Characterization in Northanger Abbey: Catherine’s Awakening
One’s life is shaped and modified as we grow through the relationships one makes, however little, even daily encounters can drastically change the course of life as a whole. In the blink of an eye, something happens, or rather someone happens to arrive by chance when we least expect it, and we are set on a course we never planned, into a future we never imagined nor thought possible. In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, it is shown through the main protagonist Catherine Morland how encounters of any sort can change our lives and make us either flourish or lessen as people, and sometimes, it only takes one person to awaken you. Isabella Thorpe was that one relationship that transformed Catherine from a girl to a woman. By the end of the novel, Catherine changes due to her relationship with Isabella as she becomes a more cynical person with less naiveté, she becomes a better judge of character and she is able to focus on and develop more mature and fulfilling relationships.
Catherine Morland is the opposite of the typical heroine one would expect to read about when first opening the novel. In fact, she is described by the author as a very ordinary girl that displays no kind of actual calling or talent: “She never could learn or understand anything before she was taught; and sometimes not even then, for she was often inattentive, and occasionally stupid” (Austen 38). She is not especially beautiful or different but rather she is kind and thoughtful and her journey throughout the novel changes her in a way that slightly skews her kindness. At the start of the novel she is naive and oblivious. She is inexperienced with real world affairs and topics and chooses instead to forget about reality altogether and bury herself in a world of fantasy and fiction through the books she reads: “Oh! I am delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it” (61). This passage when Catherine meets Isabella in the Pump-room depicts her preference to talk about books and unreal stories instead of real life things, and is what makes her so oblivious to anything existent in her surroundings. Her naiveté and lack of experience causes many problems for her throughout the course of the book and makes her oblivious to the schemes and hidden agendas of nearly every other character like John Thorpe, James Morland and Isabella Thorpe, and General Tilney.
By the end of the novel, however, when Catherine understands and starts to see that Isabella had used her to get close to her brother, she learns a lot about herself and that the world may not be as pure of a place as she initially thought. In fact, upon reading Isabella’s letter, she finally uncovers her as who she is and is disgusted: “She was ashamed of Isabella, and ashamed of having ever loved her” (212). The bad ending to her relationship with Isabella completely transforms the way that Catherine views the world and causes her to lose a lot of the naiveté that characterizes her at the beginning. Furthermore, Catherine’s habit of confusing reality with the fiction in her novels prevents her from seeing people’s true characters and leads her to misjudge them as she continuously dramatizes the people she meets and their alleged intentions. At Northanger Abbey, for example, instead of taking the opportunity she has to blossom her relationships with both Henry Tilney and Eleanor, she creates these very dramatic and gothic novel-like conjectures, and eludes herself by thinking that General Tilney had killed his wife, or was holding her prisoner in her room: “Could it be possible? – Could Henry’s father? . . . What could more plainly speak the gloomy workings of a mind not wholly dead to every sense of humanity, in its fearful review of past scenes of guilt? Unhappy man!” (186) Creating and believing stories isn’t bad in itself, however, it is these sort of tendencies that make her blind to Isabella’s true nature. She confuses Isabella, an actual person with real motivations and feelings with a fixed, artificial character who to her plays the role of a friend and companion along her own journey.
However, Catherine’s inability to be a good judge of character and see people for who they truly are ends after she reads Isabella’s letter and grasps her for who she actually is: “Her profession of attachment were now as disgusting as her excuses were empty, and her demands impudent” (212). Thus, Isabella, despite her constant telling of lies, awakened Catherine and forced her to accept that people in real life cannot be depicted as an author does to her characters, because they have altered intentions and goals, just like Isabella did. During the whole novel, we see how Isabella and Catherine grow distant with one another due to her new found friendships with the Tilneys. For example, Catherine insisted on not leaving them when they had planned an event, even though it was going to be a more uneventful kind of activity, she preferred them over Isabella’s company: “Do not urge me, Isabella. I am engaged to Miss Tilney. I cannot go” (113). However, once Catherine is finally rid of her toxic relationship with Isabella and the rest of the displeasing Thorpes, she is able to completely focus on developing healthy and honest relationships with people she can trust completely. She finds mature people like Eleanor and Henry who want to spend time with her because they are honestly fond of her. We see, at the end of the book, how much Catherine has changed, and at what point she values the people in her life at that moment by the measures she takes to keep them in her life. After accepting Mr. Tilney’s proposal, we see that her contact with her dear friend Eleanor will be maintained, and her new acquired life will, optimistically speaking, be filled with joy, friendship, and love.
Although Catherine and Isabella’s relationship did not come to a hopeful and joyful close, said heroine handles this betrayal with strength by growing and learning as a person, and is transformed by the end of the novel. Assuredly, she loses her love of fiction; in consequence she gains a better sense of reality and a better understanding of human nature. All the while, she loses her innocence and oblivion that characterized her in the beginning, and holds an enhanced value of the good relationships in her life.
Works Cited: Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. Edited by Claire Grogan. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2002, Print.
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