This post contains major spoilers.
Emma is the second Jane Austen novel for me. This book has so much to recommend and it is so many things. The characters are expertly crafted, and the story is fun and meaningful. Austen often writes effective satire and easily amuses. It includes complex commentary on the English class system of the time. It is full of insightful wit and wisdom. This is another novel that is so beloved by readers that it is almost a paragon in the eyes of its fans. My contention is that it does indeed deserve much of the praise that it has garnered.
The book’s namesake is Emma Woodhouse. Emma is intelligent, lively and often kind and supportive of her friends. At the same time, she is deeply flawed. She is socially and intellectually snobbish. She looks down on the majority of her acquaintances and neighbors. While she tries to be helpful and generous to the people whom she likes, she is hypercritical of those who she does not approve of. She seems to lurch between states when she is self-aware and other periods where she seems blind to her own vices.
With all of this, Emma, even at her worst, is not an unpleasant character to read about. She is so humorous, witty and engaging. Austen’s words that describe even her foibles are a pleasure to read. Despite her flaws, her redeeming qualities are also numerous. She is ultimately a marvelous literary creation.
There are several additional wonderfully drawn characters. George Knightley is a good friend who is never afraid to point out Emma’s bad behavior. He is also quick to criticize others, but he also shows a core of decency.
Jane Fairfax is a young woman of whom Emma is initially unfairly critical. This is in contrast to Harriet Smith, another young woman who Emma takes under her wing and attempts to find a husband for. In the course of this attempted matchmaking, Emma does more harm than good.
Mr. Frank Churchill is a young man who presumably shows romantic interest in Emma as well as in other young women in the circle.
Through much of the narrative, Emma declares that she is not interested in marriage. Nevertheless, the plot involves Emma and her friends’ romantic entanglements, all aimed, of course, at finding spouses.
In this this post I focused on how in Pride and PrejudiceAusten explored the concept of human perception in very sophisticated ways. Reading Emma
Harriet Smith in procuring a husband. Early on, Emma becomes convinced that an attractive young man, Philip Elton, is in love and about to propose marriage to Harriet. Emma’s certainty on this issue convinces Harriet of Elton’s affections. I was similarly taken along with Emma’s theory, adding to the effect for me.
Emma is subsequently shown to be completely wrong when Elton professes his love for Emma herself, and he declares that he is uninterested in Harriet. Needless to say, Emma spurns Elton’s proposal in what is a very bad scene for both of them.
Later, a similar process occurs when another young man, Frank Churchill, comes into the picture. At first, Emma believes that Churchill is enamored with herself. Declaring to herself that she is uninterested in his affections, she subtly steers Frank toward Harriet. Our heroine once again becomes convinced that she has helped create a match for Harriet. Once again, this proves to be a miscalculation when Frank declares that he has been secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax. To add insult to injury, Emma is shocked when Harriet declares that she was never interested in Frank. She instead reveals a budding interest in George Knightley, who Emma comes to realize that she herself is in love with.
Emma’s belated self-acknowledgement of her love for Knightly, someone that she has known for years, may be the ultimate flaw in perception. Emma comes to understand that she has been in love with the man for some time, yet never admitted this to herself.
At the moment when Harriet informs Emma that she has fallen for Mr. Knightly, and that it seems that Knightly has fallen for her, the revelation comes upon Emma,
“Emma's eyes were instantly withdrawn; and she sat silently meditating, in a fixed attitude, for a few minutes. A few minutes were sufficient for making her acquainted with her own heart. A mind like hers, once opening to suspicion, made rapid progress. She touched— she admitted— she acknowledged the whole truth. Why was it so much worse that Harriet should be in love with Mr. Knightley, than with Frank Churchill? Why was the evil so dreadfully increased by Harriet's having some hope of a return? It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself! “
All of this makes the novel a brilliant study in human perception and misperception. By including the reader in some of the confusion, Austen adds another level to what is, in a way, a case study into a certain aspect of human psychology.
There is a lot more going on in this book than commentary on people’s tendency to perceive the world incorrectly. As I pointed out above, there is a lot to recommend in this novel. It is a must read for anyone who likes other Austen books or English literature in general. Emma