Jane Austen: Emma

Published: 2021-07-01 06:52:14
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Category: Irony, Jane Austen

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"I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like"
How does this comment by Jane Austen fit with your reading of her presentation of Emma?
Today, we can interpret this remark as the recognition of a problem that was to be successfully overcome, instead of looking at it as an accurate prediction. Readers like the author's niece, Fanny Knight, who could "not bear Emma herself" have been in the minority. Most readers, myself included, have liked Emma Woodhouse and the novel that bears her name. It is an intricate, complex and perfectly achieved work that takes an apparently trivial matter - "3 or 4 Families in a Country Village", in Austen's famous phrase - and makes it captivating, involved and rich with meaning.

During this essay I intend to outline what Jane Austen means by "heroine", and explain how Emma fits this title. I shall explore why Austen feels her character will not be liked, and yet what defies these intentions and regardless encourages the generally felt affection towards Emma. Jane Austen nurtures many issues during her novel, I need to examine them, and decide on their relevance to the characters position.
Jane Austen's use of 'heroine' in her comment outlines who the chief character of the story is, in this book we immediately discover its Emma Woodhouse. The book is justly named Emma, as the whole thing is Emma. There is only one short scene where Emma herself is not on stage; and that one scene is Knightley's conversation about her with Mrs Weston, proving she has a very dominant role. As readers we would usually expect the heroine of the story to be the most courageous, clever or perhaps even the most blasphemous. They usually have an attribute that sets them apart from everyone else. In this book though, Emma is mainly a figure of fun. We see the gradual humiliation of self-conceit through a long succession of disasters - serious in effect, but written comically throughout. The disasters occur through Emma's absurdities, her snobberies, her intrinsic honesty and her misdirected mischievous conduct. The reader feels affection for the character not because of her charms, but in defiance of her defects as she develops this rogue image. Her features allow her to take rank not with the 'sympathetic' heroines, but as the culminating figure of English high comedy.
The word 'heroine' can also be used to describe someone much admired for their bravery. In my view, this ironically can also be applied to interpret Jane Austen's comment, and even Emma herself. Perhaps she doesn't demonstrate bravery of a courageous format, but she does show brave recognition of her faults, which could be employed to give her the title of a 'heroine' in her own way.
Jane Austen creates a wonderfully flawed heroine. Had Emma been perfect, her situation would have been of no interest to anyone; her flaws are what interest both reader and critic. The basic movement of Emma is from delusion to self-recognition, from illusion to reality. In the beginning she is loveable enough, but has much to learn.
It takes supreme courage on Austen's behalf to portray a girl, meant to win and keep the reader's fancy, with the characteristics frankly ascribed to Emma Woodhouse. During the time period of both Austen and Emma the world was a male-dominated place, to centre the attention of the story on a woman was a daring move, but Jane Austen wanted to do something different. The narration opens by telling us all about the privileged heroine, "handsome rich and clever," personally giving me the image of an insufferable young lady.We are allowed to know that she is pretty; not formally, but casually, from the words of a partial friend; "Such an eye! - the true hazel eye - and so brilliant! - regular features, open countenance, with a complexion - ah, what a bloom of full health and such a pretty height and size; such a firm and upright figure." But, before we are allowed to see her personal beauty, we are made to see some of the destined troubling qualities. In her wish to be useful she is patronizing and a little conceited; her self-sufficiency early appears along with the irony of her willingness to have a hand in the future of others, despite having little knowledge or experience of her own to do it judiciously.
Jane Austen's ironic voice throughout the book provides humour and logical thinking. Irony is defined as an absurd contradiction or paradox, a form of humour where someone says the opposite of what is obviously true. The ironic actions of Emma Woodhouse show one of her faults, for example her 'matchmaking'.
"It was foolish, it was wrong to take so active a part in bringing any two people together. It was adventuring too far, assuming too much, making light of what ought to be serious, a trick of what ought to be simple. She was quite concerned and ashamed, and resolved to do such things no more."
There is a special element of irony in this statement. Even as Austen has Emma relinquish the strategies of matchmaking, Austen condemns her heroine to continue thinking social relationships over and over again, repeating her misreading of sexual relations throughout the book. This is to emphasis the dislike we should be feeling towards Emma. Her complacent manner should evoke a feeling of frustration, instead, in my opinion, we see the funny side, predicting the outcome of Emma's actions, and knowing it's destined to go disastrously wrong.
Emma's exclusive attention to marriage plots of her own devising is consistent with her inability to enter into a relation of equality with other women. Her obsession with arranging marriages distorts the relationship with her good friend Harriet Smith, and blinds her from other relational possibilities. The connection with Mrs Weston was never based on equality, she is grateful to her governess/friend for her guidance and education, the relationship is lacking in true parity.
The great attraction of Harriet, beyond her blonde beauty and easily swayed temper, was that "everything" could be done for her. Emma's failure to bond with Jane Fairfax (her exact equal in age, abilities and sense) could also to a certain extent be due to her preoccupation with the marriage plot. Friendship between women is necessarily difficult in this period where the aim is to accomplish a husband. Rivalry for a husband of authority and worthiness is visible. Mrs Elton's marriage puts her into competition with all other women in her society and gives her precedence even over Emma Woodhouse; this makes her liable to judgement:
"She did not really like her. She would not be in a hurry to find fault, but she suspected that there was no elegance; - ease, but not elegance. - She was almost sure that for a young woman, a stranger, a bride, there was too much ease. Her person was rather good; her face not unpretty; but neither feature, nor air, nor voice, nor manner, were elegant. Emma thought at least it would turn out so."
Emma values herself highly enough to make many judgements during the book, another flaw, as usually they are incorrect, and only get Emma into more difficulty. Her judgements are formed on the bases of social status and backhand gossip, instead of individual qualities and personality. It emphasises her pretentiousness and a lack of understanding. The limitation and narrowness of the Highbury world shows the limitation of class society. The class divisions are apparent throughout, and highly relevant to the attitude and treatment one will receive. Different ranks are distinguished by degrees of prestige, and one is judged to be worthy or not from the possessions they own. A real example of Emma's incorrect and unjustified assessment of a person is of Robert Martin. Her cutting remarks show qualities of vanity, ignorance and meanness;
"He is plain, undoubtedly - remarkably plain: - but that is nothing compared with his entire want of gentility. I had no right to expect much; but I had no idea that he could be so very clownish, so totally without air. I had imagined him, I confess, a degree or two nearer gentility"
As far as Emma is concerned the class is wrong for her young friend, nothing else needs to come into consideration, he is already not good enough. Her attitude is patronising, and should make us think poorly of her, but instead we tolerate her interfering, and enjoy the product of it. Her abusing of Miss Bates with her cruel remark reveals a different side to the Emma, undoubtedly a nastier side. Yet Emma's rudeness strangely expresses energy and excitement. The unexpected outburst causes the reader to wake up and take note. We don't hate her for her comment; instead we share her guilt, and secretly admire her for this more mischievous person.
Emma Woodhouse indisputably casts a real attraction over most of her readers, but how and why? The plot of the book has been described by some as "uneventful" and "nothing profound". One critic stated, "there is no story whatever, and the heroine is no better than other people; but the characters are all so true to life, and the style so piquant, that it does not require the adventitious aids of mystery and adventure"
Despite these comments, to look at Emma's strengths is firstly a way of understanding her desirability. She is a very loving character, exposed through her faithfulness and kindness towards her father, and the attention she gives to the poor. She has a love of children, which becomes clear with the intense adoration shown towards her nieces and nephews, qualities that only strengthen her appeal.
Interestingly enough, Emma could also be seen as a role model for women readers. She stubbornly demonstrates a resistant figure to the woman stereotype of the time, unusually showing a more masculine behaviour, or as we may see it, a more modern behaviour. Her squabbles and quick-witted retorts towards Mr Knightly show her intelligence, but also her unconcerned approach towards playing the typical 18th century woman;
Mr Knightley: I leave you to your own reactions
Emma: Can you trust me with such flatters?
Her constant strength and vitality are alluring, and bring energy to the book. Emma's an imaginist "on fire with speculation and foresight", giving her a playful, fun appearance, another beneficial quality.
Lastly, Emma is bright girl, meaning we don't question her intelligence when things go wrong, just her naivety. She was never deceived about her sexual feelings during the book, and never deceived herself into feeling emotions that weren't there like Harriet seemed to. This emphasised her maturity, and made me, as the reader, value her actions and opinions more then, for example, Harriet's.
In the book Emma seems to get everything and everyone wrong, yet her vulnerability is strangely attractive, and is one reason for my approval of her. The much irony directed at her is setting her up to be judged, irony in itself, as she is usually the one doing the judging. What she often thinks of other people is commonly true for her, and therefore classes her on the same level as everyone else. She is the heroine of the book, and proves so with conviction and success.
However, to be a disliked heroine is mistaken. Because the book is told from her view constantly, allowing us to understand the character, and sympathise with her wrongdoings instead of judging her for them. Despite foreseeing when something is going to go wrong, we assume it will all turn out okay in the end, and predict there can only be a happy conclusion. Her officiousness and capacity for deluding herself only bulk out the story to make it more exhilarating, while also making Emma a fully rounded character, one which most readers cannot deny, like very much indeed.

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