Title: Northanger Abbey
Author: Jane Austen
Publisher: Collins Classics
Page Count: 251
Publication Date: 1817
Category/Genre: Fiction, Classics, Romance
Good Reads Rating: ★★★★☆ (3.82)
Jane Austen’s first novel—published posthumously in 1818—tells the story of Catherine Morland and her dangerously sweet nature, innocence, and sometime self-delusion. Though Austen’s fallible heroine is repeatedly drawn into scrapes while vacationing at Bath and during her subsequent visit to Northanger Abbey, Catherine eventually triumphs, blossoming into a discerning woman who learns truths about love, life, and the heady power of literature. The satirical novel pokes fun at the gothic novel while earnestly emphasizing caution to the female sex.
*Questions are a mix from Rabbit Hole Blogger and the publisher. Questions may contain spoilers.
1. We are told in the opening paragraph that Catherine Morland was decidedly not born to be a heroine. Why, do you think, did Jane Austen create such a simple, naïve heroine for a book about literature? How does Catherine compare to the more typical type of novel heroine?
2. Catherine Morland is clearly a suggestible reader, but her gullibility extends beyond books into the real world. Is the tendency to think the best of people a trait you admire? Is it a trait you have?
3. Discuss how Catherine’s viewpoint and impressions are shaped by her reading of gothic novels. How do they influence her view of General Tilney and his home?
4. The one character about whom Catherine is inclined to think the worst is General Tilney. Why is this? She is humiliated when Henry realizes how her imagination has run away with her, but how mistaken is she really regarding his general character? Are her powers of imagination more reliable than her powers of observation?
5. As they are driving to the Abbey, Henry tells Catherine of the sort of ‘terrors’ that she might expect there, cribbed from the pages of a Gothic novel. Was he right, then, to dress her down when her imaginings about the General were revealed? Did he set her up for her imagination to run amok at the Abbey? How might this have been reflected in his subsequent behavior toward Catherine?
6. Catherine is learning to trust her judgment, which has not been much tested in the confines of her home village. She is presented with several opposing pair of character archetypes in the novel: two hosts/protectors, in Mr. Allen and General Tilney; two chaperones, in Mrs. Allen and Mrs. Thorpe; two girlfriends, in Isabella Thorpe and Eleanor Tilney; two potential lovers, in John Thorpe and Henry Tilney; and two potential ‘dream homes’ in Northanger Abbey and Woodston Parsonage. How do Catherine’s reactions to these sets of archetypes and her choices among them reflect her personal journey?
7. How does Catherine grow from an unlikely heroine to a deserving young woman?
8. Northanger Abbey parodies the gothic novel, an immensely popular genre at the time Austen wrote the first draft. Discuss Austen’s viewpoint and critique of the form of writing she has chosen to pursue.
9. Discuss the ways in which Austen parodies gothic novels, including Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. The following is a passage:
St. Aubert smiled, and sighed at the romantic picture of felicity his fancy drew; and sighed again to think, that nature and simplicity were so little known to the world, as that their pleasures were thought romantic. ‘The world,’ said he, pursuing this train of thought, ‘ridicules a passion which it seldom feels; its scenes, and its interests, distract the mind, deprave the taste, corrupt the heart, and love cannot exist in a heart that has lost the meek dignity of innocence. Virtue and taste are nearly the same, for virtue is little more than active taste, and the most delicate affections of each combine in real love. How then are we to look for love in great cities, when selfishness, dissipation, and insincerity supply the place of tenderness, simplicity, and truth?’
How is this passage reflected in Northanger Abbey?
10. While she is reading Udolpho, Catherine is all impatient to discover what dreadful thing is under the black veil. She is convinced that it is Signora Laurentini’s skeleton, and indeed the reader of Udolpho is led by the author to expect precisely that. When the secret is revealed–much later in the novel and included almost as an afterthought as Mrs. Radcliffe tried to tie up all her loose ends–it turns out to be rather a disappointment. Does NA “cheat” the reader in any way? Is there an insufficient payoff for any buildup of events?
11. Hidden within Austen’s satire on gothic novels is Eleanor Tilney’s story. Eleanor has a dead mother, an overbearing father, and ends up married to a viscount. Imagine the book if Austen had chosen Eleanor as the heroine. Would it have been a gothic novel?
12. Northanger Abbey is a book about reading. Much of the plot has to do with the folly of confusing one’s own life with the stuff of fictional adventure. But the book also contains a famous Austen defense of novels and novelists, particularly those read and written by women. What is the role of fiction in your own life? Why do you read it and what do you want from it?
13. We are told immediately that Catherine does not object to books so long as “nothing like useful knowledge could be gained from them” and they are “all story and no reflection.” Escapist fiction continues, in our day, to have a bad reputation. Is that reputation deserved?
14. The romance genre is arguably our own most popular form of fiction. Is the romance genre empowering or damaging to women readers? Do these fictions have real-life implications for women? Are its antecedents the same novels Austen is poking fun at in Northanger Abbey? Or would you trace its lineage back to Austen herself?
15. How does the resolution of the romance compare to a “usual” romantic novel ending, and in what ways is Jane Austen parodying those usual types of endings?