Northanger Abbey Themes

This Study Guide consists of approximately 47 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of Northanger Abbey.
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The Gothic Novel

The Gothic novel was a type of novel widely circulating during the period of time considered by the novel. Indeed, the romantic Gothic novel was all the rage at the time Austen was writing Northanger Abbey and the consideration of the Gothic novel forms one of the novel's most interesting themes. Catherine and Henry, the protagonists, are avid fans of Gothic novels, as is Isabella, the antagonist. In fact, Catherine's confabulation of Gothic fictive elements with real life forms the basis of one of the most humorous sub-plots in the text, as she creeps through Northanger Abbey looking for clues to bolster her theory that General Tilney murdered his wife . . . or imprisoned her, whichever. Henry's shared fondness for novels forms an early point of connection for the two characters, and shared tastes in particular novels serves to bond Catherine to her false friend Isabella. Thus, the characters in the novel are mostly avid readers and generally stoutly defend the Gothic novel as exciting and enjoyable.

The unnamed narrator occasionally intrudes in a meta-fictional way to discuss Gothic novels, also. In this respect, the novel reads somewhat like a comical book review. The narrator, speaking as the author, defends novels in general and claims various benefits derived from novel reading. In this manner the narrator's tastes and the characters' tastes are in a confluence with the reader's tastes—after all, the reader is reading a novel. This theme of the text is particularly enjoyable to think about as the subtle interplay between author, reader, narrator, and character is examined. Given the various titles specified, one might be forgiven for assuming them to be fabrications of the author. They are not. Rigorous research has demonstrated that all of the novels mentioned were in fact contemporaneous publications to Northanger Abbey, though nearly all of them have since vanished into obscurity. As a sort of literary curiosity, however, the gathered referenced novels have been periodically republished alongside new editions of Northanger Abbey.

Social Propriety

A dominant theme within the novel concerns an examination of social propriety. Young Catherine is too naïve to actually know which of her behaviors are potentially scandalous and which are fully acceptable. Thus, she accepts an invitation to ride with John without realizing her behavior might not be completely proper. Later, Mrs. Allen gently suggests that a repeat performance might not be the best thing. Throughout the period spent in Bath, Catherine is always conscious of her own behavior and worries about how others might perceive it—but she has no foundation upon which to accurately judge herself. Other characters, too, are highly concerned with social appearances. For example, consider Henry's early approaches to Catherine and his reaction to John's blustering. Rather than act as one might today, Henry withdraws as was then socially proper. Later, Catherine desires to meet Henry but because of social convention, she could not directly approach him. Instead, she befriends his younger sister and that relationship leads naturally—and properly—to her introduction to Henry. Virtually all of the first half of the novel is spent in the discharge of various social functions—dancing, walking, riding, theater-going, card-playing, and so forth—and all of the character are concerned or over-concerned with social propriety.

Coming of Age

The novel is a concise coming-of-age story featuring Catherine Morland as the protagonist or, as the novel terms her, the heroine. At the novel's opening she is seventeen years old and recently emerged as a beautiful young woman from a somewhat unpromising youth spent as a tomboy. She is utterly naïve about nearly everything, and especially uninformed about social propriety. She has never been in love and has apparently never been outside of Fullerton. Thus, her visit to Bath is her simultaneous entrance into young adulthood and society. She thereafter pursues friendships with unequal success, valuing Eleanor but rejecting Isabella; pursues family relations with rocky results; and pursues her love interest while in turn pursued by an undesired and undesirable suitor. As would be expected, Catherine makes numerous mistakes in her maturation. What sets her apart as a heroine, however, is her unflagging determination to do right by others, to keep her promises, and to clarify and so far as possible to rectify her mistakes. Thus, she apologizes to Eleanor and Henry on several occasions, rejects John, James, and Isabella's improper suggestions, and comports herself in accordance with her high standards. Throughout the difficult dozen or so weeks considered in the novel's primary timeline, Catherine comes of age. She changes from the naïve country bumpkin into a charming young woman of uneven grace and simultaneously learns to appreciate in others qualities lacking in herself. By the time she is married at eighteen years of age, Catherine has transcended her inauspicious beginnings and is well on her way to becoming a respectable woman of substance.

This section contains 799 words
(approx. 2 pages at 400 words per page)
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