Reading Fiction or Reading Character. The Different Modes of Reading in the Novel "Northanger Abbey" by Jane Austen

Hausarbeit, 2014

17 Seiten, Note: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. A Very Brief Note on Female Reading in the Early Nineteenth Century

3. The Different Modes of Reading
3.1 Catherine Morland
3.2 Isabella Thorpe and Eleanor Tilney
3.3 John Thorpe and Henry Tilney

4. False Friends, Manipulation and the Limits of Reading Others

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Northanger Abbey was drafted in 1794, completed nine years later and finally published posthumously in 1818. It was “[w]ritten in response to contemporary fiction” (Fergus 11) and Austen herself defended her “outdated” dealings with Gothic fiction in an advertisement she had composed earlier, stating that “since it [the novel] was finished period, places, manners, books, and opinions have undergone considerable changes” (Austen 13). Since there is a plethora of essays, papers, and novels concerned with the questions of intertextuality (Austen’s “response”) within Northanger Abbey and the question of genre (parody, pastiche, didactic novel, romance,…) has been dealt with already, this paper will concentrate on the different modes of reading discussed in the novel instead.

A focus of Northanger Abbey is the depiction of how the choice of literature shapes a character’s perception of reality and other persons. It seems logical that in “a novel about literature, the reader might expect that the literary works featured have more than an incidental importance [and in] this self-consciously literary book many of the major characters are readers” (Gill/Gregory 21). Therefore, in addition to a close analysis of the protagonist Catherine Morland’s (in-) capability to cope with fiction and people, this paper is concerned with four other characters, namely Isabella and John Thorpe as well as Henry and Eleanor Tilney and their reading techniques. The choice of characters to be analysed is based on Northanger Abbey’s dichotomising structure, which provides “a playground for polarities” (Gill/Gregory 4). These polarities include the two main settings (Bath and Northanger Abbey), the novel’s parody elements (which are a binary phenomenon as well, cf. Gill/Gregory 4), and, of course, the character constellations: Catherine Morland is torn between the Thorpe-siblings, on the one side, and Henry and Eleanor Tilney, who are also brother and sister, on the other side.1 In accordance with the strict binary plot structure, the “two men in Catherine’s life are clearly contrasted, as are her two female friends” (Gill/Gregory 4). The opposites include conduct as well as literary tastes. Since the ability to read others opens the opportunity to manipulation, there will be a chapter on this topic as well. Due to the fact that the different modes of reading are the basis of Austen’s novel and of this research paper, this work will begin with a very brief introduction/overview on female reading fiction in the early nineteenth century.

2. A Very Brief Note on Female Reading in the Early Nineteenth Century

Jacqueline Pearson has observed that female literacy increased between 1750 and the mid-1930s and that “woman’s reading became central to a range of discourses” (ix). Many contemporaries worried that especially novel reading would lead to idleness and immoral behaviour and women were generally regarded as prone to be negatively influenced by “the wrong” kind of reading due to their “impressionable” nature (Greg qtd. in Jack 234). Since this cultural debate was mainly based on a wide-spread association between women and fiction it does not surprise that “anti-novel literature [was often concerned with[, i.e. the] vulnerability of the novel-reading girl to seduction” (Pearson 196).

Among the most criticized works of fiction were the so-called “Gothic novels”2 which “flooded the book market” in the 1790s, were chiefly concerned with “horror, mystery, and faraway settings” (Greenblatt 584) and prompted a lot of sceptical remarks, such as the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s statement of whether “’these things [could] be admired without a bad effect on the mind’” (qtd. in Todd 38).

Northanger Abbey might be regarded as a parody of the Gothic genre. That does not imply, however, that it is merely mocking and/or criticizing the reading of fiction per se. Instead, it is stated that a novel is actually a “work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed . . . in the best chosen language” (36-37). In accordance, Stephen Greenblatt observes that Jane Austen wrote “to explore what the novel form could be and do” (524). Therefore, Northanger Abbey does not stand in the tradition of novel scepticism but rather engages critically with the genre itself (cf. Sutherland 353). It is a “consciously literary [work concerned with] the nature of fiction” (Gill/Gregory 3), which “insists on pointing up, and treating comically, the incongruities between literature and life, and the tendencies of novels to imitate each other rather than life” (Fergus 11).

3. The Different Modes of Reading

3.1 Catherine Morland

Catherine Morland is introduced as the epitome of an anti-heroine, having “none of the characteristics of novel-heroines”3 (Waldron 26) and stemming from a “very plain” (Austen 15) family. Due to parental negligence and indulgence, her general and social education has not been effective, but rather superficial “consisting chiefly in learning improving texts and bits of English literature by heart” (Waldron 28), such as works written by Pope, Gray, Thompson, and Shakespeare. Catherine “reads for pleasure only, never for instruction” (Mooneyham 1), because her mother, did “not insist on her being accomplished in spite of incapacity or distaste” (Austen 16).

Related to Catherine’s “poor education in books is her poor education in the ways of the world [that] left her with inadequate means of detecting deceit and falsehood” (Mooneyham 3).4 Her life “in a small retired village in the country [where she] can only go and call on [the uneducated and fashion-obsessed] Mrs. Allenˮ (Austen 76) and where “[n]ew books [do] not fall in [her] way” (Austen 40), lacks all “opportunities for social development” (Mooneyham 3). All in all, this truly is – in Henry Tilney’s words - “’a picture of intellectual poverty’” (Austen 76) and Catherine’s “social unsophistication, coupled with poor linguistic skills, make a dangerous combination” (Mooneyham 3).

Catherine admits that she does “not much like any other” (Austen 104) fiction than Gothic novels, poetry and plays (cf. Austen 104) and due to her “social unsophistication”, she relies heavily on her literary reading and her own character when judging others.5 Since she displays morally impeccable behaviour at all times, she tends to fail to recognise the bad in others as quickly as other, more sophisticated characters are able to. Henry Tilney warns her that feeling “’what is most to the credit of human nature [is a sentiment which] ought to be investigated, that [it] may know [itself]” (Austen 194). Self-knowledge and a critical mind are, as he suggests on several occasions, the best way to avoid being deluded by others (real characters and fiction).

Catherine struggles to keep up with her new experiences and has trouble reading things correctly.6 Her taste in literature suggests that she might have “read all such works as heroines must read” (Austen 17) in order to “consciously prepar[e] herself to live the life of a fictional character” (Gill/Gregory 20). She might be a “potentially insightful reader [with sound] insight, but what she needs [are real life experiences] teaching where she lacks knowledge” (Gill/Gregory 22). Catherine takes fiction too seriously and it takes her a while to develop the ability to read other people properly. When Isabella accuses her of not recognising though she ought to have known about her brother’s (John) love interest in her, she wonders how Catherine could have been so blind since John’s “attentions were such as a child must have noticed” (Austen 136).7 Later on in the novel, Catherine’s innocence in the course of romantic courtship is addressed again, when General Tilney hints at her marrying his son Henry and she is “probably the only one of the party who [does] not understand him” (Austen 166). Her inexperience leads Catherine to all sorts of wrong conclusions which are mainly based on false reasoning that often goes against her initial instinct.

The didactic process Catherine Morland experiences throughout the course of the novel splits into two main stages: the first being her acquaintance with the Thorpes in Bath, including “the polite world of a modern spa [with all] its perils and pains” (Keymer 29), and the second being the events she encounters in Northanger Abbey. One might argue that the first stage is an education in reading the social code and the second stage an education in the correct application of knowledge gained through literature. Catherine enters the Tilney’s house, Northanger Abbey, with certain expectations based on her reading of Gothic novels and is further spurred on by Henry’s mocking of potential horror scenes which might take place in the Abbey. Catherine is in a “Gothic mode” from the very beginning of her stay and it takes two events to make it clear to her that the real life differs from the stories read in Gothic narratives. The first scenario occurs when Catherine finds some mysterious documents in an old chest which turns out to be washing bills. Feeling “humbled to dust” (Austen 164), she takes a step back and acknowledges her “fancies” (Austen 164). But this is just the beginning of her learning curve. After Catherine has come to accept that projecting Gothic scenes onto real life scenarios can prove to be problematic, she makes the mistake of relying on her (Gothic) reading again when she tries to solve the real-life mystery of General Tilney. Since she has “often read of such characters” (Austen 171), she identifies the General as a classic Gothic villain8 and compares him to Ann Radcliffe’s antagonist Montoni (him having “the air and attitude of a Montoni”; Austen 176). Even though the “well-read Catherine” (Austen 172) starts “at the boldness of her own surmises [she still thinks that] they [are] supported by such appearances as made their dismissal impossible” (Austen 178).

After discovering Catherine’s dreadful suspicions, Henry Tilney asks the question, which finally helps Catherine to make the step from a naïve reader of Gothic fiction to a critical one and which terminates the “visions of romance” (Austen 187): he requires to know “[w]hat [she has] been judging from” (Austen 184) and, furthermore, he reminds her that they are living in a modern age and advises Catherine to “[c]onsult [her] own understanding, [her] own sense of the probable” (Austen 186). Catherine accepts that her visions have been “voluntary, self-created delusions [bent] to one purpose by a mind which . . . ha[s] been craving to be frightened” (Austen 188). This passage does not undermine the message of the novel, which is absolutely pro-reading, however. In the end, Catherine comes to the conclusion that “in suspecting General Tilney of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she ha[s] scarcely sinned against his character, or magnified his cruelty” (Austen 230). Thus, even though her reasoning might have been wrong, her instincts were right. “At the beginning of the novel, Catherine is a literal reader, both of her favourite novels and of the words of other characters she encounters” (Mooneyham 1) and her fault was not to regard the General as a villain, but to project the kinds of evils found in Gothic novels onto him. She has missed the decisive step a critical reader ought to make: to transfer the knowledge derived from reading onto reality in a critical way and to handle novels with the appropriate amount of distance. Catherine’s “reading of Gothic novels [has only] prepare[d] her to see the world in extremes – innocence and evil – without the shades of reality” (Parrill 176).

Northanger Abbey depicts “two different kinds of readers and two kinds of texts: the naïve reader of romance[ who truly displays the aforementioned ‘impressionable nature’] and the more sophisticated readers of romance” (Goshal Wallace 17). Whereas Catherine Morland clearly belongs into the first category, the other characters are either mixed types or belong into the latter division.

3.2 Isabella Thorpe and Eleanor Tilney

Three aspects are known about Isabella Thorpe’s literary preferences. Firstly, she is the one, who introduces Catherine to Gothic fiction.9 Secondly, she has more reading planned and a reading list prepared with “ten or twelve [books] of the same kind [than Udolpho]” (Austen 39).10 And thirdly, she and Catherine are reading together, shutting themselves in. Reading in seclusion strikes rather as an intimate activity and hints at Isabella’s role as a seductress who lures Catherine in, taking advantage of the latter’s naiveté. The “forced and false intimacy” (Goshal Wallace 18) between the young women is announced with an oxymoron from the very beginning and termed “a sudden intimacy” (Austen 32). Gill and Gregory argue that it is “virtually a contradiction in term to suggest that ‘intimacy’, with its connotations of trust, warmth and personal confidences, can be ‘sudden’ (7). The shallow topics of conversation (“dress, balls, flirtations, and quizzes”; Austen 32) further undermine the idea of “intimacy” (cf. Gill/Gregory 7).

Isabella Thorpe is four years older than Catherine, “and at least four years better informed” (Austen 32). In contrast to Catherine, who is newly introduced into society in Bath and lacks insight, Isabella appears to be quite an expert in reading others, i.e. she can “discover a flirtation between any gentleman and lady who only smiled at each other” (Austen 32).11 Isabella seems to entertain “an unseemly high opinion of herself [and] is immodest and brash [as can be seen, i.e. in her] openly follow[ing] men [and] break[ing other social] rules” (Wiltshire 87). In accordance with her vulgar lifestyle, Isabella favours gothic romances and mysterious tales. Her “lack of interest in other literature indicates her shallowness” (Fritzer 28) and her character is further revealed by the idioms she uses: Isabella tends to say whatever crosses her mind and “indulges in nonchalant excess[; her] language is emotional pulp” (Gill/Gregory 6).

Eleanor Tilney is in many ways the exact opposite of Isabella and superior in both personality and conduct. She is not as “affectedly open”, more elegant, does not seek “to fix the attention of every young man near her” and does not display “exaggerated feelings of ecstatic delight or inconceivable vexation on every little trifling occurrence” (Austen 54). Instead, Eleanor appears to be an intelligent, erudite, and virtuous young woman. Between Eleanor and Catherine, there is no “sudden intimacy” and instead of shallow conversation topics, their communication is “direct, sincere, unaffected [and they] genuinely converse; questions are asked about what the other thinks” (Gill/Gregory 12). One might say that Isabella, “in her shallowness and vulgarity, is a rather crude foil to Catherine, who, young and impressionable, is eager for her affection and therefore flattered by her attention” (Hardy 5) and that Catherine’s educational process is the path of progression she has to take from an Isabella-like mind-set to one which is more equal to Eleanor’s more mature nature.

Whereas Catherine and Isabella are ardent readers of Gothic fiction, Eleanor is both, “fond of history” (Austen 103) and familiar with popular works of fiction, such as The Mysteries of Udolpho. This indicates her broad education and symbolises a balanced mind which both Isabella and Catherine lack. Eleanor Tilney is a character who is both familiar with literature and the ways of the world, and this makes her a good reader of both fiction and character. In contrast to that Isabella only ever reads romantic and Gothic fiction and displays a behaviour which is a vulgar as her taste.

Despite all the differences, there is one aspect which Eleanor Tilney and Isabella Thorpe seemingly have in common: they appear to be able to read Catherine Morland easily. Isabella, for instance, states that she knows Catherine better than she knows herself (cf. Austen 69) and Eleanor can easily detect Catherine’s love interest in her brother Henry. Quite interestingly, Eleanor appears to know Catherine “better than she knows herself” as well since after meeting Catherine she walks away “with some knowledge of her new acquaintance's feelings, and on Catherine's, without the smallest consciousness of having explained them” (Austen 71). But whereas Eleanor’s reading of Catherine proves to be correct, Isabella’s assumptions are – in the end – false. This is probably due to the fact that “Isabella never sees Catherine for what she is; she only projects herself and her own selfish motives onto her friend” (Mooneyham 9).


1 Catherine and her brother James Morland are “counterpoised between the other sibling pairs” (Gill/Gregory 4). Due to the finite length of this paper and to the fact that James Morland is only a minor character, he will only be mentioned briefly in this paper.

2 There is no exact definition of “the Gothic”. It started out as a medieval revival and inspired a variety of works. Some features, however, are reoccurring in many Gothic novels and can therefore be regarded as characteristic. Among them are remote settings, “dramatic events which happen in the night and often during tempestuous weather; an innocent young woman who is threatened by a powerful, corrupt and sometimes lecherous nobleman [and] an eerie atmosphere” (Gill/Gregory 24)

3 Such as i.e. being a beautiful orphan.

4 John Locke’s empiricist notion of the tabula rasa “underlies much of the novel [and it] is obvious that Catherine is handicapped by a lack of experience” (Williams 25),

5 Catherine has had a very sheltered and secluded upbringing. When she says angrily that she has never been “so deceived in anyone’s character” (Austen 194) as in Isabella Thorpe’s, Henry Tilney mocks her by stating: “’Among all the great variety that you have known and studied’” (Austen 194).

6 The ability lacking to foresee events and read the human nature is shared by Catherine’s whole family, i.e. her parents “never once [think] of her heart [when she returns rather depressed] from her first excursion from home” (Austen 219), and her brother is absolutely taken in by Isabella's and John Thorpe's lies. Even after Isabella’s betrayal, which led even Catherine to see through her former friend, James Morland is noetheless unable to see through the boorish John Thorpe and claims that he “dread[s] the sight of [Thorpe since] his honest heart would feel so much” (Austen 190). This presumption is about as wrong as one can get with John Thorpe, who is only interested in himself (thus, does not care about the broken off engagement) and in money (therefore, he is probably – at most – glad that the engagement is broken since James Morland is not as rich as expected) and who is such a liar that describing him having an “honest heart” is actually an almost funny remark. “Lacking self-knowledge, and without the sense of his sister, James [seems] to be as taken in by John as he is by Isabella” (Gill/Gregory 7).

7 One might wonder whether Catherine is overly naïve, or whether the capability of reading romantic interests is a particular strength of Isabella’s. This matter will be further discussed in 3.2 Isabella and Eleanor Tilney.

8 The General’s commanding manners, his dislike in walking in the sunshine, his staying up late and the fact that he does not want Eleanor to show Catherine around the Abbey by herself strike Catherine as odd and she does not know any other way to explain this except that he has to be a villain and possibly a murderer.

9 The fact that it is Isabella, the false friend, who introduces “[r]omance – a lie, an extravagant fiction” (Gill/Gregory 29), is of great importance and Catherine’s relationship with Isabella is meaningful. It is obvious that Isabella’s behaviour is made up of egoism and a “constant reliance on trick and deception [and] it is interesting to notice how the ‘naïve’ Catherine responds” (Williams 25). In the beginning, both, Isabella and novels of the genre she has introduced to Catherine, are unreadable to the latter. But this does not mean that she accepts “Isabella’s version of the world” (Williams 25) without hesitation.

10 Namely Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromance of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries (cf. Austen 39). “One might observe that in a novel about education, Catherine is being given [Isabella’s] reading list” (Gill/Gregory 21).

11 All in all, Isabella’s main interest seems to be in romantic involvements and it is obvious in several scenes that she is not merely interested in making an advantageous match but simply lusts after men. Her man-craze is taken to a comic extreme when she prompts Catherine to take part in pursuing “two odious young men” (Austen 41) to show her “independence . . . and her resolution of humbling the sex” (Austen 42). This occurrence is yet another proof that Isabella seems “to have a hard time telling the truth [since she] talk[s] of ignoring strange men and she follows them” (Wiltshire 57).

Ende der Leseprobe aus 17 Seiten


Reading Fiction or Reading Character. The Different Modes of Reading in the Novel "Northanger Abbey" by Jane Austen
Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz  (Department of English and Linguistics)
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Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen, Fiction
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B.A. Elisa Valerie Thieme (Autor:in), 2014, Reading Fiction or Reading Character. The Different Modes of Reading in the Novel "Northanger Abbey" by Jane Austen, München, GRIN Verlag,


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