2010 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner Graduate Division
“Oh! D—it”: The Mayhem of John Thorpe and the Villain Template
In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, it is sometimes easy to dismiss the character of John Thorpe as merely interfering and bothersome—a kind of precursor to Austen’s infamous William Collins—but he should also be viewed as a creator of mayhem, causing not only emotional disturbances, but disorder and confusion in general, along with embodying a powerful tendency toward destruction— as almost a prototype of George Wickham. Even Thorpe’s loud and rebellious personality resembles that of John Willoughby, as both young men embrace impulsive action. Thorpe, though readers laugh at his wild antics, generates mayhem through exaggeration and a passion for impulsiveness, qualities which can only be considered harmless for so long. Austen uses the young, fresh-from-Oxford Thorpe to show readers that even the most seemingly ridiculous person should not be underestimated in his ability to cause destruction. Rather, this is a character that is capable of causing the most troublesome mayhem—driven by exaggerated efforts and vanity. By considering Thorpe’s apparently simplistic speeches and actions on a deeper level—as causes of total mayhem—, and by comparing them to those of other Austen villains, a discussion of a possible Austen “villain template” may develop, from which readers can attempt to discover the inspiration behind such infamy as Collins, Wickham, and Willoughby.
Austen consistently surrounds Thorpe’s appearances with words of disorder, hurriedness, confusion, and chaos, hinting that perhaps there is more menace to this man than first appears. Even as readers meet Thorpe, in the same moment as Catherine Morland, they are told that he “immediately” stops his horse “with a violence which almost threw [the horse] on his haunches,” his servant “scampered up,” Thorpe and James Morland “jumped” out and the men’s sudden appearances inspire exclamations from both Catherine and Isabella Thorpe (Austen 67). As when first meeting Thorpe, his overwhelming persona never ceases to surprise Catherine. Thorpe’s very exclamations—of which there are almost too many to count—embody mayhem, and these exclamations, readers must remember, were created by Austen to have Thorpe exude a certain sense of noise and disorder. Upon numerous occasions, Thorpe is described to have “cried” (67), been “calling out” (81), said something “very abruptly” (83), “threw open the door” (101), replied “rather angrily” (105), “said something in the loud, incoherent way to which he had often recourse” (105), and in general is constantly surrounded by chaos, resorting to noise and exaggeration in nearly every social situation. Austen is certainly creating a menace, a very obnoxious one who initially appears rather easy to dismiss as simply ridiculous.
However, these excited descriptions of Austen’s continue into Thorpe’s own words as well—he is the perpetual exaggerator, and without a doubt the most frequent oath-user in any of Austen’s works. Among the noticeable “upon my soul” (68), “Oh! d—it” (69),”Oh! d—“ (69), “Oh Lord!” (71), and “faith” (71) in only the five pages in which Catherine has her first conversation with Thorpe, exclamation marks litter the page. There are, in fact, eighteen exclamation marks embedded in Thorpe’s discourse in this first conversation, compared to Isabella’s three, Catherine’s three, and James’ omission of any. Thorpe’s style of language never changes, and Austen draws readers’ attentions to his conversation before they may even be aware of its implications. Thorpe’s language is as visually striking as is its content, yet the content also certainly evokes distress and confusion in Catherine. His exaggeration is perhaps perfectly executed on Catherine, who begins as uncomfortably naïve as any gothic heroine, but even she, in all of her ignorance, sometimes senses that aspects of Thorpe do not quite add up. While listening to Thorpe’s insistence that James’ carriage is sure to topple over, and then moments later being reassured that this will never happen, “Catherine listened with astonishment; she knew not how to reconcile two such very different accounts of the same thing” (86). Thoroughly confused, Catherine does not know how to appropriately react to Thorpe’s “overpowering” (84) personality. Austen offers some commentary to develop Thorpe’s character, yet at this point his conversation and character are described only as embodying “idle assertions,” “impudent falsehoods” and an “excess of vanity” (86), which are, overall, fairly harmless, though annoying qualities in a potential suitor. Thorpe is initially cast as the classic “college guy,” loving fast talk, faster cars, and the fastest action, which encourages readers to dismiss his antics as youthful fancy. However, Austen subtly plants the seed of her villain, having Catherine “not entirely repress a doubt, while she bore with the effusions of his endless conceit, of his being altogether completely agreeable” (86).
Though Catherine wants to like Thorpe because “he was Isabella’s brother, and she had been assured by James, that his manners would recommend him to all her sex,” she suffers from “the extreme weariness of his company, which crept over her before they had been out an hour” (86-7). Thorpe’s conduct, or rather misconduct, consistently puts Catherine in attitudes of confusion, frustration, and conflict, further emphasizing the mayhem caused by his character. Engaged to dance with Thorpe in the Octagon Room, Catherine “could not help being vexed at the non-appearance of Mr. Thorpe,” and Austen describes her to have been “disgraced,” to “wear the appearance of infamy,” to have “suffered,” and to have been in a “stage of humiliation” upon contemplating this “misconduct of another” (75). However frustrating Thorpe’s inaction on this occasion may be for Catherine, his actions are far more menacing. The first of Thorpe’s lying tendencies causing real pain to Catherine occurs as he “vehemently talked down” her reasons for avoiding a drive to Bristol (101). He tells her that he saw Mr. Tilney, who had engaged to walk that day with Catherine, “turn up the Lansdown Road,” walking away from Catherine’s residence (102), and “hallooing to a man who was just passing by on horseback, that they were going as far as Wick Rocks” (103). Catherine’s “unsettled” state (103) turns to severe vexation upon realizing that Thorpe had lied about seeing Tilney:
Catherine, angry and vexed as she was, having no power of getting away, was obliged to give up the point and submit. Her reproaches, however, were not spared. ‘How could you deceive me so, Mr. Thorpe?...they must think it so strange; so rude of me!...you do not know how vexed I am – I shall have no pleasure at Clifton, nor in anything else” (104).
Thorpe’s action,—he “only laughed, smacked his whip, encouraged his horse, made odd noises, and drove on” (104)—though a comical description mocking the gothic novel’s tendency to involve a kidnapping of its innocent heroine, shades a darker under meaning. Thorpe really is kidnapping Catherine, keeping her against her will and taking advantage of the fact that she has “no power” to escape his carriage. Should readers dismiss this passage as simply a mockery of the gothic novel, they would miss one of Austen’s points. Certainly, Northanger Abbey is a satire of the gothic novel genre, but this scene gives readers a much greater sense of the mayhem that Thorpe is capable of creating, acting the part of the gothic male villain.
Of Thorpe’s most egregious lie, of course, both Catherine and readers remain unaware until the later stages of the novel, when Henry reveals that Thorpe had grossly exaggerated her financial circumstances to General Tilney. Austen gives specific details regarding Thorpe’s deception. Driven by “his vanity and avarice,” Thorpe engages General Tilney’s interest in Catherine by “doubling what [Thorpe] chose to think the amount of Mr. Morland’s preferment, trebling his private fortune, bestowing a rich aunt, and sinking half the children” (234), and also declaring that Catherine was the “acknowledged future heiress of Fullerton” (235). The only way to make such a ridiculous lie even more absurd is to have it retracted by its very creator—exactly what Austen contrives. Still driven by his vanity, now wounded, and his ruined friendship with James, Thorpe “hastened to contradict all that he had said before to the advantage of the Morlands” (236). However, Thorpe’s meddling causes such significant, however temporary, distress and destruction. He fashions more lies about Catherine, telling the General that the Morlands were
in fact, a necessitous family; numerous too almost beyond example; by no means respected in their own neighborhood, as he had lately had particular opportunities of discovering; aiming at a style of life which their fortune could not warrant…(236).
Thorpe’s communication leaves the General “enraged” and “terrified” (236) and Thorpe’s action in the novel concludes with this final cause of mayhem. Thorpe leaves nothing but disorder and confusion in his wake. Upon hearing the General’s intent of forcing Catherine unceremoniously from his home, Catherine can think of the situation only as being “as incomprehensible as it was mortifying and grievous” (219). Her “agitated spirits and unquiet slumbers” (219) are the result of Thorpe’s path of destruction. However, readers cannot consider Thorpe as a full-blown villain, as he was driven more by his own vanity than by a desire to ruin Catherine’s happiness. As far as readers know, Thorpe was unaware of the uses to which the General put his misinformation, making Thorpe ever so slightly more innocent than we wish to think him. As infuriating a character as he is, Thorpe is not fully “Wickhamized,” mainly because Thorpe is driven by vanity, rather than malice and vendetta.
Though Austen hints at Thorpe’s potential villainous tendencies, it is clear that her experimentation with her villains is closer to its early stages in Northanger Abbey, and perhaps her revision of Thorpe’s character is limited to some extent. While Thorpe tells lies to accomplish his means on numerous occasions, readers never actually read his conniving conversations. Because readers follow Catherine as the heroine, and Thorpe always acts separately from her, Catherine’s ignorance is shared by readers. Though Catherine sees Thorpe speaking to General Tilney—literally watches him spin his web of lies about herself and her family—she is none the wiser about the conversation’s content until nearly the final chapter of her story, but this does not prevent her from feeling “something more than surprise, when she thought she could perceive herself the object of their attention and discourse” (111). In her other novels, Austen’s villains are more directly interactive with the heroine, as is Wickham and his frequent conversations, embedded with lies, with Elizabeth. Wickham seems to be a more complex villain than Thorpe, for the sole reason that he is successfully deceptive while operating on Elizabeth, a heroine who is not nearly as naïve as Catherine, and his close interaction with Elizabeth marks a progression in the sophistication of the Austen villain.
In this, her first completed novel, Austen experiments with characterizations of villains, and John Thorpe is easily comparable with both the bumbling-yet-harmless Collins and the conniving Wickham. He is even comparable with John Willoughby, in the sense that both men embrace the young, reckless, rebel-without-a-cause mentality. Though seemingly stemming from a formal template, Austen’s villains cannot be assumed to develop linearly alongside the publications of her novels. It is, rather, a dialogue between villains, as Austen is known to have revised Northanger Abbey, or Susan, as she originally titled it, both before she sold it to Benjamin Crosby and after it was repurchased from the publisher, giving her years to form and reform the villains of this and other novels.
Austen asks the necessary questions that any fresh
author asks, regarding character development in Northanger
Abbey, such as “What makes a villain?”
“A hero?” “A heroine?” A novel about
novels, Northanger Abbey
tests characterization on all levels, as it should, being Austen’s
earliest completed novel, but Austen really experiments with the idea
of a villain in John Thorpe. Thorpe, though socially awkward,
over-the-top, and often easy to laugh at, plays the very serious role
of menace to Catherine’s happiness, unknowingly almost
sabotaging her union with the Tilney family. Thorpe seems to be a
middle-ground villain between two of Austen’s most
notorious—William Collins and George Wickham. The dialogue
between villains is understandable, since Austen had begun both First
John Thorpe acts as Austen’s early hypothesis of sorts, as to what a villain might be in her future novels, though we know that Austen may have adjusted his role as she revised Northanger Abbey in later years. What makes this knowledge all the more intriguing is the fact that Northanger Abbey was published in 1817, after all of Austen’s other novels except Persuasion. Therefore, readers’ perceptions of Thorpe might have been strikingly different than Austen initially intended, since they had already met Wickham, Collins, and Willoughby. The similarities between Thorpe and these men, all of whom are such firmly established characters, are impossible to miss, yet classifying Thorpe in direct line with another is difficult. Having read through Austen’s earlier plot twists, do readers immediately assume Thorpe’s deeper involvement in Catherine’s story, or are we blithely unassuming as we read, and hence deceived even as is Catherine, who has also delved deeply into the world of novels? In either case, from Thorpe, readers learn something of Austen’s early experimentation with characterization and from whom three of her most infamous and memorable characters might have evolved.
Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. Ed. Claire Grogan. Second ed. 1817. Orchard Park, New York: Broadview Press Ltd., 2002.