Northanger Abbey

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Novels and the Heroine Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Novels and the Heroine Theme Icon
Sincerity and Hypocrisy Theme Icon
Wealth and Respectability Theme Icon
Experience and Innocence Theme Icon
Loyalty and Love Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Northanger Abbey, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Novels and the Heroine Theme Icon

From its very first sentence, Northanger Abbey draws attention to the fact that it is a novel, describing its protagonist Catherine Morland as an unlikely heroine. Catherine is “unlikely” because, in most of the novels of the late 18th and early 19th century, heroines were exceptional both in their personalities and in their lives’ circumstances, while Catherine is a rather average young woman. Throughout Northanger Abbey, Austen mocks typical novelistic conventions for their predictability, though never suggesting that this formulaicness makes novels unworthy of being read. Elsewhere in the novel, Austen also upends conventions of the typical courtship novel, especially in the way she describes the deepening relationship between Catherine and Henry.

Jane Austen wrote Northanger Abbey during a period when the popularity of novels had exploded and novel-reading had become an obsession, especially for women. British society was divided on the value of these books and debated novels’ impact on the values and behavior of the women who were their most avid readers.

The most popular works of the second half of the 18th century fell into the related genres of sentimental and Gothic novels. Sentimental novels often portrayed the difficulties faced by a heroine in her pursuit of love and happiness, while Gothic novels placed this same plot into an even more dramatic context, by setting them in spooky old castles during exciting historical times and by including supernatural elements. Many critics condemned such novels as silly, and worried that the dramatic stories of love would influence young women to disobey their families when selecting a spouse. On the other side of the debate, proponents of the novel said that reading about the experiences and emotions of different characters strengthened readers’ ability to feel compassion and act morally in their own lives.

Northanger Abbey sides strongly with the pro-novel side of this debate, but also does not portray the effects of novel-reading in an entirely positive light. In general, the book presents novels as influencing readers to explore the world and seek to understand it, although this sometimes leads to trouble. That trouble, however, can often lead to better self-understanding and a broader understanding of the world.

When Catherine seizes on the wild idea, drawn from novels, that General Tilney murdered his wife nine years earlier, Northanger Abbey is mocking the way that readers of novels can take their dramatic content too much to heart. Yet in this instance, Catherine’s mistaken idea leads her into an embarrassing encounter with Henry, which ultimately teaches her to be a better judge of situations. Although her reading of novels led her into trouble, it also forced her to confront her own ignorance and to grow and mature.

Northanger Abbey is able both to defend and parody novels, in the end, because Northanger Abbey itself is an innovation in the novel form. In the book, Catherine Morland learns that the drama of her real life is no less vivid than the worlds she reads about in novels. This discovery of Catherine’s functions as a kind of turning point for novels themselves, a marker signaling a shift in what constituted a novel. Soon after Austen published Northanger Abbey, novels more generally shifted away from the sentimental works that dominated the eighteenth century to the realist novels that dominated the nineteenth. It was a shift that Jane Austen anticipated.

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Novels and the Heroine Quotes in Northanger Abbey

Below you will find the important quotes in Northanger Abbey related to the theme of Novels and the Heroine.
Volume 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother; her own person and disposition, were all equally against her.

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Catherine Morland
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

The heroines of the Sentimental and Gothic novels popular at the time when Jane Austen wrote Northanger Abbey usually had certain qualities in common with one another. These heroines were beautiful, gifted at music and drawing, sensitive, moral, and modest. They were also generally either very rich or very poor, and often fell in love with men from a different class. From the novel’s first sentence, then, the Narrator signals that this book will challenge prevailing ideas about who deserves to be the novel’s central figure. The narrator satirizes the idea that anyone can be “born to be” a heroine, or born to be a “nobody.” Every woman, even an average young woman from a middle-class home with a background like Jane Austen’s, has her own life story which is no less interesting than dramatic adventures that would be unlikely to happen to anyone.

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Volume 1, Chapter 2 Quotes

When the hour of departure drew near, the maternal anxiety of Mrs. Morland will be naturally supposed to be most severe. A thousand alarming presentiments of evil to her beloved Catherine from this terrific separation must oppress her heart with sadness, and drown her in tears for the last day or two of their being together; and advice of the most important and applicable nature must of course flow from her wise lips in their parting conference in her closet. Cautions against the violence of such noblemen and baronets as delight in forcing young ladies away to some remote farm-house, must, at such a moment, relieve the fulness of her heart. Who would not think so? But Mrs. Morland knew so little of lords and baronets, that she entertained no notion of their general mischievousness, and was wholly unsuspicious of danger to her daughter from their machinations.

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Catherine Morland, Mrs. Morland
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

With biting satire, the Narrator describes how novels of the era typically described the scene in which a heroine leaves home and her mother for the first time. The possible dangers of being kidnapped, manipulated, or raped hung over the head of the modest, beautiful, teenage heroine in these novels. Here, the Narrator (and thus Austen) pushes back playfully against this formulaic convention and suggests that it is represented so often in novels that readers will be shocked to read about a mother who does not weep in fear for her daughter’s safety. In this way, the novel once again points to the innovation it is making in choosing an average girl from an average family like Catherine’s.

But while the extreme distress of heroine’s mothers in Sentimental novels is gently mocked here, there is also a gentle mockery of Mrs. Morland. In letting her seventeen-year-old daughter leave home for the first time without giving her any warnings about those who might seek to take advantage of her, Mrs. Morland is proving herself to lack wisdom about the world. Although Catherine may not be heading into a dangerous world packed with villains, she is likely to at least receive male attention that will be new to her, given how isolated her upbringing has been up to this point. She will also be meeting all kinds of people, men and women, who may seek to take advantage of her for one reason or another. Mrs. Morland foresees none of this and thus has no warnings to give Catherine at all.

Volume 1, Chapter 8 Quotes

She could not help being vexed at the non-appearance of Mr. Thorpe, for she not only longed to be dancing, but was likewise aware that, as the real dignity of her situation could not be known, she was sharing with the scores of other young ladies still sitting down all the discredit of wanting a partner. To be disgraced in the eye of the world, to wear the appearance of infamy while her heart is all purity, her actions all innocence, and the misconduct of another the true source of her debasement, is one of those circumstances which peculiarly belong to the heroine's life, and her fortitude under it what particularly dignifies her character. Catherine had fortitude too; she suffered, but no murmur passed her lips.

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Catherine Morland, John Thorpe
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

John Thorpe had asked Catherine to dance at that night’s ball, but he has now walked away to talk to his friends, leaving her without a partner. She is left sitting alone with the older women as she was during her first ball in Bath, and she feels that all eyes are on her, speculating as to why she cannot find anyone to ask her to dance. This trivial occurrence which causes Catherine so much distress is written about in terms that would have been familiar to readers of the Sentimental novels popular at the time when Jane Austen wrote Northanger Abbey. Heroines in these novels suffer neglect and abuse, sometimes even rape, for which they are then unfairly blamed. The typical heroine would keep silent about the true story behind any disgrace in a display of modesty that contemporary readers would have thought laudable. The Narrator suggests that Catherine’s embarrassment at being without a partner at the ball is a trivial occurrence, but that it causes her heroine a distress that is just as worthy of being described as the more consequential trials faced by the typical heroine.

Volume 1, Chapter 13 Quotes

It was painful to her to disappoint and displease them, particularly to displease her brother; but she could not repent her resistance. Setting her own inclination apart, to have failed a second time in her engagement to Miss Tilney, to have retracted a promise voluntarily made only five minutes before, and on a false pretence too, must have been wrong. She had not been withstanding them on selfish principles alone, she had not consulted merely her own satisfaction; that might have been ensured in some degree by the excursion itself, by seeing Blaize Castle; no, she had attended to what was due to others, and to her own character in their opinion.

Related Characters: Catherine Morland, Eleanor Tilney (Miss Tilney)
Related Symbols: Old Buildings / Northanger Abbey
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

Catherine has refused to change her plans for a walk with the Tilneys to go on a drive with the Thorpes—so John Thorpe takes it upon himself to reschedule Catherine’s walk with the Tilney’s without her permission. Catherine refuses to accept this and is running away from Isabella, James, and John to rush to the Tilneys and confirm that she does want to go on the walk they had planned. Once again, John Thorpe has proven that he has no scruples when it comes to lying to get his way. Catherine on the other hand, has a strong sense of propriety and of loyalty to a promise given.

Catherine has already let the Tilneys down once, when John lied and told her he saw them leaving town to convince her to go on a drive with the Thorpes instead of waiting for the Tilneys to go on a walk. On this occasion, she saw how angry it made Henry Tilney when he thought she had purposefully ignored her commitment to take a walk. Henry has told her that he believes commitments should be honored, and Catherine shares this priority. For Henry and Catherine, it is important to follow through and keep your word not only when you want to, but at all times. This is a distinction that Henry sees as important to being well-mannered, honorable, and a gentleman or gentlewoman.

Although Catherine’s priority is to keep her promise to the Tilneys, she insists to herself that this is not only out of a selfish desire to spend time with Henry, but out of a commitment to do what is right. She feels sure of her own motives in insisting on sticking to her plan with the Tilneys, because she has a competing desire to see and explore Blaize Castle, which John Thorpe told her was a grand old castle like those described in the Gothic novels she loves. Catherine has said before that interest in reading the Gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolpho has stopped her from being too forlorn in Henry’s absence. In fact, her interest in old buildings is often just as keen as her interest in Henry Tilney. It is as if Catherine has not yet decided whether she would prefer her story to be like a Sentimental novel, centered around a romance, or a Gothic novel, in which the romance takes place in an exotic and frightening location. What Catherine does not know, however, is that Blaize Castle was built only a few years before, so the promise that it is an old castle is just another of John Thorpe’s lies.

Volume 1, Chapter 15 Quotes

“Morland says exactly the same,” replied Isabella; “and yet I dare not expect it; my fortune will be so small; they never can consent to it. Your brother, who might marry any body!”
Here Catherine again discerned the force of love. “Indeed, Isabella, you are too humble.—The difference of fortune can be nothing to signify.”
“Oh! my sweet Catherine, in your generous heart I know it would signify nothing; but we must not expect such disinterestedness in many. As for myself, I am sure I only wish our situations were reversed. Had I the command of millions, were I mistress of the whole world, your brother would be my only choice.”
This charming sentiment, recommended as much by sense as novelty, gave Catherine a most pleasing remembrance of all the heroines of her acquaintance; and she thought her friend never looked more lovely than in uttering the grand idea.

Related Characters: Catherine Morland (speaker), Isabella Thorpe (speaker), James Morland
Page Number: 114
Explanation and Analysis:

Isabella and James are engaged, but James has not yet gotten his parents’ permission for the marriage. Isabella believes the Morlands to be wealthy and fears that they will object to her as a daughter-in-law on the grounds that she has no fortune. Unaware that Isabella thinks the Morlands are wealthier than they are, Catherine believes all of Isabella’s anxiety to arise from her fear of losing the man she loves. In fact, if Isabella knew the actual extent of the Morlands’ fortune, she would not be interested in James at all, but she conceals her true motives by hypocritically saying how little she cares for money and overstating her absolute devotion to James. Catherine has read many novels about love across class lines, so Isabella’s hypocritical speech seems to Catherine just like a sincere and romantic declaration drawn from a Sentimental novel. To Catherine, the fact that her family is not much richer than Isabella’s makes Isabella’s fear of rejection seem like an even more potent sign of Isabella’s love for James.

Volume 2, Chapter 8 Quotes

To be kept up for hours, after the family were in bed, by stupid pamphlets, was not very likely. There must be some deeper cause: something was to be done which could be done only while the household slept; and the probability that Mrs. Tilney yet lived, shut up for causes unknown, and receiving from the pitiless hands of her husband a nightly supply of coarse food, was the conclusion which necessarily followed. Shocking as was the idea, it was at least better than a death unfairly hastened, as, in the natural course of things, she must ere long be released. The suddenness of her reputed illness; the absence of her daughter, and probably of her other children, at the time—all favoured the supposition of her imprisonment.—Its origin—jealousy perhaps, or wanton cruelty—was yet to be unravelled.

Related Characters: Catherine Morland, General Tilney, Eleanor Tilney (Miss Tilney), Mrs. Tilney
Related Symbols: Old Buildings / Northanger Abbey
Page Number: 177
Explanation and Analysis:

The General has said that he will stay awake after Catherine and Eleanor go to bed. Excited to be staying in an old building like Northanger Abbey, Catherine is on the lookout for signs of something mysterious or sinister that would be familiar to her from the Gothic novels she loves. She finds the General unpleasant and domineering, but she is not used to making such judgments for herself. Instead of imagining him to be a harsh man whose company she dislikes, Catherine concocts a theory that the General is a dramatic and murderous villain. When she hears that the General plans to stay up after everyone else goes to bed, she instantly remembers the way that Montoni in The Mysteries of Udolpho keeps the heroine’s aunt locked up in the castle. She knows of no motive for a crime against Mrs. Tilney, nor is she sure that Frederick and Henry were not home at the time of their mother’s death. But despite these many gaps in her knowledge, Catherine decides that she has finally found a mystery worthy of investigating. Earlier in the novel, Catherine was afraid even to think ill of someone—but now she swings to the opposite extreme, thinking the absolute worst of the General. Both attitudes reflect her lack of experience analyzing other people and the world around her.

Volume 2, Chapter 9 Quotes

“If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to—Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you—Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing; where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay every thing open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?”

Related Characters: Henry Tilney (Mr. Tilney) (speaker), Catherine Morland, General Tilney, Mrs. Tilney
Related Symbols: Old Buildings / Northanger Abbey
Page Number: 186
Explanation and Analysis:

Catherine has been looking at everything she sees at Northanger Abbey through the lens of the Gothic novels she has read, and has concocted a theory that General Tilney either murdered his wife or keeps her prisoner somewhere in the house. She has just realized that this was a foolish fantasy after sneaking into the deceased Mrs. Tilney’s room to investigate, when she runs into Henry and reluctantly reveals to him that she suspected his father of committing some terrible crime against his mother. Henry, who knows that Catherine was excited about visiting an Abbey because so many Gothic novels are set in such old buildings, instantly understands that the basis for her suspicion was not her real observations, but the things she has read about in books. Henry has already had several conversations with Catherine during which he appreciated her ability to listen, learn, and mature. It is likely because of this trusting relationship that he gives her such a direct lecture about how far she let herself get carried away by baseless fantasies.

Henry has two main points. First, that Catherine should consider the society that they live in and what is probable to happen in it. Whereas in Gothic novels, the abbey or castle where a heroine may be kept captive is often far away from any town, on a cliff in the Italian countryside, Northanger is located in the middle of England. Catherine has been brought up in English society to respect the moral principles and codes of conduct that govern it (and presumably to assume, as Henry does, that England and the Christians living in it are more “civilized” than people in more exotic locations). She herself worries that she will violate these principles out of ignorance and inexperience and has a deep respect for them. Henry then feels that she should recognize that these principles restrain and guide other people’s actions just as they do hers.

Second, Henry urges Catherine to think for herself and consult her own understanding instead of relying on other guides, whether they are novels or unreliable people around her. One of the book’s central questions is whether Catherine will learn to analyze the behavior and motivations of other people. In suspecting the General of murdering his wife, she has failed at this analysis very dramatically—but Henry has faith that she can do better. From what he knows of her, he thinks that she can learn from this failure and begin to exercise her own judgment moving forward.

Volume 2, Chapter 10 Quotes

Charming as were all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and charming even as were the works of all her imitators, it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the midland counties of England, was to be looked for. Of the Alps and Pyrenees, with their pine forests and their vices, they might give a faithful delineation; and Italy, Switzerland, and the South of France, might be as fruitful in horrors as they were there represented. Catherine dared not doubt beyond her own country, and even of that, if hard pressed, would have yielded the northern and western extremities. But in England it was not so; among the English, she believed, in their hearts and habits, there was a general though unequal mixture of good and bad. Upon this conviction, she would not be surprized if even in Henry and Eleanor Tilney, some slight imperfection might hereafter appear and upon this conviction she need not fear to acknowledge some actual specks in the character of their father, who, though cleared from the grossly injurious suspicions which she must ever blush to have entertained, she did believe, upon serious consideration, to be not perfectly amiable.

Related Characters: Catherine Morland (speaker), Henry Tilney (Mr. Tilney), General Tilney, Eleanor Tilney (Miss Tilney)
Page Number: 188
Explanation and Analysis:

Catherine had felt sure that Henry would no longer like her after he discovered her horrible suspicions about his father, but Henry, recognizing that she will feel embarrassed, treats her with kindness. Catherine soon moves on from the humiliation of the moment to reflect on what she can learn from it. She begins to compare the characterizations in Gothic novels to those of the people she knows. Her conclusions are in some ways exactly the ones that Henry suggested she ought to draw: that she should look around her and recognize that she lives in a society that is tightly controlled both by laws and codes of conduct, where gruesome crimes are unlikely to go undiscovered. She also takes his other piece of advice to heart, however, and begins to try to think for herself. In doing this, she recognizes that she may have been wrong about the General being a murderer, but this does not mean that he is a paragon of virtue. She recognizes that everyone has their good and bad qualities, and that she should take her own perceptions seriously and use her own mental powers to assess the people around her.

Volume 2, Chapter 13 Quotes

That room, in which her disturbed imagination had tormented her on her first arrival, was again the scene of agitated spirits and unquiet slumbers. Yet how different now the source of her inquietude from what it had been then—how mournfully superior in reality and substance! Her anxiety had foundation in fact, her fears in probability; and with a mind so occupied in the contemplation of actual and natural evil, the solitude of her situation, the darkness of her chamber, the antiquity of the building were felt and considered without the smallest emotion; and though the wind was high, and often produced strange and sudden noises throughout the house, she heard it all as she lay awake, hour after hour, without curiosity or terror.

Related Characters: Catherine Morland
Related Symbols: Old Buildings / Northanger Abbey
Page Number: 212
Explanation and Analysis:

Catherine is being expelled from Northanger Abbey by the General without any explanation. She here looks back on when she first arrived at Northanger, when she naively hoped to uncover a mystery like those she had read about in Gothic novels—when she wanted to be scared and agitated. Now she faces the mystery of why the General would turn on her so suddenly, but it is not a tantalizing, romantic mystery with supernatural undertones, although she still finds it inexplicable and painful. Catherine has matured a great deal since coming to Northanger in search of drama. She has realized that she much prefers a normal country parsonage, like the one where she grew up and the one where Henry lives, to an old building that could be the scene for a Gothic novel.

This comparison of Catherine’s real anxieties to the anxieties portrayed in a Gothic novel also recalls the opening lines of the novel, which mocked the conventions of many of the novels of the time in only choosing certain types of heroines—beautiful, talented, very rich or very poor—and only placing them in certain very dramatic situations—kidnapping, elopement, rape. The novel suggests that this moment of suffering for the unremarkable, middle-class Catherine is just as meaningful to her and worthy of reading about as any of the dramatic scenes of suffering portrayed in the Gothic novels that were most popular during that era.

Volume 2, Chapter 15 Quotes

She was assured of his affection; and that heart in return was solicited, which, perhaps, they pretty equally knew was already entirely his own; for, though Henry was now sincerely attached to her, though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved her society, I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought. It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of an heroine's dignity; but if it be as new in common life, the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own.

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Catherine Morland, Henry Tilney (Mr. Tilney)
Page Number: 227
Explanation and Analysis:

Henry has followed Catherine to Fullerton after General Tilney kicked her out of Northanger Abbey, and has proposed to her. This proposal contrasts with those typical of the Sentimental novels of the time in several ways. First, all of those novels respected the convention of the day in giving the man the lead in beginning a romance. Although Catherine is younger and less sophisticated than Henry, she is the real driver of their relationship. It is her obvious attraction to Henry that then attracts him to her. Although the Narrator says that this is “derogatory of an heroine’s dignity,” it is a clear improvement on the lot of many of the heroines of Sentimental novels, who are so often pursued by immoral villains instead of by men they like. Henry’s sense that Catherine liked him, combined with his impression, as he got to know her, that she would remain loyal to him, trust in him, listen to him, and learn from him, made him feel tenderly to her when she made mistakes and loyal to her when she was mistreated by the General.