Northanger Abbey: by Jane Austen - Summary & Analysis

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      Catherine Morland, the daughter of a clergyman, who lives in a country village, is invited to visit Bath by her childless neighbours, the Allens. Mr. Allen has been advised to go there for his health; Mrs. Allen, who cares most about her clothes, is looking forward to the pleasures of the town. Catherine is lonely at first because they know no one in Bath, but she is introduced to a young man called Henry Tilney, whom she likes. But Henry apparently leaves Bath, and the family of an acquaintance of Mrs. Allen take his place as Catherine’s friends. Isabella Thorpe, the daughter, is older and more worldly than Catherine, but they have interests in common and are both keen readers of the fashionable ‘Gothic’ novels. Catherine is sorry to lose Henry Tilney, but the arrival of her brother, James, and Isabella’s brother, John, who are fellow-students at Oxford, provides the girls with escorts and partners for the ball. Next evening at the ball Catherine finds that Henry Tilney and his sister, Eleanor, have returned to Bath, where they are to live for a time with their father, General Tilney.

      John Thorpe embarrasses Catherine by his attentions and after a rather disagreeable drive in his gig, she decides she does not like him. Catherine is delighted to be invited to join Henry and his sister on a walk, but on the appointed day it is raining. Persuaded against her better judgement to join the Thorpes and her brother in a drive, Catherine is horrified to find that the Tilneys have called for her after all. After she has apologized for her apparent discourtesy, her promise to join the Tilneys in their walk is renewed. John Thorpe is prepared to invent an excuse to break her engagement with the Tilneys, but Catherine resolutely refuses to join in the deception. Catherine goes out with the Tilneys; the others drive to Bristol. During the walk Catherine finds her attachment to Henry Tilney has grown stronger; after the drive Isabella Thorpe announces that she is engaged to James Morland. But while James is at home telling his parents, Catherine is distressed to see that Isabella is prepared to flirt with Frederick Tilney, the General’s elder son. Her delight at being invited to Northanger Abbey, the Tilney’s home, is tempered by the fact that Frederick Tilney is to stay on in Bath and seems likely to cause trouble between Isabella and James.

      Catherine’s taste in fiction has given her romantic ideas about life in Northanger Abbey. Though Henry has teased her about the adventures she might have there, she finds it a modern, well-organised household. Alone in her room at night she finds it difficult to control her imagination, and the indulgence of her fantasy leads to ludicrous results. She begins to weave a fanciful story around the Tilney family. Though deeply attached to Eleanor and Henry, she has been puzzled by the General, whose politeness to her has not always extended to his children. Catherine detects some mystery about the fate of his wife, who died when Eleanor was a child. Could the General be one of those villains she had read of who practises cruelties on their own families? To her dismay, Henry surprises her near the bedroom his mother had used when alive, and guesses what has been in her mind. He tells her that her fears are groundless. Catherine feels humiliated but Henry helps her to regain her self-respect. News from Bath that Isabella has rejected James for Frederick Tilney reminds them of the world outside. The Tilneys’ certainty that the General will disapprove of Isabella leads Catherine to wonder if he will approve of her, but on a visit to the parsonage which is to be Henry’s future home, the General hints that Catherine is well-fitted to be its mistress. A letter from Isabella confirms that Frederick’s attachment has been short-lived, and Catherine resolves that such a fickle woman cannot be her friend.

      General Tilney leaves the young people to visit London but suddenly returns while Henry is away from home. Catherine is told that she is to leave Northanger Abbey immediately. Alone and in despair, she travels back to her family who try to comfort her. But Henry has not abandoned her. Next day he arrives to explain; the General had believed that Catherine was an heiress. When in London he discovered that she was not and he returned to dismiss her. Henry declares his love for Catherine and asks her to marry him. The estrangement between Henry and his father is patched up when Eleanor becomes engaged to a man rich enough to satisfy the General’s sense of family pride. After a year’s delay, Henry and Catherine can be married.

Critical Analysis

      Northanger Abbey - a parody, satire or burlesque of the Gothic novel: The Gothic novel was a popular convention during Jane Austen’s time and Mrs.Radcliffe’s novel ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ had gained immense popularity. In these novels, there was an excessive sensibility and sentiment, with the perfect beautiful and accomplished heroine and the hero of mysterious but noble birth. The setting was usually an on, rambling manor or castle and the atmosphere was one of strangeness and terror. It is this convention that Jane Austen parodies so successfully in ‘Northanager Abbey’ by reproducing not Gothic types of character and situation but rather their anti-types in the actual world. Jane Austen places before us both what a character should be if he were to conform to the Gothic mode and what he really is. Catherine Morland is here the anti-type of a typical Gothic heroine, as she has none of the characteristics of the conventional fictional heroine—no beauty, intellect, mysterious background not even a lover. Catherine is herself the victim of fanciful notions garnered from Gothic novels as is obvious from her conjectures about Northanger Abbey. She sees mysteries where none exist and it is only through Henry Tilney that she begins to distinguish between literature and life, and the difficulties of ordinary life. Thus ‘Northanger Abbey’ is not merely a burlesque of the Gothic novel, but is concerned, like the rest of her novels with the education of the heroine into self-knowledge.

      Theme: There is a dual theme in the novel. On one level the theme is the parody of the Gothic novel. In this sense it is Catherine’s progress in learning to distinguish between life and literature. The comic climax of this theme is the disbursement of Catherine’s romantic fancies. “Instead of long damp passages....narrow cells and ruined chapel....some awful memorials of an injured and ill-fated nun”, what she finds is a modern house with no solemnity of any kind. A mysterious chest in her bedroom contains cotton counterpanes, and a chest which frightens her out of a night’s sleep merely contains an inventory of linen. Contrary to her horrific conjecture of Mrs.Tilney as being alive and cruelly imprisoned or even murdered by her husband, she finds from Henry Tilney that his mother had died normally of a bilious fever. This leads to the second theme of the novel — Catherine’s education regarding the anxieties of common life. This is manifest in Isabella’s jilting of her brother and her own expulsion from Northanger Abbey and consequently her separation from Henry. The two themes are linked by Catherine’s educative process. She learns not to be deceived by literature, and not to be deceived by life.

      Catherine as the Heroine: Catherine is Jane Austen’s most innocent and simple heroine. She has none of the certainty of Elizabeth Bennet, none of the gentler perception of Anne Elliot, none of the righteousness of Fanny Price. She is closer in nature to Harriet Smith. But she is like Emma Woodhouse in that her ignorance catches her up in mistakes and misjudgements. It is from this that much of the irony of plot is derived.

      Minor Characters: The minor characters in this novel are related to the double theme of the novel—the conflict between reality and literature, and the opposing conception of real life disturbances being just as disturbing as fictional ones. Mrs Allen unlike the Gothic chaperone is neither wicked nor overtly vigilant but is merely a lazy, indolent, dress conscious woman of real life. Isabella Thorpe may seem like the unconventional friend in the Gothic novel, supporting the heroine, helping her and being her close confidante. But in reality she is shown to be a shrewd, calculating vulgar woman on the lookout for a good match—in short she is a social climber and her final letter can no longer deceive Catherine. John Thorpe is Jane Austen’s anti-type for the unwelcome suitor of the Gothic novel. He is vulgar, rude, foolish and a braggart.

      There is nothing sinister about him. He is the least interesting of Jane Austen’s villains. He does not seduce anyone like John Willoughby; defame anyone like George Wickham; coolly run off with married woman, like Henry Crawford; deceive or dupe anyone (except General Tilney), like Frank Churchill. He is also the least necessary of the villains as Catherine herself sees through him very early in the novel and her only battle is with her own illusions.

      Henry Tilney: He is the only one of Jane Austen’s heroes who shares her ironic viewpoint and the only one who ever threatens the primacy of a heroine. Henry-Tilney is the character whose perception) judgement and commonsense represent what is right. It is he who sees Catherine’s errors and misjudgements and disabuses her of her confusion of literature with life.

      Technique: The use of a letter to communicate a denouement is a typical technique which Jane Austen employs in her novels. When Catherine is in Northanger Abbey, she receives news of Bath through a letter. Similarly in Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth learns of Lydia’s elopement and later her marriage to Wickham through a letter. Fanny Price too receives reports through letters and Emma learns of the concealed engagement of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax through Frank’s letter.

      Conclusion: In Northanger Abbey, the author burlesques the misadventures and terrifying mishaps of the Gothic heroine through the character of Catherine and makes her stand on realism and good sense. However, her novels retain the conventional romantic ending of the hero and heroine coming together in wedded bliss.

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