The Female Bildungsroman Like other Jane Austen novels, such as Emma or Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey’s primary trajectory is the development of the main female character. Even though Catherine Morland is not a typical female Bildungsroman, her realizations in who she is and who she is becoming are very evident throughout the novel. Webster’s Dictionary defines the Bildungsroman as “a novel which traces the spiritual, moral, psychological, or social development and growth of the main character towards maturity.” In this novel, the main developments of Catherine being traced are the social, psychological, emotional, and intellectual, in addition to her growth as a fully functional lady of society. This paper will focus on Catherine Morland fitting the mold of the female Bildungsroman by way of how she learns, what she learns, and how she matures and grows wiser in the actions of people and society. In Chapter I of the novel, Catherine is stereotyped as a person who “never could learn or understand anything before she was taught.” This helps to paint a picture of Catherine being helpless and dependent for extended emphasis or exaggeration of the trials she must go through to reach maturity and independence. For if Catherine learns through the guidance and teaching of others, her gullibility in what she is taught is heightened, therefore she may be susceptible to believe everything that she hears or reads.
She takes everyone and everything at face value. Catherine must learn to correct these assumptions by distinguishing between the real world and the fictional world of literature, and also by learning through experience the difficulties of ordinary life. Catherine’s imagination is the culprit for her downfall in separating reality from fiction. Upon her invitation to Northanger Abbey, thoughts of “long, damp passages, narrow cells, ruined chapel, … and some awful memorials of an injured and ill-fated nun” are clouding up Catherine’s mind (16). These images are only heightened by Henry Tilney’s description of what Catherine should expect upon arrival to the Abbey: mysterious chests, violent storms, and hidden passages.
Yet after arriving Catherine finds disappointment, for the Abbey is very modern. When sleeping her first night at the Abbey, Catherine discovers papers that she has no chance to read before the light of her candle burns out. Therefore, her imagination runs wild on what the papers could be. Yet much to her dismay, the papers are nothing of the gothic sort. Here is the first time Catherine scold herself for letting her imagination get the better of her, though the greatest embarrassment caused by her imagination is yet to come. Catherine has always thought of General Tilney as being a very sinister man.
So it is not long before she assumes that he either murdered his supposed dead wife or is holding her captive, for there are parts of the house that she is forbidden from entering. After Catherine’s many attempts at investigation, Henry confronts her about her behavior which makes her feel more ashamed of herself than ever. She realizes that she is suffering from a ‘voluntary, self-created delusion, each trifling circumstance receiving importance from an imagination resolved on alarm’ (20). Furthermore, she blames her actions on the gothic novels that she has been reading. This realization brings her back into reality and out of her fictional world for good. The developments in her emotional and psychological state that she has made through these delusions weigh heavily on her maturation.
With this accomplishment, Catherine is more readily able to see that she must not take everything that she reads and that which is told to her by others at face value. She must learn to question not only her reasoning in matters, but also the motives of those around her. Catherine’s growth in being self-taught in the motives of others begins with John Thorpe, Isabella’s brother. Because of his rudeness, lies, and self-absorption, Catherine deduces that he is in fact not “entirely agreeable.” Her disdain for him is further heightened by the fact that he made her miss the prearranged walk with Henry and Eleanor. Now he has made her look like a fool, which causes her to be indifferent to him for the remainder of their acquaintance. ‘If I could not be persuaded into doing what I thought wrong, I never will be tricked into it.’ So when asked again to take a ride with John, Catherine responds “If I am wrong, I am doing what I believe to be right.” The sternness in her ability to make the right choices for herself is now solidified.
She no longer needs to pacify others wants or requests. Through experience, Catherine is growing out of her innocence and naivety. Isabella Thorpe is not that much different than her brother. As equally as self-absorbed, rude, and lying as he, Isabella takes full advantage of Catherine. Yet why does Catherine not see through Isabella as readily as John? Even though Catherine is a bit suspicious of Isabella’s actions and grows tired of her at times, she does not assume that Isabella is like John.
For Isabella has something that John lacks, tact. Catherine being very na ” ive is not able to pick up on the actions of Isabella as readily as those of John, because, like most women, Isabella is very deceiving. Her every word and action has some unstated intention. For instance, Isabella is asked to dance by Captain Tilney, yet declines his request by saying that it is “quite out of the question, her being so preoccupied with thoughts of her fianc’e,” and Catherine naively takes her at her word, even though it is known that Isabella has a hidden agenda. Another instance is when Isabella makes Catherine aware of John’s feelings towards her.
Catherine does not see that Isabella has motives of her own in this matter. Therefore when she rejects the offer, it is seen that she is more worried about Isabella’s welfare and feelings than knowing the motivation of Isabella telling her: ‘I cannot suppose your brother cares so very much about me; and, you know, we shall still be sisters.’ Yet this is not to say that Catherine does not develop suspicions about the true nature of Isabella’s motives or tire of her incessant fatuousness. In Chapter 18, ‘Catherine was hardly aware that two or three days had passed away without her seeing Isabella for more than a few minutes together.’ It seems that she is growing out of Isabella and is growing out taking Isabella at her word. As an example Chapter 26 shows Catherine’s growing suspicions of Isabella’s motives. “It seemed to her that Captain Tilney was falling in love with Isabella, and Isabella unconsciously encouraging him; unconsciously it must be, for Isabella’s attachment to James was as certain… as her engagement.” Yet, Catherine “could not avoid a little suspicion at the total suspension of all Isabella’s impatient desire to see Mr Tilney.” Catherine’s maturity is telling her that Isabella is purposefully doing this, yet her want in thinking the best of people is holding her back.
Not until she is informed that her brother and Isabella are no longer engaged does Catherine believe any of her suspicions true. Yet amazingly, the news that her friend has betrayed her trust and her family does not upset her. This fact shows how quickly Catherine has matured emotionally and socially. Even though not stated, she must realize that Isabella’s past actions have not been honest and forthcoming, thereby, making her more aware of the true intentions and true nature of people. When Isabella writes to Catherine after the Captain has rejected her, Austen states that Catherine would not let “such a strain of shallow artifice impose, even upon Catherine. Its inconsistencies, contradiction and falsehood, struck her from the very first.” Catherine is now able to stand up for herself and see people for who they truly are.
Yet not one person in this novel has more of an effect on Catherine’s maturity and growth towards self-assurance than Henry Tilney. Through his questioning and his patronizing candor, he, more than anyone, guides Catherine towards full maturity. For example, when Isabella will not dance with the Captain, and Isabella writes her action off on Isabella being predisposed to thoughts of her fianc’e, Henry mocks Catherine’s naivety in the matter with a compliment: “Your attributing my brother’s wish of dancing with Miss Thorpe to good-nature alone, convinced me of your being superior in good-nature yourself to all the rest of the world.” Another instance where Henry makes Catherine aware of her naivety is at Northanger Abbey. As stated earlier, Catherine has assumed that the General has done something horrible to his wife.
When Henry finds out Catherine’s suspicions, he scolds her for her assumptions, which helps her realize her immaturity in the matter. The trip to Bath turned out to be very auspicious for Catherine. For when she stepped out of her sheltered life, Catherine was able to grow out of her innocence into experience. She found intellectual growth in the conversations on literature that she had with Henry Tilney; emotional and psychological growth in her realizations of who she is and how people truly are; and social growth in the fact that she was able to stand up for herself and make her own decisions in what she wanted to do and who she befriended. Catherine has learned through experience and has matured and grown wiser, because of the stimulus in the town of Bath.
Even though she is not the typical female Bildungsroman, Catherine has grown in every aspect of her life, thereby making this novel indeed a Bildungsroman. Works Consulted Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
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Appearing to Diminish: Female Development and the British Bildungsroman 1750-1850. London: Associated University Presses, Inc. , 1999. Galperin, William H. The Historical Austen.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. Kirkham, Margaret. Jane Austen, Feminism, and Fiction. London: Short Run Press Ltd, Exeter, 1997.