Catherine Morland's Coming of Age in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey
Jane Austen's intelligence and sophisticated diction made her a revolutionary author, and her mastery surpasses most modern authors. By challenging conventional stereotypes in her novels, she gives the open-minded reader a new perspective through the message she conveys. Her first novel, Northanger Abbey, focuses on reading. However, she parallels typical novel reading with the reading of people. Catherine Morland's coming of age hinges on her ability to become a better reader of both novels and people.
Austen first introduces Catherine as an unlikely heroine: "No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be [a] heroine" (13). This is the introductory line of Austen's first book, giving the reader the responsibility to realize this is a novel by stating Catherine's heroism. This is important for the reader to understand because Catherine, who loves to read fiction, considers herself to be a heroine in a gothic novel. Therefore, this sets the tone of the story as the reader recognizes the metaphorical gap between the ideal fictional heroine and the flawed Catherine Morland.
The modern reader must be aware that, at this point in literary history, the novel was looked down upon as an inferior form of literature, particularly because of the grim and sensational content of gothic novels. Therefore, Austen finds it necessary to argue the vital importance of the novel:
"Oh! it is only a novel!" replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with momentary shame--"It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda;" or, in short, only some work in which the thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language. (34)
Austen has set out to save the rising art form of the novel. In this address to the reader she glorifies what a novel should be: the unrestrained expression of words conveying the wide range of raw human emotion. This veneration of the novel is necessary to the development of Catherine's fiction-loving character as it justifies the narrator's right to remain fond of this flawed heroine.
In the next chapter, a very enthusiastic Catherine and her supposed best friend, Isabella Thorpe, discuss the classic gothic novel, Mysteries of Udolpho. Catherine becomes so engulfed in this novel she remarks:
"But while I have Udolpho to read, I feel as if nobody could make me miserable. Oh! the dreadful black veil! My dear Isabella, I am sure there must be Laurentina's skeleton behind it." (38)
Catherine is so wrapped up in her fictional world of reading that she becomes ignorant of her real life issues with Henry Tilney, for whom she has been love-struck since their introduction. She entertains herself with wild imaginings about his life and family. Catherine's imaginings foreshadow her eager desire...