The Cult of Da Man


Northanger Abbey Discussion and Study Questions

We were given the opportunity to lead the discussion on Northanger Abbey for our JASNA region's reading group. The leader is responsible for choosing the direction of the discussion. While we were understandably tempted to concentrate the discussion on Henry Tilney's sartorial choices, we wisely decided to concentrate on the novel as a commentary on literature and on readers. The following are the questions that we distributed to the reading group. We hope that you find them of use.

  • We are told in the opening paragraph that Catherine Morland was decidedly not born to be an heroine. Why, do you think, did Jane Austen create such a simple, naïve heroine for a book about literature? How does Catherine compare to the more typical type of novel heroine? How does she compare to Jane Austen’s other heroines?
  • Catherine is learning to trust her judgment, which has not been much tested in the confines of her home village. She is presented with several opposing pair of character archetypes in the novel: two hosts/protectors, in Mr. Allen and General Tilney; two chaperones, in Mrs. Allen and Mrs. Thorpe; two girlfriends, in Isabella Thorpe and Eleanor Tilney; two potential lovers, in John Thorpe and Henry Tilney; and two potential 'dream homes' in Northanger Abbey and Woodston Parsonage. How do Catherine’s reactions to these sets of archetypes and her choices among them reflect her personal journey?
  • The following is a passage from The Mysteries of Udolpho, which Catherine reads during the action of NA; it can be argued that NA is a parody of Udolpho.
    St. Aubert smiled, and sighed at the romantic picture of felicity his fancy drew; and sighed again to think, that nature and simplicity were so little known to the world, as that their pleasures were thought romantic. 'The world,' said he, pursuing this train of thought, 'ridicules a passion which it seldom feels; its scenes, and its interests, distract the mind, deprave the taste, corrupt the heart, and love cannot exist in a heart that has lost the meek dignity of innocence. Virtue and taste are nearly the same, for virtue is little more than active taste, and the most delicate affections of each combine in real love. How then are we to look for love in great cities, when selfishness, dissipation, and insincerity supply the place of tenderness, simplicity, and truth?'
    How is this passage reflected in Northanger Abbey?
  • Compare the depiction of Bath in NA with that in Persuasion. Keep in mind that according to Cassandra Austen, NA was started in 1798, and according to Jane's own 'Advertisement,' finished in 1803. Persuasion was written in 1815-16.
  • How does Henry Tilney compare to a typical hero?
  • Compare Henry Tilney's reading preferences and habits to John Thorpe's. How does each gentleman's respective preferences reflect his personality?
  • In the same vein, how do John Thorpe and General Tilney compare to typical novel villains? In what sort of typically 'villainous' behavior do they engage—abductions, for instance?
  • As they are driving to the Abbey, Henry tells Catherine of the sort of ‘terrors’ that she might expect there, cribbed from the pages of a Gothic novel. Was he right, then, to dress her down when her imaginings about the General were revealed? Did he set her up for her imagination to run amok at the Abbey? How might this have been reflected in his subsequent behavior toward Catherine?
  • While she is reading Udolpho, Catherine is all impatience to discover what dreadful thing is under the black veil. She is convinced that it is Signora Laurentini’s skeleton, and indeed the reader of Udolpho is led by the author to expect precisely that. When the secret is revealed--much later in the novel, and included almost as an afterthought as Mrs. Radcliffe tried to tie up all her loose ends--it turns out to be rather a disappointment. Does NA "cheat" the reader in any way? Is there insufficient payoff for any buildup of events?
  • How does the resolution of the romance compare to a "usual" romantic novel ending, and in what ways is Jane Austen parodying those usual types of endings?
  • Some critics have opined that Henry and Catherine will eventually turn into Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, with Henry’s charm and wit turned cynical by being shackled to a silly wife of mean understanding. Do you agree or disagree?
  • Why do you think that Northanger Abbey has been disregarded amongst modern scholars and fans? There is some evidence that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was quite popular and considered as highly as the rest of Jane Austen’s novels.
  • And finally…ain’t Henry Da Man?

Copyright © 2004 by Margaret C. Sullivan. All Rights Reserved.