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The ethos of humor: a study of the narrator in Northanger Abbey.

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

With her opening strike against Gothic conventions, the narrator begins to win our admiration and trust through her ethos that, though it does reveal her intelligence, first charms because of its humor. (2) She begins with a startling declaration about her heroine and a comic assault on Gothic fathers:
   No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would
   have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the
   character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition,
   were all equally against her. Her father was a clergyman, without
   being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his
   name was Richard--and he had never been handsome. He had a
   considerable independence, besides two good livings--and he was not
   in the least addicted to locking up his daughters. (13)

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

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

Such dangers, however, do not apply to Austen's narrator, who uses humor responsibly. Though playful, the narrator does make a logical appeal that further persuades us of her trustworthiness. Syllogistically, the appeal goes something like this: heroines have certain attributes (impoverished families, preternatural intelligence, remarkable skill in the arts). Catherine does not have these attributes. Catherine is not a heroine. Of course, the narrator acknowledges the invalidity of this syllogism (the middle term is undistributed) when she declares, "But when a young lady is to be a heroine, ... [s]omething must and will happen to throw a hero in her way" (16-17). Without employing any logical terms, the narrator argues that the middle term should have greater extension; a heroine's attributes should include Catherine's unremarkable family and disposition. Even ordinary girls raised in happy families can have adventures. This appeal to logic further cements our faith in the narrator. Sometimes rhetors use humor to mock without offering any logical argument, and sometimes readers, in response, think they have intellectually conquered that which has only been mocked. Our narrator, however, employing humor responsibly, provides valid reasons and thereby fully earns the trust to which her playfulness inclines us.

Throughout the novel, the narrator's banter is more immediately persuasive than her arguments. Describing the friendship of Catherine and Isabella, the narrator defends their reading habits: "Yes, novels ;--for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel writers, of [condemning their own genre]" (37). After chiding her fellow novelists for their hypocrisy, the narrator defends the beleaguered genre:
   And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the
   History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a
   volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper
   from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a
   thousand pens,--there seems almost a general wish of decrying the
   capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of
   slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste
   to recommend them. (37)

The humor of this sentence comes through exaggeration and understatement. (3) The narrator uses hyperbolic numbers ("nine-hundredth," "a thousand") and an excessively detailed description of the pieces in the anthology. She also employs litotes in the phrase "only genius, wit, and taste"--which, following the multiple clauses and phrases describing abridgers (of which Austen herself was one) and anthologizers, is all the more noticeable for its brevity. The narrator points out the absurdity that society praises derivative works while dismissing those of true sensitivity and ingenuity because of the genre in which they are written. In calling attention to this absurdity, the narrator relies on this unexpressed syllogism: Works of "genius, wit, and taste" should be read. Novels are works of this kind. Novels should be read. Though this reasoning is persuasive, it is the humor that first captures our attention. We laugh before we reason. But, as before, we do both, and the humor accompanied by intelligence wins our consent and trust.

The narrator's humor, often directed towards her characters, also wins our intimacy. When Catherine meets Captain Tilney, the narrator hastens to assure us that he "cannot be the instigator of the three villains in horsemen's great coats, by whom she will hereafter be forced into a travelling-chaise and four, which will drive off with incredible speed" (131). Catherine and Frederick are certainly not thinking about "villains" or "travelling-chaise[s]" at this moment, even though Frederick will eventually behave villainously towards Isabella, and Catherine will be forced into a carriage by General Tilney. The narrator has directly entered into her fictional world. After describing a melodramatic scene that is not occurring, she then explains what has actually occurred: "Catherine, meanwhile, undisturbed by presentiments of such an evil, or of any evil at all, except that of having but a short set to dance down, enjoyed her usual happiness" (131). The narrator moves from the evil of kidnapping to the evil of an adolescent concern about dancing. In wit, according to George Campbell, "high and low are coupled, humble and superb, momentous and trivial, common and extraordinary" (151). Austen combines the momentous act of kidnapping with the trivial and common worry about dancing. In comparison to the lurid image of villains in swirling coats, Catherine's worry is refreshingly normal. This normalcy evokes a chuckle because we have been privy to the narrator's perspective; she invites us to laugh with her at both the excess of Gothic convention and the worries of her own character.

In an article on Pride and Prejudice, Theresa Kenney argues that slyness, which "implies duplicity or astuteness at the service of an ulterior motive," is "a quality that the more admirable characters use most properly to articulate affection or love in a way that engages the intellect as well as the heart" (263, 267). Her observations about the characters in Pride and Prejudice apply to the narrator in Northanger Abbey. Though not exactly sly (the narrator is not transparently duplicitous), she has an oblique playfulness that is "transparent to the right reader" (Kenney 265). We are the "right reader" because we are included in the narrator's joke about the villains and their great coats while Catherine is not (though her imagination is often full of such Gothic images). Through her playful comments, the narrator draws us into her confidence and encourages us to share in the teasing affection she has for her heroine. We understand the joke, appreciate the "affection" of the narrator for her characters, and respond with our own affection for her as we laugh together. This shared laughter furthers intimacy and strengthens the narrator's ethos.

Though this laughter comes at the expense of the character, it is not cruel or malicious. Catherine, with her unheroic disposition, ordinary abilities, and melodramatic imagination, is often the source of the intimate laugher shared between narrator and reader, but she is comic without being ridiculous. The narrator genuinely cares about the welfare of her heroine and presents her as a good-natured, kind, sincere, and loving person who differs greatly from the false, calculating Isabella and the stupid, boorish John Thorpe. Towards Catherine, the narrator shows a humorous benevolence. This treatment reveals the narrator's charity: she can laugh without scorn. And so can the reader. We join in her good-natured laughter at her own characters, and we develop an intimate affection for this cheerful and charitable narrator.

Indeed, our affection for this playful, intelligent, intimate narrator is so strong that we accept the lessons of the entire novel, which ends with this wonderfully disingenuous moral: "I leave it to be settled by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience" (252). Of course, this is a false disjunct; the work encourages neither. Why such an ending? Again, the narrator appeals to her humorous ethos to win our consent. The novel is didactic--a critique of the Gothic, a defense of the novel, an argument for Catherine's honesty and kindness over Isabella's deceit and manipulation--but the narrator ends not with a heavy-handed moral but with a playful expression. "That's not it," we observe, chuckling to ourselves, and then we reflect on what the novel has actually taught us. The narrator has taught us so delightfully that we dutifully accept the lesson and consent to the moral vision of the whole novel. Though contemporary rhetoricians saw "persuadability ... [as] synonymous with a weak understanding and pliable will," Austen herself sees it as the sign of "an affectionate heart and ... a discriminating moral sensibility" (Walzer 693, 697). In Persuasion, Anne Elliot's persuadability (though problematic) arises not from weakness of mind but from affection and respect for Lady Russell. Austen desires characters and readers who, with wise affection, become persuadable. (4)

The narrator's humorous ethos reveals her intelligence and establishes intimacy with the reader desirous to trust this jesting, charming individual, who rejoices in her characters' good fortune while laughing at them, who composes a brilliant novel while poking fun at certain literary conventions. She does more than just toss in a few jokes to entertain her readers. Cicero distinguishes between jokes relying on words and jokes relying on content: "Those dependent on content are more numerous, and, as I said earlier, people laugh at them more readily. One of them is telling a story" (2.264). In telling her story, the narrator humorously juxtaposes the Gothic with the ordinary. Not only is the narrative a comic juxtaposition, the narrator's vision of the ordinary is comic--a vision of moral growth, happy endings, justice, and love. This kind of vision, "a different kind of totality, ... a comic universe," guides the plot--silly Catherine matures, throws off disingenuous Isabella, and marries charming Henry--and elicits our consent and approval (Cowan 7). It is right that Henry and Catherine marry, that Eleanor weds "the most charming young man in the world," that Isabella loses both James and Frederick (251). By the end, we assent, not only to the narrator's comic intelligence and camaraderie, but also to her comic vision. Her ethos, revealed explicitly through humor and implicitly through the comic plot, has earned our trust and fashioned our souls; we have become comic by following this wonderfully comic rhetor. We happily take part in the dance.


Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. 3rd ed. Ed. R. W. Chapman. Oxford: OUP, 1933.

Booth, Wayne. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: UCP, 1961.

Campbell, George. "The Philosophy of Rhetoric." The Rhetoric of Blair, Campbell, and Whately. Ed. James L. Golden and Edward P. J. Corbett. New York: Holt, 1968. 143-271.

Cicero. On the Ideal Orator. Trans. James M. May and Jakob Wisse. Oxford: OUP, 2001.

Conley, Thomas. Rhetoric in the European Tradition. Chicago: UCP, 1990.

Cowan, Louise. Introduction. The Terrain of Comedy. Ed. Louise Cowan. Dallas: Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 1984. 1-18.

Grundy, Isobel. "Jane Austen and Literary Traditions." The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. Ed. Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster. Cambridge: CUP, 1997. 189-210.

Halperin, John. The Life of Jane Austen. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1984.

Harmsel, Henrietta Ten. Jane Austen: A Study in Fictional Conventions. London: Mouton, 1964.

Howell, Wilbur. Logic and Rhetoric in England, 1500-1700. New York: Russell, 1961.

Kenney, Theresa. "'Slyness Seems the Fashion': Dexterous Revelations in Pride and Prejudice." Persuasions 27 (2005): 263-69.

Walzer, Arthur. "Rhetoric and Gender in Jane Austen's Persuasion." College English 57.6 (1995): 688-707.


(1.) I take the narrator to be, if not identical, at least very close to Jane Austen herself and as such describe her with feminine pronouns.

(2.) Part of the charm of this humorous ethos comes from the conversational tone the narrator adopts. According to Thomas Conley, "Both Campbell and Blair, then, stood solidly in the tradition of rhetorics designed to transform students into gentlemen--and ladies, we must hasten to add--if not in Parliament, the pulpit, or bar, then certainly in polite conversation, as the novels of Jane Austen make abundantly clear" (223). For Austen, conversation between characters and between narrator and reader is highly rhetorical.

(3.) Austen's use of tropes and figures (hyperbole and litotes) does not accord with dominant eighteenth century feelings toward rhetorical style. Wilbur Howell writes, "The final contribution of seventeenth-century writers to a new attitude towards rhetoric came in their denunciation of the doctrine of the tropes and figures and in their advocacy of the principles that ordinary patterns of speech are acceptable in oratory and literature as in conversation and life. This change was accelerated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries" (385).

(4.) Though Austen likely did not receive systematic training in rhetoric, she was exposed to some of the greatest and most comic rhetoricians and narrators of the Western tradition. John Halperin writes, "[I]n addition to Shakespeare and Milton, she read Pope, Thomson, Gray, Hume, Sherlock, Sheridan, Baretti, Price, Blair, Gilpin, Payne Knight, and the Spectator. Her favourite contemporary writers were Johnson, Cowper, Crabbe, and Goldsmith. She also read an enormous amount of eighteenth-century fiction--Fielding, Richardson, Sterne" (26). Isobel Grundy writes that "Austen's natural place in the course of English literature [is] ... among the Augustans. She knows the established canon: Addison, Pope, Gay, the Swift of Gulliver's Travels, Thomson, Gray, Goldsmith, and Charlotte Lennox" (197). Arthur Walzer argues that Austen was familiar with eighteenth-century rhetoricians like Campbell and Blair and, in a conversation between Elizabeth and Darcy, "reflects the eighteenth-century rhetorical theorist's suspicion of persuasion"--a suspicion that she does not share (694).


Tiffany is working on her Ph.D. in literature at the University of Dallas, where she works as a writing tutor and an editor of the graduate journal. She is a Richard Weaver Fellow. Her interests include the rhetoric of comedy, Jane Austen, and Dante.
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Title Annotation:Miscellany
Author:Niebuhr, Tiffany
Publication:Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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