Focusing on a supporting character in Jane Austin’s Northanger Abbey, examine how the character seems to view him/herself as opposed to how the narrator shows him/her and/or how Catherine comes...

Focusing on a supporting character in Jane Austin’s Northanger Abbey, examine how the character seems to view him/herself as opposed to how the narrator shows him/her and/or how Catherine comes to see him/her. How do these different “sides” to the characters add to the overall effect of the novel and/or to a central idea suggested by the book?

Expert Answers
rareynolds eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Isabella, who abandons Catherine's brother James for Captain Tilney when she finds out that James is not as rich as she thought, is a great example of how Austen characters can have wildly different opinions of each other. Take, for instance, Isabella's letter to Catherine in Chapter 27, which on the surface seems to be cheerful but actually is meant to justify her behavior. In this case, Isabella clearly is conscious of her own misconduct, but at the same time she is too invested in her own self worth and in recovering her social standing to admit as much. This passage is typical:

Anne Mitchell had tried to put on a turban like mine, as I wore it the week before at the concert, but made wretched work of it—it happened to become my odd face, I believe, at least Tilney told me so at the time, and said every eye was upon me; but he is the last man whose word I would take. I wear nothing but purple now: I know I look hideous in it, but no matter—it is your dear brother’s favourite colour.

The vanity of this passage is so over the top it is hard to know where to begin. Isabella makes fun of Anne for copying her style, for which she was complimented by her former boyfriend, whose words mean nothing to her now (except that she just repeated them!). She is sacrificing her beauty to wear purple because it is James's--her old boyfriend whom she is now desperately trying to get back--favorite color! Catherine is certainly not impressed. Whereas earlier in the book she might have been deceived by Isabella, now she sees her for who she really is. After reading Isabella's letter aloud to Henry and Eleanor, Catherine exclaims, "So much for Isabella...and for all our intimacy! She must think me an idiot, or she could not have written so; but perhaps this has served to make her character better known to me than mine is to her."

rareynolds eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As a follow up to the above, I would say that Catherine's exclamation that Isabella "thinks she must be an idiot" is a pretty big change for Catherine, who for once is asserting her own intelligence and is finally beginning to be able to see things for how they really are. In terms of what effect this adds to the book, I would say that the theme of the book is the difference between appearance and reality, calling into question the "realism" of narratives (specifically novels, like Mrs. Radcliffe's). The reader has to ask herself, if Gothic novels have caused Catherine to have all sorts of misconceptions about the Abbey, then what sorts of misconceptions is this novel planting in my head about these characters? Catherine's act of reading Isabella's letter is parallel, in a way, to the reading of the novel itself--they are both acts of coming into self-knowledge. 

Read the study guide:
Northanger Abbey

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question