Notes for Northanger Abbey

Robert Harris
Version Date: June 30, 2000


Jane Austen drafted Northanger Abbey in 1798 and rewrote it in 1816, after which it was published in 1818. As commentators often point out, the novel covers a restricted scope of time, place, and event--there are no vast sweeps. The novel covers less than a year (much of it in a matter of several weeks), focusing on two main locations, and a handful of characters, whose major goal is success in love, or at least marriage. As a result, the plot is slow and the description limited. But these remarks should not be seen as criticisms. Austen is engaged in several significant literary excursions here, all of them surrounding an examination of personhood--its nature, growth, varieties.

As a novel progresses, an author composes within a triangle of attention: the focus of attention or concern at any given moment can be a character, an action, or a setting. (For simplicity's sake, we will consider philosophical commentary, authorial intrusions, and digressions as somehow adjunct to one of these three foci.) Many novelists move around in this triangle, touching at various times on all three areas. Others remain in or prefer one corner much more than others. The adventure novel tends to emphasize action; some nineteenth century novels seem to be largely setting or description. Austen has chosen to make character her main focus.

In Northanger Abbey we see (1) character sketches of a variety characters, good and not so good, and (2) and the growth of characters. We come to feel that we know mny of these characters and perhaps have met similar people. Contrast this sense of familiarity with our sense of characters in a novel of event, like Moll Flanders. Moll does a million things, yet we never feel that we know her as a person; would we recognize her on the street? What feelings do we really have about her? Austen is a careful observer of people. The lifelike roundness and believable growth of the characters are both aspects of literary quality--something that helps us separate "fiction" from "literature."

Jane Austen clearly had fun writing Northanger Abbey. Even though the novel presents several quite serious themes, there are many comic elements, and the whole seems to have been written tongue-in-cheek, with a wry smile on the author's face. It is a good-natured Horatian satire in many places, gently making fun of the foibles of both youth and age, in an effort to laugh us out of our folly.


Novel of manners. As with many novels written in the nineteenth century, one way to view the book is as a novel of manners: an exploration into proper and improper social behavior. Catherine starts out not knowing how to behave in society, so she takes her cues from the novels she has read (almost exclusively Gothic novels) and from those around her, added to her rather circumscribed upbringing. She learns about others by observation and by making mistakes. (The novel exemplifies the modern saying, "Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.") Her imagination is sometimes foolish, but she learns and grows. Those who learn and remain virtuous are rewarded by marriage (Catherine, Henry, Eleanor) and those who misbehave are punished by not getting married (Isabella, John, and perhaps Frederick).

Coming-of-age story. Since Catherine is setting out on the world at age 17, to enter society and "grow up," the novel can also be seen as a coming-of-age story, where Catherine moves from immaturity to maturity. Compare the immaturity she displays in Chapter 11 regarding breaking an appointment to the more mature view of Chapter 13. Catherine does not "grow up" immediately, but as a result of experience interacting with her basic virtue, resulting in defining moments. Thus, like Pamela, the story is in some sense one of virtue rewarded (by marriage). Catherine's need for growth is somewhat unusual since it involves both a need for knowledge and a need to unlearn the false ideas she has gotten from reading Gothic novels. She also needs to reign in the power of her imagination and reconcile it with reality and probability.

Satire on gothic novels and their popularity. The Gothic novel retained many of the overwrought and bizarre elements of the romance, which indulged improbable or even impossible events and behaviors. Catherine's use of these works as models makes her a comic figure in several places. Reading Samuel Johnson's Rambler essay Number 4 would be worthwhile here, because Austen would probably agree with him that novels have both the power and the danger of being imitated as "lectures of conduct, and introductions into life." Johnson adds that "the power of example is so great as to take possession of the memory by a kind of violence, and produce effects almost without the intervention of the will." These effects we see in Catherine, until her moment of recognition at the end of Chapter 24. In fact, reality reminds Catherine of novels (Chapter 14) until her awakening.


Foils. In order to study manners, the character without manners (Catherine) needs both good models and bad. The models may be paired off as foils to each other's behavior. Henry Tilney contrasts with John Thorpe; Eleanor Tilney contrasts with Isabella. As Catherine grows, she herself is pointed off by Isabella. In a smaller way, perhaps General Tilney and Mr. Allen are foils for each other. Note that the contrast involves both behavior and values.

Psychological exploration and realism. Austen does quite a lot with the characters' interiors. These include the wildness of Catherine's imagination, Henry Tilney's analysis of Catherine (see, for example, Chapter 16), and Isabella's ironic habit of declaring just the opposite of what she actually believes. We find some characters difficult to sound: General Tilney's motivations, John Thorpe's habitual lying, Frederick Tilney's need for meaningless conquest. Perhaps most pervasive is the tension (found in several characters) between the "need" for self deception (as a means of ego propping or validation) and self awareness (as a path to self fulfillment and maturity). Self awareness often comes at an emotional price (which is why some characters avoid it). Catherine, at her principal recognition scene at the end of Chapter 24 and the beginning of Chapter 25 is truly pained: "Most grievously was she humbled. Most bitterly did she cry."

Other Themes

Finding the right marriage partner. This is a major theme of the novel in general and especially of nineteenth century English novels, since there was a surplus of women at the time and since economics play such a role in middle and upper class marriages.

Duty versus pleasure or expediency. The importance of keeping promises. Whether or not a person keeps a promise in the face of a temptation to break it reveals the integrity of the person. A person with character is a promise keeper.

The novel. Austen comments on the novel and the Gothic novel, either directly or indirectly, several times. Her definition seems to be that a novel conveys "the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour . . . in the best-chosen language" (Chapter 5).

Personal integrity versus "going along to get along." Catherine must resist being manipulated by others in order to become her own person. See especially Chapter 13.

The anti-romance. The opening chapters take care to explain that Catherine, the heroine, is very untypical of the heroines in many novels. She is plain, unaccomplished, unpursued by lovers, and lives an ordinary life safe from robbers and kidnappers. Throughout the book, Austen points out the "failures" to conform to type of both her heroine and the hero (Henry).

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Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com