Romantic Themes in Northanger Abbey

June 9, 2019 by Essay Writer

Jane Austen is commonly viewed as anti-romantic, but her novel Northanger Abbey possesses and promotes many of the ideas prevalent in romantic literature. Heroine Catherine Morland is an especially romantic character whose spontaneity, emotion, and sincerity eventually lead her to happiness. These traits, combined with a rejection of many traditional ideas and a theme of individualism over the norms of aristocratic society, create a novel with more romance than one would typically ascribe to Austen.Catherine’s spontaneity is one trait that makes her a romantic character. This trait becomes evident during Catherine’s conflicts with John Thorpe. Twice John forces Catherine to break her engagements to walk with the Tilneys, and twice Catherine feels a strong impulse to right this wrongdoing as quickly as possible. Although prevented from acting upon this impulse the first time, the second time she is able to act upon her whim and inform the Tilneys of what has actually occurred. So spontaneous is this decision that Catherine has given little consideration to what she will say: “‘I am come in a great hurry- It was all a mistake- I never promised to go- I told them from the first I could not go.- I ran away in a great hurry to explain it.- I did not care what you thought of me.- I would not stay for the servant’” (67- 68). Rather than being irritated by Catherine’s forcible entry into their apartment and her hasty explanation, the Tilneys reward her spontaneity by taking immediate liking to her. Catherine also shows that she follows her intuition, another romantic trait. Inspired by the many Gothic novels she has been reading, Catherine lets her imagination get the better of her as she jumps to horrible conclusions about General Tilney and his marriage; she compiles a set of clues to convince herself he either murdered his wife or has her locked away in a secret chamber. “Catherine sometimes started at the boldness of her own surmises,” Austen writes, “and sometimes hoped or feared that she had gone too far” (p.133). Although Catherine’s rush to judgment causes her some embarrassment later when she learns she was incorrect about the General, she later discovers that her intuition was correct – the General is a cruel man of questionable character.Another typical trait of the romantic character is a tendency to wear one’s heart on her sleeve, something Catherine clearly does. Her strong emotions prevent any uncertainty as to what she is feeling. She gushes about the beauty of Henry’s home in Woodston, a not-so-subtle suggestion that she would be delighted to live there as Henry’s wife. Her unrestrained praise and happiness endear Catherine to the Tilneys; the General, in particular, drops hints throughout the visit about his desire to see Catherine and Henry wed.On several occasions, Austen connects emotion to the romantic idea of appreciating nature. Although these instances are brief and usually trivial, such as an orchard inspiring happiness in Catherine, one has special significance. Catherine observes that she and Eleanor experience a particular path in a similar way, as Eleanor “began to talk with easy gaiety of the delightful melancholy which such a grove inspired” (125). The General is not similarly affected; in fact, he shows great distaste for a walk his wife once loved. His reaction leads Catherine to believe he is coldhearted and incapable of true love. Without her awareness of the path’s natural beauty and the emotions it inspires, Catherine would likely not have made this important realization about the General’s character. Catherine’s sincerity is probably her most important romantic trait. She puts her whole heart into life, and this characteristic is what wins her Henry’s affection. Her most crucial display of sincerity comes when Henry catches her snooping around the late Mrs. Tilney’s quarters. Catherine’s feelings toward Henry are so sincere that she is unable to lie to him; with some prodding, she admits her suspicions about the General. Rather that scorn Catherine due to her unfounded accusations regarding his father, Henry’s affection for her appears to grow. He recognizes realizes Catherine has deeper feelings for him, and this recognition leads him to realize he has similar emotions.Northanger Abbey also endorses romantic values by showing that the Thorpes, the least romantic family, end up unhappy and friendless at the novel’s conclusion. Isabella and John Thorpe see marriage merely as a means to improve social status. Spurned by Catherine, whom he pursued because he thought she was an heiress, John has ruined his reputation by the novel’s end. Similarly, Isabella’s engagement with James ends after he learns that his modest income disappoints her. Thus both Thorpe children lose their friends and marriage prospects because they followed aristocratic norms – marriage for social status – instead of romantic ones.The novel’s conclusion clearly promotes the romantic theme of individualism winning out over aristocratic society. The General dismisses Catherine from Northanger Abbey because she is not as wealthy as he thought her to be; he does not want Henry to marry a girl from a family so far beneath his. Henry reacts with strong individualism, turning against the values of society and wishes of his father. He declares that Catherine’s social status is of no concern to him; ultimately he is loyal to romance, not the aristocracy. Between Catherine and Henry’s marriage and that of Eleanor and her unnamed gentleman, Jane Austen makes her most romantic statement of all – life can turn out happily ever after.Catherine’s spontaneity, emotion, and sincerity capture Henry’s heart and lead him toward romantic individualism as well. Austen implies that by following one’s heart and acting sincerely, true happiness is a realistic possibility for anyone. With this lesson in Northanger Abbey, Austen reveals herself to be more romantic than she is sometimes portrayed. 

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