Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:02 ''Northanger Abbey''
  • 0:55 Plot Context and Characters
  • 2:10 Plot Summary
  • 5:09 Analysis: Parody
  • 5:45 Analysis: Misunderstandings
  • 6:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Megan Pryor

Megan has tutored extensively and has a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Fiction.

Expert Contributor
Kaitlyn Danahy

Kate has a bachelor's degree in literature & creative writing from Gordon College. She taught high school literature in India and tutored in the US.

In this lesson, we will discuss Jane Austen's novel, 'Northanger Abbey'. After a brief look at the context in which the novel was published, we'll examine the novel's plot, analyze some of its defining themes, and wrap up the lesson with a short quiz.

Introduction to Northanger Abbey

Famed 18th and 19th century English novelist, Jane Austen, wrote many novels in her lifetime. Northanger Abbey was one of the first novels she finished, and while she sold the manuscript in 1803, the novel was not published until 1817-1818. The delay was due, in part, to Jane Austen's habit of publishing her novels anonymously. While she wrote and published many novels, she received no credit. As a result, the publisher who originally bought the rights to Northanger Abbey was afraid it wouldn't sell very well. The publisher eventually sold the rights back to the Austen family. Jane Austen revised the novel repeatedly, but never sold it. After her death, her brother changed the title of the manuscript to the now-famous Northanger Abbey and sold the novel along with Persuasion.

Plot Context and Characters

Northanger Abbey is similar to many of Jane Austen's novels. It involves a lot of relatively wealthy families socializing with each other, usually at balls and other genteel parties. The protagonist of Northanger Abbey is a seventeen-year-old young woman, Catherine Morland, who is obsessed with Gothic novels. When the novel begins, she is visiting Bath with a pair of family friends. While in Bath, she meets two different families: the Thorpe family and the Tilney family.

In order to avoid confusion, let's briefly outline the different family members before we begin the summary. The Thorpe family includes Mrs. Thorpe (a widow), John Thorpe (her son), and Isabella Thorpe (the main Thorpe daughter, who befriends Catherine, gets engaged to Catherine's brother, James, and flirts with Captain Frederick Tilney). The other family, the Tilneys, includes General Tilney (a widower), Captain Frederick Tilney (the oldest Tilney son and a dishonorable man), Henry Tilney (Catherine's love interest and a kind and clever man), and Eleanor Tilney (the youngest Tilney, quiet and a reader).

Plot Summary

While in Bath, Catherine attends a lot of balls and meets all of these people. She develops an interest in Henry Tilney, who is smart and shares her interest in novels, especially Gothic ones. She also meets the Thorpe siblings. While Catherine likes Henry a lot, their paths do not cross frequently. During his absence, she befriends Isabella Thorpe. Since Catherine is kind and a bit naive, she is not a great judge of character, especially when it comes to Isabella. Isabella gets engaged to Catherine's brother, James, but when Mr. Morland makes his son wait two years until he takes his vows as a priest to marry Isabella, Isabella wastes no time in flirting with another man: Captain Frederick Tilney.

Eventually Catherine runs into Henry again. She also meets his sister and their father. When a disappointed Isabella begins to flirt with his older brother, Henry is quick to recognize her impropriety. James is hurt by Isabella's behavior.

When the Tilneys invite Catherine to visit their estate, Northanger Abbey, she expects it to be just like an estate from one of the Gothic novels with which she is so obsessed. After arriving, however, she finds that it is a very pleasant house, except for the mysterious rooms no one ever enters. The rooms were once Mrs. Tilney's, but after her death, they were shut. Mrs. Tilney has been dead for nine years, but Catherine thinks that General Tilney's lack of grief is proof that he secretly murdered her or something equally sinister.

Catherine and Eleanor investigate the rooms, but Catherine is caught by Henry. He is upset by her investigation. After telling Catherine that his father was deeply moved by his wife's death, Catherine is afraid that Henry hates her. Henry does not really hate her, however. He is only a little disappointed and quickly gets over it. Catherine punishes herself by being appropriately ashamed. She also makes an important realization: Novels are not like real life.

James and Isabella break up because of Isabella and Captain Frederick Tilney's quasi-relationship. Everyone is upset and the General takes a trip to London. Now that their father is gone, Eleanor blooms socially. Henry, Eleanor, and Catherine get along wonderfully.

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Additional Activities

Digging into Parody:

Gothic novels were all the rage back in Jane Austen's day, and, as the lesson explains, Northanger Abbey is a parody of a typical Gothic novel. Through these discussion questions, which will focus on the story's various plot threads, you will dig deeper to uncover what the novel gains from using parody.

A Failed Engagement:

What does Catherine initially think of Isabella and James' engagement? How does this opinion shift? What do you think is being parodied through Isabella's behavior with James and Captain Tilney?

Not a Murderer, but an Antagonist:

Catherine quickly becomes convinced that the unmoved General Tilney must have secretly murdered his wife. Henry is upset by her snooping and Catherine realizes that life is not like the novels and General Tilney is not a murderer. However, he does prove to be another form of antagonist via refusing to allow Catherine's marriage to Henry on the basis of Catherine's financial state. What might Austen be saying about society's view of "bad guys?" How does General Tilney's behavior affect your view of Isabella's previous behavior, if it does?

The Resolution:

Following Henry's proclamation of love and his plans to marry Catherine despite his father's approval, what might you imagine as the story's climax and resolution? How does the actual resolution and ending fit with these expectations? What is one critique Austen might be pointing out about society and family? One strength?

Final question:

Do you think the novel is richer for its use of parody? Conversely, do you think the story is weakened in any way?

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