Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey Themes

Consumer Culture

Many of the characters in Northanger Abbey define themselves on the basis of their material wealth. On this basis, they are obsessed with the acquisition and upkeep of material objects. Mrs. Allen, for instance, is always worried about tearing her latest ball gown. Upon arriving in Bath, Catherine and Isabella spend a portion of each day walking around town, viewing the window displays, and Isabella is constantly comparing her attire with other women's. General Tilney is the novel's most materialistic character. He has devoted his life to outdoing his wealthy peers in the size, scale, and expense of his estate. Upon arriving at Northanger Abbey, Catherine is constantly asked to compare and judge the General's possessions against Mr. Allen's. General Tilney solicits Catherine's praise as a measure of his success. He is the consummate consumer and also values people according to their wealth. Austen's writing seems implicitly critical of these attitudes, but it is worth noting that Austen -- as exemplified especially in her more famous novels -- is more humanist than satirist; this is to say her humor is always gentle, laced with real affection for her characters and their foibles. They may fret about their possessions in excess, but they do so in well-meaning ways.

Imagination vs. Reality

Catherine's imagination is shaped by her experience reading the Gothic novels of Anne Radcliffe. Upon arriving at Northanger Abbey, Catherine is crestfallen when she realizes that her imagined ideal of the house--a former dwelling place for nuns, with all its original features intact--does not match the reality of the renovated and modern mansion. Fueled by her fantasies, Catherine still expects to encounter the same scary objects she has read about--bloody daggers and ghostly shrouds--hidden in secret places throughout the house. Even when she finds only banal objects (such as a quilt) in place of their imagined counterparts, Catherine refuses to relinquish her vision of Northanger's mysterious history until reality intrudes in the form of Henry's admonishment. Austen hereby proposes a sort of meta-critique of fiction and the suspension of disbelief it requires: only by divorcing herself from such fiction can Catherine truly grow. Austen explores this idea playfully, even going so far as to wield tropes one might associate with more deliberately "meta" works of literature, as I note later in this section.

Marriage and Courtship

Concerns over matters of marriage and courtship proliferate in Northanger Abbey. Throughout the novel, Austen foregrounds the economic significance of marriage: in 18th century England, fortunes were built through family alliances. Isabella's schemes center around her desire to find a rich husband, and she uses a variety of techniques to ensure that she will be noticed, whether it is openly flirting with James or pretending to ignore Captain Tilney's attentions after she is engaged. John attempts to court Catherine and makes her an offer of marriage through his sister, and he spreads wildly exaggerated notions of her wealth in order to build up his own reputation in Bath. Luckily, Catherine does everything in her power to rebuff him. Catherine's relationship with the landed and wealthy Henry progresses slowly: they have a gradual courtship that is based on a mutual respect and esteem. Miss Tilney also gets married at the very end of the novel to a wealthy young nobleman. Through these constant referrals to a potential spouse's wealth, we see why General Tilney is so calculating over his childrens' marriages. Tellingly, Henry and his sister do not believe that Captain Tilney has engaged himself to Isabella because she is poor.

Readers and Reading

Letters and novels abound in Austen's depiction of English social life. Catherine receives the most important news largely by reading letters, whether it is James' letter announcing the end of his engagement or Isabella's letter informing her that Captain Tilney has left Bath. Letters are still the primary form of communication in the rapidly modernizing country, and characters wait eagerly for the mail coach to arrive (as when, earlier in the novel, Isabella waits for James to write telling of his father's approval for their marriage). Novels, on the other hand, provide the characters of Northanger Abbey with escapist visions of other worlds, where melodramatic occurences happen on a daily basis. For a young woman like Catherine, reading allows her to access the kind of dramatic conflict that her own life lacks, at least until she arrives at Northanger Abbey.

On a more abstract level, Austen writes many asides to the reader where she directly calls our attention to the novel's fictional qualities: she wants us to know that we are reading a work of art whose features are in large part derived from inherited conventions from other books. For example, Austen lets us know from the very beginning of the novel that we are meant to compare Catherine with the heroines of earlier novels. Austen directly challenges the cliches of the emerging genre in order to solidify her own voice as a writer.

Ownership and Estates

In Northanger Abbey, the individual estates reflect the character of their owners. Fullerton, Catherine's home, is a modest and busy place where the rhythms of family life predominate--the influence of Mr. and Mrs. Morland may be felt in its industrious environs. In contrast, Northanger Abbey is an ostentatious manor house whose sweeping rooms are filled with the latest heating fixtures and furnishings. General Tilney's personality is infused throughout the main rooms of the house: its large proportions and meticulous arrangement are the visible signs of his status-conscious demeanor. Catherine is never at home at Northanger Abbey unless the General is absent.

On the other hand, Catherine takes immediate delight in Woodston, Henry's parish house. Most rooms in Woodston are tastefully furnished, yet one of the most important rooms--the drawing room--is still empty, thus calling our attention to Henry's bachelor state. Tellingly, Catherine finds real delight in the view of the fields from the drawing room window, and this turns out to be her favorite room. Though she does not know it yet, Woodston is her future home, and Catherine will have the chance to decorate the room according to her growing taste.

Social Etiquette

Austen explores the rules of English society throughout her novel by staging multiple violations of discreet etiquette and polite behavior. At Bath, Isabella and James dance together more than twice in one night, and Isabella worries that others will think they are behaving scandalously. Catherine arguably acts in a rude way when she refuses to go on a carriage ride with John, Isabella and James, thus undermining their expectations that she will always act in an obliging and pleasant manner. However, John undermines Catherine's honesty by falsely reporting to the Tilneys that she cannot go on their scheduled walk, and Catherine is angry because he has made her appear absentminded and neglectful of her appointments. Finally, General Tilney violates the code of hospitality when he turns Catherine out of his house without proper notice. Austen is here, as ever, an observer of mores, and the precision of her language offers a modern reader a fascinating look into what life was like in her time. What is perhaps more important than her usefulness as a time-capsule, however, is the fundamental universality of her observations: we may no longer live with the same exact codes as her characters, but we share with them the same nervousness, the same petty squabbles, the same day-by-day mistakes, and the same romantic dreams.

The Gothic Novel

Over the course of the story, Catherine is enamored and subsequently disenchanted by the Gothic novels of Anne Radcliffe. At first, Catherine is willing and eager to absorb everything that she has read or heard about The Mysteries of Udolpho. We hear her raving about the novel in several scenes during her stay in Bath. During her carriage ride to Northanger Abbey, Henry's story similarly absorbs her attention.

In many ways, Henry's retelling of the Gothic horror tale is doubled by Austen's account of Catherine's quest to discover the circumstances behind Mrs. Tilney's death.

Borrowing the plot details of various novels, Catherine attempts to interpret the General's character to conform to the outlines of the evil and mysterious villain, a stock character in the Gothic novel. Catherine even comes to believe that General Tilney has kept his wife locked in a secret chamber all these years and faked her death to their children. Austen's description of Catherine's overeager fantasy is clearly a parody of many Gothic conventions, ranging from the existence of a long-suffering female victim to the suppression of a family's history in hidden rooms and locked chests.