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Rory Book Discussions > Compare/Contrast Atonement and Northanger Abbey

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message 1: by Sarah (new)

Sarah (songgirl7) For those of you who have read both books, what comparisons or contrasts can you make about the books? Do they share similar themes? What do the books say about how fiction influences reality or our perceptions of reality? What do the books say about coming of age or the loss of innocence?

message 2: by Erin (new)

Erin | 47 comments I am not done with Northanger Abbey yet, but I am not seeing much in the way of similarities between the two works. I would say a common theme is class difference, but they way the two authors develop the theme is quite different (so far).

message 3: by Sera (new)


Naivete of a main character is evident in both. Briony is naive to think that her lies will not cause disastrous consequences, and Catherine is naive, well - about everything. But what particularly stands out is when she dreams up that the General had a hand in the death of his wife. Luckily, Henry sets her straight before she gets to tell anybody else, but can you imagine the ramifications if she told the Allens her theory? Mrs. Allen would probably have told Mrs. Thorpe and then it would all have been downhill from there after her two children found out.

message 4: by Alison, the guru of grace (last edited Jan 15, 2008 06:50PM) (new)

Alison | 1282 comments Mod

"What do the books say about how fiction influences reality or our perceptions of reality? What do the books say about coming of age or the loss of innocence?"

First, I agree with all stated above. I also think they both say that fiction contributes to an healthy, but possibly over-wrought imagination. I can't remember if Briony was much of a reader, but I know she had written a play, so I'm guessing she read. I think if you don't have a lot of life experience to draw from, you turn to the only experiences you know (those drawn from books) to help you sort through life as it comes to you. Only until you are able to experience firsthand the insincerities and darkness behind real, grown-up life (Catherine with the Thorpes in Bath, Briony with the war), are you able to make your own decisions and see clearly.

It reminds me of Paul from the Bible when he says, "for now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face." I know he's talking about spiritual maturation, but I think it works in regard to emotion as well.

As far as contrasting...I wish Atonement was fresher to me, but I do know that it's a bit of a downer. We think there's redemption and atonement, but we kind of have the rug pulled out from under us a bit, don't we? The tone of NA is comedic, satirical, silly at times...a social commentary, a time capsule. I think it was meant to be fun, but wise.

message 5: by Dottie (new)

Dottie  (oxymoronid) | 698 comments Alison -- excellent post. All of these for that matter, ladies -- and I'm in agreement though I'm not through NA yet and Atonement was long enough ago that details are fuzzy. I have been following the Atonement threads and enjoying your take on the book and I've never read NA before and am really loving it. Best Austen I've read -- I know, not what I "should" say from the perspective of critical material etc -- but I find the tone lighter -- and the overall story more comical even than some of the works which are what earns her the classic standing.

message 6: by Erin (new)

Erin | 47 comments SPOLIER ALERT

Alison, I like your observations about drawing "reality" from literature. It is a desire of ours as human beings to want to live in the fantasy worlds created for us in literature and film. Some people, like Briony and Catherine, are so obsessed with the fantasy worlds they write or read about that they fail to see reality. Instead, they create their own fantasy worlds within reality and thus make gross assumptions about people and situations. Luckily, Catherine's naivete doesn't cause any serious problems, where Briony's delusions have serious and fatal consequences.

I think we can argue that had it not been for Briony's delusions and lies, the outcome of Cecilia and Robbie's life would be drastically altered. Robbie would theoretically never become a soldier and not be on the front lines of battle. Instead, he would be a doctor, working in the hospital and helping the wounded. Perhaps Cecilia would not have become a nurse at all had she and Robbie had the chance to be together in the first place.

I do like the ending to Briony's novel with the two lovers walking away together. In fact, I liked it so much, I almost wish I had not read the last part of the novel. Ignorance is bliss! I do like that both Catherine and more so Briony become aware of their crossings into fantasy worlds and admit their mistakes in doing so. It shows growth and maturity in their characters and makes them more likeable as heroines.

message 7: by Alison, the guru of grace (new)

Alison | 1282 comments Mod
Right, and wasn't that a big deal for Jane Austen...wasn't it out of vogue to show characters who change? Did someone say that or am I delusional?

I agree with all above Erin. The way you re-capped Cecilia and Robbie's fate just reminded me of how tragic that book was!

message 8: by Courtney (new)

Courtney Stirrat | 201 comments Possible spoilers below! But mostly very general.

I have to say that, as much as I am absolutely loving Northanger Abby, the books are not a great fit. I definitely see some character traits and themes in common, but mostly because the themes -- beautifully discussed above -- stand out strongly in both books. Atonement is, above all, a very psychological novel,so the themes are layered through the characters' and narrators' experience, while Northanger is a very classic novel, in fact probably one of the novels responsible for laying the structure for all that follows.

Above all, it is controlled by a very omniscient and chatty narrator who has absolutely no involvement and while she does have an interest in Catherine's thoughts, that interest is really colored by her agenda (agenda is a strong word, but nothing better comes to mind. Of course Austen has an agenda, lol, she is the author and that's the point).

I think, perhaps, a different pairing might flesh Atonement out a little more for the people who aren't loving it so much. Part of the thing with Atonement is, I think, one really has to drink the Kool-Aid--i.e., you really have to drop yourself into the character's mindsets and believe them as they go. At least to experience the kind of emotion I believe McEwan is trying to invoke. Whereas Austen wants her reader to talk to her and buy her explanations and characterizations of things. The emphasis on the writer versus the emphasis on the character distinguishes these both very strongly for me.

I find the comparison's interesting, as I suspect, both books are part of our newly extended canon, at least for now, but not really similar enough to be instructive. Perhaps this will change as I proceed or have a more global perspective of NA upon completion.

This being said, I am absolutely LOVING Northanger. I am reading a very conventional, silly, Rita Mae Brown novel along with it (as I read Atonement a month or so ago) and it is delicious and wonderful all of the different tweaks she is making to the novel! The narration, the introduction of characters at odd times, the wit and satire, as well as the brush of romance are all really well done. Hopefully I can finish Part I tonight and then I will have some more concrete thoughts.

Not to be a complete harpy, but I started listening to Orlando in the car last night and was AMAZED how similarly the book opened and how similar Woolf's description of Orlando was to McEwan's description of Briony. I was ecstatic to notice it and wanted to email the group from my car. But smartly didn't.

message 9: by Alison, the guru of grace (last edited Jan 17, 2008 07:28AM) (new)

Alison | 1282 comments Mod
"The emphasis on the writer versus the emphasis on the character distinguishes these both very strongly for me."

Good points there, Courtney. Nice contrast. I stand by assumption that Catherine could have inspired (the character of) Briony, but beyond that, I agree that they are two very different novels for many reasons (lots of which you alluded to above).

This group must get around to reading Virgina Woolf at some point (I've already stated my fear of going at it alone). Maybe a Virginia Woolf/Margaret Atwood someone maybe previously mentioned. What does anyone else think?

message 10: by Erin (new)

Erin | 47 comments A good Woolf companion is The Hours (based on/drawn from Mrs. Dalloway). I will try it with you Alison, but I must say I have tried to get into Woolf before and failed miserably. I think McEwan's writing is incredibly similar to hers, but so is Michael Cunningham's. The two contemporary authors are a bit more interesting. I am not sure if either of those books are on the list though.

message 11: by Alison, the guru of grace (new)

Alison | 1282 comments Mod
I'm pretty sure Mrs. Dalloway is. We've kind of discussed that before, too...The Hours/Mrs. D. Everyone seemed to like that idea.

message 12: by Sarah (new)

Sarah (songgirl7) One of these days I want to do The Hours and Mrs. Dalloway together. I just got both in my B& shipment. Actually, the book I got was The Mrs. Dalloway Reader, which apparently has some essays, letters, and short stories in it too.

P.S. I just started NA so I should be able to comment on the comparison/contrasts soon!

message 13: by Dottie (new)

Dottie  (oxymoronid) | 698 comments Sarah -- that Reader sounds interesting. I think this group would have a grand discussion if they tackled The Hours and Mrs. Dalloway together. And I would have a grand time following along -- because that combo was one of the best dual reading and discussions in which I participated on CR. And I love Mrs. Dalloway so much that reading it again would be a joy.

IOW -- I vote yes -- whenever you decide -- what about Romnce Month? TH and Mrs. D. have plenty of romance I think.

message 14: by Sera (new)

Sera Alison, you are so funny and certainly not delusional. Female characters in romance novels did not evolve throughout a story. I had mentioned before that they were static. Things happened to them, but they didn't learn from it, which made Austen a pioneer in that sense.

message 15: by Tiffany (new)

Tiffany Sarah I have the Mrs. Dalloway Reader also, though I haven't read it yet. The Hours is one of my all-time favorites, so I'm a little embarassed to admit I haven't actually read Mrs. Dalloway yet. I agree Dottie, I'd also like to read them both with the group at some point.

message 16: by Meghan (new)

Meghan Alison - I am MUCH more up to Woolf/Atwood considering that it (Courtney) mentioned that Atwood was influenced by Woolf. Atwood is amazing and really should be read by this group.

I've tried to read the Hours. Seriously, I didn't enjoy it at all and I know Woolf is someone I do enjoy (as I love Mrs. Dalloway) so it had to be the other author. I will try it again if I must. Maybe it was Nicole Kidman's face influencing my ire. (nothing against Nicole, it was just the huge too-do they made about her nose that kept popping in my head while reading the book.)

Plus, if compare and contrast is what we're aiming to do, it would be interesting to compare authors (one influencing the other) rather than stories for a change.

But I'm not trying to persuade anyone (wink, wink)...

message 17: by Dottie (last edited Jan 17, 2008 05:52PM) (new)

Dottie  (oxymoronid) | 698 comments Are there other Woolf books on Rory's list? And what Atwood is on her list?

I'm off to examine the list. Any news lately on when there might be a "search this group's shelves" function so we don't have to scroll through 12 pages of list? Not complaining -- just wondering.

Okay -- reporting back -- two Woolf and two Atwood.


Mrs. Dalloway
A Room of One's Own


Oryx and Crake
The Handmaid's Tale

And I still think for February and "Romance Month" that Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours would be good.

message 18: by Alison, the guru of grace (last edited Jan 17, 2008 07:25PM) (new)

Alison | 1282 comments Mod
Thanks for the validation, Sera! I knew we'd heard that somewhere.

I actually read The Hours and it was one of those that hovered between four and five stars for me. It was a four and a 1/2 starser! I'm sorry to hear that you didn't like it, Meghan. Maybe it just happened to mesh with that time in my life? I might not like it if I read it again. You know, I wanted Rene Zellwegger to win the Oscar over Nicole's nose that year. I loved her in Chicago...quite a transformation.

Mrs. Dalloway, as I have said before, I have started several times and can't get into! It was a bit like Faulkner to me...I felt like I had to take notes just to keep up with what was going on. (And that's not fun to me). I think I'd like it better if I had others to guide me. And I'm from the South--I'm supposed to love Faulkner! But he's always been a bit of a chore to me.

I like both Atwoods and both Woolfs listed above. But I don't know about romance month...I was thinking hard-core romance i.e. Romeo/Juliet or Sense & Sensibility. I'm open to all, though. Time will tell. :)

And Dottie, I did request to be able to search within a group booklist on GoodReads Feedback, as well. Time will tell there, too I guess.

message 19: by Dottie (new)

Dottie  (oxymoronid) | 698 comments Thanks for the update on the search function, Alison -- and I'm open to whatever choices this group makes for romance month or whatever combos of books are chosen in future.

message 20: by Sarah (new)

Sarah (songgirl7) So, I'm barely into NA, but I was wondering if anyone else sees a connection between Mrs. Allen from NA and Emily from (part one at least) Atonement? Emily is passive - lying for hours in a darkened bedroom and letting her eldest child care for her youngest. Mrs. Allen is passive too, always complaining that they don't know anyone in Bath but making no attempts to meet people.

message 21: by Courtney (new)

Courtney Stirrat | 201 comments Hmmmm. . . Ideally, if we could assume Rory did some post-grad work in literature, I would pair To the Lighthouse, which I think is Woolf's best work of those I have read thus far, with [Book: Blind Assassin] or perhaps Oryx and Crake or one of the earlier Atwoods that I haven't read. BUT, I think we could have some intense feminist/anti-feminist discussions is we combined The Handmaid's Tale, which I am DYING to read with A Room of One's Own.

Perhaps something a little lighter and more fun for romance month? Too bad every one has read P&P a billion times. We could read the book and then watch all three movies and argue over who was or should have been the idea Mr. Darcy.

message 22: by Sarah (new)

Sarah (songgirl7) And I think Bridget Jones' Diary is the perfect thing to pair with P&P!

message 23: by Arctic (new)

Arctic | 571 comments Alison - great post on the similarities of the two books.

You all did so well at comparing/contrasting these two that I've had little to add to is so far.

I was just thinking though about omniscient narrators and how this was brought up in the NA discussion several times. I think the narrator's perspective in Atonement also becomes an important issue. Changing who the assumed narrator is changes many aspects of the book. It would be interesting if in Northanger we had discovered that the book was perhaps written by Catherine's friend or future daughter. I wonder if the narrator of Northanger influenced McEwan in his writing at all?

message 24: by Alison, the guru of grace (new)

Alison | 1282 comments Mod
I'm dying to know if and how McEwan was influenced by Northanger Abbey. I'd love to find an article where he's saying something like "Jane Austen's the bomb!" (not likely :>) because so many people tend to play down her work as romantic fluff. If anyone finds any info on it, please post!

message 25: by Sarah (new)

Sarah (songgirl7) What Heather said. Plus I haven't finished either book yet. But I really like the parallels you've drawn so far, Alison!

message 26: by Arctic (last edited Jan 23, 2008 02:07PM) (new)

Arctic | 571 comments ok Alison here's what I've been able to find so far:

from the Gaurdian interview with McEwan:

Gaurdian: In the opening section, it looks as though it is going to be a book about sexual molestation of children, but in fact it moves away from that very quickly. Are you particularly interested in that scene?

IME: It's a catalyst; two things were more important to me than the scene itself. One is that for Briony, who is 13 at the time - who sees it and makes a misjudgement in indicting the wrong man - this is the beginning of a life's process. The second thing has a lot to do with Jane Austen. The heroine of Northanger Abbey is a young girl whose head is stuffed with gothic novels, and she misreads the situation in a parallel way. A huge indulgence in literary models by Briony is partly what leads her to make her misjudgement.

McEwan made similar comments in a Barnes and Noble interview:

I'd also, for many years, been very drawn to the underlying idea of Jane Austen's novel Northanger Abbey in which a young woman's reading of gothic novels causes her to misunderstand everything around her. And I've often thought that I would rather like someone with imagination to cause some sort of havoc.

There's also this long but interesting review of Atonement which says this: The novel's epigraph, a quotation from Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, serves as both a warning and a guide to how the reader should view this narrative. Austen's protagonist, Catherine Moorland, who is reprimanded by Henry Tilney in the quoted extract for her naïve response to events around her, is the victim of reading fiction - the Gothic romances of her day ­ and failing to make a distinction between the fictive and the real. McEwan ironically has the Tallis country house renamed Tilney's Hotel as a sly tribute to this fictional precedent. McEwan sees Northanger Abbey as a novel about "about someone's wild imagination causing havoc to people around them" (Ali 59). Tilney's remarks to Catherine ("what ideas have you been admitting?") can be applied equally fittingly to Briony whose equally over-active imagination leads her to tell the crucial lie.

message 27: by Dottie (last edited Jan 23, 2008 02:16PM) (new)

Dottie  (oxymoronid) | 698 comments Thanks for those quotes, Heather. I find that very interesting -- had no idea of it as far as I recall when we CRs discussed this one -- though I could be wrong and it has slipped away.

I'm enjoying the Atonement discussion a great deal -- you all take me right back to the book.

message 28: by Meghan (new)

Meghan Not that this has anything to do with Compare/Contrast but Dottie and Courtney I just purchased Middlemarch! I can't wait to see how it compares to Woolf and Atwood!

Heather - thanks so much for the quotes. That is fascinating and actually has inspired me to read NA.

message 29: by Alison, the guru of grace (new)

Alison | 1282 comments Mod
Yay, Heather! That's just what I was hoping for. So he DOES appreciate Austen. Good to know.

message 30: by Dottie (new)

Dottie  (oxymoronid) | 698 comments Meghan -- I've not read Middlemarch -- intended to a time or two previously but never got it done. Maybe I'll check that one out of the library next trip.

message 31: by Dini, the master of meaning (last edited Jan 23, 2008 08:41PM) (new)

Dini | 691 comments Mod
...McEwan ironically has the Tallis country house renamed Tilney's Hotel as a sly tribute to this fictional precedent...

I didn't even realize that, Heather! Thanks for pointing it out.

message 32: by Rebecca (new)

Rebecca | 74 comments Heather thanks for those comments. I did actually notice that McEwan named the hotel Tilney's hotel and was wondering if there was a connection (I thought it must just be a coincidence). I must say, I'm rather surprised that NA influenced McEwan so much. Catherine's imagination was wild, but it didn't have dire consequences. McEwan took the whole concept and certainly added some consequences. If not for the information regarding how much of an influence NA was for Atonement, I would be hard pressed to really have much to compare beyond the girls' imaginations.

message 33: by Erin (new)

Erin | 76 comments Heather - thanks for those great inerview excerpts!


A tidbit from the review (Tilney chastising Catherine with "what ideas have you been admitting?") made me think again about a question that Meghan had posed on another thread - what if Briony's father had made it back home in time to serve as a check on his daughter's assumptions and the influence of her imagination? At other times his presence had a calming effect on the household.

In that same NA passage Tilney asks Catherine to compare her imaginings with her experiences and what she KNOWS of his family. It reminded me of sections in Part 1 of Atonement where Briony would remember Robbie's (positive) interactions with her and her family. But, alone, she wasn't able to weight those recollections - things she KNEW - against what she thought she saw. Instead, she doubted the truth of the memories.

message 34: by Sarah (new)

Sarah (songgirl7) Good comments, Erin!

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