Vol. 21. Print.

Cowper, William. The Task. 1785. Print.

Darwin, Charles. “The Origin of Species.” Darwin (Norton Critical Editions) (3rd Edition). New York: W. W. Norton, 2000. Print.

Duckworth, Alistair M. Improvement of the estate a study of Jane Austen’s novels. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994. Print.

Duckworth, Alistair M. “Landscape.” Jane Austen in Context (The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen). New York: Cambridge UP, 2006. Print.

Fleishman, Avrom. A Reading of Mansfield Park. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1967. Print.

Gilpin, William. Essay Upon Prints. 1768. Print.

Huxley, Thomas H. “Evolution and Ethics.” Darwin (Norton Critical Editions) (3rd Edition). New York: W. W. Norton, 2000. 501-03. Print.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd ed. Chicago: University Of Chicago, 1996. Print.

Loudon, J. C. Gardens and the Picturesque Studies in the History of Landscape Architecture. Massachusetts: Cambridge, 1992. Print.

Repton, Humphry. Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening. 1803. Print.

Repton, Humphry. Sketches and hints on Landscape Gardening. 1795. Print.

Ruskin, John. Modern Painters IV. Print.

Wenner, Barbara Britton. Prospect And Refuge in the Landscape of Jane Austen. Ashgate, 2006. Print.

Want more literary criticism? Try my piece on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels!

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How To: Reduce a College’s Carbon Footprint

This year I worked with a team of students to review Dickinson’s Climate Action Plan in order to ensure that the college reaches its goal of carbon neutrality by 2020.

Our report will be useful to other higher ed. institutions, many of which have already signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC). It should also be useful to other businesses interested in long-term financial gains.

Read our Climate Action Plan Review via the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE).

Read our Climate Action Plan via the Dickinson College website.

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Sustaining A Species

This article will run in the summer issue of Dickinson Magazine.

You’ve probably seen southern Utah in the movies. Sprawling rock formations like the Delicate Arch or Monument Valley loom over a sublime arid landscape. Yet away from these higher, drier environs, down in the valleys where the rivers run to the soil, the alfalfa farmers and the prairie dogs have long been at war. Nathanael Brown ’01 has spent the past four years finding ways to forge a truce between the dogs and farmers, first as a land manager and now as an ecologist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Services.

In Utah, prairie dogs have long been an umbrella species—if preserved, they will sustain many of the other species in their habitat. Prairie dogs also have been the bane of farmers, Brown explains. Both alfalfa and the dogs thrive in the wet, low-lying valleys, and with 75 percent of prairie dogs living on private lands without guaranteed federal protection, this pivotal species became listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

“The farmers can shoot the dogs with a special permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service,” Brown explains. “But a lot of people don’t realize that by maintaining prairie dogs, they’re maintaining biodiversity, preserving the integrity of the landscape and the integrity of a cultural heritage. The people of southern Utah really love their heritage and lifestyle, but it can be hard to see how prairie dogs can ensure the whole system remains in check when they’re pests on your land.”

Even more threatening to the dogs and farmers is the potential for widespread development. After the population boom in southern California spilled into Las Vegas and later Utah, developers began offering million-dollar checks to farmers in return for dynastic lands, and these enticing offers threaten both local markets and land management. With Utah’s natural and cultural capital in jeopardy, the Division of Wildlife Resources had to make it increasingly enticing for farmers to retain their land, their lifestyle and this endangered species.

Under the new credits-exchange program that Brown helped to devise, farmers are paid to preserve the land and its resources, and developers purchase credits to offset their environmental impact.

“Farmers set aside 40 acres, which they can continue to farm, as a conservation easement and get paid for what has been traditionally been an encumbrance,” Brown explains. “As long as at least 20 dogs and 10 plant species are counted in the space, it can be rolled into a conservation unit, and farmers can finally receive real compensation for their support of these species. Even if the land is sold or exchanged in the future, those 40 acres will remain a green space.”

By monetizing Utah’s precious resources, developers feel the true costs of development; if they want to pave over prime valley property, they’ll have to pay for conservation projects.

The project brings together Utah’s stakeholders, according to the former biology major. These include “county commissioners, members of the state congress and other interested parties, because all members of the system are necessary for sustainability to be possible throughout ecological time,” Brown says.

“The liberal arts at Dickinson taught me to understand the interplay between parts of a system, whether it be the interested parties interacting at the table or the various species interacting with their environment,” Brown adds. “Some people just see the forest as the trees, but Dickinson taught me to step back and understand how to build this dynamic and volatile recovery program.”

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Organic Farming at Dickinson College

This article will appear in the summer issue of Dickinson Magazine.

The day that I go out to the college farm, it is cow day. It’s hot and the sky is clear. Jen Halpin, director of the organic farm, stands in a dirt path that cuts through acres of perennial forages, taking pictures. To our north and extending out to the west, are five acres, recently fenced, where the cows should be, and they aren’t. Last year, Halpin tells me, the thousand pound animals hopped the fence to join the neighboring dairy herd. It took all day to coax them back. “It’s always an adventure on the farm,” she says.

Bob, the local farmer who has loaned the cows to the college, drives up in a truck with a rig attached to the back, presumably used to haul the cows out to our 180-acre farm earlier that day. Bob and Jen joke, and as he heads off, Jen calls him the farm’s mentor. Since last year, he’s guided the cow and calf operation that will ultimately provide the dining hall with local, grass-fed beef.

“He provides the cows, and empowers us with knowledge,” Halpin explains. After a few years learning from Bob, Jen says the goal is to raise our own livestock. Until then, we take a before and after weight of Bob’s cows, and he gives us the difference in beef. We provide the pasture that grass-fed operations in the area struggle to find in July when the water shuts off and there’s little rain, and the cows mow our forage for us. “It’s a really cool deal and he’s a great man,” Halpin says.

For Jen Halpin, the operation is just one of many experiments in progressive farming techniques, food safety, and land management. It is also the first year the farm has been certified organic, a certification that it requires a three-year transitional period before the physical inspection. In the transitional period, which we chose to last four years instead, the farm made its plans to address everything from runoff to soil fertility, draft issues to organic seed.

“I appreciate that third party entities watch us to ensure our efforts are legitimately progressive,” Halpin says. “We’re also going to be certified by Food Alliance this year, which offers a different, holistic approach that requires a farm to provide habitat for wildlife, to implement strategies for biodiversity, to treat workers fairly, et cetera.” The farm also has a personal relationship with customers. “We want our customers to come out and see how we’re raising our crops and animals, to ask us questions and challenge us and propose new methods.” Transparency is important at the farm.

True, these efforts cost more than conventional techniques; certified organic seeds tend to cost a quarter to half as much as mass-produced, genetically modified seeds, “but you have to invest in what you believe in,” she says. Jen Halpin sits cross-legged now. She plucks blades of grass and runs them through her fingers as she speaks. “We want to ensure that we have a long-term positive impact on this land,” she says, “and that our food is safe for our customers.”

 

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Why is Gas So Expensive?

Not literally, but lungs? Yep.

I know what you’re thinking. Gas be gettin’ pricey up in here. But what about the effects of gasoline we don’t pay to mitigate?

Check out Grist to see an in-depth video!

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A Historical Enquiry Into Our Ideas of the Human and the Natural

     Climate change presents environmental disasters truly global in scale, and yet at the intergovernmental level, we can come to little workable consensus. The dilemma itself appears defined; the objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is to “achieve […] stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” (4), and yet, this objective raises more questions than it answers.

            What is dangerous? Dangerous to whom? Are future generations weighted equally with peoples currently alive?  Are animals included? Ecosystems? Do we privilege the environment under which we have flourished as a species or will any livable environment do? Will technological and economic advancement allow future generations to solve the problem more quickly and at a lower cost than we could today? Are economic considerations of comparable ethical weight to climate considerations? How soon should we start working? Who is responsible for climate change? Who should pay for mitigation and adaptation? Are there other major world dilemmas that are more pressing? Are there solutions to these other problems which could be achieved faster and at a lower cost? Is, say, stopping the spread of communicable diseases a problem of equal weight that is easier and cheaper to solve?

There are many different answers to these questions. The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) will answer these questions very differently from the newly formed Mountain Initiative for Climate Change Adaptation in Mountain Regions and for very different reasons. Where low-lying islands face issues of “coastal erosion, flooding, coral bleaching […] [and] more frequent and intense extreme weather events” (AOSIS), mountainous regions face “escalating numbers of landslides, mudslides, catastrophic floods […] reduced water availability and increasing conflicts over dwindling natural resources and supplies […] [caused by] the rapid melting of mountain glaciers and degradation of watersheds” (Mountain Initiative). Other coalitions do not face similarly pressing natural disasters. Parties will disagree on climate issues because “individuals and societies ascribe value to activities, assets, constructs, and resources in many different ways, […] because we believe different things about our duty to others, to Nature and to our deities, […] because we evaluate risks differently, […] because we receive multiple and conflicting messages about climate change and we interpret them in different ways, […] [and] because we understand development differently” (Hulme 112, 144, 181, 215, 251), among other reasons.

This paper will magnify one of these disparities by examining our contradictory notions about man’s relationship with Nature that arise out of Western literary traditions. It is not within the scope of this paper to provide a complete chronology of these notions even in Western literature, but rather this paper will identify important intellectual trending. It is necessary to note my own limitations and biases as a student of Romantic and American nature writing; though this paper will not hide certain traditions while privileging others and will rather reveal a history of competing views on man’s relationship with nature with the intent to reveal our differences in answering some of the most pressing questions of our time.

Perhaps the chief tension in Western views on man’s relationship with nature has arisen out of what Michael Hulme calls the “peculiarly Western separation” of the cultural from the physical – that is, of mankind from Nature (15). The note “peculiarly Western” here is important; anthropologist Julie Cruikshank writes that “the idea that a measurable natural world might be prised from its cultural moorings has continued to insinuate itself in locations and landscapes where local understandings were conventionally framed very differently” (245). Yet if literatures exist in which Society and Nature are inseparable, such as the thirteenth and fourteenth century Icelandic Sagas, and if this enmeshment still persists in traditional non-Western cultures, a dualism between man and Nature pervades Western thought as a tenant of modernism arising out of the Enlightenment in Europe (Hulme 15). This dualism is complex, with various literatures supporting views which favor such disparate ideologies as the dominance of man over nature, the wildness of Nature as sacred, or the stewardship of man over the land.

Mastery of Nature

If our present understanding of climate is statistical, arising out scientific developments including standardization of meteorological instruments in the early nineteenth century, the development of the Köppen–Geiger climate classification system, and the collapsing of worldwide thermometer readings into an average surface temperature, then this statistical understanding is a relatively recent development. Michael Hulme explains that “until the eighteenth century climate was largely […] unquantifiable. Weather and climate were described in qualitative and impressionistic terms, expressing beauty or prosperity, danger or threat” (13). Out of the latter, that is a pervasive fear, a desire for mankind to control Nature has developed and has been supported by early religious ideologies. Later literatures would adopt the desire for mastery and offer prudent evolutionary/societal reasoning to rule the natural world.

For the Greeks as early as the sixth century BC, the frigid and torrid klimata of the North and South respectively inspired fear or death. The Greek classification of climates into five distinct latitudinal zones, from their own inhabitable Mediterranean zone to the unlivable Equator, where “travelers would turn black, or else die,” as commonly believed in the Classical period (38), reveals the tensions between humans and climate at this early period which established a separation in the form of rivalry—climate was either good or bad as judged by the tenability of human habitation, and so zones were divided latitudinally, as based on their livabilty.

“Wilderness,” as a notion still holds these connotations of fear and waste; it is land outside of society—again inferring a separation of man from nature—and its distinction from the word “desert” is only that the latter is uncultivatable. The difference lies solely in the potential utility of wilderness to mankind.

As Lucian Boia writes, “The history of humanity is characterized by an endemic anxiety” (149), that is, an encompassing fear of Nature’s wrath. This anxiety undoubtedly arose because “weather was beyond human control” (Hulme 14), and it is therefore logical that early cultures saw it as “an instrument for the exercise of God’s expressions of favor or disfavor on morally venerable populations” (14). The mode of seeing climate as linked to the will of a deity pervades early culture; Donner writes, “The ancient western mythologies or early religions – e.g., Greek, Egyptian, Sumerian and Hindu – all viewed the sky as the domain of the gods. […] The notion that the sky is the home of [a] supreme being is found in the Old Testament. […] The names of supreme being(s) in traditional cultures reflect this separation of earth and sky: Tulugankul (Inuit) means “he who dwells in the sky,” Ngai (Massai, central-east Africa) means “he who dwells in the sky, behind the clouds” (233). Today the mode still holds some sway; after Hurricane Katrina, a poll conducted by ABC News and the Washington Post concluded that 23% of polled Americans believed the disaster was “a deliberate act of God,” while 39% attributed it to anthropogenic climate change (Sussman 1). The link between disaster and the revenge of god(s) explains the fear surrounding climate “through the Middle Ages and early modern periods” (Hulme 14). If human history is therefore enmeshed in this fear, it explains other important beliefs Judeo-Christian theology—specifically, a belief in the basic human right to master Nature, if possible.

Out of this fear, “man [began] a divine mission to control the whole creation [under Judeo-Christian theology]. To achieve this, it is God’s intention that mankind multiply itself, spread out of the earth, make its dominion over the creation secure” (Glacken 151). Genesis 1:28 in the King James Bible reads “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” At least into the 18th century, the idea arising out of this Biblical wisdom, that man occupied a position in the Great Chain of Being between angels and beasts, and therefore over the rest of the natural order, remained uncontested. The elementary logic literature Jonathan Swift would have read at Oxford or Cambridge ranged from Burgersdicius to Milton, but would have categorically contained the formula: Homo est animal rationale, or, Man is a rational animal (Crane 850). The formula often appeared “without comment or explanation as the obviously correct formula for man’s distinctive nature, as if no one would ever question that man is, above all, a rational creature” (850).

In the context of the larger purposes of this paper, it is important here to note that the endemic fear of Nature informed the desire to master the natural order and the Biblical statute that man had the innate right to be ruler. It even informed the pretension of logic that man was an animal closer to God’s likeness than the other animals. Yet problematically, we have also noted that the sky persisted as the domain of deities; paradoxically, man had the right to do anything on earth and it could not affect the skies—the climate—as we now know it can. “The notion that humans [could] strongly influence or be in control of the climate, [anthropogenic climate change, for instance], counters thousands of years of religious philosophy and existing traditional belief systems worldwide” (Donner 232). There existed—and still exists in some literatures—a “myth of nature’s exhaustlessness” (Buell 531). In Bill McKibben’s 1989 End of Nature, the book to introduce climate change to a popular audience, the activist proved that the myth still held sway and problematized popular acceptance of climate issues when he wrote,  “We never thought that we had wrecked nature. Deep down, we never really thought we could: it was too big and too old; its forces–the wind, the rain, the sun–were too strong, too elemental” (41). The complex understandings of man’s relationship to Nature created by this endemic fear of natural forces are therefore compound and contradictory—proponents of mastery like Ellsworth Huntington hold that “If [humans] can conquer climate, the whole world will become stronger and nobler” (294)—yet the larger discourse of fear from which the mastery discourse arrived urged the impossibility and ungodliness of climactic control.

By 1776, another discourse strengthened and simultaneously further problematized the fear/mastery/rivalry end of the man vs. nature dichotomy. Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire offered the first historic discourse that linked the rise and fall of human fortunes to climactic factors (suggesting Rome’s long decline and eventual fall, in part, was due to climactic influence). Gibbon therefore offered anthropologic evidence for both climatic destruction of civilization and, its corollary, which would be proposed by Huntington in 1915, that “a favorable climate is an essential condition of high civilization” (270). Gibbon’s own account offers similar suggestions, for instance, that “Two strong and natural causes are alleged for the perfection of the model of new Rome [Constantinople] […] Other cities [had] been reared to maturity by accident and time; their beauties […] mingled with disorder and deformity; and the inhabitants, unwilling to remove from their natal spot, [were] incapable of correcting the errors of their ancestors and the original vices of situation or climate” (Vol. 7, 133). A hospitable climate was a necessary for human successes, gods or no gods.

Gibbon’s legacy as a historian surpasses the modeling of similar histories after his own; the discourse here identified as starting with Gibbon continues today and has recently taken on “more sophisticated and nuanced arguments about the role of climate in the collapse of civilizations” since the 1970s with the publication of Bryson and Murray’s Climates of Hunger, which detailed the role of drought in the collapse of Mycenae, the Malian Kingdom, and others (Hulme 30). An inverted (and admittedly minor) literature also arose out of this tradition, which argued that “climate change acts as a stimulus for innovation and societal adaptation” (31), yet importantly, innovation in human mastery of Nature still supports the ultimate control of natural forces. Gibbon’s legacy still persists in works today; Jared Diamond’s 2005 work Collapse, which details the falls of societies from the Easter Islanders to the Mayans, suggested that “deforestation was a or the major factor in all the collapses of past societies [described in Collapse]” (487). An interesting counterpoint from three hundred years earlier comes from the philosopher, Comte de Buffon, who marveled at the possibilities of human mastery, noting that “the addition or removal of a single forest in a country [by humans] is sufficient to change its temperature” (236). Buffon further suggested that man should modify his environment until it suited him. Diamond’s discourse matched against Buffon’s proves to further problematize our notions regarding how humans should interact with Nature; if the endemic fear of Nature, bolstered by both a religious belief in man’s right to dominion and a literature linking the fall of civilizations to an uncontrolled natural world, has created an ubiquitous and unchallenged dichotomy of humans vs. Nature, then the discourse of mastery itself has created a further fear—that humans should not overmodify their contexts—and thus has lent support to a counter-literature which was beginning around the time Buffon was writing.

Tensions begin to arise and proper mediation between the human and the natural becomes necessary. Here the difficult questions begin again: can humans add or subtract forests until they are pleased with their environment? How much of man’s influence is too much? Will it ever be enough to bring societal collapse?

The endemic fear that Nature would dominate humans therefore bleeds into another discourse in the same Western dualist view—the fear that “by taming or mastering Nature, humans are diminishing themselves and maybe something beyond themselves” (Hulme 26). Perhaps a more prudent worry, namely the fear that an overextension of human influence could cause the dangerous anthropogenic change public policy has recently sought to prevent necessitated a view dichotomously opposed to the mastery view—one which might privilege Nature, and support man’s restraint or even removal from natural landscapes.

Nature as Sacred

In the late 1700s, theories of evolution were so contested in large part because of their implications on established Biblical truths. One of these truths, previously described—that man occupied a higher position in the Great Chain of Being than animals—would have been shaken  by the notion that man was natural and held nothing but a pretension to his former, higher position. If man was enmeshed in the natural order, he became displaced from his position in the chain. Therefore how could he hold pretensions to dominion over the rest of creation?

Lynn White Jr.’s controversial 1967 essay pins these pretensions to the causes of our present ecological issues. White wrote that “[under Judeo-Christian beliefs] no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to man’s purposes. And although man’s body [was] made of clay, he [was] not simply part of nature: he [was] made in God’s image […] Not only [did Christianity] establish a dualism of man and nature, but [it] also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends” (4). The right to this exploitation remained uncontested because the pervasive fear of Nature continued to hold sway; mastery manifested in the rigid geometric landscapes of the Italian Renaissance gardens and those they would inspire—the 16th century gardens à la française and the English gardens of Brown and Repton in the latter half of the 1700s.

Yet if anything, the fear man felt in wilderness still outweighed the sense of connection even the most stalwart evolutionist might have felt to other living creatures, and the right to turn wilderness to man’s uses was a practical consideration of the time that would have been supported, after all, by survival of the fittest. If mastery of Nature was a pervasive view of the time, it was also a necessary one. Gardens, homes, cultivated fields—all man’s uses of land served the practical benefit of man’s survival. Man needed to tame Nature for his own survival; valuation of nature for its own sake served no practical benefit and was therefore difficult to support.

Assertions of nature inherent value—emphasized by Sir William Temple and Alexander Pope’s essays in the mid-to-late 1600s—namely that, natural beauty was preferable to a man-made landscape, were criticized as overly-aesthetic and therefore lacking proper prudence. Indeed, these essays spoke purely in aesthetic terms; Pope is thinking of nothing but artistic merit when he writes: “There is certainly something in the amiable Simplicity of unadorned Nature that spreads over the Mind a more noble sort of Tranquility, and a loftier Sensation of Pleasure, than can be raised from the nicer Scenes of Art” (1). Edmund Burke’s 1794 definition of sublime beauty pushed aestheticism even further; his definition was:

“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling [fear]” (39).

Burke further called the sublime “the delight derived when danger or pain is viewed from a certain distance […] as we every day experience” (7); my emphasis on delight. That Burke would state in 1794 that distance is every day experienced between man and natural terrors suggests that it was no longer necessary to value mastery of Nature absolutely, though certainly critics of landscapers inspired by Burke would argue that terror in landscape was still imprudent.

That Ruskin’s definition of picturesque beauty was “the external form of the sublime, made visible through its mixture with the familiar” (M. Price 265), and that the major landscape designers of the day sought to achieve picturesque beauty in their designs, renders it easily guessed that a debate raged between landscape designers regarding the proper mediation between an aesthetic, fearful beauty and the practical considerations of the home.

For the first time, a designer like Humphry Repton was criticized for not being Romantic enough, for a “readiness to impose self upon the world about one,” and therefore a “failure of moral sympathy” (M. Price 268). John Byng claimed Repton, “assert[ed] so much and assume[d] so much, as to make [Byng] irritable, for [Repton was] one (of the many) who [was] never wrong; and therefore why debate with him” (9). Cowper related Brown to an “omnipotent magician,” and it is notable that this insult marks an insult on man’s pretension to the influence of a deity, and raises the question: does man have the right to modify his contexts so much? Does he have a right to mastery?

In Repton’s defense, the designer explained that “scenes of horror […] did not suit the comfort of his clients” and moreover “ignored the […] social considerations of a garden” (Blaise Red Book). Repton’s criticism calls to mind Thoreau’s experience on Katahdin; while Thoreau appreciates the natural sublimity of the mountain, he feels that “Nature has got him at a disadvantage” (Maine Woods 15) on its peak. Repton or Brown would have argued that while sublime beauty might be preferable in some circumstances, such a feeling as Thoreau felt on Katahdin was impractical within the landscape of the home.

Yet when we hear Jane Austen’s Mr. Rushworth declare “[he had] never seen a place so altered in [his] life [as a Reptonian landscape],” we begin to see not an appropriate mediation between practical and aesthetic desire, but rather, a total enforcement of man’s dominion over landscape. Alistair Duckworth further suggested that Austen would have seen “in the adoption of Reptonian methods dangerous consequences for the continuity of a culture” (45)—the consequences suggested at the end of my mastery section, that is, that an overextension of human influence would diminish something beyond humanity’s reach.

Thus we begin to see a literature,

“In direct contrast to the claims and goals of mastering and controlling climate, this discourse sees climate as a repository of what is natural, something that is pure and pristine and (should be) beyond the reach of humans. Climate therefore becomes something that is fragile and needs to be protected or ‘saved’, just as much as do natural landscapes or animal species. These are goals which have fuelled the Romantic, wilderness and environmental movements of the Western Enlightenment over two centuries or more” (Hulme 25).

If Romantic nature moved away from an absolute homocentrism, (ie. nature was only beneficial in the ways it could be converted to human use), then it did not move terribly far towards what today might be called ecocentrism, or the valuation of nature for purposes distinctly removed from mankind. Romantic literature was largely taken with the interrelations of man and the natural order, but it was more interested in what these interrelations meant for mankind than what they meant to Nature.

Romantic scientists and poets fuelled one another; science of the time was as much a product of imagination as it was of observation. If Erasmus Darwin anthropomorphized plants by describing their reproduction in strikingly human terms, or Coleridge and Thoreau attributed human speech to the calls of birds, then their suggestion that our species was deeply related to others struck the imaginations of naturalists, who through years of vigilant observation had recognized important general biological principles like, “The conditions necessary to the existence of life are all present in the lowest organizations” (Lamarck 44). The observations of these scientists in turn excited the sensibilities of Romantics, and the interdependent cycle of studying the organization of organic life and imagining ways “to know how this organization, by some sort of change, had succeeded in giving rise to […] gradually increasing complexity observed through the animal scale” (44), eventually led science away from unpersuasive mechanisms of evolution like Lamarck’s laughable idea of the genetic passing of acquired traits to the earth-shaking publication of 1859’s Origin of Species.

And if Charles Darwin fundamentally altered human views on Nature, until Origin the Romantics were, in short, still largely concerned with what Nature could teach them about themselves rather than what they could learn about Nature itself. If their imaginations were tickled by the growing likelihood of their connection to other species, the best the connection suggested was an innate beauty in even the most terrifying creations and the worst it suggested was the nature was “red in tooth and claw” and “dust and darkness all that [was fated for man]” (Tennyson). If Thoreau’s famous story about Wordsworth is true, that “When a traveler asked Wordsworth’s servant to show him her master’s study, she answered, ‘Here is his library, but his study is out of doors’” (Walking 263), then it is also true that Wordsworth’s self-described main haunt was still the mind of man—not the daffodils.

The implications of this connection with Nature, suggested by Romantic science and art, did not therefore make serious progress towards ecocentric views until the publications of Origin and Walden.

If Origin closed the case on man’s dislodged position in the Great Chain of Being and on his enmeshment in the natural order, it did not yet definitively shatter that ever-pervasive Western dichotomy: man versus Nature. Thoreau still waxed Romantic with his pristine visions of Walden as a natural landscape, despite his (and his Concord neighbor’s) knowledge that the forests of the area had been steadily thinned—“reaching an all-time low of little more than 10 percent almost at the moment Thoreau penned [Walden]” (Buell 530). Here the critic Lawrence Buell suggests that “It was emotionally important for [Thoreau] to believe in Walden as a sanctuary, and it was all the easier for him to do so in the face of contrary evidence given the power that the myth of nature’s exhaustlessness continued to hold over the astutest minds of his day” (531). Nature still existed for Thoreau as a Romantic and aesthetic category; the natural beauty that Temple and Pope found sacred was still sacred for the father of American nature writing. The position that Thoreau held by the end of “Spring,” that he should retire to his home rather than frighten off a flock of geese—despite his desire to see them all season—is therefore a notably difficult, ecocentric maneuver in 1854; the myth of nature’s exhaustlessness held strong and even Origin had yet to be published.

Walden’s difficult and minor ideology (something nearing ecocentrism) then increasingly refined itself in the genre of American nature writing, which persists today in the climate discourse.

In the discourse of American nature writing, importance is extended to the non-human; Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic is a noteworthy example: “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts [...] the land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land” (239). Under this discourse, a truly ecocentric view on man’s relationship to Nature finally evolved, 90 years after Darwin, and some 300 years after Temple and Pope appreciated natural beauty. Conservationists coming out of this literature are therefore the intellectual opposition to the complex mastery discourse from which, as we have seen, the conservation discourse is an offshoot.

By the time climate change entered the popular stage with End of Nature, Silent Spring had already proven the ability of this discourse to create public movement—in this case facilitating the ban of DDT.  Of course the complex interactions of these multifarious discourses created both the support Carson needed to help ban DDT and the vitriolic opposition from supporters of the mastery discourse; environmentalist Peter Matthiessen explains:

“Even before publication, Carson was violently assailed by threats of lawsuits and derision, including suggestions that this meticulous scientist was a “hysterical woman” unqualified to write such a book. A huge counterattack was organized and led by Monsanto, Velsicol, American Cyanamid–indeed, the whole chemical industry–duly supported by the Agriculture Department as well as the more cautious in the media.”

We may therefore begin to have a better understanding regarding the reception of climate change literature—growing numbers of environmental activists, apathists, and even a literature attempting to disprove or minimize climate science.

Our literatures regarding man’s position in Nature are complex and contradictory; strong traditions behind the man versus Nature dichotomy have far-reaching fingers and bleed into one another. It is possible to accept both the notion that it is in man’s interest to dominate Nature and the notion that such power is not within man’s grasp. It is possible to both aspire to and fear human mastery of Nature. Mastery may be our God-given right, the roots of our ecological crisis, or even (according to that minor literature that saw ecological threat as impetus for societal improvement) precisely that which will help us overcome the issues of our changing climate. The ways we come to answer the pressing questions of our time will be complicated by our contradictory views on our relationship to Nature; the question is: will we mediate properly between our biological need to dominate nature and our blossoming need to preserve the environmental conditions under which our dominance is possible?

Works Cited

  1.  “AOSIS: Alliance of Small Island States.” SIDSnet: Small Island Developing States Network. 2009. Web. 16 Dec. 2010.
  2. “Mountain Initiative.” ICIMOD – International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development. 2010. Web. 16 Dec. 2010.
  3. Austen, Jane, and Claudia L. Johnson. Mansfield Park: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998. Print.
  4. Bryson, Reid A., and Thomas J. Murray. Climates of Hunger: Mankind and the World’s Changing Weather. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, 1979. Print.
  5. Buell, Lawrence. “Thoreau and the Natural Environment.” Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Other Writings: Authoritative Texts, Journal, Reviews and Posthumous Assessments, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton (2008): 527-43. Print.
  6. Buffon, Georges Louis Leclerc. Les Époques De La Nature. 1778. Print.
  7. Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. 1794. Print.
  8. Byng, John. The Torrington Diaries. Vol. 3. London, 1936. Print.
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  15. Darwin, Erasmus. “The Loves of the Plants.” Ed. Ashton Nichols. William Wordsworth, Charles Darwin, and Others: Romantic Natural Histories. 123-27. Print.
  16. Diamond, Jared M. Collapse. ; How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated, 2011. Print.
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  30. Price, Martin. “The Picturesque Moment.” Essays Presented to Frederick A. Pottle. New York: Oxford UP, 1965. Print.
  31. Repton, Humphry. Blaise Castle Red Book. Bristol, 1795-96. Print.
  32. Ruskin, John. Modern Painters IV. Print.
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  34. Temple, William. “Upon the Gardens of Epicurus: Or, Of Gardening in the Year 1685.” Web.
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  40. White, Lynn. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.” Science 155 (1967). Print.

    Want more criticism on nature writing? Try my piece on Henry David Thoreau’s Walden!

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The Moment of Walden

Literary Climate Approved Edition of Henry David Thoreau's Walden

Literary Climate Approved Edition of Henry David Thoreau's Walden

When a student is first introduced to Walden, it seems that he is told, perhaps rather hastily, that the text and its author are the first of many things. Walden is the ur-text of American nature writing as a genre and its eccentric experimenter is the first American environmentalist. Indeed the critic Lawrence Buell suggests in his essay Thoreau and the Natural Environment that Thoreau in Walden is the first thinker able to move from the distinctly Romantic view of nature which Buell deems “homocentric,” that is, a view of nature which privileges mankind, which asks what nature teaches man about himself and how wilderness can be converted to human uses. Of course, that is not to say that Thoreau didn’t maintain a healthy homocentrism throughout his work; if Walden contains the first distinct elements of “ecocentrism,” or, a view of nature which privileges nature’s “spiritual and material structure for its own sake,” the main haunt of Thoreau’s song is still, like Wordsworth’s, the mind of man (Buell 528). Cut-and-dry distinctions like “ecocentric” and “homocentric,” while mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive in an abstract sense, cannot be so in any realistic notion, and therefore to call Thoreau the first ecocentric thinker would be as ahistorical as to call Charles Darwin “the father of evolution;” Darwin can only lay claim to the thing called “natural selection,” and Thoreau’s claim is even more tenuous. Walden does not do away with the old and it is not completely new; it evolved as a direct result of its historical moment. If Walden retrospectively appears to have created and influenced a new, more profoundly ecocentric genre called American Nature Writing, the book still owes a large debt to the work of a Romantic homocentric tradition.

While the influence of Thoreau on writers like Rachel Carson and Bill McKibben appears obvious, Buell contends that stepping outside of a homocentric worldview was an intellectual challenge for Thoreau. We may notice as readers that Thoreau’s thesis is not “I went to the woods because I wished to save it,” or “to preserve its natural beauty,” but rather, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” that is, I wished for it to save me (65). If Walden’s author truly is the first American conservationalist, and his text contains important elements of ecocentrism, it is important to note that homocentrism was a historic view of nature that appears not to have been easily grappled with, and one which was the main impetus for Thoreau’s experiment. If it is difficult for us to imagine the “Father of American Environmentalism” struggling to become the man we now know him to be because the historic views on nature that would have influenced him are now foreign to us as modern readers, we must aim to understand man’s position in nature as Thoreau would have understood it when he first set out for the pond.

If then, as Buell contends, Walden acts as a sort of linear development of Thoreau’s thought, with the first chapter, “Economy,” rooted heavily in Thoreau’s personal reasons for his journey to the woods, and the last chapter, “Spring,” acting closer to an ecocentric discourse, then before we may begin to analyze the gap in that development—before we begin to analyze just how much Thoreau’s thought develops throughout Walden—it is important to analyze the historic contexts which inform Thoreau before he writes “Economy.” Such an understanding will allow us to ask: why was this Romantic homocentric view of nature, which Thoreau begins with in “Economy,” so powerful? Is it not noteworthy that scientific views on nature were changing also? That the discourse that led to Thoreau’s development also led to Darwin’s? Only once we obtain a decent history will a comparative close reading of the text’s first and last chapters reveal the extent of the development that occurs between the book’s covers, and aid us in viewing Walden not as some complete conservationalist’s starter’s guide, but rather as a liminal move in the direction of ecocentrism. The history and comparative analysis will aim to display why “Spring” might serve as the intellectual center of the work for the critics that insist upon Thoreau’s being the Father of American envoironmentalism, and in relation to the close reading of the chapter itself, should allow the reader of this piece of criticism to analyze the veracity of these sweeping critical tags historians are so quick to give David Henry.

Before we begin with the history, a note: it is not within the scope of this paper, nor my own current knowledge, to provide a complete account of the historic development of nature as an idea before Thoreau, which surely should span several hundreds of pages if properly expounded, as I should someday have interest in accomplishing. I do believe, however, that this overview should be ample; my research into this history includes more than sixty texts, and I believe that a historian’s summary, though this historian’s summary is admittedly incomplete, will serve the purposes of this thesis.

To begin then, the questions we must ask are: what did nature look like in Thoreau’s world and how did it come to look that way?

In the West, Andrea Lieber notes, “the biblical heritage shared by [Judaism and Christianity] advocate[d] an unhealthy relationship between humanity and nature, one in which human beings [were] destined to conquer the earth and master it” (1). Genesis’ description of man’s place in relation to nature includes this idea of mastery, stating that man has dominion over nature (“Thou hast given him dominion over the works of Thy hands”). Wilderness was thus distinctly othered in this Biblical context; it was man’s challenge to overcome wilderness, and it is therefore unsurprising that wilderness was also the setting of Christ’s temptation. For thousands of years, of course, these Biblical views would have held unquestioned sway, and we should note that up through around 1850, the word “wilderness” still inferred a waste or desolate region and the emotions related to it were terror and bewilderment. Its only distinction from the word “desert” was that the latter was uncultivatable; the difference lay only in the potential utility of wilderness.

This opposition: man versus nature, was reflected in the desire to tame wild lands, that is, to put them to human use. The desire manifested in rigid geometric landscape designs like the Italian Renaissance gardens and the gardens they would inspire, like the gardens à la française of the 16th century. Geometrically patterned gardens seem a fine visual metaphor for this practical desire to exhibit man’s influence over nature: not only may man dominate nature, he may force it into unnatural shapes (as Euclid would have told you, geometric shapes were not naturally occurring, and as I might have told you, the idea that man makes unnatural shapes only heightened man’s sense that he stood outside of, or diametrically opposed the natural order).

Such an opposition also likely created, what Buell would later call, “the myth of nature’s exhaustlessness,” which he claims still held strength in Thoreau’s day, and which I would claim still holds strength today in climate change debates. The idea was: nature was frightening. It was man’s opponent—that which killed him. Even if man had dominated nature to the point where he exerted absolute geometric force over it, the rivalry certainly was not forgotten, and wilderness still held connotations of fear. The idea was, as Bill McKibben would later state in 1989, that nature seemed a force too huge to be reckoned with. Mankind could, perhaps, tame it for now, in his societies, but to step out of society was something fearful. People didn’t go around looking for “the wilderness experience,” as William Cronon tells us; that experience is something decidedly modern (1). Nature was exhaustless, couldn’t be dominated completely; natural disasters would always strike, so try as he might, man couldn’t control everything. He was, fundamentally, helpless against nature.

The only problem was, he wasn’t. That fine geometric patterns could be sculpted from the landscape began to awaken in English thinkers like Sir William Temple and Alexander Pope in the mid-to-late-1600s an idea that “natural beauty” were preferable to one subjected to mankind’s influence. There was, in fact, a tension building between an practical desire to dominate nature absolutely and an aesthetic desire to see “the amiable simplicity of unadorned nature” (Pope, 1). That mankind could appreciate such an aesthetic desire in direct opposition to his rivalry with nature suggests that in day-to-day life, citizens no longer directly feared wilderness; they’d been too far removed from such a time.

By 1753, Lancelot “Capability” Brown was England’s leading landscape architect, whose work largely rejected the formalism of former French designs and embraced a natural aesthetic interest, which was heightened by his successor, Humphrey Repton, who added ravines into the “approach” to the family home, and used, occasionally, frightening Gothic architecture. The separation of the “human” space was no longer distinct; man did not need to overtly tame nature in his home, and could instead add elements of the fearsome, or sublime, which Edmund Burke would come to define in 1757 as: the delight derived when danger or pain is viewed from a certain distance, “as we every day experience” (Burke, 7). It seems no longer a mere suggestion on my own part that man felt removed from nature; Burke tells us he could daily experience pleasure at the sight of his former fear, and these landscape architects prove that fear could be enmeshed in the human home, and it would not be fearsome, but rather, sublime.

If up to this point, man expressed an absolute homocentrism in regard to nature (nature was only beneficial in the ways it can be converted to human use), now a period of Romantic homocentrism began, wherein, nature’s beauty might be beneficial to mankind’s sensibility, and the things nature had to teach mankind were likewise desirable. This distinction is important; Romanticism was not about preserving nature for its own sake, but rather, continued to center on man’s development.

This period of Romantic natural history, which included both intense documentation by natural historians and poetic discourse by the likes of Wordsworth and Clare, began in the late 1700s and would influence evolutionary thought before Darwin, as it would influence Thoreau’s initial Romantic homocentric interests (Thoreau’s attribution of human speech to his birds in “Sounds” is of course identical to Coleridge’s Answer to a Child’s Question, for instance). This heightened scientific and poetic discourse began, however, quite seriously to suggest—as evolution loomed overhead as an ever-increasing possibility—that mankind was directly implicated in the natural order, that man was natural, and so this opposition he felt towards it was not an opposition felt towards something outside of him, but rather, towards a system within which he was deeply enmeshed. He was a part of that frightening natural order, which had been formerly forgotten because of the ease with which he dominated it. He was a part of that natural order which Tennyson was now describing as “red in tooth and claw,” and suddenly we see Thoreau on Mt. Katahdin in 1846, just before he was off for Walden Pond, stating:

“This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man’s garden, but the unhandselled globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor wasteland. It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth, as it was made forever and ever,-to be the dwelling of man, we say,–so Nature made it, and man may use it if he can. Man was not to be associated with it. It was Matter, vast, terrific,–not his Mother Earth that we have heard of” (The Maine Woods, 78).

Here we see the complexity of Thoreau’s relationship with nature as he begins his journey; he has grown out of a Romantic nature which lets him “see if he cannot learn what it has to teach,” which has allowed him to appreciate sublime beauty because of his distance from the natural order, and yet here he is, realizing that he is cannot be distanced from it. Perhaps if Thoreau, and the Romantics really did want to learn what it had to teach, this was it: that man was one species of many, that developed in the same way, that would die in the same way, and return to the same natural order. This teaching is, perhaps, what led from “Economy” to “Spring.”

And so we begin, with a brief reading of “Economy,” and it is safe to say that Thoreau’s sole haunt here is himself. He apologizes at first for utilizing the first person which was traditionally omitted, but justifies it because he thinks his account may solve many of the problems of his contemporaries’ way of life if his coat fits. Indeed the majority of the chapter deals out sweeping statements about humanity: that men are occupied with superfluously coarse labors, that life’s finer fruits cannot be picked by them, that men lead lives of quiet desperation, that man’s so-called luxuries are hindrances, that farms become encumbrances, that men have never considered what a house is, that our spiritual bread is thinner than our fathers’, et cetera, et cetera. We see very quickly that Thoreau’s principal interest here is mankind; his move out to the woods, we see, and his manner of life develop out of a desire to “spen[d] his time better than digging in this dirt” (40). How to live deliberately, like nature herself, that is all. That is the source of the experiment.

By “Spring,” however, we see something different. We see a year in the woods, we see ten years of manuscript editing (Buell notes that Thoreau edited the latter part of the book more heavily than the former), and we see a man whose careful documentation of pond phenomena and animal life mimics not only the Romantic natural historians, but also his materials lists, his costs, his wages—his concerns, from “Economy.” Certainly one of the most telling lines shows us that Thoreau has at least considered moving man down from his position of dominion over nature, in which he states: “Men seeing the nature of this man like that of the brute, think he has never possessed the innate faculty of reason” (212). Thoreau’s sentence reflects an ubiquitous teaching from philosophical texts: homo est animal rationale, man is a rational animal, and subverts it, stating that man is perhaps not separate from beast—here he does not miss Darwin’s mark by very much.

This realization allows him to treat the land as if it had emotions—“Who would have suspected so large and cold and thick-skinned a thing to be so sensitive?” (203), and tries to decipher, like Champollion, its language, for its own sake (207). He catalogues the geese as he formerly catalogued his food, and yet here, I think, the most important change is revealed: he admits to waiting for these birds to come, and says that one of the principal reasons for coming to Walden was to be able to see Spring, with its geese, come in—to appreciate, like the homocentric Romantic, the beauty of these creatures—yet as the geese come in and notice Thoreau, he retires to his home, so as not to frighten them (210).

If Walden does not loudly sound the preservation horn, then here is a moment where Thoreau identifies the fragility of nature and empathizes with it. If Thoreau othered Walden Pond as his homocentric predecessors did—if he set up Walden Pond as a Natural sanctuary, outside of himself, in which he might learn how to live deliberately, like it, despite contrary evidence which Thoreau was aware of (the railroad running through, the deforestation issue), that is: if Thoreau fell prey to the “myth of nature’s exhaustlessness,” then by “Spring” he has finally made some peace with the notion that mankind can negatively affect nature. Thoreau retires to his home for the sake of the geese. These animals are, here, in these few sentences, important; Thoreau does not have the right to frighten them off for his own appreciation of them. He gives, however briefly, certain rights to these geese, which will be amplified 100 years later in Leopold’s Land Ethic, and so, it is true, here, that we may begin to see the roots of ecocentric thought in Walden.

Walden was, certainly, a principal step towards the ecocentric discourse that pervaded the genre of American nature writing and climate change literature of today. It developed out of and was deeply enmeshed in a culture of homocentric relations to nature which came before it, and that is the point, that relationships are never cut-and-dry, but are consistently different and developing. If Walden was a principal, influential text upon the way we began to perceive nature, so much the better for its creation, but it could not have been created outside of the time, the place, and the history which influenced it.

Want more criticism on nature writing? Try my piece on A.S. Byatt’s Morpho Eugenia!

Posted in 19th century, American Nature Writing, Charles Darwin, Darwin, David Henry Thoreau, ecocentrism, evolution, Great Chain of Being, Henry David Thoreau, homocentrism, Literature, Nature Writing, Romantic Natural History, Romanticism, Thoreau | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ethics and Evolution: Tensions in Post-Darwinian Literature

Literary Climate Approved Edition of A.S. Byatt's novella Morpho Eugenia from Angels and Insects

Literary Climate Approved Edition of A.S. Byatt's novella Morpho Eugenia from Angels and Insects

In 1809, Jean Baptiste Lamarck’s mechanism for evolution proposed in his essay Zoological Philosophy, namely that the acquisitions and losses of an individual during its lifespan are passed onto its offspring, was roundly rejected by Lamarck’s contemporaries as biologically impossible, and yet he may have been correct in terms of social evolution. Each human does not have to reinvent the wheel as it were during his lifetime and it is therefore true that acquisitions of knowledge achieved by society as a whole are inheritable, though not through genetics (the word Lamarck would have used if it existed in 1809). Instead, acquisitions can be “transmitted down the stream of time on the vehicle of words and other symbols and representations” (J. Huxley 504). In short, acquisitions of knowledge became inheritable when man became capable of communication.

Individuals and societies therefore have a mutualistic relationship: the individual relies on wealths of societal knowledge in order to grow, and likewise societies serve as little more than repositories of individual knowledge for other individuals to learn from. While the individual is therefore inherently higher than the State, he also requires “the proper organization of society to achieve his welfare and realize his development” (506). The individual cannot evolve education into a continuous and cumulative process in isolation, and so “biological or organic evolution [had to] at its upper end [become] merged into and largely succeeded by conscious or social evolution” (504). Yet while the utility of societies for the promotion of cumulative education cannot be doubted, it does not seem likely that this was their original purpose.

Societies had likely banded together to survive; I do not doubt that their formation was originally intended to benefit individual survival and that the principles of natural selection still held true at the inception of fetal societies. Laws would then have been developed in opposition to natural selection to “curb the cosmic process and remind the individual of his duty to the community,” (T.H. Huxley 502) because the community was the main means of survival. Indeed, today’s sociobiologists argue that it is often “in an individual’s self-interest to cooperate with others, rather than (as traditional evolutionary ethicists thought) to fight flat out” (Wilson 508). Duty to community therefore very likely evolved as a product of natural selection – it was beneficial to human survival.

The only problem was that communities were so efficient at survival that humans no longer felt the threat of the natural struggle. We can see that in1745 the word most commonly associated with “wilderness” was terror and yet, wilderness specifically referred to “places on the margins of civilization” (Cronon 1). Humans still feared the natural struggle – it was out there if they left their communities, but as long as they stayed within the bounds of civilization it no longer applied to them. The feeling of safety established in societies in 1745 speaks to the truth of T.H. Huxley’s proposition that as civilizations progress, the influence of natural selection over humans decreases (502). It should not surprise then that the connotations of wilderness were biblical, taken from the King James Version, which also stated that man had dominion over nature. Man was not only removed from the natural struggle, but was seated in a throne above it.

Now let the pot simmer for one hundred and fourteen years. Societies still exist for the purpose of survival (God forbid you were banished), but since this is hardly a common worry, societies exist moreover so that education can be a cumulative process. And this is an important distinction: generations of people have lived and died that never felt the threat of natural selection. As outsiders looking in (or in terms of the hierarchy, looking down), perceptions of nature have changed. Nearly one hundred years of Romantic natural history have taken place. Humans have distanced themselves from the hellish struggle and poets like William Blake have come to see “Heaven in a Wild Flower” (157). The ethics in societies therefore can no longer seem to be necessitated by survival, as they are in ant colonies which are “genetically hardwired” to cooperate (Ruse 508), but are rather “bred by nineteenth-century humanitarianism out of traditional Christian ethics,” (J. Huxley 503). The threat for Victorians is no longer natural, but supernatural, and so they feel ordained to be a different order, and see what I had previously called social evolution—the next step from biological evolution—not as social evolution, but rather a system of ethics deriving from a higher purpose than natural utility. We do not see ourselves as natural and so the Ten Commandments apply to humanity alone; “if animals do show tolerance or altruism—” traits considered distinctly human— “these terms are often placed in quotation marks lest their author be judged hopelessly romantic or naïve” (De Waal 511). In short, humans are ruled by ethics from some divine sphere while animals are ruled by a worldly instinct. And, of course, this is the year Darwin releases The Origin of Species.

Darwin expected “theologians, people untrained in scientific investigation, and even those scientists who were strongly religious to object violently to his theory,” (Hull 257). This vehement rejection of Darwin’s ideas, I believe, arose from a logical fallacy regarding what exactly the implications of Darwin’s ideas meant for mankind. This fallacy “is the notion that because, on the whole, animals and plants have advanced in perfection of organization by means of the struggle for existence and the consequent ‘survival of the fittest’; therefore men in society […] must look to the same process to help them towards perfection” (T.H. Huxley 501). Huxley further suggests that the fallacy may have “arisen out of the unfortunate ambiguity of the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’” because “‘fittest has a connotation of ‘best’; and about ‘best’ there hangs a moral flavour” (501). If nature has a moral imperative and man is natural, then man must follow nature’s ethics, not God’s. The dilemma here arises because people forget the evolutionary utility of ethics; they see God and nature at strife, as Tennyson suggests (422). This vehement rejection then should have risen from a tension between the self-assertion necessitated by survival of the fittest and the self-restraint necessitated by societal ethics—what Huxley calls the fitting of as many as possible to survive (502) because they were believed to be God’s word, not nature’s. This tension, caused by Origin’s release into a society far removed from the struggles it described, exists in post-Darwinian society, which we can see through characters in literature that struggle to resolve ethics into evolution, or God into nature. For those who succeed in this resolution, there stands a second dilemma: if ethics derive from natural utility, and not from some divine sphere, then morality becomes anxiously ambiguous: when is altruism in a man’s best interest? And when is egoism?

For the remainder of this essay, it is my aim to analyze how the tension between ethics and natural selection, or God and nature, drives each character’s perception of morality in A.S. Byatt’s Morpho Eugenia, a retrospective Victorian novella, and use this analysis as a proxy for each character’s real-world counterpart. I have chosen Byatt’s work where I could have assessed almost any piece of post-Darwinian literature, particularly for its hindsight (it was published in 1992), its proximity to Darwin’s biography (its protagonist is a naturalist), and its historically accurate and varied depictions of Victorian reactions to Darwin and his contemporaries.

The two most adept thinkers in Morpho, William Adamson and Harald Alabaster, closely mirror the two camps of the God vs. nature debate as they existed directly after Darwin’s publication. Their philosophies are anchored in other thinkers of the time – they reference Darwin, Paley, Wallace, Clare and the Duke of Argyll to name just a few, and they can therefore be seen as quintessential representations of intellectual Victorians. Adamson, the naturalist, represents a thorough scientific understanding of the implications of Origin, such as I have already identified, while Harald Alabaster closely mirrors religious figures like Lord Tennyson: he sees nature as “red in tooth and claw” and works tirelessly to fit such a conception into the design of the loving God of his Sunday sermons.

As a naturalist working at the time of Darwin, Adamson has the most thorough scientific understanding of the tension between ethics and natural selection. From the opening ballroom sequence, we see Adamson draw the paradoxical distinction between Victorian propriety, which insisted upon a woman’s chastity until marriage, and a primal sexual instinct which exists in humans as a natural species. These thoughts are pitted against one another in terse, single-sentence battles; for instance, Adamson notes of Eugenia: “She was both proudly naked and wholly untouchable” (7). Linguistically, Byatt is careful at the start of the work to give equal weight to each option: proudly naked and wholly untouchable are both phrases consisting of an adverb and adjective. Byatt therefore resists passing judgment yet, and sets up the paradox that will drive the plot. Already we can see physical traces of the tension created by the paradox: Adamson shifts around in his suit, effectively nervous in his own skin, as he reflects as “a scientist and observer-that these dances were designed to arouse his desire […] however demure the gloves, however sweetly innocent the daily life of the young woman in his arms” (7). It is this work as a scientist and observer that allows Adamson to draw up images from out there (28) and contrast them with Victorian morality.

Harald Alabaster also understands the tension and consciously struggles with it; it has changed his entire world view. He says:

“The world has changed so much, William, in my lifetime. I am old enough to have believed in our First Parents in Paradise, as a little boy, to have believed in Satan hidden in the snake, and in the Archangel with the flaming sword, closing the gates. I am old enough to have believed without question in the Divine Birth on a cold night with the sky full of singing angels and the shepherds staring up in wonder, and the strange kings advancing across the sand on camels with gifts. And now I am presented with a world in which we are what we are because of the mutations of soft jelly and calceous bone” (68-9).

Harald is thus an important character to understand the psyche of; he is older than William, and therein mirrors William’s father, Martin Adamson, whose dreams and waking moments were filled with the fear of Hell. Harald has not been born into a world where Divinity is in question, as William has since he has kept up with pre-Darwinian science. Harald’s views are thus difficult to shake, like Tennyson’s, because he lived through the turning point of unquestioning belief into skepticism.

Of course William likewise struggles to reconcile nature’s moral imperative with God’s, but his attachment to God is less personal. Indeed, I find it of some interest that in his reflections, Adamson comes to the same word as Annie Dillard – to quote her: “nature is above all profligate” (66). Both Dillard and Adamson (who says profligate on page 120 if you must look it up) are referencing a passage in Origin in which Darwin explains that natural selection works because “many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive” (97). Dillard continues her lament on the subject much as Tennyson would: “Evolution loves death more than it loves you or me,” and closes by asking the key question: “are [man’s] values then so diametrically opposed to those that nature preserves?” (178). I address this point to emphasize that Adamson as a young man is not merely interested in the paradox; he realizes the full implications of Origin, yet his attitude on the subject is different from Harald’s. William can accept nature’s profligacy for what it is.

Harald does not deny the works of naturalists as true, but his investment in religion is lifelong and personal where Adamson’s is not. Adamson may observe the subject from afar, and almost objectively (ie. dispassionately) question whether God and nature are at strife. Harald’s attempts to rectify God and nature, on the other hand, become so desperately obsessive that he begins to rehash old arguments “some of which [he] had already, in conversation, rejected as untenable” (96). He despises theologians who argue unconvincingly for the existence of God and yet when he is unable to argue convincingly for God himself, he cannot objectively surrender to God’s implausibility; his attachment is too personal. It may be presumed that William’s father, who was less educated in the matter, continued to believe blindly because Harald’s struggle arises from his refusal to do so. He recognizes the tension between ethics and evolution, and logically tries, like Adamson, to resolve it, but his efforts presume the existence of a benevolent God—which in itself contrasts nature’s profligacy; he is therefore largely unsuccessful.

Lesser thinkers present in Morpho, Edgar Alabaster and to some extent his sister Eugenia, confuse the implications of Origin and thereby commit the naturalistic fallacy: “the problem of deriving norms from nature” (De Waal 513). These characterizations are surely harder to devise; where William and Harald are educated and Byatt can base their philosophies off of published thinkers of the time, Edgar and Eugenia are not – so their ideologies must come from somewhere else. Herein I find Morpho Eugenia to benefit largely from its twentieth-century hindsight: while parallel thought processes certainly existed in the Victorian era, the term naturalistic fallacy was not coined until 1903 by G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica. And while I doubt that any two Victorians were as representative of the fallacy as Edgar and Eugenia and the characters may thereby be seen as authorially exaggerated, if William and Harald are quintessential intellectuals, Edgar and Eugenia should be quintessentially fallible. The two sets must be prototypical in order for Byatt to set up the dichotomy that drives the incestuous climax of the story.

And indeed, they are prototypical. Edgar wholly follows his appetites (122) and corporeal pleasures because he mistakes the implications survival of the fittest as meaning that he should work solely for his own benefit. He is first introduced by Robin Swinnteron as “a veritable centaur, or do I mean a satyr?” —whichever Swinnerton meant, he clearly indicates that Edgar is half man, half animal; he lets instinct rule his intellect because he perceives the former to be more natural. The problem with Edgar and Eugenia’s approach then is that “there is no logical connection between the typical form and frequency of a behavior (a statistical measure of what is ‘normal’) and the value we attach to it (a moral decision)” (De Waal 513). Natural does not equate to ethical, although it may seem to if our ethics derive from their natural utility.

The thoughtful William Adamson recognizes the difference; he sees Edgar get drunk and take impractical and dangerous bets, such as jumping his horse through a window, and “judge[s] Edgar Alabaster in the eye of the God he no longer believed in, and found him wanting” (71). Adamson’s distinction here is important: William and Edgar both recognize themselves as ruled by survival of the fittest, but Edgar takes it to the extreme of the naturalistic fallacy where William reflects again as an objective observer. Adamson does not believe that God exists, but rather that a universal ethical code exists in opposition to unhindered action. He understands the natural utility of ethics in the creation of societies and through reflection judges Edgar’s actions as immoral. Even Swinnerton can draw a distinction between William and Edgar, calling the former a civilized man and the latter an anachronism (73). Indeed, Edgar accepts the natural struggle, as primeval man did, but he accepts the struggle only on faith of Darwin’s veracity. He does not understand the implications of the natural struggle, and sees only the surface tension between ethics and evolution, which appears, understandably, as a dichotomy; he’ll have to reject one of the two. He is unable to rectify ethics with evolution because he lacks an understanding of their natural utility or even their social utility (as the first son of a large inheritance his social standing is implicit in Victorian culture). Indeed Edgar appears so confused by Darwin’s concepts that it would appear he never even read Origin. The film version, Angels and Insects, thus makes a clever choice to show Edgar learning about Darwin through a conversation between William and Sir Harald.

Eugenia also commits the naturalistic fallacy, and it is therefore interesting to note that she mimics the ants that Adamson says “Natural Selection appears to have favoured in […] the development of those skills which guarantee success in the nuptial dance, at the expense of others” (Byatt 46). While these ants are male, Matty Crompton notes that “this appears to be the opposite to human societies, when it is the woman whose success in that kind of performance determine their lives” (46), and certainly this is the case for Eugenia. This point is most evident in the film version; in the opening ballroom scene the dresses are not classically Victorian, but are more brightly colored to mimic the colors of the Morpho Eugenia butterflies that Adamson delivers to Sir Harald. The colors of the gowns call to mind Adamson’s argument in the novella that “perhaps there is some advantage to the male, in flaunting his scarlets and golds, which might make the female select him as a mate” (22). Adamson indeed is drawn to Eugenia in this way – he repeatedly sees an image of “her white bust rising from the lacy sea of her ballgown like Aphrodite from the foam” (20). Through this visual metaphor, Adamson distracts his intellect from the work he wants to return to by engaging his instinct in a vision of the Greek god of sexuality. When Harald then asks him if he would like to stay on at Bredely Hall, Adamson is so ruled by his instinct to stay with Eugenia that he cannot refuse the offer.

Eugenia’s naturalistic fallacy is thus one of extreme passivity: she, like the ants, exists only to attract a mate and reproduce; her other skills remain undeveloped, most importantly any determining intellect. Early on, we get a glimpse of this underdeveloped intellect, which is also evident in Edgar, when Eugenia finds herself attracted to the white satin of the male butterfly and deems her attraction natural because “she [is] female” (23). This is the first verbal appearance of Eugenia’s naturalistic fallacy – she confuses the word natural with the word good, where natural should be an objective word. In this opening case it is a humorous error, one that may even be seen as a dramatic joke between Byatt and her readers, but this error ultimately precludes Eugenia’s incestuous relationship with Edgar. It is also plausible that Lady Alabaster, the grotesquely fat queen ant, serves as the ultimate ends of Eugenia’s naturalistic fallacy; if Eugenia continues her path it is quite likely that Lady Alabaster is the portrait of her future.

With these distinct character types driving morality, it should be little surprising that at the center of Morpho Eugenia is an ethical dilemma. After parsing out Edgar and Eugenia’s naturalistic fallacies, the reader should almost expect to find the siblings entwined – and recognize their actions as their answers to the tension between ethics and evolution. By this point, we have already seen Edgar’s primeval lust and possible rape of Amy (and surely other girls if Swinnerton is to be believed) which are guided by his naturalistic fallacy. While William chastises Edgar that Amy is only a child, Edgar says “Nonsense. She is a nice little packet of flesh, and her heart beats faster when I feel for it, and her little mouth opens sweetly and eagerly” (124). Edgar’s argument, essentially that a code of ethics cannot dictate an age at which sex is natural (or moral to use Edgar’s idea) appears to hold the sway of a logical argument (though we have already seen it to be a fallacy), and thus leads Edgar to declare that Adamson knows nothing. It is therefore a logical progression for Edgar’s character when we discover his incestuous relationship with Eugenia.

And yet, Eugenia is the one who parses it out for us: “I know it was bad, but you must understand it didn’t feel bad […]  [Edgar] made me believe it was all perfectly natural, and so it was, it was natural, nothing in us rose up and said it was unnatural” (181). Here is where it Eugenia’s naturalistic fallacy finally causes her downfall, and we as readers cannot feel remorse for her as she has already caused it once before. Eugenia must be seen as a static character throughout the work, since she has previously declared that she should be dead for what happened with Captain Hunt (54). Captain Hunt likewise found the knowledge of Eugenia’s incest to be too much, but Eugenia has not stopped her relationship with Edgar even into her second marriage. While Edgar is vaguely pitiable because his naturalistic fallacy is so strong that he does not even understand the error of his ways, Eugenia is downright despicable; she does understand the consequences of her actions and still cannot resolve ethics into evolution. Even as William tells her that he is leaving, Eugenia’s only thought is of herself (“And—shall you speak to anyone—shall you—tell?) (181). Eugenia’s naturalistic fallacy leads her to be wholly self-serving and to deny ethics outright.

William, on the other hand, proves himself deserving of the title protagonist. Upon his discovery of the affair, his feeling of “revulsion, but no primeval awe” speaks to his scientific understanding of the tension and the same reflection upon a universal code of ethics that caused him to previously find Edgar Alabaster wanting. His lack of primeval awe recognizes that the act is natural, but in conflict “ideology of romantic love and the system of traditional marriage that it supports [monogamy] dominate Christian sexual ethics” (Hobgood 118). Yet William is not swayed by either side of what appears to be a dichotomy; he judges neither from nature nor from God, but from himself. William is the only character capable of deciding whether or not this is a universal ethic as Edgar and Eugenia’s naturalistic fallacies clearly impair their judgment. William’s development throughout the novella leads him to conclusively declare Eugenia “horrible to see,” (171) before he chooses to leave her for his expedition. This final act resolves his tension between ethics and evolution—recalling a journal entry from the novel’s opening in which he paradoxically claimed that he had originally gone to the forest because he felt no need for a wife, but also that he should die if he could not have Eugenia. Where in this opening journal entry William struggled with ethics and evolution as a dichotomy almost as Edgar did, by leaving Eugenia in the end with Matty Crompton for another expedition, William is the only character able to resolve ethics into evolution; he leaves with both his work and (presumably) a new wife.

Byatt’s novella seeks quite possibly to answer Tennyson’s question: are God and nature then at strife? They certainly seem to be; the paradox introduced at the beginning of “proudly naked and wholly untouchable,” seems to be “an impassible gulf between matters of fact (for example, evolution) and matters of morality (disinterested help of others)” (Ruse, 508).  The labyrinth that leads to the resolution of this paradox proves filled with wrong approaches and fallible judgments, but is there really a dichotomy? William Adamson proves the entire tension to be a smoke and mirrors act; he finds ethics to have evolved from their evolutionary necessity and is thus left with the difficult task of judging from the eyes of a God in which he no longer believes. Then that God is made in man’s image is an interesting point—man must devise his own ethics, must be his own God. And now I ask a question I previously posed rhetorically, but I hope will now be asked in earnest: if ethics derive from natural utility, and not from some divine sphere, then morality becomes anxiously ambiguous: when is altruism in a man’s best interest? And when is egoism?

Works Cited

Angels and Insects. Dir. Philip Haas. Perf. Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Patsy Kensit. 1995. Videocassette.

Blake, William. “William Blake.” William Wordsworth, Charles Darwin, and Others (Romantic Natural Histories). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. Print.

Bowler, Peter J. “Darwin on Man in the ‘Origin of Species’: A Reply to Carl Bajema.” Journal of the History of Biology 22.3 (1989): 497-500. Print.

Byatt, A. S. Angels & insects two novellas. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. Print.

Cronon, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995. 69-90. Print.

Darwin, Charles. “The Descent of Man.” Darwin (Norton Critical Editions) (3rd Edition). New York: W. W. Norton, 1871. Print.

Darwin, Charles. “The Origin of Species.” Darwin (Norton Critical Editions) (3rd Edition). New York: W. W. Norton, 1859. Print.

De Waal, Frans. “Good Natured: The Origin of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals.” Darwin (Norton Critical Editions) (3rd Edition). New York: W. W. Norton, 1996. Print.

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: HaperCollins, 1974. Print.

Hull, David. “Darwin and His Critics.” Darwin (Norton Critical Editions) (3rd Edition). New York: W. W. Norton, 1983. Print.

Huxley, Julian. “Evolutionary Ethics.” Darwin (Norton Critical Editions) (3rd Edition). New York: W. W. Norton, 1943. Print.

Huxley, Thomas Henry. “Evolution and Ethics.” Darwin (Norton Critical Editions) (3rd Edition). New York: W. W. Norton, 1893. Print.

Lamarck, Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine De Monet. “Zoological Philosophy.” Darwin (Norton Critical Editions) (3rd Edition). New York: W. W. Norton, 1809. Print.

Moore, G. E. Principia Ethica. Cambridge UP, 2008. Print.

Paley, William. “Natural Theology.” Darwin (Norton Critical Editions) (3rd Edition). New York: W. W. Norton, 1802. Print.

Tennyson, Alfred. “Alfred, Lord Tennyson.” William Wordsworth, Charles Darwin, and Others (Romantic Natural Histories). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. Print.

Wilkins, Walter J. Science and religious thought a Darwinism case study. Ann Arbor, Mich: UMI Research, 1987. Print.

Wilson, Edward O. “The Evolution of Ethics.” Darwin (Norton Critical Editions) (3rd Edition). By Michael Ruse. New York: W. W. Norton, 1985. Print.

Witham, Larry A. Where Darwin Meets the Bible Creationists and Evolutionists in America. New York: Oxford UP, USA, 2002. Print.

Wolff, Robert L. Gains and Losses Novels of Faith and Doubt in Victorian England. New York: Garland, Inc., 1977. Print.

Want more criticism on nature writing? Try my piece on Michael Hulme’s Why We Disagree About Climate Change!

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