Characterization of Isabella in Northanger Abbey

June 23, 2019 by Essay Writer

Sir Francis Bacon is often cited as the progenitor of the phrase “knowledge is power”. This sentiment, if true, would render helpless Catherine Morland of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. When the reader first encounters Catherine, she is an ingenuous girl and is unfamiliar with the ways of fashionable society. Her early companion, Isabella Thrope, foils her character. Isabella is sophisticated, beautiful, and seems to be able to behave favorably in the cases of human interaction that puzzle Catherine. However, Isabella’s ruin at the end of the novel indicates that while she may have some knowledge, it is ultimately false and thus puts her into greater jeopardy than her naive friend. In this way, Isabella’s character provides an intriguing study into how social, psychological, and ideological misinformation can lead to personal destruction.The opening chapters take care to explain that Catherine, the heroine of the text, is very atypical of the heroines in Gothic novels. She is plain, unaccomplished, undesired by lovers, and lives a safe and ordinary life. Isabella, however, appears to be an excellent Gothic heroine. She is beautiful and an undeniable success with suitors. Her wordy and overly emotional speech patterns parallel the heightened sensuality of the characters of Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian. She never simply feels something but is “driven wild” (32); she never merely waits five minutes but rather “this age” (31); she does not agree, she “faithfully promises”. (155) Catherine, the narrator, and even Isabella truly believe in the characterization Isabella creates for herself as the embodiment of the sentimental heroine. While this belief ultimately jeopardizes Catherine, Isabella’s own unwillingness to acknowledge the indicators that she is not a heroine put Isabella at the greatest risk. Isabella expects the whole world to accept her as she presents herself and never doubts her own acting abilities. Although she is not evil per se, Isabella’s false knowledge causes many of Catherine’s problems in the novel. Isabella manages to secure a marriage proposal from Catherine’s brother, James Morland. However, when she discovers that he is not as rich as she first assumed, she sets her sights on Captain Tilney. It is this reaction that has leant Isabella her reputation as a gold digger. If this is true, then she is a manipulative and egocentric young woman on a quest for upward social mobility. While she is ignorant to her own character, she is well aware that she lacks most assets (such as wealth or family connections) to bring to a marriage that would make her desirable to potential suitors. Isabella’s gamble with James in trying to secure Captian Tilney reveals a deficit on the part of her interpretation of the world. Being beautiful, Isabella is used to stunning men with her good looks and seducing them. She has not, however, yet encountered her male counterpart – one who can manipulate women the way Isabella manipulates men. Her relative ingenue with regard to this causes Isabella to fall for Tinley, a man who plays at romance as she does. Furthermore, her attempt to marry the Captain reveals her lack of understanding about true emotional hurt in that she appears to think that she can shun James only to reclaim him when her other plans fall through.The letter that reveals Isabella’s misfortune in chapter 27 congregates all of her shortcomings in one document. As she does in all of their interactions, Isabella seeks to establish a mood of intimacy with Catherine through stylized nonsense, rather than through more genuine gestures that would lead to true friendship. While attempting to remain confident and light, we learn that Isabella is humiliated; James has discovered her duplicity and spurned her. Implicit in the content of the letter is the exact opposite of what Isabella asserts to be her emotional state as well as evidence of her jealousy towards Catherine. To this end, Isabella writes, “I hope you spend your time pleasantly, but am afraid you never think of me” (190) – an indication of jealousy of which Isabella herself may not even be entirely aware. To Isabella’s pain Henry replies, “But we must first suppose Isabella to have had a heart to lose–consequently to have been a very different creature; and, in that case, she would have met with very different treatment” (190). This remark concretizes the idea that Isabella is vindictive and emotionally immature as well as contributing to the conclusion that people in her life perceive her as such.Austen’s novel raises an interesting question, namely: does Isabella (and those like her) get her comeuppance? If so, the true heroine of the story (Catherine) is not quite convinced. In other words, if Isabella is not a plotting coquette, then she can be seen as an attractive girl who cannot refuse the attention of a young man. Viewed in this regard, she is perhaps no more guilty of plotting than any young girl who cannot figure out what she wants. Despite her effusive speech, and putting on airs, Isabella’s downfall is her own indecisiveness. If we accept this interpretation of her as innocent but flawed, rather than conniving and evil, she begins to resemble Ann Radcliffe’s Ellena. Ellena’s indecisiveness and trouble committing to Vivaldi cause her countless troubles and much heartache. Where Isabella cannot bare her pride to be wounded by a small income, Ellena cannot bare for her pride to be wounded by an unwelcome marriage. Both women, then, constantly seek to understand themselves in terms of how other people understand them. Pulchritudinous and charming, Isabella is endangered by not understanding the world outside of what her own pretty refelection reveals to her. Her ruin at the end of the novel indicates that while she may have some knowledge of society, her knowledge is ultimately incomplete in that she considers social standing more valuable than personal compatibility in a relationship. Though Isabella can be seen as manipulative and desirous of social standing for her desertion of James for Captain Tilney, she appears to reform at least somewhat by chapter 27. It is in the letter written in this chapter that Isabella’s vulnerability is evinced and the reader can see that she is somehow repentant for her past behavior (though she does not explicitly admit this). Ultimately, Isabella’s actions are what define others’ view of her and, though this letter appears to offer an interpretation of Isabella as changed subconsciously from her prior self, her past is how those involved in her life will always see her. So it is that Austen creates a character that serves both as a foil to a traditional gothic heroine (Catherine) and also as a sort of case study for the personal destruction that one’s own ignorance of character can catalyze.

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