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The Theme of “Awakening” in Northanger Abbey

“I never was so deceived in anyone’s character in my life before.” –Catherine Morland, Northanger Abbey

“Among all the great variety that you have known and studied.” –Mr. Tilney

Northanger Abbey is the story of a naïve young girl who goes to Bath to find adventure and romance. In a book by another author, Catherine Morland’s adventures could have gone much differently. Her trusting nature and lack of experience could have caused her pain, sorrow, or even danger. However, in the course of the novel, Catherine experiences a gradual awakening to what (and who) is real and what (and who) is false.

Catherine Morland arrives in Bath with little education, experience, instruction, or preparation. She’s never “known and studied” many people outside of her own family and their small community of forty families. Her knowledge of the world and worldly matters is minute. In fact, in many ways, she is unprepared for the adventure that awaits her.

Unprepared

First, consider Catherine’s practical education at home:

Mrs. Morland was a very good woman, and wished to see her children everything they ought to be; but her time was so much occupied in lying-in and teaching the little ones, that her elder daughters were inevitably left to shift for themselves.

–Northanger Abbey

Catherine is taught “writing and accounts” by her father and French by her mother, but “her proficiency in either was not remarkable, and she shirked her lessons in both whenever she could.” Her reading interests merely feed her romantic notions. (Chapter 1)

Next, her chaperone, Mrs. Allen, is described as having “neither beauty, genius, accomplishment, nor manner.” (Chapter 2) Her main focus in on dress. She introduces Catherine to the Thorpe family and assumes all is well. It can be argued that Mrs. Allen might have paid more attention to the friends Catherine was making and to the attitudes and choices of those friends as their time together progressed.

Finally, Catherine’s own romantic notions often lead her astray. When she meets Isabella, she immediately trusts her. She is drawn in by the “easy gaiety of Miss Thorpe’s manners” (Chapter 4). Later, when she visits the Abbey with the Tilneys, she lets her imagination run wild. She dreams up fearful scenarios in the night and draws terrible conclusions about General Tilney.

In the course of her adventures, Catherine learns crucial lessons. Slowly, her eyes are opened; she begins to see the world as it is, not as she imagines it. Little by little, she sees people and situations in a new light. She learns to trust her deeper instincts and curb her imagination.

Gradual Awakening

Growing up in the home of a respectable clergyman and a mother of “useful plain sense” gives Catherine a stronger moral compass than she first realizes. That inner sense of “rightness” carries her through several sticky situations. Though she trusts the Thorpes at first, she feels increasingly uncomfortable with the way they do things; she senses that something is off. She notices that the Thorpes don’t follow the same code of conduct she’s been taught to follow.

Having Mr. Allen as her guardian is also more helpful than Catherine knows. He is described as a “sensible, intelligent man.” We find out that Mr. Allen had, early on, “taken pains to know who her partner was, and had been assured of Mr. Tilney’s being a clergyman, and of a very respectable family in Gloucestershire” (Chapter 3). As a result, Catherine becomes acquainted with Mr. Tilney and Miss Tilney. Catherine sees a notable difference between the Thorpes and the Tilneys. She admires the Tilneys’ good character. She feels comfortable around them and find them trustworthy and true.

Seeing the Light

Later, Austen uses Mr. Tilney to awaken Catherine to how far she’s let her imagination carry her. He says she’s allowed it to blind her to what’s probable and true about his father. His words produce a moment of great clarity: “The visions of romance were over. Catherine was completely awakened.” Her eyes are opened to “the extravagance of her late fancies.” She realizes the “liberty which her imagination had dared to take” and the “absurdity of her curiosity and her fears.” From that point on, she see things differently. (Chapter 25)

When Catherine finds out the truth about Isabella, her response shows a clear understanding of Isabella’s motives: “Such a strain of shallow artifice could not impose even upon Catherine. Its inconsistencies, contradictions, and falsehood struck her from the very first.” (Chapter 27) Now, Catherine is no longer quite as naïve, innocent, or trusting.

Too Wretched to be Fearful

In the end, the most frightening thing that actually happens to Catherine is when General Tilney sends her home without a servant, without any money, and without sending word to her family first. She makes it homes safely, thanks to Miss Tilney’s offer of financial assistance. However, the ride home reveals a change in Catherine: Her thoughts remain fixed on what’s actually occurring in her life, rather than on imagined horrors. Indeed, “Catherine was too wretched to be fearful.” (Chapter 29) This is a new beginning for Catherine, perhaps even a mark of maturity.

By the time she arrives home, Catherine has seen a greater “variety” of character and learned important lessons along the way. Her eyes are more open and discerning. Do you think Catherine’s awakening will make a lasting impression on her life? What other awakenings or themes do you see in the novel?

I wrote this up for the Jane Austen Fan Club‘s Facebook group. This was harder to write than I thought, mainly because my brain was battered by fatigue and other stresses as I wrote it, but I ended up digger deeper into Northanger Abbey as a result of putting it together. Enjoy!

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