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Northanger Abbey’s Themes

Victoria Elliott | Wednesday May 16, 2012


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Overview | Context | Form
Characters | Themes | Setting | Language

Growing Up

Northanger Abbey is not a ‘Bildungsroman’ as such, although the first chapter describing Catherine’s early years does begin to approach one. It does, however, deal with the theme of growing up and reaching adulthood far more than other Austen novels, featuring a much younger heroine with far less worldly experience. The Catherine who goes to Bath, despite her amiability, is essentially a naive and unworldly girl. It is noticeable that early in the book Catherine is hesitant to speak her mind and opinion – particularly in the light of Isabella Thorpe’s decided opinions. As the book progresses Catherine grows more confident in herself, despite the setback of being caught investigating the General’s involvement in his wife’s death. There is some youth remaining, however: her mother in particular notes Catherine’s attitude when she returns home, before Henry comes to visit, and is concerned by the sulky girl who has returned to her. This is of course equally the result of a girl who has outgrown her limited provincial upbringing and had a taste of a much larger world being reconfined to the town of her childhood.

Austen ironically notes Catherine’s preparation for heroine-status in her reading between the ages of 15 and 17. This reading does not prepare her well for the world into which she will enter – and in fact in some ways it serves her badly, because of her love of Gothic novels. Catherine herself realises some way through the novel that while the Gothic romances may be a guide to what life might bring you in France or Italy, in the south of England, they are not much help as to what to expect from life. The people from whom she learns most are Eleanor and Henry Tilney.

The Act of ‘Reading’ as a Motif

Although it contributes to the theme of appearance and reality, reading forms an independent recurrent motif...

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