Emma, Jane Austen’s most comical and spirited novel, is well received for its lively characters and engaging narrative. In yet another story of society verses sensibility, Austen weaves together a myriad of incidents to illustrate how youthful presumptions can distort the bigger picture. In a sense, the storyline of events veils the novel’s real plot, which is devoted to showing how experience is the schoolmaster of maturation. Austen’s deeper purpose, therefore, is to demonstrate that the journey of self-discovery is completed through many forms of education. The education of Emma, the kind-hearted but closed-minded heroine, particularly relies on a combination of lessons that improve her social understanding and awaken her personal awareness. On the surface, it seems that Emma Woodhouse is the blessed child. Austen first describes her as “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition” (3). She has never met with someone she could not charm, never encountered much that was able to “distress or vex her” (3). In spite of her good nature and attractive person, Emma suffers from “the power of having rather too much her own way,” and is also inclined “to think a little too well of herself” (4). Her main problem, however, is that she is as insensible of these character flaws as she is comfortable with her life situation. All this considered, it is quite evident that Emma’s world must be shaken for her complacency will dislodge itself. This earthquake comes when Emma’s governess, Miss Taylor, marries. Emma’s first and perhaps most challenging lesson, then, is to learn how to subdue her dependency on companionship and grow accustomed to the greatest solitude she has ever known. Austen suggests that independence is the most pivotal education one can have. This concept of being alone may be Emma’s first lesson, but it is also the most important one in her progress towards maturation. Until she no longer has the constant company of her former governess and best friend, Emma is blissfully ignorant of her own fear of being by herself. She is likewise unaware of her desire for a husband. In good humour, she allows that love might induce her to matrimony, but the idea of she would fall in love is as absurd as sunbathing in Siberia. Laughing at the idea, Emma heartily declares to Harriet “…I have never been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall” (78). What Emma omits saying is that it also embodies what she lives in horror of: being powerless. As Bruce Stovel infers, “Emma fears love because she considers it to be blind. Emma is exquisitely self-contained: the idea of being out of control, of losing her will in the grip of passion, disturbs her.” Oddly enough, it is Emma’s perception of love and marriage, the ultimate forms of companionship, which obscure her estimation of their inherent value. “If I were to marry,” says she, “I must expect to repent it” (78). Any penitence on her part comes once the shroud of puerile individuality gives way to her sentiments for Mr. Knightley, the man destined to be her husband.Before Emma can admit that she does both want and need a husband, she has to realize the social consequence of married status. To her mind, she will always be so highly regarded that she will gain nothing desirable in a marriage. Thus, she fixes her focus on improving the young Harriet Smith. Harriet, unlike Emma, is “not clever,” and although she is both pretty and sweet-tempered, she has no idea of her family connections, meaning she has no male relation to establish her station in society. Emma is initially drawn to Harriet by her beauty, but, also, by Harriet’s impressionable character. More than anything, Emma seems to be enamoured with the idea of having her own protÃ©gÃ©e for whom she can “form her opinions and her manners” (20). The friendship she instigates, then, is Emma’s expression of her desire for control, as well as her longing to be an irreplaceable person. Beyond that, Harriet’s role in Emma’s enlightenment is instructive because it opens Emma’s eyes to her own inaccurate presumptions. Through Harriet’s attachment to Mr. Elton, the young vicar of Highbury, Emma reaps the consequences of her foolish encouragement of Harriet’s affections. This is a prime example of how Austen uses the power of influence as a form of education for her heroine. Emma gains a very keen awareness of how she can injure others, despite the good intentions she may have. The Harriet-Elton debacle also teaches Emma about the barriers of social hierarchy. Mr. Elton’s high hopes for social aggrandizement are palpable to nearly everyone but Emma and Harriet, who has absolutely no claim in society. As he says, “Every body has their level… I need not so totally despair of an equal alliance, as to be addressing myself to Miss Smith!” (122). Emma’s frustration overshadows her own fastidious sense of rank. Once her disappointment for Harriet has subsided, however, she can think of nothing but Elton’s impertinence in setting his cap at her. She is almost insulted that he “should suppose himself her equal in connection or mind,” (125) and is convinced that “he must know that in fortune and in consequences she was greatly his superior” (126). In other words, Emma sees an impassable chasm between their social ranks–very much like the one he perceives between himself and Harriet. Her conceit is, in many ways, just as pitiful as his. This similarity is yet another form of instruction that Austen uses for her disgruntled pupil. Remarkably, Emma does not realize the significance of this experience until she sees it as a reflection of her own misconceptions. As Bradbury puts it, “Emma learns…by analogy.” In her moment of enlightenment, she begins to understand how “If she had so misinterpreted [Mr. Elton’s] feelings, she had little right to wonder that he, with self-interest to blind him, should have mistaken hers” (126). Mentorship is another form of education that Austen administers to her heroine. Mr. Knightley, the wealthy gentleman who owns the great estate of Donwell Abbey, best fulfils the role of Emma’s present counsellor. With his “sensible” nature and sound judgment, Mr. Knightley is the one person who consistently forms accurate opinions of the people around him. It is Mr. Knightley who foresees the trouble that Emma might put upon Harriet, despite her well-meaning motives, and it is also Mr. Knightley who first suspects the secret relationship between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. Mr. Knightley is a good mentor indeed, for he “is one of the few people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever told her of them” (8). As Emma jokes, “Mr. Knightley loves to find fault with me” (8). This jest could not be further from the truth, however, because Mr. Knightley is as kind with his criticism as he is discerning of her flaws. Miss Taylor gave her principles, but Mr. Knightley gives Emma conviction. As he says, “I will tell you truths while I can, satisfied with proving myself your friend by very faithful counsel” (347). Mr. Knightley is, to any end, most dedicated to the cause of refining the moral character of his beloved Emma. Austen’s final and most compelling tutorial is to reveal the twists of fate to her unsuspecting heroine. This is both humiliating and life-changing for Emma, for although her vanity is consistently gratified, her judgment is exposed as a ridiculously fallible guide. Emma’s list of erroneous conjectures is lengthy. She was mistaken about Mr. Elton, about Harriet’s status by birthright, in her judgment of Mr. Martin too harshly; she allows herself to believe that Jane Fairfax might have an improper relationship with her friend’s husband, Mr. Dixon; she convinces herself that she is in love with Frank Churchill and that he returns her affections; and, finally, she decides that Harriet is quite taken with Frank. As these suppositions prove false, she is able to see the truth. Furthermore, Emma’s sudden clarity reveals to her that she loves Mr. Knightley. In addition to studying the author’s modes of education, it is worth noting how Emma reacts to her education. Emma’s revelations are manifest in rapid streams of consciousness that interrupt the novel’s general combination of narration and dialogue. These short, disjointed thoughts, accentuated by numerous hyphens and exclamation marks, flow from Emma’s racing mind in a surprisingly cogent form. What is of interest, however, is the fact that each of these soliloquies denotes an ingestion of the truth. Her edification is, in essence, the summation of these epiphanic moments. Her maturing can be traced by how long it takes her to recover from these upheavals of distress and emotion. The first outburst, which occurs after Mr. Elton proposes to her, is “not poignant enough to keep [her] eyes unclosed” at night (127). Emma’s “youth and natural cheerfulness” are, at first, very hard to disturb for any great length of time (127). When Mr. Knightley reprimands Emma for her insolence towards Miss Bates, however, she is so “forcibly struck” that “Time [does] not compose her” (347). Her conviction is so deep that she mopes about as though “she had never been so depressed” (347). Her disposition is similarly inflicted when she believes Mr. Knightley to be in love with Harriet, and in this particular reverie, we see how a crestfallen heroine trembles with shame and lovesickness. As Austen takes Emma through her education, she proves that every experience in life is a lesson when one is willing to be educated. Austen also demonstrates the value of change by revealing the need for it. As she so eloquently phrases it, “Seldom, very seldom does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken…” (399). This is very much the story of Emma’s life, which is little more than a comedy of errors until her maturation has softened the rougher edges of her character. It is, indeed, difficult to learn that favouring private assumptions, however well thought out they may be, is as dangerous as judging by appearances. This is the reason, therefore, that Austen uses a plethora of teaching techniques to edify her brightest pupil.
It is tempting to approach a novel with a predetermined perspective or goal, to which all passages and plot events can be forced to comply. With this approach, the story theoretically makes more sense; the messages to walk away with are neatly packaged and presented. This approach, however, cheats the reader of an important interactive process with the novel, one where the reader has an active role in shaping how the text is interpreted. With Jane Austen’s Emma, the reader is invited to do just that. Just as Emma imagines motives, plans, and thoughts for the characters in her own life, the reader can quite feasibly imagine the true thoughts and feelings of the characters, as well as to feel just as much immersed in the emotions of the story as Emma herself does. The key to this effect lies in Austen’s narrative technique of selective focalization, and how it applies to the way situations are presented, to the eyes through which the reader sees (and thus sometimes misinterprets) the situations, and to the selection of situations and thoughts which are either presented or withheld from the reader’s knowledge. It is therefore easy to see that the ideal situation is not a reading process in which every situation makes sense, but instead the true appeal lies in grappling with the text. Every passage which does not subscribe to the organic whole of the novel, and every moment in which the reader is confused and has to interact with the text in order to interpret what is happening, makes the reading that much more fulfilling. As is especially apparent in the subsequent passage to be discussed, Austen’s use of selective focalization invites the reader to assume an active role in reading the text; a far more satisfying alternative to simply acquiescing to a straightforward plot. The passage on page 307 of the text is a salient example of how the narrative technique impacts character development, and of the feelings imparted to the reader – feelings of mystery, heightened interest, intrigue, or simply more immersion into the emotions of the novel, of feeling more present in the fictional situation. In this passage, Emma has just returned from her apologetic visit to Miss Bates, after the fiasco at Box Hill. Mr. Knightley, after having reprimanded Emma for her conduct, is now suddenly overcome by an uncharacteristic impulse to kiss Emma’s hand:[Emma] was warmly gratified – and in another moment still more so, by a little movement of more than common friendliness on his part. – He took her hand; – whether she had not herself made the first motion, she could not say – she might, perhaps, have rather offered it – but he took her hand, pressed it, and certainly was on the point of carrying it to his lips – when, from some fancy or another, he suddenly let it go. – Why he should feel such a scruple, why he should change his mind when it was all but done, she could not perceive. – He would have judged better, she thought, if he had not stopped… – He left them immediately afterwards – gone in a moment. (Austen 307) The most immediately striking feature of this passage is the frequent hyphenation. Although Austen frequently uses hyphens when delving into free indirect discourse (which are frequent occasions in this novel), in very few cases is the hyphenation so profuse. This technique especially emphasizes the uncertain, hesitant, and emotional thinking process by which Emma perceives the situation. The hyphens imply pauses -time in which Emma thinks, reflects, and tries to make sense of this unusual situation she is presented with. This technique also highlights the importance of the passage to the plot and to the character development of Mr. Knightley, because it is clear that such a situation has never happened before, by the uncertainty with which Mr. Knightley acts and Emma perceives. The hyphens also imply a sense of urgency in the situation, for it creates the feeling of a play-by-play account of the situation. The reader is led to feel like he or she is present with Emma, and perceiving the action as soon as Emma does. The effect would be remarkably different, for example, if the passage were narrated in diegetic form, without the hyphens. The apparent lack of composure or even coherence of the narration creates the feel that the reader is getting the first-hand, direct version of the story, not the filtered and processed version. The hyphens are therefore a key element in conveying the emotional urgency of the situation, as well as the striking sense that there is something important to note about the characters, for the narration is charged with uncertainty. The importance of the internal focalization is the next aspect of the passage that clearly presents itself to the reader. The at-the-moment narration makes the reader feel as if he or she is very much inside Emma’s head, perceiving the events as they happen, the way they happen through Emma’s eyes. The interjection of judgments and reflection into the plot narration is a key aspect of the internal focalization, for it makes the reader feel they are not only seeing what Emma is seeing, but hearing what Emma is thinking as well. For example, Austen writes, “He took her hand; – whether she had not herself made the first motion, she could not say – she might, perhaps, have rather offered it – but he took her hand” (307). This excerpt is notable for two reasons. It is quite clear the extent to which the reader is able to know what Emma is thinking, because the reader can even follow what seems like a temporary amnesia on the part of Emma; blinded by the curiosity and unexpectedness of the situation, she is unable to remember if she offered her hand or not. This seemingly small detail carries unbelievable significance, for it is evidence that the reader is seeing only what Emma sees, and knowing only what Emma knows. This is a small example of a technique used heavily throughout the novel, to great avail – withholding of information adds to the emotion of the situation and the mystery of the plot. The second notable aspect of this excerpt is the overlapping of the factual narration of the event, when “he took her hand” is stated twice. This effect is reminiscent of a friend telling a story, and what often happens in natural discourse when someone is interrupted by thought and reflection. The use of this narration which diverges from a straight-forward retelling of events is another attempt by Austen to make the reader feel like he or she is on a more personal level with the characters, thus creating a feeling of more personal investment in the novel. This passage is an important glimpse into the character development of Mr. Knightley as well. This is one of the first times in which Mr. Knightley has surprised the reader by his actions, which always seem so controlled and appropriate. This is also the first time when the reader detects tangible evidence of a possible romance between Knightley and Emma, which makes the selective focalization even more important – the selective focalization proves to the reader that he or she may be sensing something that the characters do not, which makes the reader feel more uniquely involved in the story. The free indirect discourse of this passage (and a great deal of the entire novel) allows the reader to feel immersed in the events and the emotions of the novel, while simultaneously, and often imperceptibly, remaining in the control of the narrator. This detail is unbelievably important, for it allows the stylistic and diction choices to be ultimately made by the narrator, and not the often unreliable character of Emma. This strategy allows for greater flexibility with how the narrator presents the situations, for even though the focalizing is through Emma, the reader can sense the final judgment being made by the narrator. Often times the narrator is sarcastic, satirical, or even mocking of the characters or situations; so while the character’s perspective is an important one to have access to, the underlying dependence on the narrator is a crucial stylistic element in the novel. The emotional importance of this situation in the novel is deftly conveyed using only narrative and stylistic techniques, which certainly speaks to the powerful ability of the technique of selective focalization itself, as well as Austen’s craft in using it. The reader is left to grapple with the text and determine which details are perceived correctly through Emma and which are mistaken, as well as to wonder what has actually happened and what will happen in the future. This level of interaction with the text would be nonexistent if the focalization were less selective, if the characters were each telling their versions of the story, or if the narration was purely diegetic. The reader is almost compelled to give Emma advice or to construct matchmaking plots of their own, based on the level of seemingly personal interaction with the characters and the text. While the reader is led to find amusement in Emma’s self-appointed role as puppet-master of Highbury, the greatest irony lies in the fact that the reader interacts with the novel in quite a similar way. WORKS CITEDAusten, Jane. Emma. Ed. Alistair M. Duckworth. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2002.
Although his methods have largely been discredited, Sigmund Freud’s theories about the unconscious, the subconscious, and repression are extremely useful when applied to literary texts. None of the three novels discussed here – Jane Austen’s Emma, Charlotte BrontÃ«’s Jane Eyre, and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles – contain overtly psychoanalytic themes such as frequent dreams or psychological diseases (aside from the madwoman in the attic found in Jane Eyre), yet they can all be read with the aim of discovering latent themes, displaced or repressed thoughts and feelings, and subconscious desires. The traditional approach to psychoanalytic criticism involves the neglect of a work’s other contexts (historical, socioeconomic, etc.), thus making it extremely difficult to gain significant insight into these texts by means of Freudian psychoanalytic criticism alone. Sigmund Freud revolutionized human psychology by suggesting that people are motivated mainly by unconscious powers. He stated that “much of what lies in the unconscious mind has been put there by consciousness, which acts as a censor, driving underground unconscious or conscious thoughts or instincts that it deems unacceptable” (Murfin 503). This repression cannot lie dormant, and it often reappears in disguise; or, as Freud famously quoted, “There is always a return of the repressed” (Barry 100). Repressed thoughts commonly appear in the guise of symbolic dreams. Freud was a huge proponent of dream analysis, and it remains one of his most famous legacies. The analysis of dreams, called dream work, examines the numerous ways in which repressed thoughts are handled. These include condensation, in which a number of events or people are summarized into one symbol, and displacement, in which a person or event is represented by another person or event that is in some way associated, through meaningful or superficial connections. In addition to reappearance in dreams, repressed thoughts and emotions can also be redirected in a number of ways, through what are called defense mechanisms. Some examples of defense mechanisms are transference, when emotions felt towards someone in the patient’s life get transferred onto the analyst; projection, when undesirable aspects of ourselves are perceived instead as aspects of another; screen memories, or insignificant memories that serve to block more significant memories; and Freudian slips, accidental slips of the tongue or pen that represent repressed material (Barry 97-98). Freudian psychoanalytic criticism was officially applied to literature in 1908, when Freud published “The Relation of a Poet to Daydreaming” (Murfin 505). It quickly caught on, for its analysis of symbols in the mind can easily be applied to symbols in literature. In general, Freudian psychoanalytic critics look at the relationship between a literary work’s overt content and its covert content (which can also be seen as conscious content vs. unconscious content), observe unconscious motives in both the characters and the author, and look at the psychic context for the literary work (not the historic, socio-political, or economic context). Another branch of psychoanalytic criticism originates from the work of Jacques Lacan. Starting in the 1950s, Lacan developed a theory of psychoanalytic criticism that can be summarized by the statement, “the unconscious is structured like a language” (Barry 111). The structure of language as it relates to the unconscious lies in the fact that “meaning in language is a matter of contrasts between words and other words, not between words and things,” and that “there is a perpetual barrier between signifier (the word) and signified (the referent)” (Barry 111). In addition, “words and meanings have a life of their own and constantly override and obscure the supposed simplicities and clarity of external reality,” thereby implying that “language is detached from external reality, and becomes an independent realm” (Barry 111). Lacanian criticism echoes the deconstruction method, in that it seeks to find meaning in the contradictions in the text, in addition to observing the aforementioned psychoanalytic techniques. However, I will analyze the following texts by observing the Freudian psychoanalytic tradition. Freudian psychoanalytic criticism seems to be least applicable to Jane Austen’s Emma. The story is almost entirely devoid of serious conflict, traumatic events, dreams, or mental illness. One can, however, see the seeds of repression on the first page of the novel: “[Emma] was the youngest of the two daughters of a most affectionate, indulgent father, and had, in consequence of her sister’s marriage, been a mistress of his house from a very early period. Her mother had died too long ago for her to have more than an indistinct remembrance of her caresses” (Austen 23). The narrator goes on to describe the governess, Mrs. Taylor, who essentially raises Emma, though she becomes more of a friend than a disciplinarian. Throughout the novel, Emma must not only indulge and care for her fickle and dependent father, but she must also serve as the reigning queen of Highbury society. In addition, Emma thrives on arranging relationships and marriages, as well as taking on protÃ©gÃ©s to groom into proper ladies, as is the case with Harriet. Emma functions perfectly well in her society by conforming to her role in all ways save for one: her rejection of marriage. A Freudian would likely explain her rejection as a maladjustment resulting from the absence of a mother figure. In a general sense, it could be seen that Emma feels a deep responsibility to act as the maternal figure for everyone else, because she herself did not have that figure (and any attribution of that role to Mrs. Taylor would likely be seen as unfounded because of Mrs. Taylor’s portrayal as a friend rather than a mother figure). She is thus reluctant to marry and abandon that responsibility. This idea is proved later, when she does marry and insists that she and her husband live in her father’s house so that she may continue to care for him. A more intensely Freudian approach would pin all of Emma’s problems on the disruption of the process (formation and later rejection) of an Electra complex, which prevents her from developing proper romantic feelings for the male sex, and thus explains her reluctance to marry. All of the above, however, seem a bit far-fetched, for the text shows hardly any evidence of psychological conflict in Emma. A Freudian psychoanalytic criticism of Emma can be developed, but it is a stretch. Charlotte BrontÃ«’s Jane Eyre complies more readily to Freudian analysis, considering Jane’s problematic childhood and her lack of parents. Orphaned at a young age, Jane lives under the care of her aunt and uncle, the Reeds. After the death of Mr. Reed, the only father figure she knew, Jane is looked after solely by Mrs. Reed, a cruel woman who wrongfully blames and punishes her at every opportunity. Jane’s childish rebelliousness – she yells at Mrs. Reed more than once – is a result of her feelings of isolation and abandonment (both by her parents and by Mr. Reed). In addition, one cannot overlook the scene in the red room, for Jane imagines Mr. Reed’s ghost coming to avenge “the wrongs of his sister’s child,” and works herself into a fit of hysteria that ends in unconsciousness (BrontÃ« 29). Two factors are at work here – the displacement of Jane’s sadistic (and even masochistic) desires against Mrs. Reed onto the ghost of Mr. Reed, and the loss of consciousness that prevents her from fully realizing those repressed emotions – a defense mechanism to protect the conscious mind from a disturbing realization. Another important issue arises from the disruption of Jane’s development of a normal relationship with a father figure, and Jane’s banishment to Lockwood (a miserable boarding school in which she encounters punishment, malnourishment, and humiliation) as punishment for her misbehavior. This inculcation of obedience and sacrifice, in addition to her lack of a father figure, leads to what Dianne F. Sadoff describes as a “sadomasochistic” tendency in Jane’s romantic relationships (Sadoff 518). She always looks for someone to fill that missing paternal role, as an object of affection and also as a disciplinarian. The frequent references to the fact that Mr. Rochester is “old enough to be [her] father,” and her constant vows to the effect of, “can I help you sir? – I’d give my life to serve you,” are evidence of the relationship’s power dynamic: both thrive on Jane being submissive to Rochester (Sadoff 519, BrontÃ« 204). In fact, Rochester constantly calls Jane patronizing pet names and insists on lavishing her with expensive clothes, not to mention the fact that Jane works under him, as a governess for his illegitimate daughter. Jane ultimately marries Rochester, but again she lives her life as his servant. However, it becomes very difficult to extricate this view from a Marxist or socioeconomic context, for Jane was raised to be working class and to be submissive to upper classes. In addition, she has nothing like this kind of role with St. John, who actually is a male relative. Aside from the red room scene, it seems that a Freudian psychoanalytic criticism of Jane Eyre goes further than with Emma, but not far enough to merit any real consideration. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles seemingly presents the perfect setup for a Freudian analysis, through the plot elements of neglectful parents, burdensome family responsibilities, rape and its consequential guilt and shunning, rejection by Tess’s true love as a result of circumstances over which she had no control, her passivity and blurring of consciousness, and her act of murder. Yet it seems as if all of these events are portrayed as consequences of Tess’s socioeconomic status rather than her psychological condition. It can be proposed that Tess’s foggy or blurry state of consciousness at crucial moments in the book (her rape being the most notable example) serves as a defense mechanism for her to repress painful memories or events. In fact, Tess shows a great deal of guilt, originating when she blames herself for her horse’s death and its role in her family’s poverty. In reality, however, Tess serves as the only responsible member of the family; it is she who is charged with caring for everyone. It may even be a consequence of having so much responsibility at such a young age that Tess experiences guilt so readily. Yet the structure of the novel prevents any significant psychoanalytical insight, because Hardy purposefully externalizes and mutes his heroine, positioning her as the object of the gaze rather than as the gazer. The reader rarely sees Tess’s thoughts or emotions even through her behaviors. In addition, Hardy deliberately constructs Tess as a victim of circumstance, class, and fate, making it hard for the reader to ignore the role of those contexts or any other historical or socioeconomic context, in order to focus on a Freudian psychoanalytic criticism. Interestingly enough, the novel that is most rich with conflict and repression – Tess of the D’Urbervilles – is arguably the least applicable to Freudian analysis. While Freud’s theories are fascinating and illuminating, I believe that Freudian psychoanalytic criticism cannot stand on its own as a way to significantly analyze a literary work; it works best in conjunction with another method of literary criticism.WORKS CITEDAusten, Jane. Emma. Ed. Alistair M. Duckworth. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2002. Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: an Introduction to Literary Criticism. 2nd ed. Manchester, UK: Manchester UP, 2002. BrontÃ«, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Beth Newman. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 1996. Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Ed. John Paul Riquelme. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 1998. Murfin, Ross C. “A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism – Pyschoanalytic Criticism and Jane Eyre.” Jane Eyre. Ed. Beth Newman. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 1996. 502-517. Sadoff, Dianne F. “A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism – a Pyschoanalytic Perspective – the Father, Castration, and Female Fantasy in Jane Eyre.” Jane Eyre. Ed. Beth Newman. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 1996. 518-535.
Jane Austen novels tend to exhibit a certain kind of life: parties, walks in the park, trips to London or Bath, posturing for a particularly advantageous marriage – in a word, privilege. In addition, this world is structured according to a relatively stringent code of hierarchy. Of Austen’s six novels, they all are set in this relatively small, elite social microcosm of eighteenth century British society, and, for the most part, all of the players are insiders. Austen spends little time discussing the lower classes. Indeed, the only times those of lesser rank are introduced are to stand in counter-distinction to the landed class who are the central figures in all of her works. Nevertheless, Austen herself was not of this class. Irene Collins writes: “Jane Austen [. . .] was on visiting terms with the local gentry: but visiting is not living. She depended a good deal on observation in the early stages of her novel-writing” (ix). And, indeed, all of her heroines, who in the course of establishing a secure future for themselves through marrying well, eventually come to embody what it means to be an informed and aware woman, are likewise outsiders: Emma Woodhouse, thought at the zenith of Highbury society, is not necessarily secure in her position; and Anne Elliot, though born to privilege, eventually loses all of her privileges. By telling her story through the mouth of an outsider, Austen is able to portray the inevitability, superficiality, and vivacity of this world that has captivated so many readers. One of the most engaging of Austen’s characters, Emma Woodhouse captivates the reader with her vivacity, self-awareness, and prosperity. Indeed, within the first sentence we read that she is “handsome, clever, and rich” (7). Though at the height of Highbury society, she is on fixated on social structure: maintaining her own, raising Harriet’s, keeping an eye on the Cole’s, and watching out for competition from Jane Fairfax. Such a portrait appears to undermine the premise outlined previously that all of Austen’s heroines are in some sense not of this elite world. However, Shinobu Minma argues that “[i]t is clear, therefore – as it was no doubt clear to the contemporary reader – that, although [the Woodlouse’s] have settled in Highbury ‘for several generations’ and are now admitted to be ‘first in consequence’ there, the Woodhouse’s in fact stand in almost the same positions as the Weston’s, the Cole’s and the Suckling’s of Maple Grove” (62). Thus, the Woodhouse’s are not members of the landed gentry; though they possess many of the privileges, they lack the lands or titles of the insiders. And thus, because she has no special claim to her place in society, Emma must play the game of maintaining her place, keeping others in their own, and occasionally helping a friend whom she has chosen raise a level or two. It is not necessarily the game itself, but the way in which Emma plays it that the reader often finds distressful. Her attempts to thrust Harriet and Mr. Elton together – fixing her boot, taking up portraiture again, demeaning Robert Martin – though well intentioned, are often quite distasteful. “As a member – or, ‘mistress’ – of a family who are ‘first in consequence’ in Highbury, Emma is aware that she is expected to offer gracious attentions to the underprivileged, and she believes that she understands her duty well” (Minma 58). Minma then goes on to argue that Emma’s misunderstanding of her duty, “her moral inadequacies[,] are highlighted in order to lay the blame on the non-landed gentry” (63). However, this very conservative view of the matter seems to place too much emphasis on the rather obscure argument that the Woodhouse’s are part of the non-landed gentry. Rather, Emma’s moral inadequacies highlight the short-sightedness of the means necessary to secure a privileged future in a world that is inevitably structured according to hierarchical moral codes. While Emma follows the Austen mould and secures her privileged future by marrying into the landed gentry (and finding a partner in Mr. Knightley who complements her), Anne Elliot, in Persuasion, in many ways breaks the mould. Unlike Fanny Price, Elizabeth Bennett, or Catherine Morland, Anne was born the daughter of a baron. However, despite her placement in the hierarchy, Anne has lost many things: her mother has died, Kellynch Park has been rented out, she has turned down one offer of marriage and has been snubbed by another possible suitor. Consequently, Anne finds herself, despite her birth, in much the same place as Austen’s other heroines. However, there is much less humour in this novel than the others. While Mr. Collins’ selfishness is funny, Mr. Elliot’s is disdainful. Where the muddy but otherwise unhurt Marianne is rescued by Willoughby after falling down a hill, Louisa suffers serious injuries after Captain Wentworth fails to catch her jumping off the cobb.Virginia Woolf has suggested that many of these diversions from the stereotypical Jane Austen novel in this, her last, work are a consequence of her increasing maturity and proximity to the world of which she wrote: “[Austen] is beginning to discover that the world is larger, more mysterious and more romantic than she had supposed” (152). She goes on to suggest that “[h]ad [Austen, who died at the age of forty-two) lived a few years longer [. . .] she would have stayed in London, dined out, lunched out, met famous people, made new friends, read, traveled and carried back to the quiet country cottage a hoard of observations to feast upon at leisure” (152). The degree to which one can extrapolate the reasons for the changes in Persuasion from Jane Austen’s biography is arguable. However, it is clear that the typical Austen heroine has evolved from the early archetype, characterized in this essay by Emma. This evolution is most striking in the conclusion of the novel. While Emma, like all of her counterparts, finds herself in a secure, upwardly mobile marriage by the end of the novel, Anne, though promised to be wed to Captain Wentworth, has yet to get hitched. Furthermore, there is little advantage in the match; Wentworth has no estate nor sizable income, and thus, their future together, which presumably will come to pass, will be spent without much security.The world of privilege and hierarchy is the world of which Jane Austen writes. Though the cast is relatively small, and the story somewhat predictable it is a joy to watch the lives of “handsome, clever, and rich” women unfold. Nevertheless, there is a tinge of criticism in the way in which Austen portrays this community. The way in which Emma consciously manipulates the people around her, specifically Harriet, is often detestable. However, the criticism is not all encompassing. Emma eventually marries well, both in terms of wealth and complement, and appears to live a privileged happy ever after in a secure social position. Though Persuasion essentially deals with the same community and the same themes as previous novels, there seems to be an evolving notion of what it means to have privileged, secure future. No marriage takes place in the novel, and the one that presumably will in the future is not the kind of upwardly mobile arrangement one would expect from Austen. It appears that in the last of Austen’s novels her world is beginning to change. Works ConsultedAusten, Jane. Emma. London: Penguin, 2003.–, Persuasion. London: Penguin, 2003.Collins, Irene. Jane Austen and the Clergy. London: Hambledon, 1994.Duckworth, Alistair M. The Improvement of the Estate. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1994.Minma, Shinobu. “Self-deception and superiority complex: derangement of hierarchy in Jane Austen’s Emma.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction (14:1) 2001, 49-65. 2001.Woolf, Virginia. “A peculiar beauty and a peculiar dullness” rpt. in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion: A Selection of Case Studies. Ed. B.C. Southam. London: Macmillian, 1976.]
Female speech in Jane Austen’s novels is heavily dictated by the whims of her male characters, and although “[f]emale speech is never entirely repressed in Austen’s fiction, [it] is dictated so as to mirror or otherwise reassure masculine desire” (Johnson 37). However, there are times when women stray from the gendered rules of speech and, in expressing their opinions, threaten male control over discourse. In these situations men resort to either willful misinterpretation or forced silence in order to draw women back into their verbal control. Mary Crawford and Elizabeth Bennet are two of Austen’s more dynamic threats to male control over discourse, but even the meek and modest Fanny Price can become a threat by departing from the gendered rules of speech. When she refuses Henry’s proposal, Sir Thomas is stunned, having “[expected] from Fanny [a] cheerful readiness to be guided Her resistance implies an assumption of self-responsibility that challenges his authority” (Johnson 104).Mary and Elizabeth are atypical of Austen’s female characters in that their freedom of speech means that they do not need men to educate them or to form their opinions. Other heroines, such as Catherine Morland, are lost without a man to guide them. Without Henry Tilney to point out the natural beauty of Northanger Abbey, Catherine “should not know what was picturesque when she saw it” (NA 141). But Mary and Elizabeth are firm in both forming their own opinions and then expressing them. They are aware of and comfortable with their freedom of speech. Mary, when faced with Edmund’s disapproval of her flagrant speeches about morality and the church, counters with, “I am a very matter of fact, plain spoken being, and may blunder on the borders of a repartee for half an hour together without striking it out” (MP 84). Mrs. Bennet attempts to chastise Elizabeth for expressing her disapproval of Darcy, but Elizabeth refuses to be silenced: “What is Mr. Darcy to me, pray, that I should be afraid of him? I am sure we owe him no such particular civility as to be obliged to say nothing he may not like to hear” (PP 76). However, men find ways to force women like Mary and Elizabeth back into the framework of female speech. One way men overcome the threat of verbal rebellion is by willfully misinterpreting what women say. This allows the men to co-opt women’s voices and turn the women into modest and pliable mates. Although critic Claudia Johnson argues that women retain “the right of refusal” despite other limitations to their words and actions (36), men can invalidate that right by simply refusing to accept it. The two most salient examples of men undermining the right of female refusal are in the marriage proposals of Mr. Collins and Henry Crawford. Collins insists on receiving Elizabeth’s rejection as a type of marital foreplay, and he dismisses Elizabeth’s rejection by asserting his thorough comprehension of the female sex. He explains Elizabeth’s behavior to her as typical of those “young ladies [who] reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favor” (PP 82). Collins reasons that Elizabeth has no choice but to accept his proposal; she is, after all, at his mercy once her father dies and the Bennet estate becomes his. Collins also argues the point on what he sees as the quintessential female anxiety: that she will never be so lucky as to receive another marriage proposal. (Unfortunately, Charlotte Lucas proves the validity of this argument by marrying Collins because she sees this marriage as the only alternative to spinsterhood.) With all of this evidence, Collins says, “I must therefore conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me, I shall chuse to attribute it to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females” (PP 83). Elizabeth’s protestations mean nothing because Collins cannot conceive of a woman who would act outside of the gendered rules of speech. He interprets her words as a “mirror” that reflects back at him his desire for marriage, and he projects his feelings onto Elizabeth.Henry Crawford accepts Fanny’s refusal much in the same vein, although he does not attribute her refusal to flirting but rather to an excess of modesty that prevents her from accepting him until he has applied to Sir Thomas. Crawford then becomes a background figure while Sir Thomas attempts to convince Fanny that she, like Elizabeth, is simply playing the role of the lovestruck and (unlike Elizabeth) modest female by refusing Crawford: “I know he spoke to you yesterday, and (as far as I understand), received as much encouragement to proceed as a well-judging young woman could permit herself to give” (MP 284). Sir Thomas acts on Crawford’s interpretation of Fanny’s refusal. Rather than accepting the blow to his ego, Crawford projects his feelings onto Fanny the same way that Collins does to Elizabeth. Fanny, he reasons, is hampered in her acceptance of his proposal only because she has allowed her excessive modesty to overcome her true desires. And even once Sir Thomas accepts that Fanny hasor, rather, believes she hasreservations about marrying Crawford, he insists that she “[does] not quite know [her] own feelings” (MP 286). From both instances one gets the distinct sense that what these men are doing is attempting to show that men make better women than womenmuch as Henry Tilney does by flaunting his knowledge of novels and fabricsfor only men can truly understand what women want. But oftentimes men are not satisfied with just willfully misinterpreting what women say; there is a “dependence of certain kinds of masculine discourse on feminine silence” (Johnson 112). Edmund is horrified at Mary Crawford’s “blunted delicacy” (MP 416) and her almost masculine lack of restraint when it comes to the subject of sex and relationships. She has “no reluctance, no horror, no feminineshall I say? no modest loathings!” (MP 415). Mary’s willingness to speak her mind is very similar to Elizabeth’s, yet Mary is punished with banishment from Mansfield Park, whereas Elizabeth is rewarded with Darcy’s love. But Mansfield Park is the epitome of female imprisonment, where female speech is curtailed from childhood on. Indeed, the Bertram sisters’ education consists of learning “[to repress] all the flow of their spirits before [Sir Thomas]” (MP 16).Elizabeth, although free to say what she wishes in front of her father and Jane, is still feels the pressure of forced silence in regard to her family. Her family’s senseless speech strays so far from acceptable discourse that she cringes when Darcy converses with them. She knows how ridiculous her mother and sisters are and wishes, if not for their silence, at least for sensible conversation that will show her family worthy of Darcy’s approval. Elizabeth wants their speech to conform to Darcy’s aristocratic wishes, like other speech that “mirror[s] or otherwise reassure[s] masculine desire” (Johnson 37), and she feels “consoled” when Darcy meets the Gardiners and realizes that “she had some relations for whom there was no need to blush” (PP 193).But in an interesting twist, Elizabeth, in one of the freer moments with Darcy at the end of the novel, takes it upon herself to explain to Darcy why he fell in love with her. This situation is unique in that it is a moment at which the woman co-opts the man’s opportunity to speak and uses it to show her desires. Elizabeth’s behavior in this situation is analogous to General Tilney’s behavior with both Eleanor and Catherine. General Tilney commands Eleanor to “speak [her] opinion, for ladies can best tell the taste of ladies” (NA 139), and then he proceeds himself to explain the “taste of ladies.” Elizabeth asks Darcy to explain his attraction to her and, without waiting for a detailed response, explains it herself, ending with, “ThereI have saved you the trouble of accounting for it; and really, all things considered, I begin to think it perfectly reasonable” (PP 291). Like Collins and Crawford, Elizabeth interprets Darcy’s behavior to suit her needs. Darcy does, however, manage to exert some sort of power in the conversation by correcting Elizabeth’s claim that he liked her “impertinence” (PP 291). Darcy terms it “the liveliness of [her] mind” (PP 291), and while this is only a minor difference, it is still noteworthy as a moment of willful misunderstanding on Darcy’s part. Darcy’s correction makes Elizabeth sound more feminine. He alters her self-definition so that it coincides with the definition of acceptable female behavior, thus putting a positive spin on behavior that some people, such as the Bingley sisters, might object to. Darcy is one of only a few of Austen’s heroes who does not use discourse to influence and change the woman he loves. (Another exception is Edward Ferrars, but he lacks Darcy’s charismaMarianne notes that “there is a something wanting” [SS 14]and his character is so unequal to Elinor’s that his power to change her, if any at all, would be minimal.) Darcy disapproves of Elizabeth’s family, but he does not disapprove of her personality, even if it includes her un-feminine loquaciousness. Edmund becomes disillusioned with Mary because he has been unable to change her, and his attraction to Fanny is a “regard founded on the most endearing claims of innocence and helplessness her mind in so great a degree formed by his care, and her comfort depending on his kindness” (MP 429). Fanny’s silence throughout the novel allows Edmund to form her speech into something to his liking; he teaches her, in effect, what she as a “modest” woman can and cannot say. This master-pupil relationship is at the heart of the majority of Austen’s relationships.Austen’s novels show ambivalence toward the respective roles of men and women. While Elizabeth is the charismatic heroine of her story, Mary, who shares many of her traits, is an anti-heroine. Mary cannot compete with Fanny’s model of female modesty, and she must suffer because of it. Despite Mary’s fate, Johnson argues that women still have the opportunity to speak their minds, even though they risk being reduced to a “mirror” to reaffirm both their subordination and the masculinity of the men to whom they are speaking (37). According to Johnson, even when their ability to speak is curtailed, women still have the right of refusal (36). However, Mr. Collins and Henry Crawford make (unsuccessful) attempts to deny Elizabeth and Fanny even that right. Circumstance saves both Elizabeth and Fanny from the two menElizabeth’s in the form of Charlotte’s marriage to Collins and Fanny’s in the form of Crawford’s elopement with Maria Bertrambut there is a moment when both are in danger of becoming victims of the gendered rules of speech. Their adamant refusals are invalidated because Collins and Crawford choose to ignore their words. The women’s speech becomes meaningless because it no longer serves as a medium of communication. Although there is no explicit “repression” of their speech, the willful misinterpretation is as effective as any physical repression could be. The consequences of this psychological repression can even be deadly: General Tilney, while he never physically harmed his wife, still killed her “by quelling her voice and vitality” (Johnson 40). Even in death the wife cannot escape General Tilney’s control, for he has the power to shape her public memory. This is the ultimate submission of a woman to the male control of discoursea chilling portrait of women’s fate if men are successful in maintaining that control. Johnson, Claudia L. Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Jane Austen’s many novels contain a complexity of thought and a depth of character that distinguish them from other stories; Emma is no exception to this general rule. In fact, Emma’s most winning trait may well be the well roundedness of its characters. Every character displays unique behaviors that reflect the realistic mix of good and bad habits that most individuals have. In fascinating contradiction to this is the one-dimensional character development occurring in Clueless, a 1995 movie adaptation of Emma. Clueless’s simplistic approach to plot and characterization both enhances and detracts from the original story of Emma. Regardless, Clueless’s concept of the personalities of Emma is effective in that it expands the whole range of possible interpretations of the novel.Foremost in any discussion of Emma is Austen’s interestingly multi-dimensional portrayal of her protagonist, Emma. While Austen claimed to be writing of a character whom “no one” but herself would “much like”, Emma nonetheless seems winsome and good. The very first sentence of the novel describes her as “handsome, clever, and rich” and displaying some of the “best blessings of existence” (Austen 37). She has the “sense” and “energy” and “spirits” that others lack, and the care that she takes of her father is admirable (Austen 49). While Emma also seems very class-conscious and a little naive, Austen clearly establishes Emma as a character with only the best intentions. Austen does not hesitate to point out the faults of Emma; she does, however, avoid dwelling on them. For example, when Mr. Elton his love for Emma, she is “insulted” by the “arrogance” of this social “inferior”; she goes on to complain about the presumptuousness of someone of such lowly ties (Austen 154). This, along with Emma’s various other hierarchal remarks, illuminates Emma’s aristocratic, shallow side. At the same time, though, Emma’s good qualities constantly shine through. She admits that the “worst” error in the Elton incident was her own and regrets “making light” of something as serious as love, showing true remorse and realization of the wrongs of her matchmaking role (Austen 155). This pattern repeats throughout the novel; Emma seems blind to her faults but makes amends as soon as she recognizes them. Because of her good situation and good fortune, Emma is forced to acknowledge her faults only when she herself chooses to. The fact that Emma willingly, sincerely, and voluntarily tries to improve herself speaks greatly for character.Clueless presents an image of Emma that more heavily emphasizes the negative parts of her personality. Cher, a Beverly Hills version of Emma, seems exaggeratedly shallow and superficial, and almost everything she does is motivated by self-interest. She sets up Mr. Hall and Ms. Geist partly for entertainment but mainly so that Mr. Hall will raise her grades, showing her selfish nature. Her condescension becomes clear when she declares, “Ooh, project!” upon seeing Harriet; her desire to use her popularity for a “good cause” stresses her arrogance. As she walks through her high school campus identifying the different social groups, the reader sees the same social awareness that Emma stressed. Perhaps the most startling moment of the movie, though, is when Cher tells Lucy that she doesn’t “speak Mexican”. Although Cher apologizes to Lucy, she does not grasp why this would be offensive or why she should go out of her way to care about someone else’s feelings. This seems like the greatest departure from the actual text of Emma; Emma may be interpreted as self-important from the book, but she seemed far more attentive to the feelings of others, too. As for the rest of Cher’s image, this take on Emma’s character can easily be supported from the writings in Emma. Jane Austen chose to emphasize the good qualities of Emma rather than the bad, but the bad qualities that Clueless chose to exploit are undoubtedly a part of Emma. This is where the brilliance of Clueless reveals itself; Clueless manages to change a likeable character to a hideous one by simply underscoring parts of Emma that Austen brushed past.Jane Austen approaches Mr. Knightley, the other most interesting and important character in Emma, with the same kind of nonjudgmental tone as she did Emma. While he seems a very principled, kind man, Austen does not either fawn over Knightley or mention many of his bad characteristics. Knightley has “nothing of ceremony” (Austen 84) about him, instead being a man who values “sense” and “sincerity” (Austen 91). He is the “only one” to find fault with Emma; while this reveals how critical Knightley is, it also shows his honesty. Beyond this, one of the most attractive features of Knightley is his kindness. He is “gratified” when Emma finally attempts to overcome her jealousy for Jane Fairfax (Austen 185). He even sends over all of his apples to Jane, leaving for himself “not one” (Austen 246). In most ways Mr. Knightley seems a smart, kind person, but Austen never displays much enthusiasm for him, instead directing her attention towards Emma. Austen stresses neither Knightley’s faults nor his skills.Josh, Clueless’s representation of Mr. Knightley, plays a much larger role in Clueless than Knightley does in Emma. His character, like that of Cher’s, is much more black-and-white in the movie than in the novel. How much harder could Clueless’s producers have tried to make Josh the perfect person? In one scene he wears an Amnesty International shirt while talking of a tree-planting meeting. Every time he appears he is doing something studious or productive; when he isn’t helping Emma’s father with legal documents, he is reading Nietzsche by the pool or watching national news broadcasts. While Emma focused little on Mr. Knightley, Clueless shamelessly beat the idea of a perfect Josh into the ground. Josh and Cher play perfect opposites in Clueless.Clueless’s one-dimensionality of characterization is pivotal to its ability to enhance understanding of the original work, Emma. While lacking the sophistication of the original work, the breaking down of Emma and Mr. Knightley into more general categories makes the novel much more manageable. Clueless may be oversimplified, but this exaggeration makes a reader of Emma question different interpretations of character and question the seeming simplicity of right versus wrong. As Emma is a novel of characters, not plot, Clueless’s focus on the characteristics of different people is very helpful.Clearly, Clueless’s unique interpretation of characters from Jane Austen’s Emma interestingly contrasts the original story. While some threads of the story were altered, Clueless managed to stay true to the idea of Emma and still provide completely new, fresh insight into the characters of the story. Of course, in both Clueless and Emma Emma/Cher later have epiphanies about themselves and alter their characters, but more important than comparing every aspect of the movie and the novel is to acknowledge the basic differences of the two. Clueless tries to simplify issues of good and bad and exaggerate characteristics of each; Emma acknowledges the complexity of human nature.
“The exploration of different kinds of selfishness gives Emma considerable depth of meaning beneath it’s [sic] comic surface,” and also contributes to that comedy. Jane Austen’s characters inhabit a hyper-polite society, where admirable displays of selflessness and concern for others are often the result of characters’ self-interest, and what is right for them they consider right for everyone. Though many characters, such as Mr. Woodhouse Mrs. Elton, and Mr. John Knightley share this characteristic, it is most important in Emma and Mr. Knightley. Because the novel is filtered chiefly through their perspectives, it portrays a comically confused world in which social virtue and selfishness are indistinguishable when they help these characters, opposites when they do them harm, and worthless in their own right.Mr. Woodhouse, being Emma’s father, doubtless influenced her views of others. He is an invalid, or at least a hypochondriac, who provides a comic foil for Emma as he presses his opinions upon everyone. Because gruel is good for him, all the guests should have some; he is shocked that his grandchildren want to play with knives; he consistently calls Emma’s governess, who has just married Mr. Weston, “‘poor Miss Taylor'” (18), not because she made an unhappy match, but because in moving she bereft him of company. Emma gently corrects him, observing that “Mr. Weston is such a…pleasant…man, that he thoroughly deserves a good wife” (9), but as children often do, Emma notices her father’s faults without realizing that she has adopted them. She approves of Miss Taylor’s marriage not least because she considers it her own doing. Emma enjoys nothing more than matchmaking for her friends, and once Miss Taylor has wed, Emma is restless and lonely. Lacking a hobby, she befriends Harriet Smith, a young and well-supported girl of mysterious parentage, and brings her into society. Emma thinks that she is doing a great good to Harriet, but primarily she is amusing herself and flattering her own ego with generosity. Helping Harriet, she muses, “would be an interesting, and certainly a very kind undertaking” (22). Mr. Knightley observes that “[Harriet’s] ignorance is hourly flattery” (34); Emma can credit herself with all sorts of improvements in the patient, passive girl. When Mr. Elton lauds Emma for “the attractions [she has] added…infinitely superior to what [Harriet] received from nature” (37), Emma accepts this hyperbolic commendation with only polite modesty. Her good deed not only contributes to society, but wins society’s approval for her.Confident in her benevolence, Emma undertakes to marry Harriet to Mr. Elton, a man she calls “good humored, cheerful, obliging, and gentle” (30). Mr. Elton is Harriet’s social superior and has no interest in her, but Emma deludes herself into thinking he does. She advises Harriet to reject her suitor Mr. Martin, calling him a “gross, vulgar farmer” (30). Absorbed in doing good, Emma ignores Mr. Knightley’s warning that Mr. Elton cares a great deal about his future wife’s wealth; and when she learns that Mr. Elton is really in love with her, her ostensible pity toward Harriet quickly turns into self-pity and resentment of the previously-praised Mr. Elton. She reflects, “If I had not persuaded Harriet into liking the man, I could have born any thing” (112), then proceeds to find praise of her “ready wit” (112) and reasons to dislike Mr. Elton’s presumption to marry above his class, never entertaining the idea that Harriet is as socially inferior to Mr. Elton as he is to Emma.Soon afterward, Mr. Elton marries a rich merchant’s daughter and brings her to Highbury. Upon meeting Mrs. Elton, Emma requires only fifteen minutes’ acquaintance to compose a litany of her faults. Mrs. Elton is indeed a thoroughly unpleasant woman, but Emma judges hastily nonetheless. She rejects as impertinence Mrs. Elton’s offers of friendship: an introduction to Bath and the formation of a musical society; she is aghast that such a “little upstart, vulgar being” (229) could call Mr. Knightley a gentleman, despite the fact that she herself would agree with the sentiment. Frank Churchill’s opinions are more temperate; the only fault he finds in Mrs. Elton is her quickness of speech, but Emma cannot forget that “Harriet would have been a better match” (224). Because he proposed to Emma instead of Harriet, no wife of Mr. Elton’s could ever be virtuous in Emma Woodhouse’s eyes.Emma’s opinions are influenced by lack of connections as well. She and Harriet visit a poor, sick family, donating money and understanding. Emma reflects upon the ills of poverty, saying, “I feel now as if I could think of nothing but these poor creatures” (75) and then wondering how long she really will recall them. The brevity of her remembrance might surprise even herself; within a page she has decided that thinking upon the poor is but “empty sympathy” (75). The novel’s social consciousness abruptly vanishes and does not reappear until Emma’s chance remark some chapters later “of what the poor must suffer in winter” (129) and Harriet’s encounter with gypsies in the third volume. Emma’s visit to the sick family is as much to get exercise and have an excuse to lead Harriet to Mr. Elton as it is true kindness. The second mention is only to distract Harriet from thoughts of Mr. Elton. The third provides a backdrop for the valiant Frank Churchill to rescue her from “half a dozen children” (276) so that Emma will think Harriet is in love with him and not Mr. Knightley. None of these events focus on the plight of the actual poor; no poor people are named, and none speak; they are not important to Emma or any other character. Everyone at the Cole’s party is impressed by the liberality of the anonymous donor who gives Jane Fairfax a pianoforté, but none find it odd, even when they know that Frank Churchill presented the gift, that he also chased away a pack of gypsies without giving them a shilling. Frank Churchill himself presents an odd mixture of generosity and selfishness. He marries Jane Fairfax, a girl without money, and yet conducts his engagement at the expense of others. To hide the secret attachment from his adoptive mother, who would never allow it, he flirts with Emma. This distresses Miss Fairfax and risks distressing Miss Woodhouse even more. Frank Churchill claims, “‘had I not been convinced of [Emma’s] indifference, I would not have been induced by any selfish views to go on'” (359). He may be truthful, but he lays great stakes upon his judgement of character. Emma considers him “much, much beyond impropriety” (327). Her indignation is understandable, but in a sense absurd. She defends Frank Churchill’s inability to defy his parents in even the small matter of visiting Highbury, yet she would have him confess this engagement to them. Frank Churchill risks either loosing his beloved or embarrassing Emma. From Emma’s point of view, he chose selfishly; therefore, he breaks “the strict rule of right” (329) to save Miss Fairfax from the hideous fate of becoming a governess. But Emma has suffered no real wrongs, and Frank Churchill can use praise to win her back; “as soon as she came to her own name, it was irresistible…he had been less wrong than she had supposed” (364).Mr. Knightley also criticizes Frank Churchill unjustly, and his condemnation is more serious. Though Mr. Woodhouse’s views are humorously self-centered and Emma is not known for her unbiased consistency, Mr. Knightley’s viewpoint is dependable. He is accurate about Mr. Elton’s motives, sensible of Emma’s wrong to Harriet, and conscious of her envy toward Jane Fairfax, but even he judges according to his own biases. Before even meeting him, Mr. Knightley blames the “very weak young man,” (123) who can have no “delicacy toward the feelings of other people” (124) for not coming without his parents’ leave. While Emma, eager to fall in love with him, shrugs off Frank Churchill’s bizarre visit to London for a haircut, Mr. Knightley finds it evidence that the boy is a “trifling, silly fellow” (171). But when Mr. Knightley becomes engaged to Emma and discovers that jealousy of Frank Churchill was the only reason for his dislike, “if he could have thought of Frank Churchill…he might have deemed him a very good sort of fellow” (355). Nobody, not even the most trusted voice of reason, is free of selfish thought.Not even the most reasonable are free of love, either. Mr. Knightley’s engagement to Emma is marked by a great outpouring of selfish motives on both sides. Mr. Knightley realizes his jealousy of Frank Churchill; Emma, her wrong to Harriet. Yet Emma also dismisses the fear of disinheriting “her nephew Henry, whose rights as heir expectant had formerly been so tenaciously regarded” (368) when she had objected to a marriage between Jane Fairfax and Mr. Knightley. While Mr. Knightley is a sensible man whose sense is impeded by love, Emma is inherently selfish in her views, and though she changes her mind on some subjects, her opinions still serve herself. Only her goals have changed. Not until the end of the book does she stop thinking of her friendship with Harriet as a great favor. Only when Emma realizes that she has accidentally encouraged Harriet to love Mr. Knightley does she wish she had never raised the girl’s sights. Emma abandons any thought of self-sacrifice for her friend; “it must be her ardent wish that Harriet might be disappointed” (342). Learning that Mr. Knightley reciprocates her own feelings, Emma sees “that Harriet was nothing; that she was every thing herself” (353), and a match between Harriet and Mr. Martin, now a man “of sense and worth” (395) to her, becomes most agreeable; Emma has found a companion, a cure for her boredom, and no longer needs Harriet as friend or romantic surrogate. She does worry about Harriet’s fortunes, does feels truly sorry for her, but that does not prevent Emma from failing to invite her former friend to the next party, where Harriet “would be rather a dead weight” (369). Still later, Emma makes show of protestation to Mr. Knightley, but still “submit[s] quietly to a little more praise than she deserved” (388) for improving Harriet, a deed she has supposedly regretted.Harriet and the rest do marry well; Emma and Mr. Knightley reconcile their interests and still remain themselves. The narration is still biased, but at least the biases are more benign, and Emma has resolved to improve. She and Mr. Knightley can continue to reveal to each other, or at least argue over, the truth behind their perceptions. Mrs. Elton disapproves of the wedding’s insufficient pomp and the match altogether, but the couple happily ignores her warnings. Between themselves, Emma and Mr. Knightley hold all the novel’s correct evaluations of character, and they share their view of Mrs. Elton, who holds none. Mrs. Elton might be correct in her own book, but she is a character in Emma, where a proper wedding is whatever the Mr. Knightleys want it to be, and a happy ending lies in their content.
Societal expectations motivate the characters of Jane Austen’s Emma. Because societal perception plays such a large role in the lives of these characters, many concern themselves with how they should behave; a fact which Austen underscores by utilizing the word “ought” to subtly express the views of society and propriety. However, “ought” also carries with it the ability to choose to go against the moral and societal expectations that judge actions. Through Emma’s use of the word “ought,” the audience can see her mature from a manipulative girl into a caring woman.
As essentially the highest ranking member of Highbury society, Emma often voices her opinion in “ought” statements, carrying the weight of moral and societal expectation. The audience sees this when Emma tells Harriet that “she certainly ought to refuse [Mr. Martin],” as she feels that Harriet ranks too far above Mr. Martin to even consider his marriage proposal (Austen 33). This indignation on her friend’s behalf says more about Emma than it does about Harriet’s societal worth. Emma believes that because she has taken Harriet under her wing, Harriet should be considered of nearly the highest social class. She entirely disregards the fact that Harriet has no family name, assuming that her own high status could raise Harriet’s rank simply by virtue of association. Though Harriet carries strong feelings for Mr. Martin, Emma’s use of the word “ought” quickly persuades her to reject him. Harriet views Emma highly and therefore greatly values her opinion, but this manipulation goes beyond that. Emma stands in for the voice of society in this interaction. Because Emma so incredibly outranks Harriet, her word becomes law. Harriet wants acceptance into higher society and she believes Emma’s advice can get her there.
However, Emma does not tell only the lower ranks what they “ought” to do, but also those whose status outranks her own. This subversion of social hierarchy can be seen in her interactions with her father, Mr. Woodhouse. For example, Emma tells her father that “we ought to be thankful, papa” to try to dissuade his melancholy comments about the shortness of Isabella’s stay with them (Austen 53). Due to his age and wealth, Mr. Woodhouse navigates outside the realm of societal expectation, and consequently societal expectations have ceased to matter to him. Thus, Emma’s use of the word “ought” in her conversation with her father serves as an attempt to rein in his behavior, highlighting her role as his caretaker. In her subtle reminder of socially dictated reasonable behavior, she attempts to temper his oddities and impose her opinion on him, albeit less forcefully than with Harriet. As the only person for miles that outranks Emma, and as her father, Mr. Woodhouse holds a position where he should be telling Emma what ought to be done. But because he chooses not to fill this office, Emma becomes the more powerful Woodhouse. Mr. Woodhouse gives his daughter the power to alter his behavior and manage his expectations through the word “ought”. In using “ought,” Emma’s opinion merges into the thoughts of society, therefore wielding more weight and becoming a greater argumentative tool.
Emma continues to dictate what others ought to do, even when she does not know them. Both Emma and Mr. Knightly feel that Frank Churchill neglects his duties by not visiting his father. Mr. Knightly expresses his disapproval to Emma when he states, “[Frank Churchill] ought to have opposed the first attempt on their side to make him slight his father,” emphasizing that this reflects solely on Frank’s character (Austen 99). Societal conventions of courtesy dictate that Frank should visit his father, yet he has failed to do so. Mr. Knightly embodies the view of proper society as he unapologetically judges Frank for his lack of propriety and insulting behavior toward his father. Emma’s opinion differs slightly from Mr. Knightly’s harsh judgment, and his behavior does not mar her attitude toward him. While Mr. Knightly harbors resentment toward Frank, Emma quickly accepts him when he finally arrives in Highbury. While she understands the disrespect Frank shows to his father by not visiting, she becomes swept up in his lively character and forgives him his missteps. Emma says “he ought to come” simply because she wants to meet him, not because society dictates it as proper (Austen 82). Here, Emma conveys her personal opinion, but masks it with the word “ought” to appear as the opinion of society. This expresses a level of selfishness as she speaks to Mrs. Weston, the object of Frank Churchill’s insult. In not meeting his father’s new wife quickly after the marriage, he deeply slights her and her place within the family. But Emma seems more disappointed in her not meeting Frank every time he fails to arrive, rather than the sharp pain the Westons must feel. Emma’s lack of sympathy in this situation reveals that the degree of personal opinion that exists in her “ought” outweighs the sense of societal propriety.
Emma extends her judgment on smaller matters as well. She thinks that “the Coles were very respectable in their way, but they ought to be taught that it was not for them to arrange the terms on which the superior families would visit them” (Austen 138). This almost offhanded comment betrays Emma’s inherent sense of classism, and resulting sense of superiority. Because of Emma’s rank in society, she feels it acceptable to judge those around her, and her ideas about the behavior of others create an environment where she must always be disappointed. No characters in this story always do as they ought, but Emma still expects those around her to fall in with her personal expectations. While her personal expectations often coincide with the rules of propriety within society, it must be acknowledged that humans are imperfect creatures. Emma herself often fails to behave as she ought, so one would hope she could extend that courtesy to others. She even extends some annoyance toward Mr. Weston when she says, “General benevolence, but not general friendship, made a man what he ought to be” (214). This observation occurs because Emma feels slighted that she was not the only friend asked to arrive early to the ball. It comes from a place of personal disappointment, but Emma projects it onto the whole of society and all men. Thus, her distaste for Mr. Weston’s choices expands to a belief in his impropriety in Emma’s eyes. Because this comment also serves as a compliment to Mr. Knightly, it creates a distinction in class. While everyone finds Mr. Weston a very kind man, does not rank as high in society as Emma or Mr. Knightly. Because Mr. Knightly behaves with “general benevolence,” he exhibits signs of his higher-class upbringing. His behavior does not insult any of his acquaintances, and therefore Emma finds it preferable for society. In this, Emma says that the responsibility of the upper class revolves around moderation. They cannot be too friendly or too off-putting. In overextending the number of close friendships he has, Mr. Weston invariably pushes his friends away. He lessens the importance of friendship by sharing it with everyone. But Emma only notices this as it relates to herself, and turns a personal slight into an offense against societal propriety, as her position of power within the community allows. It does not matter that no one else witnesses this revelation; Emma will continue to judge others based on her own conceived notions of decorum.
Emma, who finds most to lack propriety from time to time, only finds fault in Mr. Knightly’s behavior once. At the ball, she noticed him “among the standers-by, where he ought not to be; he ought to be dancing” (Austen 218). While Mr. Knightly later rectifies this when he dances with Harriet, the instant still stands as a moment where Mr. Knightly does not behave as society expects. As an unmarried man, he should be dancing and Emma sees this flaw in him. The importance in Emma seeing this part of him lies in the complexity of their relationship. He always tells Emma what she ought to do, so Emma noticing him behaving poorly begins to level their playing field. Her maturity begins to catch up to his, and it shifts their relationship from that of siblings to that of caring friends. Their positions switch for a moment and allow Emma to view Mr. Knightly as less of an elderly brother figure and more as a nearly equal member in society. She has grown older and fully learned what society expects from everyone, and now resides in a position where she can judge Mr. Knightly. Although he rarely does anything to deserve negative judgment, the fact that Emma now can recognize his flawed behavior indicates her developed understanding of society. She embodies her rank as the pinnacle of Highbury society by internally critiquing everyone around her. Because not even Mr. Knightly escapes her reprimand, the audience can see that her youth no longer hinders her sense of propriety. She has enough years of experience to know what society expects and when people fail to comply with those expectations. Noting Mr. Knightly’s flaw also puts her in a position of superiority over a man. While this already occurred with her father and Mr. Weston, Mr. Knightly’s age and class make him the closest thing Emma has to an equal. She really begins to come into her maturity in this moment.
Prior to this, Mr. Knightly existed as the only person that could openly judge Emma. He rarely held his tongue in deference to her feelings, and bluntly details her mistakes when he says “she ought to set you a better example than to be renewing old grievances, and that if she were not wrong before, she is now” (Austen 66). His close relationship with her allows him this freedom and it implies the significance of their relationship that he is the only person who will tell Emma when she behaves poorly. To a certain degree, Mr. Knightly fills this role simply because Emma will actually listen to him. She respects his opinion and sometimes will reevaluate her actions based on what he says. This also emphasizes just how much Mr. Knightly cares for Emma. He potentially risks her affection towards him when he tells her that she conducts herself poorly, behaving selflessly in the name of helping her. The use of “ought” creates an interesting situation where Mr. Knightly can express his preferred course of action while not explicitly telling Emma what to do. He knows that he does not have the power to control her, but he ensures that she knows which option he considers to be superior. Mr. Knightly understands Emma’s lack of parental figures and takes it upon himself to fill that role to ensure she does not develop negative personality aspects as a result of being able to run free in her youth. He holds her to a reasonable standard and challenges her. Mr. Knightly treats Emma as a normal person and most importantly, embodies the closest thing she has to an equal. Emma does not have anyone else in her life that engages her on that level because in her relationships, societal disparities limit interactions. Emma fills many roles in her relationships including caretaker, advisor, and societal elevator, but none of these roles stimulate her intellectually. With Mr. Knightly, she fills the role of best friend, among many others. His support of her cannot be paralleled by any of her other acquaintances, even before their engagement. He loves her while understanding that she needs him to fill in the spaces she lacks. Their relationship merges them each into better versions of themselves.
Also through Mr. Knightly, Emma learns that she made a mistake in befriending Harriet. Because Emma believes Harriet and Mr. Knightly love each other, she emotionally thinks, “Oh! had she never brought Harriet forward! Had she left her where she ought, and where he had told her she ought!” (Austen 279). She knows that in not listening to Mr. Knightly from the beginning, she played an intrinsic role in her own devastation. Harriet would never even have an acquaintance with Mr. Knightly if not for Emma, and certainly would not have allowed her feelings to develop into love without Emma’s unknowing encouragement. But Emma only fully realizes her feelings for Mr. Knightly upon hearing that he might love someone else. So while not befriending Harriet may have saved her pain, it also would have denied her extreme happiness. Emma rarely absorbed Mr. Knightly’s advice fully until this moment. Because of her high degree of vexation, Emma interior thoughts take on the tone of Mr. Knightly’s pointed opinions. She fully acknowledges her mistakes for the first time in the novel and the use of the word “ought” continues to signify that she made the wrong choice. Emma disregarded the words of Mr. Knightly in favor of her own amusement, emphasizing her childlike mentality at the start of the novel. This scene invokes a comparison between the person Emma began the novel as and the person she grows into. Conflict forced her to mature because she had never before experienced significant problems. Her overwhelming regret exemplifies that she can now acknowledge her wrongs and feel negative repercussions. She grows to understand that her actions have consequences and that she cannot always manipulate people to get what she wants.
“Ought” in Emma conveys greater weight in every situation. Because society’s perception of a woman often decided the quality of her life, what these women ought to do becomes vital. However, the full weight of the societal expectations behind the word “ought” is never imposed on Emma. She understands its power over others and wields it as she pleases, but very few people attempt to persuade her with what society expects from her. Mr. Knightly tries to influence Emma by telling her what she ought to do, but even then it carries very little threat. Emma has a secure home and finances for the rest of her life, so the opinions of society cannot hurt her guaranteed comfort. Only once she realizes that she loves Mr. Knightly does the word “ought” hold any bearing on her. She finally cares what someone thinks about her, so the expectations of society and Mr. Knightly now must be taken into account. This is her first relationship where reciprocated love becomes uncertain and this forces her to think about her actions. In understanding the weight of societal and moral expectations, Emma matures beyond the privileged girl and comes to care about her role in the lives of those around her.
Austen, Jane. Emma. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1999. Print
Jane Austen’s classic is not merely a story of Emma Woodhouse’s journey of self discovery, nor is it just a tale of country romance, but rather, Emma chronicles the anxiety of its time: the destabilization of the classes. As the Industrial Revolution allowed for the democratization of money, more and more individuals were able to climb the social ladder in England as never before. With the formation of the ìnew middle classî came the blurring of class distinction and the impetus for the bourgeois identity crisis. With so many people gaining access to such signs of affluence as clothing, furnishings, and the means to move farther away from the city, the ability to distinguish the new middle class from the gentry was becoming difficult. From the characterization of the Eltons, Coles, Martins, and Sucklings, to the geography of the setting, Emma reveals bourgeois society’s fear of infiltration.Perhaps Austen’s best characterization of the nouveau riche comes in the form of Mr. and Mrs. Cole. A ìvery good sort of people…of low origin, in trade, and only moderately genteel,î the Coles have managed to improve their means quite considerably in a short amount of time to become, ìin fortune and style of living, second only to the family at Hartfieldî (132). Emma is particularly offended by their upward mobility and is determined to refuse their invitation to a dinner party: ìThe Coles were very respectable in their own way, but they ought to be taught that it was not for them to arrange the terms on which the superior families would visit themî (132). It is only after Emma realizes that all of her friends will be attending the party that she elects not to exercise the ìpower of refusalî (132), but rather to accept her invitation, thereby further facilitating the amalgamation of the classes.One of the more interesting illustrations of the dismantling hierarchy of the classes is Austen’s choice of setting for her characters. Highbury is situated in the country and consists primarily of estates and cottages. What is interesting to note is the status of these estates and their relationship to one another. Most revealing is George Knightley’s huge estate of Donwell Abbey, associated with a lineage predating Henry VIII, and its connection to Abbey Mill Farm and Hartfield. Given its relation in name and close proximity to Donwell Abbey, it is highly likely that Abbey Mill Farm was once a part of Knightley’s estate. But, the farm is now occupied and owned by Robert Martin and his family and is no longer in an inferior position to Donwell. Similarly, given Hartfield’s adjacency to Donwell Abbey, it is conceivable that it, too, was previously associated with the larger estate. This geography is an effective illustration of the fracturing countryside and the dismantling of paternal dominion.Another particularly effective depiction of the countryside’s vulnerability is Austen’s narration of Harriet’s attack by the gypsies. In a passage akin to Dickens’ description of the working class’s uncomfortable proximity to the suburbs, Austen writes: ì[T]he Richmond road, which, though apparently public enough for safety, had led them into alarm.óAbout half a mile beyond Highbury, making a sudden turn, and deeply shaded by elms on each side…they had suddenly perceived…a party of gipsiesî (214). In this scene, Harriet and her companion are accosted by ìhalf a dozen children, headed by a stout womanî (214) begging for money. After Harriet gives them a shilling and begs them not to harm her, she is further approached, ìor rather surrounded, by the whole gang, demanding moreî (214). This description characterizes the popular caricature of the teeming masses of the working class, and it is a further representation of bourgeois social fears. Perhaps even more telling than the characterization of the gipsies in this scene is the characterization of Harriet. Throughout this passage, Harriet is referred to as ìMiss Smithî and a ìlady,î thereby masquerading Harriet’s class affiliation. At this point, Austen shows the reader that Harriet’s class goes unquestioned and that the inability to distinguish class in this society is becoming more difficult. Not only is the fear of invasion epitomized in the gypsy attack, but the anxiety of infiltration is further evidenced by Harriet’s new class ambiguity. Despite her newly acquired genteel addresses in this scene, Harriet is still masterfully prevented from rising too high in Highbury through her appropriation by Emma.Emma, in her obsessive narcissism, appoints Harriet her protégé and assumes the role of friend and guide. But, rather than improving Harriet’s position, Emma’s concerns revolve around how Harriet may be most useful to her and how Harriet’s actions will best reflect on Emma’s reputation. As Emma’s fancy inspires her to invent a history for Harriet, Harriet assumes the role of Emma’s canvas, both literally and figuratively. When Emma is not painting Harriet’s portrait, she is stylizing her character, particularly telling her who she should and should not marry. Throughout the text, Harriet is continually referred to as a ìNobody,î further emphasizing her dehumanization by Emma. As Austen writes: ìHarriet had a sweet, docile, grateful disposition…[and]…Altogether [Emma] was quite convinced of Harriet Smith’s being exactly the young friend she wantedóexactly the something which her home required…Harriet would be loved as one to whom she could be usefulî (15). In this way, Harriet’s class ambiguity is overshadowed and controlled by Emma’s appropriation of her. Augusta Elton is another character who illustrates the blurring of class distinction through her appropriation of signs of affluence. Aside from her repeated references to Bath, Maple Grove, and her relative’s, the Sucklings, elegant carriage, Augusta’s soul desire is to manage everyone and everything, and to secure a position in bourgeois society. In her attempt to move in on genteel society, Augusta is keenly aware of the positions of those around her, and, as a result, her motivation to manage others moves toward the commodification of Jane Fairfax. As ìtwinsî of snobbery and manipulation, both Emma and Augusta take it upon themselves to locate those in positions of inferiority, and through commodification they seek to maintain their respective statures. As Emma repeatedly snubs Robert Martin, the Coles, and others, Augusta thinks quite highly of herself and makes Harriet the target of her rebuke. This act of snobbery is particularly ironic considering both Augusta and Harriet come from mercantile parents. Similarly, both Emma and Augusta seek to take young, disadvantaged women under their charge to groom and improve them. As Augusta describes her intentions toward Jane, the reader can hear the echo of Emma’s statements regarding Harriet: Jane Fairfax is absolutely charming…I quite rave about Jane Fairfax. A sweet, interesting creature. So mild and ladylike…She is very timid and silent. One can see that she feels the want of encouragement…I am a great advocate for timidity…Jane Fairfax is a very delightful creature, and interests me more than I can express.óI shall certainly have her very often at my house, shall introduce her wherever I can. (180-181)Augusta appropriates herself the patroness of Jane and thereby acquires a sign of gentility. Later, Augusta tells Jane that she has secured her a job as a governess with a family of her sister’s friend in town, thereby securing Jane’s removal as a threat. Both Jane and Harriet are relatively broke and devoid of parentage, but their noble qualities and charm make them threatening to a bourgeois society that is increasingly violated by those who possess appealing personal attributes rather than solely large bank accounts. For this reason, Emma and Augusta, in their obsessive narcissism, feel the need to control these women; to maintain their superior status. As the novel closes with the allusion to home break-ins in the countryside, Austen reminds her readers that the threat of violation to the estates of the bourgeoisie is very real. As Knightley moves in with the Woodhouses, it is clear that ìthe small band of true friendsî (313) must group together to combat such a threat. Under the guise of consideration, benevolence, and parental guardianship, Emma and Augusta cope with their inability to manage the upward mobility of the nouveau riche by plotting to maintain the inferiority of the young women they purport to improve.
Not all art is moral, but all that is moral is art. Especially art which intends to improve life rather than degrade. Set in the early nineteenth century, Emma by Jane Austen traces the social circles of Highbury—particularly the life of Emma Woodhouse, a wealthy daughter of a gentleman who enjoys matchmaking others but participates little in romance herself. In “What is Art?” Leo Tolstoy delves into the nature, state, and purpose of art; above all, Tolstoy remarks that art is not art without moral or emotional intention. Similarly, John Gardner remarks that art must be life-affirming in order to be art. Although Tolstoy and Gardner lived a century apart, their like-minded criteria can evaluate any piece of art—including Emma. Based on Tolstoyan and Gardner’s artistic standards, Emma by Jane Austen would classify as art due to the foil characters to Emma who depict proper moral behavior such as her friend Harriet Smith and acquaintance and rival Jane Fairfax; in addition Emma and Frank Churchill are characters which are not embodiments of ideal moral standards but marry their moral “superiors” which fits the criteria of moral art.
In Emma, Harriet Smith represents the primary foil character to Emma Woodhouse. Though opposite in nature, they both become great friends. However, Harriet’s age and naivete grant her more as a subordinate to Emma rather than her equal. Nonetheless, Emma should hope to become more like Harriet because she represents all of the qualities a woman of early nineteenth-century English society would hope to possess; which includes “‘ … Sweetness of temper and manner, a very humble opinion of herself, and a great readiness to be pleased with other people. I am very much mistaken if your sex in general would not think such beauty and such temper, the highest claims a woman could possess’” (Austen 73). Emma describes Harriet to Mr Knightley as if she is advertising her friend to a potential suitor. Harriet embodies perfect moral standard in that she does not push to get what she wants in the same way as Emma. Austen’s novels prominently feature—and often satirize—social standards. Coincidentally, Harriet Smith represents such standard: she is a respectable, agreeable, and kind young woman. Therefore, she makes the perfect mold for Emma to shape. She has an impatient temper and often manipulates the lives of others but still holds a high regard for social standards. Emma depicts social roles as more valuable than life itself, which grants it artistic integrity since Tolstoy remarks, “All that now … makes the social life of man possible (and already now this is an enormous part of the order of our lives)— all this has been brought about by art” (Tolstoy). Art sets the standard for morality—not society—though society can utilize art as a way to set laws and moral codes to follow. The intention of art is to halt violence and insurrection. Otherwise, society cannot function because immoral societies do not endure. The connection between Tolstoy and Austen is the emphasis on morality in society, and Harriet Smith is the epitome of the good necessary to placate social roles.
Another foil character of Emma is her acquaintance, Jane Fairfax. However, Jane resembles more of a rival than a friend to Emma in that she is an agreeable but rather indifferent young woman. While there is no actual hostile interaction between them, Emma does not like Jane because she is envious of her character. In fact, Emma even admits to her envy when “Mr Knightley had once told her it was because she saw in her the really accomplished young woman, which she wanted to be thought herself; and though the accusation had been eagerly refuted at the time, there were moments of self-examination in which her conscience could not acquit her” (Austen 193). Clearly, Emma wishes she could possess the same attractive qualities as Jane. She is not truly Emma’s rival, but Emma holds her to petty prejudice. Even when Jane Fairfax is ill, Emma secretly hopes she does not get better because she did not want to see her rival in good spirits. Nonetheless, Emma never commits any harm toward Jane, because that would be immoral. Art is necessary to inform how someone should act toward other members of society: “If by art it has been inculcated how people should treat … their relations, strangers, foreigners, how to conduct themselves to their elders, their superiors, to those who suffer, to their enemies” (Tolstoy). Particularly, treatment toward enemies. Behavior is necessary for social roles and standards, and morals should not be compromised. Emma is art because art, by nature, is moral and therefore should teach others how to act accordingly to social standards. Emma treats Jane Fairfax like any heroine of a nineteenth-century novel set in society: debase her in casual conversation when she is not around or in her thoughts. Since Emma is a high member of society, she cannot do much more toward Jane, and Austen implements that art does not tolerate conflict, which represents Tolstoy’s ideals of art.
As opposed to the previous characters, Frank Churchill is not a foil but a parallel of Emma. Frank Churchill is the son of Emma’s family friend Mr. Weston and former governess Mrs. Weston, though she had never met him before. Austen inserts an interesting dynamic between Emma and Frank Churchill: at first, they are simply acquaintances but become close friends in time. However, that connection severs when Emma convinces herself that Frank is in love with her. After that situation, Emma’s comfort with Frank subsides to near resentment. Later, she learns of his engagement to Jane Fairfax—her rival. Though her opinion of him levels, Emma still does not want to see herself in Frank’s character, but she cannot help but compare them since “‘ … There is a likeness in our destiny; the destiny which bids fair to connect us with two characters so much superior to our own’” (Austen 567). Emma and Frank Churchill are not perfect embodiments of moral behavior, but the novel emphasizes that they are generally good characters who marry spouses that are morally greater than themselves. Even when he marries Jane Fairfax, Emma acknowledges that Jane is a more suitable match for Frank than she, and that is because while Jane—along with Harriet and Mr Knightley—depict foil characters to Emma, she and Frank are strikingly similar in behavior and matrimony. According to Gardner, art should intend to heal rather than scar: “Art begins in a wound, an imperfection—a wound inherent in the nature of life itself— and is an attempt to learn to live with the wound or heal it” (Gardner 181). In this case, Emma and Frank are the wounds who hope to become better people through their individual marriages to superior characters. From the start, the novel reveals Frank and Emma as imperfect people—not that Harriet, Jane, or Mr Knightley are perfect, but characters constantly dote about their good-nature and kindness—and by the end, they are still imperfect, but willing to accept their place beneath their morally superior spouses.
Between Harriet Smith and Jane Fairfax, these feminine foil characters of Emma embody ideal moral figures of early nineteenth-century social standards in England. Austen emphasizes subjects within the novel such as social roles, moral standards, and little tolerance for immoral behavior. Emma may not be the most ideal depiction of moral behavior, but she respects her position in society by marrying her family friend and suitor Mr Knightley as well as befriending and supporting Harriet, both of whom Emma refers to as her moral superiors. Therefore, Emma would classify as art according to Tolstoy and Gardner due to the novel’s purpose and intention of upholding moral social standards. Perhaps art imitates life, but it is far more likely that life imitates art—especially if that art is moral.