The contrasting characters of John Thorpe and Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey

Present in every love story are two potential love interests for a heroine, Northanger Abbey being no exception. John Thorpe and Henry Tilney are these two men. Jane Austen presents the two men as contrasting characters both in their behaviour and values. The examination of these two characters is used by Austen to present to the reader good and bad social etiquette and more importantly to give her opinion on the attributes of a suitable marriage partner. Catherine’s observation of the role models presented by John Thorpe and Henry Tilney is therefore used by Austen to educate and develop Catherine’s character as well as forming the basis of her choice of suitor.

The description of physical appearance shows from the start that Henry Tilney and John Thorpe are greatly contrasting characters. Austen describes Tilney as ‘rather tall’, ‘quite handsome’ and ‘gentlemanlike’. This greatly contrasts with the appearance of Thorpe, who unlike Tilney is described as being ‘middling height’ and ‘stout’.

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Henry Tilney therefore comes across as a distinguished looking man with good manners, whereas the description of John Thorpe implies a short overweight man who is plain, ungraceful and stubborn. The description of physical appearance is therefore used by Austen to put Henry Tilney in a favourable light and to imply a superior character. Austen also describes Tilney as not a definite handsome man and Catherine as being ‘almost pretty’, the implication being that they would be a good match for each other.

Catherine’s first meeting with John Thorpe and Henry Tilney gives an early insight into the difference between the two in following social etiquette.

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Catherine’s introduction to Henry Tilney was very proper in that ‘The master of ceremonies introduced her to a very gentlemanlike young man’. Thorpe’s introduction, however, is very informal. He does not arrange for a formal introduction but instead approaches Catherine directly and asks, ‘How long do you think we have been running it from Tetbury?’ This shows him to not have a proper grasp on the social decorum of that time as the manner in which you are introduced before you speak to someone is an important factor in the response you get.

Tilney, however, is going to be a good influence on Catherine, who has only just been introduced into this sort of society and needs a good role model. The fact that Tilney understands the importance of social etiquette is used by Austen to indicate his maturity and preference over Thorpe as a positive role model for Catherine.

Austen also uses the difference in how Henry Tilney and John Thorpe converse with Catherine to show their contrasting characters. Tilney talks with Catherine as an equal, and enquires about her, asking ‘Have you been long in Bath, madam’? His conversations with her, at times, seem like he is making fun of her, however, it is more intended as playfulness and witty conversation. He tries to make her laugh telling her ‘what you ought to say’ in her diary about him. He sees her naivety and that initially is what he likes about her. The fact that he has a balanced conversation, and continually asks her questions about herself, e.g. ‘Have you yet honoured the upper rooms?’ allows Catherine to contribute her own thoughts and view.

This shows him to be very ‘gentleman like’ in that he is genuinely interested in what she has to say, respects her views and treats her as an equal. However, with Thorpe the conversation is mainly focused on topics affecting his own life and Catherine can only offer a few agreements now and again. This is shown when Austen writes ‘and all the rest of his conversation, or rather talk, began and ended with himself and his own concerns.’ Austen corrects herself here to satirise Thorpe. She intentionally emphasizes the difference between a conversation and talk. Talk is one sided, no input needed. This also highlights the point that the conversation is not equal. He doesn’t want Catherine’s views he wants her to listen to what he’s saying and only offer opinions when asked to do so.

The behaviour of both men is used to further develop their different characters. Thorpe seems to keep ‘asserting at one moment which he would contradict the next.’ Austen uses the word asserting to show John Thorpe’s ignorance. Assert is to be certain about something, so to contradict yourself after taking such a strong stance indicates rashness and a lack of understanding, the implication being that such a person cannot be relied upon. His whole attitude is almost intolerable yet provides humour for the reader. However, we do not laugh with him, although he does believe himself to be humorous, but more laugh at him. He appears to have an ‘excess of vanity’ and is ‘fearful of being too handsome.’ Austen specifically uses the word excess as a direct and harsh insult towards Thorpe, for not only is he vain, which is a characteristic that is not welcomed, but he has in excess of this unattractive quality.

In addition, this not only heightens our dislike towards him but has us doubting his intentions with Catherine. If he thinks himself to be so attractive and Catherine being only ‘almost pretty’ we wonder if he really likes her or is he just after her money? Thorpe’s language is not always appropriate, this is shown when he says ‘D__ it.’ This shows that Austen herself is horrified by the character she has created, so much so that she won’t even write out the offensive vocabulary he is using. However, Tilney’s ‘address was good’ and he had a ‘pleasing countenance.’ This shows the difference between them both, Tilney coming out of it the better man. The fact that he is well educated yet not snobbish shows that he is a better suitor for Catherine than John Thorpe.

Similarly their behaviour towards their siblings differs greatly. John Thorpe seems to use Isabella to get to Catherine. Their relationship is built on a dependency on the other. They use each other to get what they want, and team together to manipulate Catherine into doing things she doesn’t want to do, for example when John is trying to take Catherine out by telling her lies ‘Isabella corroborated’ his points. John is rude towards Isabella, and she isn’t very courteous towards him either, however, they are very similar in character. They both want money and in the end team together to get it. Henry Tilney, however, is very caring towards his sister Eleanor. They seem to be friends rather than siblings. When Catherine first sees them both Eleanor is ‘leant on his arm’ showing them to be close with each other. Austen puts extra emphasis on the difference between the mercenary relationship between John and Isabella and the loving one between Henry and Eleanor to indicate the type of relationship that Catherine could expect with each man if she was to marry them.

Austen constantly uses the direct comparison between Thorpe and Tilney to keep us comparing the two. She has Catherine go on rides in carriages with both men. The first, with Thorpe who lies to her to get her to go with him. Another indicator into his controlling character is when Catherine pleads him to stop ‘Thorpe only lashed his horse into a brisker trot.’ This shows he does not care about Catherine that much and likes getting his own way. He is stubborn and does not want Catherine because he likes her but wants her because he assumes she is ‘rolled in money.’ Also the manner in which he took Catherine out highlights the impropriety of his character. A man taking a woman out in a carriage alone was not considered proper in the 19th Century. His invite to Catherine was also not the correct way.

‘He was calling out to Miss Morland to be quick’, this was neither a formal nor proper invite. It shows him to be rude and arrogant. Catherine is still oblivious to the real John Thorpe but during this carriage ride her opinion of him changes. Her carriage ride with Henry Tilney however, is much more pleasant and ‘so different from the only gentleman coachman whom it was in her power to compare him with.’ This shows she is more inclined to Mr Tilney and her judgement on his character may be affecting how she feels about each coach ride. Catherine is very excited about sharing a carriage with him and ‘to be driven by him, next to being dancing with him, was certainly the greatest happiness in the world.’ We see that Catherine really likes Tilney which is a big difference to her feeling about Thorpe. For her ‘Henry Tilney could never be wrong.’

Leading on from that Austen uses opposite words to describe the characters and help us to carry on comparing them. Catherine explains herself to be in ‘ill luck’ when accompanied by Thorpe whereas in Mr Tilney’s presence she believes herself to be in ‘high luck.’ Austen uses this direct comparison between the two to emphasize how very different they are. She is painting a negative picture of Thorpe indicating everything he is involved with has a negative outcome. This creates a strong feeling of dislike towards Thorpe as he is interfering with the heroine. The comparison also shows that Austen herself favours Tilney and will give him a happy ending. She seems to show her views through Tilney.

Austen’s views on novels are also are shown via Tilney’s character. Thorpe, like a typical man, hates novels and believes them to be the ‘stupidest things in creation.’ Tilney is the complete opposite. He likes novels and claims ‘who has not pleasure in a good novel must be intolerably stupid.’ She uses Henry’s inadvertent criticism of Thorpe to show Henry’s disapproval of Thorpe and uses these two characters to represent two different people. Thorpe is the typical man in that day, hating novels and not paying too much attention to the lady. Tilney however is representing Austen’s own views on how a perfect man should be. This makes the readers favour him more.

Catherine’s observation of her suitors is used by Austen to compare and contrast their characters. Catherine’s views are in essence the opinions of Austen as to what she considers to be good and bad character and the qualities of a good husband. At first we see Catherine liking Thorpe. She is not used to getting much male attention and is delighted when one asks her to dance. However as the book progresses and Catherine talks more to Thorpe she decides that ‘John Thorpe was quite disagreeable.’ Austen constantly reaffirms her loathing towards Thorpe throughout the book mostly through Catherine. Catherine’s views of him at first quickly change when she realises ‘the extreme weariness of his company.’ He doesn’t include her in conversations but rather talks at her. She views this as rude and gets bored easily, ‘this was the last sentence by which he could weary, Catherine’s attention.’

However when talking to Tilney ‘it did not appear to her that life could supply any greater felicity.’ She enjoys Henrys company which is a big difference to how she feels around Thorpe. Austen uses the word felicity to highlight Catherine’s overall happiness and excitement to be talking to him let alone to just be near him. Also with Thorpe, after only a few acquaintances with him she is ‘chiefly anxious to avoid his sight.’ This emphasizes the brashness of his character. On the other hand after meeting Tilney, they ‘parted on the lady’s side at least, with a strong inclination for continuing the acquaintance.’ She likes Tilney from the start. She likes his company and is eager to talk to someone like him.

The fate of the different characters is determined by Austen’s like or dislike of the particular character. She retains the characters that she herself favours, throughout the book, yet the characters she dislikes seem to have their story finished part way through. We hear no more about John Thorpe after he proposes to Catherine; his story ends a sad one. He has not won anything and has just been cut off without a proper ending. Tilney however, is a constant character throughout the book. He gets his happy ending with Catherine in the end.

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The contrasting characters of John Thorpe and Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey. (2017, Oct 30). Retrieved from

The contrasting characters of John Thorpe and Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey

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