Northanger Abbey | Study Guide

Jane Austen

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Northanger Abbey | Symbols


Northanger Abbey

The abbey symbolizes the Gothic element of the novel. When Catherine first receives her invitation, she immediately thinks of the novels she reads. "Its long, damp passages, its narrow cells and ruined chapel, were to be within her daily reach, and she could not entirely subdue the hope of some traditional legends, some awful memorials of an injured and ill-fated nun" (Chapter 17). It is, in fact, a former abbey as well as a modern-day home. Henry teases Catherine, "But you must be aware that ... a young lady ... is always lodged apart from the rest of the family. While they snugly repair to their own end of the house, she is formally conducted ... along many gloomy passages, into an apartment never used since some cousin or kin died in it about twenty years before" (Chapter 20). This is, of course, not the experience Catherine will have. In fact, when she arrives, she sees it is very modern. "To an imagination which had hoped for the smallest divisions, and the heaviest stone-work, for painted glass, dirt, and cobwebs, the difference was very distressing" (Chapter 20). The novel presents both the traits expected in a Gothic novel and a different experience for this novel's protagonist. Although the late Mrs. Tilney died there, Northanger Abbey is not a gloomy place. It simultaneously exists as a fitting setting for a Gothic novel—complete with intrigue and a hapless heroine—but not at all what Catherine expects after reading such novels.

The Written Word

Letters, journals, and books represent knowledge. Catherine is an avid reader, but when Henry mentions her journal, she has little use for such habits. Information about Isabella's engagement to James, as well as John's interest in Catherine, comes via letter. The book at the pump-room is a regular source of information, providing information on attendees. Catherine's attempt to learn about Henry leads her to consult the "pump-room book" initially, even though "his name was not in the pump-room book, and curiosity could do no more" (Chapter 5).

Unlike John, Henry is an avowed reader, as he reveals during discussions with Catherine and Eleanor. He notes, "The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and most of them with great pleasure" (Chapter 14).

However, the written word is not always a reliable source of information. The papers found in the cabinet in Catherine's room at Northanger Abbey are a false source of intrigue. "Impatient to get rid of those hateful evidences of her folly, those detestable papers then scattered over the bed, she rose directly, and folding them up as nearly as possible in the same shape as before, returned them to the same spot within the cabinet, with a very hearty wish that no untoward accident might ever bring them forward again, to disgrace her even with herself" (Chapter 22).

The Mysteries of Udolpho

The Mysteries of Udolpho is symbolic of Gothic novels as a whole. Ann Radcliffe's novel is not the only Gothic novel that is cited in Northanger Abbey, but it is the most frequent example—with 18 references by name. All of those references occur prior to Catherine's trip to Northanger Abbey. Catherine is smitten with the book: "While I have Udolpho to read, I feel as if nobody could make me miserable. Oh! The dreadful black veil!" (Chapter 6).

This novel represents not just Gothic novels but novels in general. Catherine uses the novel, consciously or not, to assess people. John Thorpe has not read it: "Udolpho! Oh, Lord! Not I; I never read novels; I have something else to do" (Chapter 7). However, Isabella, Eleanor, and Henry all have read it.

She also uses it as her example of the sort of adventure she expects at an abbey, as well as when invited to visit the castle. "On the other hand, the delight of exploring an edifice like Udolpho, as her fancy represented Blaize Castle to be, was such a counterpoise of good as might console her for almost anything" (Chapter 11).


Carriages, including their quality and speed and handling, are symbolic of character and of social status. John rides with an attitude akin to his boastful personality. "Curricle-hung, you see; seat, trunk, sword-case, splashing-board, lamps, silver moulding, all you see complete; the iron-work as good as new, or better. He asked 50 guineas; I closed with him directly, threw down the money, and the carriage was mine" (Chapter 7). He uses the traits of it, as well as his buying it, to express that he is successful and bold.

Mrs. Allen points out there are moral issues to going out in carriages. "Young men and women driving about the country in open carriages! Now and then it is very well; but going to inns and public places together! It is not right; and I wonder Mrs. Thorpe should allow it" (Chapter 13).

Henry handles his carriage calmly and steadily, again reflecting his persona. The general keeps carriages that reveal his wealth. When traveling to Northanger Abbey, the general has a "fashionable chaise and four—postilions handsomely liveried, rising so regularly in their stirrups, and numerous outriders properly mounted" (Chapter 20).

At the end of her stay at the abbey, Catherine, who is not actually wealthy despite the general's prior theories, is dismissed in a hired carriage.

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