Catherine Morland: The Unlikely Heroine of ‘Northanger Abbey’

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Life and Works of Jane Austen

By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University

Catherine Morland is the heroine of Jane Austen’s novel, Northanger Abbey. But, she is an unlikely heroine, an atypical one who goes against the fictional norms. Hers is a character in study that helps the readers grow wiser, just as she does!

Image of a lady overlooking a valley
Unlike a Gothic novel where the heroine would often be made into an immediate object of pity, Catherine is raised in comfortable circumstances. (Image: Theo Gaitaneris/Shutterstock)

Not Your Stereotypical Heroine

Northanger Abbey begins this way: “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her.” Note how the heroine is immediately marked out by the narrator as different. Catherine, we’re told, goes against the stereotype.

She defies the readers’ expectations. For one thing, she’s unusual in having both a father and a mother. Many heroines in Gothic novels were orphans. It quickly signaled their vulnerability. But Austen’s Catherine doesn’t start out in a structurally helpless category. She’s not a damsel in distress.

Loving Parents

Not only that; Catherine has caring parents. Unlike a Gothic novel where the heroine would often be made into an immediate object of pity, Catherine is raised in comfortable circumstances by a healthy mother and loving father of 10 children.

Her father’s kindness is just as important as the fact of her mother still being alive. He isn’t what Northanger Abbey mockingly calls “addicted to locking up his daughters”. Readers of Gothic fiction would have expected a heroine to be trapped in a household of neglect, poverty, or cruelty. That was the formula. Some family tragedy would befall her right from the start, but Catherine and the rest of the Morlands aren’t really pitiable at all.

Unconventional in Looks

Catherine is an unlikely heroine, too, because her person, meaning, her looks, go against the fictional norm. Most heroines in Gothic novels were stunningly beautiful, virtuous, dutiful, accomplished, and modest. They were perfect women stuck in perilous circumstances.

But Catherine, at the beginning of the novel, is nothing special to look at. She’s plain, thin, and awkward. She isn’t even appropriately feminine. She actually prefers boys’ games and dirt. She’s also not a quick learner—“often inattentive, and occasionally stupid”.

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Catharine’s Follies and Foibles

At 15, she begins to mature and becomes “almost pretty”. From age 15 to 17, she immerses herself in the fantasy world of Gothic novels and becomes obsessed with them. Even though the odds are against it, Catherine decides to be “in training for a heroine”.

Catherine’s biggest problems arise from being quixotic—or a Quixote-like figure. She’s a character drawn in the mold of the hero of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Don Quixote famously mistook windmills for imaginary enemies. He tried to rescue women who didn’t need rescuing. Don Quixote mistakes the formulas of romance for the rules of real life. Catherine Morland is a female Quixote. She internalizes the formulas of Gothic fiction. She mistakes them for probable models of reality, and she misapplies them to the everyday world.

Significant Character Development

The two climactic scenes of Northanger Abbey are significant to Catherine’s development in character. In one scene, Catherine’s eyes are painfully opened to the reality of life. In the second, she’s cast out of the abbey. In each, Catherine learns the value of rejecting the improbable parts of the Gothic in favor of anticipating and managing the banal evils of daily life.

In the first pivotal scene, Catherine does some nosy and very rude sleuthing in the Tilneys’ abbey-home. Having read so many Gothic novels in which victimized wives are locked up or murdered by evil husbands, Catherine wonders if General Tilney’s late wife may have died an unnatural death—or not died at all!

Image of an abbey
Catherine Morland tries to snoop into Henry Tilney’s house to find out the truth about his mother’s death. (Image: PhotoFires/Shutterstock)

Waking up to Reality

When Catherine is caught red-handed, she suggests directly that the General could have been a criminal, Henry loses his composure. He lectures her thus: “Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from?” Henry finishes up with, “Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?”

After this lecture, Catherine runs off to her room with “tears of shame”. Henry opened her eyes with this lecture, to what is improbable in life and in literature.

Her Predicament and the Happily Ever After

The greedy General throws Catherine out of the abbey. He sends Catherine packing, to punish her and bring her low, as well as to make sure his son Henry doesn’t marry a woman without money. The General thrusts Catherine into a position that’s ungenteel at best and potentially dangerous at worst.

Catherine and Henry marry, eventually, with the approval of their families. The story concludes with the notion that the general’s unjust interference backfired, because it helped forward Henry and Catherine’s attachment to each other.

Catherine’s Success and Failure

At the beginning of Northanger Abbey, then, we meet a heroine without the best advantages or the right component parts. She’s play-acting at being a heroine, in the ways that many little girls now pretend to be princesses. Austen’s novel invites us to laugh at and to see ourselves in Catherine’s foibles and imperfections. By reading the novel, we might grow not only to like her, despite her faults, but perhaps to grow wiser, too, as she does.

By the end, we’ve learned how Catherine has failed and succeeded. She’s failed because she’s not living in the thrilling Gothic story she improbably anticipates. Yet her failure is a success because she ends up securing the loving husband of her choice anyway. Catherine gets her happy ending, just not by living through the shocking, supernatural events she obsessively reads about.

As we gain a greater understanding of Northanger Abbey’s deep literary context, and its significant fictional and real-life backstories, we find ourselves not just liking Catherine Morland but also admiring her because of her flaws.

Common Questions Catherine Morland, the Unlikely Heroine of Northanger Abbey

Q: Why is Catherine Morland an unlikely heroine?

Catherine Morland is an unlikely heroine because unlike the popular fictional heroines of the 18th-century literature, she is average in her looks and persona. There is nothing striking about her or her life.

Q: What is the eccentricity in Catherine’s character?

Catherine Morland blurs the line between fiction and reality. She mistakes the fictional stories to be the benchmark to measure the real-life against.

Q: How does Catherine change and evolve at the end of the novel?

Catherine Morland learns to be a better judge of the character. Overcoming her naiveté, she realizes the difference between reality and fiction.

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