Updated: Jul 27, 2022
Northanger Abbey’s Main Characters
Northanger Abbey’s Characters Map
Northanger Abbey’s Characters Summary and Analysis
The identity of the Narrator is unknown, and the narration usually occurs in the third-person. The narrator has special access to Catherine’s thoughts and feelings, but also sometimes gives a brief sense of what the other characters are thinking and feeling. The narrator also occasionally intrudes into the narrative to provide a broader perspective on an issue raised by the story, like the importance of dress or the plight of novelists who are looked down upon. In these moments, the narrator resembles an essayist, seeking to put forward a thesis and provide supporting arguments.
Northanger Abbey was the first novel Jane Austen wrote. It is also the novel most closely related to the novels that influenced her reading, and parodies some of those novels, particularly Anne Radcliffe's Gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolpho. In creating Catherine, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, Austen creates the heroine of a Gothic novel. Both Austen and Catherine portray Catherine's life in heroic terms—Austen humorously, and Catherine seriously, especially when she suspects General Tilney of murdering his wife. Because Austen couches her portrayal of Catherine in irony, Catherine is realistically portrayed as deficient in experience and perception, unlike the heroines of Gothic and romance novels. Catherine fails to recognize the obvious developing relationship between her brother James and her friend Isabella; she fails to recognize Isabella's true nature until long after it has hurt her brother; she accidentally leads John Thorpe into thinking she loves him; and most significantly, she embarrasses herself in front of Henry Tilney when he finds out she suspects his father of murder. While Catherine is an avid reader of novels, she is inexperienced at reading people, and this is what causes many of the problems she encounters. By the end of the novel, she has become a much better judge of character, having learned from her mistakes with Isabella and General Tilney. She is also, perhaps, a bit more cynical about people, as Henry is. Ultimately, it is her integrity and caring nature that win Henry's heart and bring her happiness.
Another Morland (Catherine’s brother) who fails to suspect those he meets of hypocrisy, James is a loving brother, son, and friend who is easily manipulated by the Thorpes. He falls in love with Isabella and never seems to realize that she is a fortune-hunter. Eager to go along with Isabella and John, James pressures Catherine to do things she believes are wrong, showing that he has a weaker, less moral character than Catherine.
A parson in a rural village, Mr. Morland is the father of ten children, including Catherine and James. Although he is not wealthy, he has enough money to make sure all of his children can live comfortably. This level of wealth is a disappointment to both Isabella Thorpe and General Tilney, who believed the Morlands to be wealthy and hoped to hope to raise their own social status by marrying into the Morland family.
A wife and mother to ten children, Mrs. Morland is not very aware of the dangers of society for a young, inexperienced woman of seventeen. She allows her eldest daughter Catherine to go to Bath with Mrs. Allen, whose character makes her an inadequate chaperone, and never imagines that Catherine might fall in love while there.
Catherine's younger sister Sarah, or Sally, is a failure as a sibling, as least in terms of romantic literary sensibility as outlined by Jane Austen. Rather than being best friends, Sally and Catherine appear to have a fairly normal sister relationship. Sally doesn't care that Catherine is leaving for Bath. She finds the situation with General Tilney more entertaining than distressing. And she manages to make Henry's visit to the Morlands' even more awkward by being oblivious to his desire to be alone with Catherine – sounds like a pretty normal, pesky younger sister overall.
Henry Tilney (Mr. Tilney)
Henry Tilney is the second son of General Tilney and is Catherine Morland’s love interest. Like Catherine’s father, he works as a parson in a rural community. He is witty, charming, and perceptive, with a much larger frame of reference and experience than Catherine has, but is also sincere and loyal. He is especially concerned for his sister Eleanor’s happiness and welfare. Unlike his father, he is unconcerned with becoming even richer than he is already. Critics argue over Henry's role in the novel. Some critics criticize Henry for patronizing Catherine, for telling her how to see the world and mocking her naiveté. This criticism is partially accurate. Henry is often amused by Catherine's naïve nature, and playfully guides her to a better understanding, as can be seen during their walk around Beechen Cliff and on the ride to Northanger Abbey. But his behavior, especially when compared to that of the boorish John Thorpe, is always gentle and caring. He adores his sister, Eleanor, and loves his father, although he often disagrees with him. Though less than ten years older than Catherine, Henry is far more perceptive than she. He is probably the most perceptive figure in the novel. Henry has read hundreds of books and, as a clergyman, hundreds of people, and this has given him an understanding of human interaction far superior to that of his friends and relatives.
General Tilney comes the closest of any character to being an antagonist in Northanger Abbey, though that term is too strong to describe his role. When Catherine suspects Tilney of murdering his wife, she perceives him as a villain. In fact, the General's true crimes consist of being too concerned with wealth and finery, and perhaps of robbing Catherine of her imaginative vision of a real Gothic abbey. Tilney is not a storybook villain, or even a villain from a Gothic novel. He is realistic man, a wealth-obsessed real estate developer who gets in the way of his children's happiness. His children all know that he would never want them to marry someone without wealth or high rank. He shows exaggerated kindness to Catherine because he believes her to be rich. The General fixates on home improvement, furniture, and landscaping his property (Northanger Abbey). He is very harsh and even dictatorial with his children, who know that he expects absolute obedience from them. Like John Thorpe, he is given to boasting and preoccupied with himself when he is not meddling in his children's lives.
Eleanor Tilney (Miss Tilney)
A well-mannered, sensible, and sensitive young woman, Eleanor Tilney becomes friends with Catherine in Bath. Eleanor, whose mother died nine years before the action of the novel, suffers from loneliness when she is at home at Northanger Abbey with only her brusque and tyrannical father for company. General Tilney encourages her friendship with Catherine because he believes Catherine to be wealthy and wants her to be Henry’s wife, but Eleanor is very happy to have the company and friendship of another woman.
Captain Frederick Tilney (often referred to simply as "Captain Tilney") is the oldest sibling in the Tilney family. Unlike his brother Henry or his sister Eleanor, Frederick is a flirt and given to mischief. Austen suggests that Frederick is the Tilney child closest in character to General Tilney by identifying both men by their ranks rather than by their names. Frederick flirts with Isabella Thorpe and leads her to break off her engagement with James Morland, then abandons her in Bath.
Mrs. Tilney died nine years prior to the events in Northanger Abbey of a sudden and tragic illness. Her absence is acutely felt by her only daughter, Eleanor. Though General Tilney seems unfeeling, we find out from both Henry and Eleanor that he was deeply affected by his wife's death. Mrs. Tilney's demise spurs Catherine's imagination and leads her to make some rather disastrous assumptions regarding General Tilney.
A conniving, beautiful, and charming social-climber of twenty-one, Isabella befriends Catherine because Isabella believes the Morlands to be as wealthy as their neighbors the Allens, and she wishes to marry Catherine’s brother James. Isabella often uses reverse psychology, saying the opposite of what she means to influence others to do what she wants them to do. Isabella’s hypocrisy and desire to marry for money are clear to those, like the Tilney siblings, who are more experienced than Catherine. Although Isabella cannot be called a villain, she causes many problems over the course of the novel. Isabella manages to weasel a marriage proposal out of James, but when she discovers that he is not as rich as she assumed, she begins flirting with Frederick Tilney. Isabella can be seen as a gold-digger interested only in money, as an attractive girl who cannot refuse the attention of a young man, particularly a wealthy or well-known one, or as someone who simply can't figure out what she wants. But most modern interpretations of Isabella analyze her as one of Austen's ironic caricatures, an exaggeration of the emphasis on wealth and position that often-preoccupied high society.
A college friend of James Morland and brother to Isabella Thorpe, John Thorpe is an unscrupulous, rude braggart. He is a boring conversationalist who is only interested in horses, carriages, money and drinking, and lies whenever he thinks it will impress others or force them to give way to his will. John is arrogant, assertive, and unappealing to Catherine. Even though he courts her, Catherine is apparently oblivious to John's advances. He wishes to marry Catherine because he believes her to be wealthy, but he is so rude and self-centered that, although he sees himself as courting Catherine, she completely fails to understand his true intentions. Her obliviousness is confirmed when Isabella reveals her brother has written to her about Catherine, who is shocked by this revelation. It is John's ongoing deceit and lies that lead to Catherine's expulsion from Northanger Abbey. He initially lies to the general about her wealth, and then after she has rejected his proposal, John lies again to accuse Catherine of social climbing. His primary traits are deceit and arrogance.
A widow who thinks and talks only about her children, Mrs. Thorpe hopes for her children to marry well. Mrs. Thorpe went to boarding school with Mrs. Allen and knew her to have married a rich man. She believes the Morlands to be wealthy based on their friendship with the Allens. Mrs. Thorpe is the widowed mother of Isabella and of two other daughters. Like her daughter, she is concerned primarily with gossip, fashion, and money. In conversation with her friend Mrs. Allen, Mrs. Thorpe talks mostly about her pride in her children (Mrs. Allen has no children) while Mrs. Allen talks about her gowns (Mrs. Thorpe is not nearly as wealthy as the Allens).
One of Isabella's younger sisters, Anne Thorpe seems to be the Jan Brady of the Thorpe family. Isabella is clearly the Marcia – her mother introduces the girls by commenting on how Isabella is the prettiest. Anne is also the sister who doesn't go on the excursion to Clifton that Catherine opted out of in order to spend time with Henry and Eleanor. Though Anne insists she didn't want to go, we are never entirely sure if she means that or not. Anne may be the most reasonable of all the Thorpe siblings – she isn't parading around town at any rate.
A younger sister of Isabella, Maria goes on the rather infamous Clifton excursion and appears to be something of an Isabella in training. That is, if the report of Anne Thorpe, regarding Maria's behavior is anything to go by. Maria, along with Anne, is generally ignored by John, who protests at having to drive them anywhere.
Mr. Allen clearly has a monopoly on all the common sense in his marriage to Mrs. Allen. He actually does a much better job of chaperoning Catherine and sheltering her from potential social improprieties, like those unsupervised carriage rides, than his wife. Mr. Allen is a steady voice of reason and an occasional provider of exposition, like when he gives Catherine the low-down on the Tilneys. Beyond that, the man is something of an enigma.
A very dim-witted, childless woman, Mrs. Allen is a neighbor of the Morlands who invites Catherine to accompany her and her husband to Bath for a holiday. She thinks about nothing but clothing and how much it costs, and remembers very little from most conversations, merely repeating things that those around her say back to them. Supposed to serve as a guardian to Catherine during the trip to Bath, Mrs. Allen is too incapable of independent thought to properly guide Catherine through social situations. She runs into Mrs. Thorpe, a woman she knew fifteen years before at boarding school, which leads to her and Catherine spending much of their time in Bath with the Thorpes.