Austen’s Selective Focalization in Emma

June 6, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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