(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Northanger Abbey Jane Austen

The following entry presents criticism of Austen's novel Northanger Abbey (1818). See also, Jane Austen Criticism, Pride and Prejudice Criticism, and Mansfield Park Criticism.

Originally written between 1798 and 1799, but not published until 1818, Northanger Abbey is considered Jane Austen's first significant work of fiction. The novel is in part a burlesque of the Gothic and sentimental fiction that was popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, particularly of Ann Radcliffe's novels, such as The Mysteries of Udolfo. In addition to its parodic elements, Northanger Abbey also follows the maturation of Catherine Morland, a naive eighteen-year-old, ignorant of the workings of English society and prone to self-deception. Influenced by her reading of novels rife with the overblown qualities of horror fiction, Catherine concocts a skewed version of reality by infusing real people, things, and events with terrible significance. However, Catherine's mistaken impressions, though clouded by Gothic sentiment, often hint at an insightful, if unconscious, judgment of character that cuts through the social pretensions of those around her. In this respect Austen's novel carries on an ironic discourse which makes it not only a satire, but also a sophisticated novel of social education.

Plot and Major Characters

Catherine's introduction into society begins when Mr. and Mrs. Allen, her neighbors in Fullerton, invite her to spend some time with them while vacationing in the English town of Bath. There she meets the somewhat pedantic clergyman Henry Tilney and the histrionic Isabella Thorpe, who encourages Catherine in her reading of Gothic fiction. Her circle of acquaintances widens with the arrival of James Morland, Catherine's brother and a love interest for Isabella, and John Thorpe, Isabella's rude, conniving brother. The setting shifts from Bath to Northanger Abbey, the ancestral home of the Tilneys, when John deceives General Tilney, Henry's father, into believing that Catherine is an heiress. Austen's satire of Gothic horror novel conventions begins as Henry and Catherine drive up to the Abbey and the former plays on the heroine's romantic expectations of the place. When Catherine reaches her destination she is disappointed to find a thoroughly modern building, completely lacking in hidden passageways, concealed dungeons, and the like. Later, Austen allows Catherine's imagination to run amok, only to reveal the objects of her fears as ordinary and mundane. At the climax of the novel, General Tilney—whom Catherine suspects of having murdered or shut up his wife somewhere in the abbey—turns the heroine out after learning that she does not come from a wealthy family. At the close of the novel, the outraged Henry proposes marriage to Catherine, now divested of her delusions by Henry and his sister Eleanor. General Tilney, who proves to be not a murderer, but rather an individual of questionable moral and social character, eventually gives his consent to the marriage after learning that his daughter Eleanor is also engaged—to a wealthy Viscount.

Major Themes

While ostensibly a burlesque of the conventional modes of Gothic horror fiction, Northanger Abbey is also a novel of education that focuses on the theme of self-deception. Austen portrays Catherine as an inversion of the typical Gothic heroine, making her neither beautiful, talented, nor particularly intelligent, but rather ordinary in most respects. In contrast, several other characters in the novel are presented as pastiches of stock Gothic characters—Isabella and General Tilney, for example, are parodies of the damsel and the domestic tyrant. These individuals seem to fit into Catherine's deluded perspective of the world which, in the tradition of Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote, leaves her unable to distinguish between reality and the romanticized version of life she finds in popular novels. Other characters in the novel serve to balance the work. Henry Tilney is often regarded by critics as Austen's mouthpiece—though he, too, is occasionally an object of irony and ridicule. For example, he fails to realize that Catherine's delusions, though excessive, hint at the true nature of people and events. Thus, Catherine is the first to understand that General Tilney, although not a murderer, is cruel and mercenary. This ironic aspect of the novel alludes to a larger theme in the work, that of the moral significance of social conventions and conduct—a subject that Austen explored in greater detail in later novels.

Critical Reception

Critics have generally regarded Northanger Abbey to be of lesser literary quality than the remainder of Austen's mature works. Some scholars have observed occasional lapses in her narrative technique of a sort thatdo not appear in later novels. By far the greatest debate surrounding Northanger Abbey, however, is the question of its aesthetic unity. Critics have traditionally seen the work as part novel of society, part satire of popular Gothic fiction, and therefore not a coherent whole. Detractors, focusing on the work as a parody, have found its plot weak, its characters unimaginative and superficial, and its comedy anticlimactic due to its reliance on an outmoded style of fiction. Others, while conceding the lack of an easily discernable organizing principle, argue that the work is i unified on the thematic level as not merely a satire of popular fiction, but also an ironic presentation of a self-deceived imagination that is quixotically wrong about reality but right about human morality. In addition, critics have considered Northanger Abbey a transitional work, one that moves away from the burlesque mode of the Juvenilia and toward the stylistic control of such masterpieces as Mansfield Park and Emma.

Dorothy Scarborough (essay date 1917)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Gothic Romance," in The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction, 1917. Reprint by Octagon Books, 1967, pp. 6-53.

[In the following excerpt, Scarborough describes Northanger Abbey as a clever burlesque of the Gothic novel.]

Perhaps the most valuable contribution that the Gothic school made to English literature is Jane Austen's inimitable satire of it, Northanger Abbey. Though written as her first novel and sold in 1797, it did not appear till after her death, in 1818. Its purpose is to ridicule the Romanticists and the book in itself would justify the terroristic school, but she was ahead of her times, so the editor feared to publish it. In the meantime she wrote her other satires on society and won immortality for her work which might never have been begun save for her satiety of medieval romances. The title of the story itself is imitative, and the well-known materials are all present, yet how differently employed! The setting is a Gothic abbey tempered to modern comfort; the interfering father is not vicious, merely ill-natured; the pursuing, repulsive lover is not a villain, only a silly bore. The heroine has no beauty, nor does she topple into sonnets nor snatch a pencil to sketch the scene, for we are told that she has no accomplishments. Yet she goes through palpitating adventures mostly modelled on Mrs. Radcliffe's incidents. She is hampered in not being supplied with a lover who is the unrecognized heir to vast estates, since all the young men in the county are properly provided with parents.

The delicious persiflage in which Jane Austen hits off the fiction of the day may be illustrated by a bit of conversation between two young girls.

"My dearest Catherine, what have you been doing with yourself all the morning? Have you gone on with Udolpho?"

"Yes; I have been reading it ever since I woke, and I have...

(The entire section is 814 words.)

Andrew H. Wright (essay date 1953)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Heroines, Heroes, and Villains," in Jane Austen's Novels: A Study in Structure, Chatto & Windus, 1953, pp. 83-172.

[Below, Wright investigates Catherine Morland's character, especially as it is highlighted by the words and actions of Henry Tilney and John Thorpe.]

Catherine Morland

As a satire of the Gothic horror tale,Northanger Abbey contains all the ingredients of this genre except the hero and heroine, who are deliberately normalized, partly for the purpose of heightening the ridicule. Like all parodies the book exhibits two sets of values: one is satirized, the other (by implication) is shown to be...

(The entire section is 2954 words.)

Frank J. Kearful (essay date 1965)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Satire and the Form of the Novel: The Problem of Aesthetic Unity in Northanger Abbey," in ELH, Vol. 32, No. 4, December, 1965, pp. 511-27.

[In the following essay, Kearful argues that Northanger Abbey achieves a complex unity of fiction, satire, parody, burlesque, comedy, and tragedy.]


The most important—and most interesting—critical problem concerning Northanger Abbey is the question of its aesthetic unity. Generally critics are forced to conclude that while brilliant in many of its parts, the book as a whole lacks a sufficiently consistent technique or unified form to make it a coherent work of art....

(The entire section is 5637 words.)

A. Walton Litz (essay date 1965)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Sympathetic Imagination: Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility," in Jane Austen: A Study of Her Artistic Development, Oxford University Press, 1965, pp. 58-83.

[In the following excerpt, Litz examines complexity of theme and uneveness of narrative technique in Northanger Abbey.]

Viewed as a whole, Northanger Abbey is certainly the earliest of Jane Austen's major works. Although it was begun in 1798 after the first drafts of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice had been written, both of these novels underwent radical revision shortly before their publication in 1811 and 1813, while...

(The entire section is 4341 words.)

Sheridan Baker (essay date 1965)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Comedy of Illusion in Northanger Abbey, " in Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters, Vol. LI, 1966, pp. 547-58.

[In the following essay, Baker describes Austen's ironic use of self-delusion in Northanger Abbey.]

Northanger Abbey, the third written but least revised and hence most pristine of Jane Austen's early novels, has not lacked admirers. Indeed, Andrew Wright, John K. Mathison, Alan D. McKillop, and Henrietta Ten Harmsel have led us progressively to see the dimensions of realism and validity within the novel's burlesque of Gothic romance. But there is still room, I believe, to emphasize the extent to which...

(The entire section is 4341 words.)

Everett Zimmerman (essay date 1969)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Function of Parody in Northanger Abbey," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. XXX, 1969, pp. 53-63.

[Here, Zimmerman maintains that Northanger Abbey both parodies and employs conventional elements of sentimental fiction.]

Most studies of Northanger Abbey have noted that the central problem it poses for the critic is one of unity. In addition to dealing with Catherine Morland's adventures, the book parodies other novels and thus raises the question of the relationship of the parody to the total structure. The attempted solutions of this critical problem, many of them quite cogently argued, are almost exclusively attempts to show...

(The entire section is 3720 words.)

A. N. Kaul (essay date 1970)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Jane Austen," in The Action of English Comedy: Studies in the Encounter of Abstraction and Experience from Shakespeare to Shaw, Yale University Press, 1970, pp. 193-249.

[In the following excerpt, Kaul characterizes Northanger Abbey as a novel of education with a somewhat formulaic comic quality.]

Northanger Abbey is the story of a young girl's education, or rather her double education: first through a selective and highly self-conscious course of literary readings, and then through various experiences that teach her to differentiate the real from the bookish world and thus cause her to readjust the attitudes and expectations derived from...

(The entire section is 2372 words.)

Robert Kiely (essay date 1972)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Northanger Abbey: Jane Austen," in The Romantic Novel in England, Harvard University Press, 1972, pp. 118-35.

[In the excerpt below, Kiely focuses on the thematic importance of language in Northanger Abbey.]

Jane Austen thought the capabilities of language, correctly used, considerable, and early in Northanger Abbey she opens her gentle assault on romantic fiction with a defense of the novel:

I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with...

(The entire section is 5513 words.)

Jane Nardin (essay date 1973)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Propriety and the Education of Catherine Morland: Northanger Abbey, " in Those Elegant Decorums: The Concept of Propriety in Jane Austen's Novels, State University of New York Press, 1973, pp. 62-81.

[In the following essay, Nardin discusses Catherine's education in the moral significance of social propriety.,]

(The entire section is 8753 words.)

Eric Rothstein (essay date 1974)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Lessons of Northanger Abbey," in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. XLIV, No. 1, Fall, 1974, pp. 14-30.

[Here, Rothstein explores Austen's narrative technique in Northanger Abbey, claiming that the central theme of the novel emerges from the interplay between the respective educations of Catherine and the reader.]

In Northanger Abbey, as in a number of works of eighteenth-century fiction (say, Tom Jones), the protagonist and the reader undergo parallel, but in almost no way identical, educations. The reader, as Austen's irony announces in the first paragraph, is to be led toward something better than the conventional...

(The entire section is 7639 words.)

Katrin Ristkok Burlin (essay date 1975)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: '"The Pen of the Contriver': The Four Fictions of Northanger Abbey," in Jane Austen: Bicentenary Essays, edited by John Halperin, Cambridge University Press, 1975, pp. 89-111.

[In the following essay, Ristkok Burlin interprets Northanger Abbey as a "single, complex treatment of the theme of fiction."]

In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen came to terms with her art in a single, complex treatment of the theme of fiction. Every character in this novel is implicated in the fictive process. Its heroine is a novel-reader, its hero an inveterate inventor of fictions, its villains liars, contrivers of fictions. The complicated plot is based...

(The entire section is 8984 words.)

Michael Williams (essay date 1986)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Northanger Abbey: Some Problems of Engagement," in Jane Austen: Six Novels and Their Methods, The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1986, 10-30.

[Below, Williams analyzes style in Northanger Abbey, arguing that the novel exhibits a complex unity that eludes simple classification.]

'Oh! I am delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it. I assure you, if it had not been to meet you, I would not have come away from it for all the world.'

(Catherine Morland on The Mysteries of Udolpho)

Everybody knows that Northanger Abbey is...

(The entire section is 8486 words.)

Paul Morrison (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Enclosed in Openness: Northanger Abbey and the Domestic Carceral," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 33, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 1-23.

[In the following essay, Morrison undertakes a feminist, post-structural analysis of gender-specific spaces and sensibilities in Northanger Abbey.]

Notre avis est . . . que si les aventures rapportées dans cet ouvrage ont un fonds de vérité, elles n'ont pu arriver que dans d'autres lieux ou d'autres temps; et nous blâmons beaucoup'auteur, qui, séduit apparemment par'espoir d'intéresser davantage en se rapprochant plus de son siècle et de son pays, a osé faire paraître...

(The entire section is 9513 words.)

Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Gilson, David. A Bibliography of Jane Austen. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982, 877 p.

Comprehensive bibliography of primary and secondary materials published through 1975.


Jenkins, Elizabeth. Jane Austen. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1948, 410 p.

Exhaustive biographical and critical work noted for its detailed treatment of Austen's life and works.


Doubleday, Neal Frank. "Henry & Catherine." In Variety of Attempt: British and American Fiction in...

(The entire section is 587 words.)