Thursday, October 16, 2014

Emma by Jane Austen

This post contains major spoilers.

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 Prejudice, Austen explored the concept of human perception in very sophisticated ways. Reading Emma, I see a similar theme. The author plays with the concept of perception and individual bias quite a bit in this novel. Emma herself is both the perpetrator and the victim of her own mischaracterizations.

In some ways, this novel can be described as a misreading of the world based upon Emma’s incorrect perceptions. Like Pride and Prejudice, this work is written in third person, but it is mostly written from the main character’s, in this case Emma’s, point of view. Not only does Emma see the world from a distorted vantage point, her misperceptions take the reader along for the ride.

As noted above, Emma attempts to assist 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 is both a high artistic achievement and a very fun read.


JacquiWine said...

Another favourite from my school days. It's Emma's flaws that make her all the more believable and endearing as a character. I like the way you've focused on the theme of perceptions and misperceptions (including the role of the reader in this mix). Very true.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui - Lately, I seem to be reading a lot books that others read when younger.

I will be looking for these same themes when I read more Austen, they seem to have been a focus for her.

Anonymous said...

Hello Brian, I was very interested to read this as, purely by coincidence, I finished my latest re-read of "Emma" earlier this week. I think I must admit that Austen is not really my kind of writer, but that is just a personal observation that has no place in criticism. The artistry of the novel is self-evident.

I'll try to put up a post on "Emma" some time next week. Currently, I am wondering whether I could present it as Austen's "Crime and Punishment". (Well - it's much the same story, isn't it? It's the story of transgression and redemption...) It'll take a bit of work, but it might be fun. But then, I might decide that it's all a bit too silly, and write something a bit more sensible instead!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Himadri - I do think that that when I was younger I would have said the same thing about Austen not being my kind of writer, but as I get older I seem to appreciate all kinds of different things including happy endings!

I agree with you regarding literary criticism. On the other hand these personal blogs are really for us all to discuss books and we do not always need to adhere to the rules, even if we choose to do sometimes.

I actually have not yet read Crime and Punishment but I really need to get to it.

I look forward to your upcoming posts.

Lindsay said...

Great commentary on this novel Brian, one that I haven't read for so many years, in fact I was at school too I think when I read it. Time for a re-read for me!

Felicity Grace Terry said...

I remember thinking it odd at the time and looking back still think it odd that none of these classics featured on my o level English Literature course all those years ago. In fact they weren't read at school at all, I only got to read some of them because my mam had studied them as a schoolgirl and still had her copies.

As a matter of interest our set o level texts were Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Chaucer's The Pardoner's Tale and George Orwell's 1984.

Suko said...

Thank you for your astute, in-depth commentary, Brian Joseph. I have not read Emma, but I did see a good film version (1996) a few years ago. I do feel that I would also enjoy the book--greatly.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - There are so many Classics that seems impossible to include even a tiny fraction in any curriculum.

It does sounds as if you had a fine list!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - It is really a great book and I think that you would like it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lindsay - It seems like lot of folks read this long ago.

I think that there is a lot going on in this work that one needs a bit of maturity to understand.

Caroline said...

I enjoyed this one a great deal as well. I think it's her funniest but that doesn't mean it isn't deep. Emma is flawed but she never annoyed me. She's quite endearing. I need to re-read it and re-watch the movie as well.

Caroline said...

I enjoyed this one a great deal as well. I think it's her funniest but that doesn't mean it isn't deep. Emma is flawed but she never annoyed me. She's quite endearing. I need to re-read it and re-watch the movie as well.

Caroline said...

I enjoyed this one a great deal as well. I think it's her funniest but that doesn't mean it isn't deep. Emma is flawed but she never annoyed me. She's quite endearing. I need to re-read it and re-watch the movie as well.

Caroline said...

I'm not sure whether my comment was "eaten" or whether it needs approving?

Caroline said...

I'm so sorry for this triple comment. Not sure why I one comment was lost and three of the second appeared?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - No worries, for some reason Blogger thought that your first comment was Spam.

It is striking how fun and playful Austen's prose can be at times will simultaneously being meaningful and deep.

Andrew Blackman said...

Nice commentary, Brian! Unlike many other people, I never read this, even in my younger years. Was good to hear your thoughts on it. I mostly read contemporary literature, but enjoy returning to the classics sometimes. Just finished Bleak House and loved it!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Andrew - Thanks for the good word.

I recently read Bleak House myself for the first time. It was indeed phenomenal. This one was well worth it too.

Sharon Wilfong said...

I love Emma. I don't know if I completely agree with you, if I'm understanding you, that the reader can be mislead by Emma's perceptions. I could see Emma's fallible thinking throughout and found her frustrating. Especially when she manipulates her friend Harriet while oblivious to the fact that that is what she's doing.
I do like how human she is. She really messes up, but luckily she does have Mr. Knightly to serve as an older brother/ mentor to set her right.
Then there's the mystery between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax who I didn't like for a lot of the story until the end. I suppose in that way, Emma did mislead me because I saw her through Emma's eyes.
It's such a great story! Take care.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - Though I knew going in that Austen liked to play with perception, I may have been a little more mislead then you were :)

I was a bit fooled on the both Dally Fairfax and at least for a time , on Harriet's potential suiters.

Emma is definitely a very likable character despite her flaws.

Anonymous said...

Great commentary. I totally agree with you, everything is about perception, just like Pride & Prejudice.
The difference between the two is that the reader sees that Emma has a wrong perception of the people around her. The reader knows before her what's going to happen with Mr Elton (The carriage scene is wonderful, btw) and guesses something is fishy in Frank Churchill's behaviour. Perhaps it's because Mr Knightley acts as a pointer in his discussions with Emma.

I also think it's a great book about the condition of women in that time and it also shows the social classes of the English country.

As always with Austen, it seems light and romantic but it's deep.


Brian Joseph said...

Hi Emma - The social commentary regarding classes is so well done. I did not even touch upon that. One could write volumes about it.

Thanks for the good word.

JaneGS said...

You're right, Emma works as a novel because the pov is entirely Emma's--the reader sees only through her eyes and so is misguided just as she is.

I love this book and enjoyed reading your post of a first time reading!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - I guess that some commenters have remarked that they were not fooled by Emma's bias bias at all. I must say that early on, I was.