Northanger Abbey & Atonement

Comparison of Northanger Abbey and Atonement

Extended Essay Assignment

Comparison of Time Periods

Comparison of Setting

Comparison of Heroines

Analysis of Mistakes

Ian McEwan's Atonement is a serious look at the consequences our actions can have. As an epigraph to the novel, he cites a passage from Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, a story in which mistaken conceptions have at first jarring consequences, but which, in the end, are easily forgiven. The epigraph from Austen's novel suggests that that her heroine's suspicions are unfounded, silly, and not likely to cause any kind of concern. This is a profound passage when applied to Atonement, because the heroine's suspicions in the latter were also unfounded and silly, but unfortunately, the effect of voicing her concerns in this case created "familial chaos and near-tragedy" (Slay Jr.). Epigraphs are usually used to relate to the content of the literature following them and serve set the tone. Quoting from Northanger Abbey was McEwan's way of encouraging readers "to apply Henry Tilney's words to Atonement as well as to identify parallels between this novel and Austen's work" (Wells). Whereas Austen's story is a humorous one about nearly innocent flights of fancy, McEwan's is a more daring look at the consequences of misconceptions, resounding with a warning to the reader. Northanger Abbey is one innocuous possibility of a person's mistakes causing dramatic consequences, but there are other, more sinister consequences that can come from our mistakes as McEwan exemplified in Atonement.

Comparison of Time Period

Despite their similarities in content, Northanger Abbey and Atonement are works destined to be significant apart from each other by virtue of several factors, one being the time period in which they were set. Northanger Abbey was written in and for the time period between 1795 and 1800. As the novel indicates, this time period was one of excessive attention to propriety, good breeding, and good manners. Individuals were severely analytical of people's actions and motives, and of their financial status. People of varying financial status might associate with each other in large gatherings such as balls, dances, or trips to the theater, but a person's companions became more noticed, talked about, and criticized when there was not such a large group around, for example, during walks around town or parks and carriage rides (Austen 94). It became an object of curiosity especially when one man and one woman from dissimilar status began to spend time in each other's company, as it was assumed that the pair had a fondness for each other, but that the match did not financially correspond. Frequently it was looked down upon by a wealthy man's family if he chose to wed a woman from a poor family. For the poor woman, however, her goal in life was to find a rich man who would be able to support her (and potentially her family) despite her lack of fortune. What were considered valuable assets at the time were fortune, hospitality, sociability, pleasantness, politeness, intelligence, and creativity. It was a time of social liberalism and personal conservatism.

Atonement, on the other hand, is set in a far different time than that of Austen's novel. McEwan's story takes a 1990's look at the time period between 1935-1940. More than 100 years since Austen published her novel, this time marks a period more familiar to today's society. Most important to this time frame was the rise in independence for women and fall of personal conservatism. In the society of the 1790's and 1800's, it was perfectly acceptable and understandable for people to marry on account of finances alone, but in the newer independent society of the 1930's and 40's, marriage for love presided. Women went to school to get degrees in professions that, in Jane Austen's day, would have been considered professions unsuitable for a woman. Now women could begin to support themselves and select a lifetime mate from any rank of society. The spectrum of options widened. Cecilia, for example, was a member of a higher class, but she chose to love and stay faithful to Robbie, who was the son of a lady employed to Cecilia's family. With regard to the growing independence of women and the liberalism being applied to various aspects of society, there is a scene in which Cecilia removes her clothes down to the underwear to punish Robbie (McEwan 28-29). Never would a lady in the 19th century have done anything so reproachable, when her propriety was heightened by the expectations of society, and when her self-importance she assumed to be normally below that of a man. Further pointing to the new independence of women in the 1930's, Cecilia decides in an instant, after a pivotal moment, to leave her family and cut off all communication with them. A lady in the 19th century could not have managed this; being away from her family, with no fortune of her own, no employment and no place to stay, she would likely have died alone. But Cecilia, living in a much advanced society, obtained her own job, found her own place to live, and provided for herself. Cecilia's independence, much at variance with the conservatism in Jane Austen's day, likely was what assisted her, upon receipt of Robbie's letter, not to turn it over to her parents in disgust, not to turn him away from their house forever, and instead to lead them both into their first sexual encounter in the library. When in the late 1790's one would not even entertain thoughts of such activities for fear of public scorn, the 1930's indicate a time when personal activities were of less concern to the public, and therefore of less concern to individuals.

Comparison of Setting

Interestingly, the main settings of the two novels are similar, but when used in two different time periods, they can assign two very different outcomes. Northanger Abbey begins with the main character, Catherine Morland, vacationing in Bath with her family, but in Book II it changes to focus upon the Tilney's estate of Northanger Abbey. Being an abbey owned by a wealthy man, the reader is impressed by how substantial the estate is and all of its furnishings of the modern fashion of the day. The resident family and guests of such a house would usually find their own entertainment either within the house or out on the grounds, but always together. There simply was not much do to on one's own. It was rare, for example, and apparently "extraordinary" behavior, for Catherine to be on her own in a house that contained several people with whom she could convene (Austen 184). As a promoter of Catherine's gothic fantasies, the abbey was well suited to "intrude secretly into the present to exert power over the protagonist" (Kelly)

The Tallis family from McEwan's novel also, being rather wealthy, lived in a mansion with large adornments, uncountable rooms, and a great amount of property. The greatest difference between the settings in these two novels seems to be the use that is made of the space available to the characters. Where in Northanger Abbey the characters rarely leave one another's side, the characters in Atonement frequently take their leave of the others to be on their own. In the latter novel, the heroine, Briony, spends time wandering around the house before roaming the grounds by herself. Because all the residents of the property in Atonement are frequently out of sight entertaining themselves rather than all convening together, there is no one able to hold them accountable for where they are or what they are doing. Without accountability or the expectation of being missed, Cecilia and Robbie are able to make their own entertainment in the library. It is because Cecilia is alone with Robbie that she can strip off her clothing in front of him. It may also be because Briony is alone as she witnesses this scene from afar that she can assume that Robbie manipulated Cecilia into removing her clothes for him. And it is this event simultaneously viewed from multiple angles that turns the events in the novel forever and creates the worst possible consequences. The characters in Atonement are much more relaxed in their personal and moral activities while there is no member of society who will care and no member of the family to scold them.

Comparison of Heroines

While society and setting play integral roles in the events befalling the plots of these two stories, the heroines themselves have the main hand in what arises. Catherine Morland, protagonist from Northanger Abbey, led a quiet life with her family who seem to be tight-knit and loving. Although the daughter of a man who works in the ministry, she seems to have a shaky foundation of what is proper, but a firm sense of what is moral. For example, she is unaware that riding with a man in an open carriage may be seen as improper (Austen 94), but when she senses that Isabella…