Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen, is a bildungsroman that follows the life of Catherine Morland. Catherine is the “heroine” of the novel, however, Austen makes sure that she doesn’t embody the typical gothic definition of the heroine but rather that of an ordinary and relatable young girl. Much to her dismay, her intelligence, wealth, beauty and life story can all be described as average. Nonetheless, this doesn’t stop her from dreaming of experiencing the wild adventures and meeting people similar to characters she reads about in her gothic novels.
Catherine may not be a typical heroine but she is a dynamic character who’s development occurs through every step of the plot. Through the novel, Catherine’s self-exploration, and development are impacted by her environment. Jane Austen’s use of three distinct settings creates variability in the characters she is surrounded with as well as the social norms. These alterations that come with the change in setting heighten Catherine’s maturity and force her to undergo trials parallel to that of the traditional hero’s journey. Despite the hero’s journey being and aligned to the version created by Austen, Catherine’s coming of age journey is very different than the action-filled and dramatic hero’s journey we are accustomed to.
Catherine’s growth comes through ordinary experiences and simple changes within her “adventures” in Fulton, Bath, and Northanger Abbey. Her symbolic naiveté is developed in her home at Fulton. The catalyst for her growth begins in Bath where she makes her first mistakes and begins to recognize her lack of rationality. Then, Northanger Abbey serves as a place to put her new experience into practice and solidify her maturity. For her first seventeen years of life, Catherine spent her time living amidst simplicity. Her world was the rural town of Fullerton in Hampshire, England, and didn’t expand further than the fields that surrounded her home.
The Morlands, who consisted of Catherine, her nine siblings and her parents “were in general very plain, and Catherine, for many years of her life, as plain as any.” (4). Her daily routine consisted of participating in “boy’s plays“(5) and for the later years of her life, she spent her days reading. Her novels provided her with imagination but her mind was “about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is.”(10) She read mostly gothic novels that filled her mind with the desire to go on dangerous adventures. Her view of her world is framed by her knowledge acquired from fictional novels rather than by her experiences.
This can make things difficult for her at times as the lack of experience is supplanted by an intense imagination that in turn gives her limited perspective and a faulty intuition Despite the fact that the town of Fullerton is Catherine’s home, where the story starts and the spot she, in the end, returns to, we don’t discover much about the setting from Austen’s description. The first chapter is predominantly acquainting us with Catherine leaving any depiction of her environment and home being vague. Fullerton is appeared to be a very little, village with just ’40 surrounding families’’. The wealthiest family in the town, The Allens, are said to visit Bath to assist a ‘gouty constitution’, which brings out the possibility that Fullerton is a calm town absent of any important events and provides little to no space for Catherine to flourish.
As Fullerton is such a nondescript town Catherine visits Bath with the Allens, who care a lot about her, to locate a reasonable husband, as her town is by all accounts lacking in anybody suitable. Presumably, this is not the reason that Catherine supposes she is going. However, over time, it is most likely what her family hopes to occur as an unspoken desire. Catherine’s oblivion to the real reason the Allens and her parents are interested in her going to Bath clue the readers in on how naive and unaware she really is. The failings of Fullerton as a village are very evident, there are no individuals of Catherine’s age or social class for her to converse with and get to know in order to lead to marriage, as there ‘was not one Lord in the neighborhood… not even a baronet’.
It seems like not a lot ever appears to occur in Fullerton. Since Fullerton is depicted to be so dull and tedious, it enables the development of some expectations of what Bath may resemble on the grounds that it is portrayed just like a social spot where Catherine is certain to meet numerous friends and potential suitors. This makes it evident that there is an upcoming change in the setting and course of the book as the sections of the novel that speaks of Fullerton doesn’t indicate much energy. The difference between Fullerton and Bath is extremely clear even before Catherine and The Allens really arrive in Bath.
When arriving Bath, the effect Fullerton has left on Catherine is still visible A clear example of this is how she immediately views Isabella as a friend as the feels that ‘friendship is certainly the finest balm’. Her credulous nature enables her to be overpowered by Isabella and to concur with everything done and said by Isabella without thought. This is somewhat to do with the isolated way she was brought up in. This displays how naive and inexperienced she is. Bath differs strikingly to Fullerton. Bath is the first to expose Catherine to the social etiquettes of the period as well as the manner by which individuals interact with one another. In this case, the interactions tend to be done effortlessly and a sharp contrast to anything that Catherine has experienced in Fullerton.
In addition to this, there is a blended class of individuals here and to Catherine, it must appear to be somewhat unusual as in Fullerton she just exclusively interacted with those of her class or higher. Additionally, when contrasting one setting to another, such as Fullerton and Bath, we tend to anticipate the next setting as we did with Bath. Seeing as Fullerton had no fervor while Bath was depicted as being energetic and holding the potential for adventure, Bath should be seen with admiration, however, it should be tempered by the expectation of its weaknesses as well as knowledge of the gap between Bath as a thrilling environment and the reality of its sometimes mundane nature.
Mrs. Allen is one of many who speaks of Bath and its grandeur, without ever truly experiencing anything as exciting as she preaches of. Since Bath has this high reputation, many people simply agree with the opinions of others and deny themselves the right to formulate an honest opinion on it. Austen uses this context and portrays the settings well enough for the readers to be able to anticipate the characters that they might meet in this setting and develop an idea of the characters and they might act. In Northanger Abbey, every individual setting adds to the upcoming events and the people Catherine will interact with. For Fullerton, a sluggish little town absent of any important occurrences, you get a character like Catherine.
However, In Bath, we can expect characters like Isabela and John Thorpe who incite drama and place Catherine in uncomfortable situations. These uncomfortable situations give Catherine experience and force her to shed some of her naivety. This takes some getting used to however as “Catherine began to feel something of disappointment “ while at the ball(14). Her discomfort came from her being “ tired of being continually pressed against by people, the generality of whose faces possessed nothing to interest, and with all of whom she was so wholly unacquainted.” (14).
In spite of the fact that Catherine is friendly and is eager to be in Bath, this discomfort demonstrates Catherine isn’t accustomed to or enjoys being polite at an event just for the sake of the social etiquette. Catherine’s attitude hints at some inclining towards smaller social affairs and potentially her old country life at Fullerton rather than Bath-a progressively urban setting. Catherine’s first burst of maturity comes when she begins to realize some people have a manipulative nature to them. After getting tricked by John and Isabella and going on a carriage ride convinced by their deception she begins to grasp the concept that not everyone is as honest as she is. Her opinion on John changes despite her brother’s approval of him, and she decides she doesn’t find John ‘entirely agreeable'(16). However, Catherine’s slight progress is still overshadowed by her innocent ways.
The following day, Catherine attends an event at the pump room where she wants to find Eleanor Tilney and become better acquainted with her. Throughout their conversation, Catherine applauds Henry’s dancing, and even inquires on the appearance of Henry’s dancing partner and whether Eleanor thought she was prettier than her. When their conversation ends, It is clear Eleanor has “some knowledge of her new acquaintance’s feelings,” However, Catherine was “ without the smallest consciousness of having explained” her feeling for Henry to his sister.(77). Catherine’s accidentally informing Eleanor of her feelings for Henry is innocent and clear to the reader that although Bath is providing her with some experience, she fundamentally lacks judgement.
Henry and Eleanor are wiser and have an undeniably more discerning perspective of Bath than Mrs. Allen and Catherine’s previous expectations. They are prepared to endure its shallow excitement for some time with the expectation that they may meet some new friends in the town. However they have no plans to spend more than a short amount of time there.. Tilney, while dancing with Catherine (in Chapter 10) explains the irony of how many of Bath guests complain of its monotonousness yet prolong their stay as long as possible and in this way appear genuinely fond of the town. Henry, nonetheless, thinks Bath has “little variety”(84) and that Catherine should become bored with it “at the proper time…at the end of six weeks”(84).Henry is a great influence on Catherine in the context of Bath. Bath has an aura around it that fascinates it’s guest and did Catherine initially.
However Henry served as a conscious and was there to remind Catherine of the unstable nature of Bath and it’s guests. He often suggested she rethink her judgement and reanalyze situations. This aided her in putting her new experiences with dishonest people and unclear situations into practice and use Bath as a stepping stone in her maturity. The change of setting from Fullerton to Bath excited Catherine. She was tired of her dull village and aware that it would not provide her with adventures of any sort as well as the fact “that if adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad”(2). She sought out an escapade in Bath and although she experienced some thrills she remained mildly disappointed as the dreams her novels had created in her mind were far from being fulfilled.
This explains her eagerness when being invited by the Tilney’s to stay in Northanger Abbey. In her mind, the Abbey held some sort of resemblance to the novels that infatuated her. Catherine reveals to Henry she’s eager to see Northanger and expects it to be “ just like a book!” (173) Henry then jokingly gives Catherine a long spiel explaining all she should hope to discover at Northanger: mysterious entries, faintly lit corridors, old furnishing, dreadful servants, a visitor room miles from every other person, a thunderstorm, and an old chest. Henry is getting the list of typical gothic style elements in a home from The Mysteries of Udolpho, the novel that Catherine adores in hopes that she will realize he is teasing her.
However, Catherine is so enchanted by this that she completely oblivious to his joke until Henry reveals himself through laughter at which point Catherine understands he is joking and insists he knew although it is clear to everyone she fully believed Henry. When they arrive at the house it is clear it isn’t Gothic or similar to what Catherine imagined and as she looked around she ” had hoped for the smallest divisions, and the heaviest stone-work, for painted glass, dirt, and cobwebs, the difference was very distressing” (177). Upon her arrival and disappointment she realizes Northanger Abbey is not at all what she had hoped for and the Austen reideratess to the audience that her inexperience leads her to act this way.
Catherine unreasonably demands to find a secret in the Abbey, with even the slightest proof to incite her curiosity Catherine crosses boundaries that go beyond what Henry expected. At first Catherine begins with little things like inspecting a chest in her room and a black chest that Henry had mentioned when teasing her. As readers could anticipate she finds nothing but is left with even more disappointment. This then leads her to seek a true mystery and she accuses the general of killing his wife through extremely circumstantial and fictional evidence she composed through conversations through Eleanor believing general tilney “must have been dreadfully cruel to her!”(201). Her behaviour clearly escalated and is now problematic as she confronts Henry with her strange accusations.
Henry is infuriated and upset at the her accusations and the disrespectful nature of them. It is then that she realizes “The absurdity of her curiosity and her fear” and wonders if they could “ever be forgotten? She hated herself more than she could express”(220). Then with the realization that General Tilney wanted to marry her and Henry but believed her family had more wealth than they did she realizes that not all that glitters is gold, that the path of the courtesan which leads to marriage rarely appears similar to the exhilarating mystery of gothic literature. This is a turning point in her development as she realizes her foolish ways and is hit with harsh reality that insists she finally matures. She is now able to distinguish between fantasy and reality as through her harsh experiences at Northanger Abbey she is significantly more mature than she began the novel as.
The change in settings flow with changes occuring in the plot and within Catherine. In Fullerton Catherine is a young naive girl going to set out on what she expects will be an incredible experience.To do so she knows she musts abandon her comfort zone and she must leave Fullerton with the Allens. In Bath she discovers the exhilaration she sought but not fully. However she also encounters the unsolicited reality of the world by finding the deceitfulness and the shallowness of the upper society she was unaccustomed to. In Northanger after her teachful moment with the strange theory concerning the death of Mrs. Tilney Catherine discovers genuine relationships in a more peaceful setting that doesn’t include Bath’s chaos.
Bath provides her with the reality of how people can be and Northanger Abbey shows her how her immaturity could limit her.From Northanger Abbey she is given a clearer view on what Bath is really like through hindsight and the ability to reflect on the town.She also becomes familiar with the full degree of Isabella’s manipulative nature when she gets the two letters, from James and from Isabella herself. By returning to Fullerton in the conditions she did, Catherine finds that, for all its blandness, Fullerton also houses her family and their love, and when Henry arrives to apologize for his father’s behaviour and asks for her hand in marriage she realizes adventure can occur anywhere.
- Austen, Jane, 1775-1817. Northanger Abbey. London :Little, 2007. Print.