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Northanger Abbey | Study Guide

Jane Austen

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Northanger Abbey | Themes


Coming of Age

Northanger Abbey fits into the tradition of coming-of-age novels. Catherine is on a journey of maturation. She literally journeys from her parents' home to the city of Bath where she enters into society under the somewhat casual watch of Mr. and Mrs. Allen. With no guidance offered to her, Catherine navigates society as best she can. Mrs. Allen has provided assistance with dress and lodging, but she does not oversee Catherine's every move. Catherine's trust in Isabella gives her a misapprehension of the rules of society. This lack of oversight allows Catherine to make missteps in her interactions with both the Thorpes and the Tilneys. When she requests guidance from the Allens, Catherine learns that going about with John Thorpe, as Isabella has encouraged, is improper. When Catherine takes the next journey to Northanger Abbey, she is again without female guidance beyond a young companion. In this case, however, Catherine's companion is Eleanor Tilney. Unlike Isabella, Eleanor is not deceitful. She is without agency, though—controlled as she is by General Tilney. This is most obvious when the general's attitude shift toward Catherine provokes the third stage of her journey: she travels on her own in a hired carriage 70 miles to her parents' home.

The physical journeys coincide with a growing awareness of other characters' flaws and foibles, as well as of her own. Catherine's journey is temporarily on hold when she is at her mother's house after the general sends her away, but Henry Tilney arrives to ask her to marry him. The novel closes with the narrator summing up months of time with the revelation that they corresponded and eventually wed. Catherine's evolution from innocent girl to questioning young woman culminates in a wedding. She has entered into a "good match" with a man who cares for her, and in the process of reaching that point, she has taken several long trips on which she has developed as a person.

Deception and Manipulation

The issue of integrity in others is apparent to the astute reader, but Catherine struggles with it throughout much of the novel. Whether Mrs. Thorpe genuinely knows Mrs. Allen is not clarified; but in light of the deceit of her children, it is worth questioning. Isabella is, from the first, both deceitful and manipulative. She repeatedly says things that are diametrically opposed to actions. She protests she does not seek men's attention, yet looks back to be sure they are watching, or walks faster to overtake them—or in the case of Frederick Tilney, she accepts invitations to dance after saying she will not and denies interest in him while encouraging him. As such, it is no great surprise she doubts Catherine's honesty when sharing the contents of the letter from John Thorpe with her. Catherine trusts Isabella's words, even when they are contrary to the actions she witnessed.

John Thorpe also demonstrates numerous times he has no compunction about lying. From his initial appearance, he exaggerates to make himself appear impressive. He outright lies to the Tilneys. Further, the reader learns at the novel's close that John's lies to the general are responsible not only for General Tilney's uncommon solicitude toward Catherine but also for the reverse of that kindness.

Catherine's ability to think critically about the lies she is told, and those she witnesses, is largely absent until she receives the letter from Isabella after having received a letter from James. Henry (and, at times, Eleanor) points out the flaws in the things she accepts as truth, but she continues to look for the good in people, despite actions that prove their deceits. The entire novel presents a young woman who cannot believe the worst of people, even when the evidence is overt. Catherine, unused to deceit and manipulation, is defenseless against it. The lies of others, chiefly the Thorpes, steer events in her life, and it is only by way of blunt statements and fumbling that Catherine overcomes the consequences of these deceits and machinations. This stands sharply in contrast to the fates of the Thorpes. The resolution of the story for both the manipulated (Catherine) and the manipulators (Isabella and John) upholds a hopeful statement that lies are not rewarded.

Romance and Relationships

The pursuit of a romantic partner is not an uncommon plot thread. Northanger Abbey makes no compunction about it: the lack of a hero in Catherine's life is addressed almost as soon as the reader meets Catherine. For Catherine, the pursuit of a husband isn't a topic she addresses overtly, as much as that she has feelings for Henry.

In contrast, Isabella is forthright that she is seeking a husband. So, too, is General Tilney overt in his pursuit of Catherine for his son. The acquisition of a good match may seem crass to a modern reader, but the business of marriage was both business and emotion. When James talks to Mr. and Mrs. Morland, the question of what amount will be settled on him is of primary interest. So, too, is that a concern for General Tilney; his interest in encouraging the relationship between Catherine and Henry is based on his mistaken belief she is an heiress.

Isabella pursues and receives a marriage proposal from James Morland, but upon discovering the sum that would be provided to them, as well as the delay in marriage, she continues to—in essence—"husband hunt." Marriage was a way to increase one's fortune, but for a woman it was the only way to do so. Even in that case, a woman's ability to pursue such things was limited. As Henry notes in talking to Catherine, a man asks; a woman's choice is only to accept or refuse. Modern readers think of relationships in the context of affection. This was not the primary focus in the world of Northanger Abbey (or in the historical world of the 18th century).

In this framework, Catherine's fears that General Tilney was responsible for his wife's death are slightly less peculiar. Marriages at the time of Northanger Abbey were not typically love matches. There is still no reason to believe the general is guilty of Mrs. Tilney's death, but the question of whether he cared for her is not unusual.

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