#40. Emma by Jane Austen
Emma, by Jane Austen, is a novel about youthful hubris and the perils of misconstrued romance. The novel was first published in December 1815. As in her other novels, Austen explores the concerns and difficulties of genteel women living in Georgian-Regency England; she also creates a lively comedy of manners among her characters.
Before she began the novel, Austen wrote, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” In the very first sentence she introduces the title character as “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich.” Emma, however, is also rather spoiled, headstrong, and self-satisfied; she greatly overestimates her own matchmaking abilities; she is blind to the dangers of meddling in other people’s lives, and her imagination and perceptions often lead her astray.
Jane Austen, whom some critics consider England’s best novelist, was born in 1775 in Steventon, England. The seventh of eight children, Austen lived with her parents for her entire life, first in Steventon and later in Bath, Southampton, and Chawton. Her father was the parish rector in Steventon, and, though not wealthy, her family was well connected and well educated. Austen briefly attended boarding school in Reading but received the majority of her education at home. According to rumor, she had a brief love affair when she was twenty-five, but it did not lead to a marriage proposal. Two years later she accepted and then quickly rejected a proposal. She remained unmarried for the rest of her life. Austen died in 1817, at age forty-one, of Addison’s disease.
Austen began writing stories at a very young age and completed her first novel in her early twenties. However, she did not publish until 1811, when Sense and Sensibility appeared anonymously, -followed by Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Mansfield Park (1814). Emma, which appeared in 1816, was the last novel published -during Austen’s lifetime. (Northanger Abbey and Persuasion appeared posthumously.)
Austen’s novels received little critical or popular recognition during her lifetime, and her identity as a novelist was not revealed until after her death. As admired as Austen’s novels later became, critics have had a difficult time placing them within literary history. She is known for her gently satirical portraits of village life and of the rituals of courtship and marriage, but she wrote during the Romantic period, when most major writers were concerned with a very different set of interests and values. Romantic poets confronted the hopes and failures of the French Revolution and formulated new literary values centered on individual freedom, passion, and intensity. In comparison, Austen’s detailed examination of the rules of decorum that govern social relationships, and her insistence that reason and moderation are necessary checks on feeling, make her seem out of step with the literary times. One way to understand Austen’s place in literary history is to think of her as part of the earlier eighteenth century, the Age of Reason, when literature was associated with wit, poise, and propriety. Her novels certainly belong to an eighteenth-century genre, the comedy of manners, which examines the behavior of men and women of a single social class.
Rather than dismiss Austen as a writer who shuns the artistic and political movements of her time, it is perhaps more useful to think of her as an early feminist. Critics have pointed out that the Romantics, who were almost exclusively male, offered a poor model of literary fulfillment for the ambitious woman of the time. While male writers such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron possessed the freedom to promote their own individuality through wide travel and sexual and military adventurism, women were largely denied these freedoms. For women, the penalty for sexual freedom was social ostracism, poverty, and worse. In Sense and Sensibility, Austen describes explicitly the danger that cultivating emotion posed for women of her time.
Early reviews of Emma were generally favorable, but there were some criticisms about the lack of story. John Murray remarked that it lacked “incident and Romance”; Maria Edgeworth, the author of Belinda, to whom Austen had sent a complimentary copy, wrote:
“There was no story in it, except that Miss Emma found that the man whom she designed for Harriet’s lover was an admirer of her own – & he was affronted at being refused by Emma & Harriet wore the willow – and smooth, thin water-gruel is according to Emma’s father’s opinion a very good thing & it is very difficult to make a cook understand what you mean by smooth, thin water-gruel!!”
In this social context, Austen’s commitment to reason and moderation can be seen as feminist and progressive rather than conservative. The intelligence and resourcefulness of her heroines stand in constant contrast to the limits of the constricted world of courtship and marriage defining their sphere of action. While reading Emma it is interesting to consider to what extent Austen accepts or questions the idea that marriage represents a woman’s maturity and fulfillment.
Some consider Emma Austen’s best and most representative novel. It is also her longest novel, and by many accounts, her most difficult. Long praised for its rich domestic realism, Emma also presents puzzling questions: How is it possible that a character as intelligent as Emma can be wrong so often? When does Austen expect us to sympathize with Emma, and when does she expect us to criticize her? Is the ending as genuinely happy as it is presented to be, or does Austen subtly inject a note of subversive irony into it? That these questions are on some level unanswerable ensures that Emma will be read again and again. The novel’s aristocratic theory of courtship and patriarchy are the dominant trends of Jane Austen’s Emma because of the multiple female protagonists’ interpretive need to establish interdependence among the patriarchal hierarchy of eighteenth-century literature. The Classical literary allusions of old tradition and Romantic time period’s focus on youth are excluded from Emma, and the foundational ties to the Modernist subjective plotlines are set. Thus, Emma is a Victorian novel on the verge of abstract development, and specific passages elucidate Austen’s tendency to reconstruct the Victorian society’s concept of the English novel.
Essential elements of classicism, such as chivalric codes and hierarchy, are evident in the vanguard Victorian theory of Austen’s work. Gender-relation studies justifiably establish the foundation of Austen’s seemingly allusive character hierarchy because of the superimposition of secondary characters. Jean-Paul Sartre’s “What is Literature?” uses the theory of primary characters—or protagonists—as the identifiable trait of the evolving English novel’s form. The primary subjectivity of characters, according to Sarte, is an identifiable satire of the female-dominated novel, because of Emma’s character proceedings into an impermeable, subjective narrator and his/her omniscient plots. Emma—as a protagonist—mirrors the historical tendency of classical literature, but her development as the main protagonist is elusive as the novel’s pages unfold to the resolution. The ambivalent, naïve Emma of Austen’s opening chapters heightens her status to Satre’s primary character, and she evolves solely by the assistance of the novel’s secondary characters.
Emma’s epiphany is established after the dialogue interventions of somewhat uninterruptible female characters.
“Never mind,[…] it is poverty alone which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable, old maid![…]a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else.” (Page 83)
It is easy to distinguish Emma’s epiphany as an example of essential elements in Austen’s stylistics. Jane Austen’s heroines possess single-mindedness. This imparts to them a peculiar intensity and uniqueness. The diversions of Emma’s standpoints assist this theory because of the bildungsroman traits in her character. The novel’s interdependence of primary and secondary characters is frequently interrupted by the expulsion of dual renditions into aristocratic class and middle-class crass.
Frank Churchill’s continual excursions into Highbury offer an irradiation to Emma’s continual divergent standpoints on courtship and patriarchy. Is he the allusive narrator and controller of Highbury’s interdependent characters? An example of Emma’s development into adult society is the resolution of the novel, when she has learned to govern her feelings and temper by means of religion, by reason, by constant employment. The female characters of the English novel as a genre are representative of how development of characters is required, and Emma is allusive to the Victorian era’s novels such as Daniel Defoe’s Roxanne and Frances Burney’s Evelina.
There is a uniqueness of Austen’s multiple heroines because of the retrospective rendition of Emma’s plot to Churchill’s visitations. Emma is an equivalent companion to the male characters and the retrospective tendency of character development; her narrative mirrors the activities of Mr. Woodhouse and Frank Churchill. Thus, the evolution of Emma presents a dialectic foreshadowing of a subjective Victorian bildungsroman. “Highbury, that airy, cheerful, happy-looking Highbury, would be his constant attraction” circumvents the underlying irony of Emma’s reality. (Page 185) Emma is not a collective individual without the interdependence of Highbury and its patriarchal influence. The novel’s plotline is juxtaposed with the objective gender relationships of Emma’s characters. Love and marriage are the objective purpose of communal interdependence in the narration of Emma. It’s easy to contradict by saying the utter inadequacy of literary theory when it is exposed and forced to deal with the novel.
The multiplicity of Emma’s narrator is exemplary of Satre’s highly-defined primary characters provides an outlet into a retrospective analysis of the novel’s ever-changing literary form. Emma’s moralization is a hindrance of Austen’s initial plot; in chapter eight she states, “Wickedness is always wickedness, but folly is not always folly.—It depends upon the character of those who handle it” (Austen 198). If we analyze Emma’s character development as the “tendencies of a new world still in the making; it is the only genre born of this world and in total affinity with it”.
Subjective analysis of a female-oriented plot is a timeless example of the fluidity of the English novel’s form, and majority of Emma is applicable to the Germanic bildungsroman. The derisive attempt to apply the novel to the modernist form is a subjective attempt to catalogue the Classical female novelist as the courtship matchmaker, and the possibility of a female writer as an equivalent novelist to the male authorship of the Victorian time period is retrospective to the inclusion of fewer gender-oriented lifestyles, which are apparent in Modernist literature.