Like other Jane Austen novels, such as Emma or Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey's primary trajectory is the development of the main female character. Even though Catherine Morland is not a typical female Bildungsroman, her realizations in who she is and who she is becoming are very evident throughout the novel. Webster's Dictionary defines the Bildungsroman as "a novel which traces the spiritual, moral, psychological, or social development and growth of the main character towards maturity." In this novel, the main developments of Catherine being traced are the social, psychological, emotional, and intellectual, in addition to her growth as a fully functional lady of society. This paper will focus on Catherine Morland fitting the mold of the female Bildungsroman by way of how she learns, what she learns, and how she matures and grows wiser in the actions of people and society.
In Chapter I of the novel, Catherine is stereotyped as a person who "never could learn or understand anything before she was taught." This helps to paint a picture of Catherine being helpless and dependent for extended emphasis or exaggeration of the trials she must go through to reach maturity and independence. For if Catherine learns through the guidance and teaching of others, her gullibility in what she is taught is heightened, therefore she may be susceptible to believe everything that she hears or reads. She takes everyone and everything at face value. Catherine must learn to correct these assumptions by distinguishing between the real world and the fictional world of literature, and also by learning through experience the difficulties of ordinary life.
Catherine's imagination is the culprit for her downfall in separating reality from fiction. Upon her invitation to Northanger Abbey, thoughts of "long, damp passages, narrow cells, ruined chapel, and some awful memorials of an injured and ill-fated nun" are clouding up Catherine's mind (16). These images are only heightened by Henry Tilney's description of what Catherine should expect upon arrival to the Abbey: mysterious chests, violent storms, and hidden passages. Yet after arriving Catherine finds disappointment, for the Abbey is very modern. When sleeping her first night at the Abbey, Catherine discovers papers that she has no chance to read before the light of her candle burns out. Therefore, her imagination runs wild on what the papers could be. Yet much to her dismay, the papers are nothing of the gothic sort. Here is the first time Catherine scold herself for letting her imagination get the better of her, though the greatest embarrassment caused by her imagination is yet to come. Catherine has always thought of General Tilney as being a very sinister man. So it is not long before she assumes that he either murdered his supposed dead wife or is holding her captive, for there are parts of the house that she is forbidden from entering. After Catherine's many attempts at investigation, Henry confronts her about her behavior which makes her feel more ashamed of herself than ever. She realizes that she is suffering from a "voluntary, self-created delusion, each trifling circumstance receiving importance from an imagination resolved on alarm"(20). Furthermore, she blames her actions on the gothic novels that she has been reading. This realization brings her back into reality and out of her fictional world for good. The developments in her emotional and psychological state that she has made through these delusions weigh heavily on her maturation. With this accomplishment, Catherine is more readily able to see that she must not take everything that she reads and that which is told to her by others at face value. She must learn to question not only her reasoning in matters, but also the motives of those around her.
Catherine's growth in being self-taught in the motives of others begins with John Thorpe, Isabella's brother. Because of...