Student questions about Northanger Abbey

In Arts One, I ask two students per seminar meeting to come to class with questions for us to discuss. Since I was sick on Friday, they didn’t get to ask their questions in class. I decided to post them on my blog instead so others in the class could see them and possibly give comments (if they have time).

This week we talked about Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Edgar Wright’s film Shaun of the Dead. I wrote up some of my thoughts on these works in my previous post. Here are two sets of questions about Austen’s book.

First set of questions on Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey is basically a coming of age novel which revolves around the personal growth of Catherine. While, obviously, Austen intend to satirize the popular gothic novels of her time with this story, it is indisputable that the novel also examines several different themes, such as friendship and personal development.

My questions are:

1. How does Austen make us, the readers, empathize with characters in her novel, especially Catherine? In what ways are her experiences similar to what teenagers face nowadays?

2. How do Austen convey the growth of Catherine as a young woman? What literary techniques does she use to put forth this idea?

3. [An unrelated question, but one I find worth pondering on…] How effective is Northanger Abbey as a symbol? How does it relate to Austen’s intention to satirize gothic novels?


Second set of questions

-Most critics agree that Northanger Abbey has feminist undertones, but how effectively does she transmit her thesis? If so, what does the argument consist of?

-The book has characters that don’t fully comply with gender expectation of the time (Catherine initially being a tomboy and Henry having unusual knowledge of feminine things like clothing). What can perhaps be drawn from these characters? How does this shine light on the construction of gender in the society of her time, and of all societies?

-Given that the novel has a satirical nature, how can we infer what was Austen’s ideal constitution of a female? Is it like Catherine, or the opposite?


It would be great if students from my seminar group (or anyone else) could give some comments on one or more of these below, since we didn’t have class. But I also realize that it’s now Saturday, and a long weekend, so that may not happen…


  1. I find both the topics discussed in these presentations very interesting, as we were talking about similar ideas in Mrs. Burgess’ seminar on Friday morning.

    A main theme was the personal development and maturation of Catherine as a character. We decided that the changes undergone by Catherine can be viewed in two ways: 1) as an awakening and transition from the romantic world into reality, and 2) as a molding of a social outsider into the “standards” of society.

    The first development is mainly one that Catherine goes through herself, through trial and error, until she finally learns that reality is not so perfectly dramatic and romantic as it is portrayed in Gothic novels. Through this development, she gains common sense and a learns to think rationally (and even cynically) about the world around her.

    The second, however, is one that Catherine is forced into. From being a tomboy in her childhood, she is taken to Bath, where she must learn what it means to be an 18th century woman: to dress appropriately, to have good manners, to talk about clothes and hair and boys. She must “pass uncensured through the crowd”, meaning she must conform to other’s expectations if she is to get anywhere in life. And we can see this happening very clearly, as her interests in “womanly” things begin to develop and she begins to accept her role as a woman.

    I just want to end by posing a question of my own:

    Does Catherine start out as a zombie? Or does she become one?

    1. I’m so glad you were able to go to Professor Burgess’ seminar, Iva! Sounds like it was an interesting discussion. I had also thought about Catherine as an outsider to the social customs around her, and thought that perhaps because of this she is able to see more clearly the problems with them (not being wrapped up in them, but finding them strange and incomprehensible).

      Your question is an intriguing one. I am curious what others think, before I throw in my thoughts here!

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