Study Guide

Northanger Abbey Themes

By Jane Austen

  • Language and Communication

    If Northanger Abbey is about nothing else, it's about communication. Communication is explored in all its forms here: verbal and non-verbal, intentional and unintentional, miscommunication, a lack of communication, direct communication, bad communication...and on and on. The plot is frequently pushed forward by miscommunication, from John's totally misunderstood marriage proposal, to Catherine's faulty assumptions about Mrs. Tilney's death. Catherine grows as a character by learning to better understand those around her and to make herself better understood.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. Miscommunications abound here, leading to lots of mishaps. What are some of the causes for these miscommunications? Are certain people and personalities to blame? Do settings and circumstances foster communication problems?
    2. Henry Tilney frequently ridicules and nitpicks people's word choices. Does this tendency of Henry's tie in to some of the book's major themes? What exactly is Henry saying about language and social relations here?
    3. How are speech and language used as a characterization technique in the novel? How are the personalities of certain characters reflected in how they speak?
    4. The letter that Isabella sends Catherine reveals Isabella's true character to Catherine. Is this due to Catherine's increased understanding and better communication skills, or does Isabella effectively out herself by being a crummy writer?

    Chew on This

    Catherine hasn't really improved her communication skills, in terms of both speaking and listening, by the end of the book.

    Though dialogue abounds here, Northanger Abbey places a greater emphasis on the importance of non-verbal forms of communication.

  • Lies and Deceit

    Everyone either lies or is being lied to in Northanger Abbey. Working through deceit and uncovering it is a crucial part of the novel's plot. Lies and deceit are also major parts of the novel's commentary on the impolite aspects of polite society, and the frustrating parts of becoming an adult. Growing up and being out in the world are depicted as pretty precarious ventures here. Catherine especially has to deal with rumors and gossip and lies the entire time she is in Bath and Northanger Abbey.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Isabella sometimes seems incredulous at how naive Catherine is. Is Isabella just playing Catherine here, or does Isabella really believe that Catherine is more savvy than she appears to be?
    2. John and Isabella both lie a lot in the book. Who is the worse liar?
    3. Unlike many of the characters here, Catherine is frequently quite honest. Are there any instances where Catherine is less than truthful though?

    Chew on This

    No one is truly genuine in Northanger Abbey; everyone is behaving deceitfully or is acting in some way.

    The old maxim "appearances can be deceiving" really sums up Northanger Abbey.

  • Foolishness and Folly

    Ah folly, thy name is...well just about everyone here. Northanger Abbey is a satire, so widespread folly is to be expected. And it is delivered. Everyone here is subject to delusions and faulty assumptions. Everyone also does really ill-advised things that are generally comical at least. Austen invites us to laugh at the foibles of others, and she also asks us to consider the root causes for this mass of follies. In this novel, folly stems from classist assumptions, which is basically where someone thinks that his own class is awesome and that the lower classes are losers. So, think General Tilney. Folly also arises from believing rumors and from taking fiction too seriously. The list goes on. Faulty assumptions and deceiving appearances are crucial here. Ridiculous behavior characterizes every day life as well as the Gothic novels that the characters read.

    Questions About Foolishness and Folly

    1. What has Catherine learned exactly, by the novel's end?
    2. It seems that many of the texts mishaps could only occur in certain places. Do certain settings help to foster foolish behavior in the characters?
    3. Nearly everyone in this text is the victim of folly at some point – either their own or others'. Is there a common denominator in these instances of folly? Do multiple characters share personality flaws?
    4. What are some of the reasons that Catherine often substitutes or confuses fiction for reality?

    Chew on This

    Henry tells Catherine about the Gothic horrors of Northanger Abbey deliberately, in order to mess with her.

    Henry was joking about the Gothic horror business and had no idea that Catherine would be foolish enough to take him seriously.

  • Literature and Writing

    Northanger Abbey is largely a novel about novels and about reading habits. This book has an odd sort of self awareness of itself as a novel and the narrator often steps back from the story she's telling to consider it as a story. Rather than just tell us about Catherine, we learn about Catherine as a heroine and as a fictional character. Gothic novels are lampooned, or made fun of, here as well, and the text considers the oftentimes disastrous effects of certain kinds of reading habits. It's a rather complicated venture, but Northanger Abbey not only considers the effects that literature has on its characters; it also considers the effect Northanger Abbey the novel has on its real world readers.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. The narrator often pauses in the text to refer to the text as a novel, referencing heroines, plot devices, and chapters. What is the effect of Northanger Abbey's awareness of itself as a novel?
    2. The narrator delivers a lengthy spiel on novels and reading habits at the end of Chapter 5. What is the narrator saying here, and how is this significant to the text as a whole?
    3. Catherine and Isabella both bond over the Gothic novels that they love to read. How do Gothic novels represent the type of relationship that Catherine has with Isabella?
    4. Catherine traces many of her gaffes and problems back to the type of Gothic literature that she read. Is this true, and if so, what effect did Catherine's reading habits have on her behavior?
    5. Isabella writing skills are really questionable, given the awful letter she sent to Catherine, which did nothing to restore Catherine's confidence in her. Do you think you could rewrite and improve upon Isabella's letter?

    Chew on This

    Though Catherine traces her mistakes back to the Gothic novels she read, her reading habits are really another symptom and not the cause of her behavioral issues.

    Northanger Abbey is not about the problems of reading too much, but is instead about the problems of reading books in a certain way – i.e., too seriously.

  • Youth

    Teenagers and twenty-somethings dominate in Northanger Abbey, which is largely about growing up and maturing. Catherine in particular progresses from immature behavior and attitudes towards a much more mature awareness. Youth is also closely linked to the theme of "Foolishness and Folly." Granted, folly isn't limited to the young in terms of age (see General Tilney). Nor are all young people prone to folly (see Eleanor). Youth and a subsequent lack of experience often lead to folly, though. Youth here is more of a potentially problematic state of mind than anything else. And growing up is a matter of mentally and emotionally maturing for many characters.

    Questions About Youth

    1. Catherine is often insecure and hesitant to speak her mind. Does Catherine's age contribute to this hesitancy and lack of confidence?
    2. Are there any signs of a definite youth culture in Northanger Abbey? If so, what does youth culture consist of here?
    3. Isabella is four years older than Catherine and is considered a bit "old" to be unwed. How does Isabella's age factor into her behavior?
    4. Many characters, like Mrs. Allen and Isabella, adopt a rather permissive, or overly tolerant, attitude towards youth and note that certain allowances can be made for youthful antics. Is this a good attitude to have? How might this attitude be problematic?

    Chew on This

    Though Catherine has learned a lot of lessons, in many ways she has not really matured or progressed by the end of the novel.

    Catherine is much more mature at the end than she was at the beginning of the novel.

  • Gender

    Gender plays a deterministic role in the world of Northanger Abbey. Well, gender itself isn't magically determining things. Expectations that are influenced by gender are, however. The expectations surrounding gender influence everything from modes of behavior to reading habits. And these expectations produce definite results – to a point at least. The characters here frequently disrupt gender expectations: Eleanor reads history books, Henry knows about fashion, Catherine doesn't keep a journal like "most" ladies do. Gender definitely determines and structures the world in which these characters live, but gender roles and traits are also up for debate in this text.

    Questions About Gender

    1. During their climactic confrontation, Henry uses rationality and reason to challenge Catherine's run-away romantic imagination. Does the text link reason to men and romance to women in any ways? Does it ever challenge these gender associations?
    2. Catherine is often hesitant to contradict adult men, like John Thorpe and Henry Tilney, who she seems to worship as a hero. Does Catherine's hesitant attitude reflect gender expectations for women here?
    3. Are there evidences of double standards for men and women at work in the text?
    4. Are the men in this text subject to gender expectations and limitations like the women?
    5. On the other hand, do the men's restrictions stem more from other, non-gender factors, like class status?

    Chew on This

    Though Henry often makes fun of women, or at least society's, ideas about what women should do, he actually has fairly progressive views on gender.

    Henry is being serious when he makes fun of women and thinks that he is better than them.

  • Friendship

    Making friends and trying to figure out true friends from false ones is a major part of Northanger Abbey's overall plot, as well as Catherine's personal journey and development. Friendships in this book are subject to the narrative trajectory of growing up and maturing. Catherine has to trade in her whirlwind, fun, and ultimately shallow friendship with Isabella for a more mature and rewarding, friendship with Eleanor. Northanger Abbey makes observations, both comical and serious, on friendships. The book also questions what makes a good, or even a real, friendship.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Were Catherine and Isabella genuinely friends or not?
    2. The time it takes to form relationships with people is an issue in the text How is the time it takes to get to know someone used to distinguish the type of relationship Catherine has with Isabella from the type of relationship she has with Eleanor?
    3. Catherine has to put up with a lot of peer pressure attempts from the Thorpes and her brother James. How are Catherine's efforts to stand up to her friends significant to her character development?
    4. We don't see a lot of interaction between James and John in the book. What sort of friendship do you think they had? What can you infer from the text about their relationship?

    Chew on This

    Catherine has to learn how to be a good friend over the course of the novel.

    When she is questioning Eleanor about Mrs. Tilney's death, Catherine behaves in a self-centered manner similar to Isabella, and disregards Eleanor's feelings.

  • Family

    Different family dynamics are largely explored through contrast here: rich families and poor ones, families with numerous kids or very few, families lacking moms or dads, families living in villages or in fancy abbeys. Family identity is extremely important to all of the characters and helps to define their beliefs and their behavior. Family is a crucial component of individual identity and it is a largely inescapable factor in how characters are perceived by others in this text. Northanger Abbey focuses mainly on the Morlands, the Thorpes, and the Tilneys, and also explores how different types of families function in society and how they interact with each other.

    Questions About Family

    1. Catherine's mother criticizes her for being inattentive and flighty, but Mrs. Morland displays some cluelessness herself. How much does Catherine actually have in common with her mother and with the rest of her family? Do we get a sense of any defining characteristics for the Morlands?
    2. Who are the best parents, or parental figures, in the text? On the flip side, who would be the worst parent?
    3. Northanger Abbey has three notable pairs of siblings. What's the effect and the significance of having three very distinct sets of siblings dominate the text?
    4. Is it possible to have an individual identity outside of a family, or is a character's family a defining, and inescapable, trait in the text?

    Chew on This

    The three sibling pairs featured prominently in the text actually have more similarities, in terms of their interactions and behavior, than they do differences.

    One of the major lessons of the book is that you shouldn't judge individuals by their families.

  • Society and Class

    Money makes the world go round – or at least the world of Northanger Abbey. Money determines economic and social class, which in turn dictates behavior. Class is central to the overriding marriage concerns that govern society at large, as well as the bulk of the novel's main characters. Money and class definitely create boundaries, but Northanger Abbey often focuses on how things cross these class boundaries: rumors, reading material, relationships, other 'r' words. Money often slams the boundaries between people back down, but usually not for long in Austen's text.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. In what ways does characters' monetary wealth, or lack thereof, influence their behavior?
    2. The Thorpes occupy a rather odd class position in the book. They do not have much money, yet they are not in the lower classes either. What is the social position of the Thorpe family, and in what ways can class status and monetary wealth be at odds here?
    3. Catherine tells John that she believes rich people shouldn't seek out other rich people to marry since it's just greedy. Is this a sound opinion or not?
    4. Does a person's class affect a person's reputation and the ease with which a person loses a good reputation or gains a bad one?

    Chew on This

    Northanger Abbey depicts a world where class boundaries are highly permeable and ultimately somewhat illusory.

    Northanger Abbey criticizes wealthy and urban lifestyles and prefers simple, country life.

  • Love

    Love is generally pretty hilarious in Northanger Abbey, in all its forms: romantic, friendly, familial, first love, lust. This book is a lot like a modern day romantic comedy, but one that doesn't get so caught up in the whole dating scene thing that it ignores other kinds of love and relationships. All the kinds of love and relationships in this book are also linked to themes of growth and development. Catherine in particular has to learn to distinguish between manipulative or overbearing love and love of a more considerate and respectful variety. While love is often fodder for comedy here, it isn't totally lacking in more thoughtful overtones.

    Questions About Love

    1. Do Henry and Catherine develop a more equal relationship by the end of the novel?
    2. Does John Thorpe have any actual feelings for Catherine, or is he really just interested in her for her money, or the money he believes she has?
    3. Henry and Catherine debate the links between marriage and dancing. Henry thinks the two are similar, Catherine does not. Who do you agree with here?
    4. Isabella behaved pretty badly to the Morlands. But did James and Catherine do the right thing by dumping her and cutting her off, respectively?

    Chew on This

    Despite what the end of the book says, Henry and Catherine actually may have a problematic marriage.

    Though he isn't a murderer, General Tilney was still a bad husband.