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Literary Summary: Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey”

Catherine Morland is not that dissimilar from Marianne Dashwood. Both girls are exceedingly young, Catherine is seventeen (at the novel’s beginning) and Marianne sixteen. Both are romanticists, but of different stripes as previously mentioned. Catherine’s romanticism is fantastical, she vicariously lives her romantic fantasies through Gothic novels. The world of fictitious Gothic literature is, for Catherine, the real world while the real world of flesh and blood souls is fictitious. Until reality smacks her in the face in the halls of Northanger Abbey.

Social scheming is very much part of the real world and doesn’t abstain from touching Catherine’s life. Her supposed friend, whom she does spend much time with side-by-side on the streets, Isabella, is only a friend because of her probing James Morland—Catherine’s older brother. Isabelal believes that James is due for a rich inheritance and intends to marry up and well. Catherine is but a vessel in Isabella’s hunt. Their mutual love for Gothic novels is but the mechanism for Isabella’s ingratiation and scheming. Once Isabella learns James’s relative destitution, she abandons the Morlands.

Catherine eventually makes her way to the Tilney residence at Northanger Abbey. She imagines a world like Ann Radcliff’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. She blinds herself to Henry Tilney’s romantic heart. Catherine, imagining Gothic murder as the cause for the death of General Tilney’s wife, causes a rift between her and Henry. Henry upbraids her for her insensitive imagination. Catherine leaves crying, believing she has destroyed Henry’s feelings for her.

Catherine and Henry may not have been lovers from the start, but they grow to love each other over the course of the novel. Of course, those who start off as friends, side-by-side, may eventually become face-to-face lovers. The side-to-face dynamic is breathtaking to behold. Catherine and Henry go from strolling streets and halls at each other’s side to deep and intimate conversations and flirting face-to-face. Even when Catherine flees to her room in tears for her insensitivity brought on by her fantastical imagination, her feelings indicating in herself a transformed feeling for Henry because she fears she has lost his love, that moment was a face-to-face encounter.

Austen, in this moment, produces a tour-de-force of symbolism and signification. Henry tells Catherine, “Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians.” Henry’s rebuke declares a return to realism and a return to Christianity, two things that Catherine has departed from because of her frenzied Gothicized imagination. Then Austen informs us of Catherine’s disposition, “The visions of romance were over. Catherine was awakened. Henry’s address, short as it had been, had more thoroughly opened her eyes to the extravagance of her late fancies than all their several disappointments had done. Most grievously she was humbled. Most bitterly did she cry.”

Although we take pity on Catherine this moment represents her apotheosis. Her eyes are open! She realizes her errors. She is broken, “humbled,” and cries into a new baptism. She becomes a changed person because of Henry’s address, not dissimilar from the voice of God causing efficacious change to the Israelites in the Old Testament. After this episode she finds herself in conversation with Eleanor and Henry, Isabella’s scheming has been revealed; consolation, for herself and her brother, is not undertaken in lonely isolation but in the presence of friends. In fact, this final act of loving consolation is face-to-face. Catherine has been reborn into the real world.

While General Tilney suddenly returns when Henry is absent, excoriating Catherine and forcing her to leave alone, this does not break the bond sown between Catherine and Henry. The two have been mystically united, and Henry, upon his return, seeks out Catherine as lovers do. Alone, Catherine is unhappy. Henry’s sudden visit sparks her heart to beat again. Love is the air. Happiness is nigh.

Henry seeks to marry Catherine, and the love they share eventually breaks General Tilney’s heart of stone. Love truly conquers all. General Tilney approves of their marriage. Love reformed Catherine and brought her new life by bringing her out of the imaginary world of the Gothic phantasmagoria she had constructed for herself. Love also bore down on General Tilney to see marriage as more than social and economic matchmaking. True, the Morlands are not poor. But they aren’t rich either. They do have some money and that also manages to change General Tilney’s mind. But the tenacity of Henry’s love for Catherine and Catherine’s rebaptism through tears into the real world, was manifested in Henry’s brief renunciation of his father. Once again, love reforms and ties together what is lost and separated.

*This reflection on Northanger Abbey was part of a larger essay on Jane Austen, first published at VoegelinView, 10 May 2021.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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