Sunday, February 7, 2010

Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks: Emma

In the afterword of my edition of Jane Austen's Emma, Graham Hough of Christ's College, Cambridge, writes, "Emma has a good claim to be the most perfect of Jane Austen's novels, the one in which comedy and gravity, irony and sympathy, are most completely blended."  While the latter point may be true, I most humbly disagree with the former.

Characterization is crucial in Austen's novels; yet the main characters in Emma are not as developed as in other of her works.  Emma Woodhouse is not as complex or appealing to me as, say, Elizabeth Bennet or Elinor Dashwood.  Mr. Knightley, although likeable, remains static throughout with no great surprises or revelations.  Even the stock character of the young-man-well-thought-of-who-turns-out-to-be-duplicitous is not as dissolute or at the very least as questionable as he is in other of Austen's works.  Moreover, Emma and Mr. Knightley's relationship doesn't seem as real to me.  Austen's recurrent theme of marriage as a satisfactory union of equanimity for both parties fails to ring true in Emma.  Mr. Knightley and Emma never seem as equals to my mind; he is always her superior.

For me, Emma lacks a certain depth that's richly presented in other Austen novels I've read, such as Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion.  In these three works, the protagonist experiences an awakening of sorts, a period of growth that leads to a better understanding of herself and others.  Under Austen's skillful pen, this revelation is not epiphanic, but a slow transformation over the course of the narrative.  I found this element more subdued in Emma, which is disappointing.

Despite all its (to me) drawbacks, I still like Emma.  Reading it for yourself would not be at all a waste of time.  I appreciate both the humorous elements as well as the grave; and I completely enjoy the irony as only Austen can portray it.  But if I were stranded on a desert island, I'd choose to have another Austen novel or two with me.  (Along with a short-wave radio transmitter.  Why does no one ever think to have one of those, too?


  1. I agree, though Emma does make a lovely film, and I find it hard to remember that of course Jane Austen couldn't exactly have planned it that way !!
    If I could only have one of her novels, it would be Sense and Sensibility. I would rather keep Elinor than anyone else.

  2. Probably because the short-wave transmitter would be kind of like wishing for 3 more wishes. It defeats the purpose of the question! It's not such a bad idea if you were actually preparing for a trip, though.(Ha, ha!)

    I'm glad you like Emma a little bit.:) I like it a lot. Maybe I am more partial to Emma because it is the second Austen title I read.

    I don't necessarily agree that the characters aren't as well developed. I do agree that they are somewhat static in the book, but I think that is more true to life. It is rare that someone undergoes big changes of character quickly, unless as a result of giving one's life to Christ, which does not happen in any of Austen's work, that I know of, anyway. I think the unchanging character of Mr. Knightley is particularly apt. At his age, he should be somewhat settled. Besides, he had so few flaws, he didn't have much room to improve. He does seem to see that his attentions to Jane Fairfax could be misinterpreted, and takes pains to see that they are not in his conversations with his friends. I think his choosing Emma to be his wife, when he could obviously look elsewhere and would probably be well-received wherever he decided to look, seems natural, too. He is doing what many do; he is attracted to someone who is somewhat his opposite. Many of Austen's characters choose a life mate who is inferior to them. Elinor Dashwood is an excellent example, in my opinion. She is as level-headed as they come, always faces the truth, but she is hopelessly in love with a wimp. He does, finally, grow a short spine, but he is still a wimp, seeking his mother's approval and bowing to her whims.

    I think Emma, herself, goes through some changes. She is so remorseful for having convinced Harriet to love Mr. Elton, she recognizes that it is all her fault. By the end of the book, she has decided Mr. Martin is good enough, even for her friend. She does truly try to be a better friend to Harriet, too. She even sees her rudeness to Jane Fairfax and her aunt and tries to remedy it. She is only partially successful in most areas of reform, but aren't we all?

    Anyway the things you don't like in this book, are the things that make it more likeable to me. Funny.

    Thanks for sharing about Emma. I hope you read more Austen this year so we can continue this. If you don't mind. I don't have anyone with whom to talk about Austen's work, but you. (Did you hear the pitiful whine?)

    By the way, do you know how to underline or italicize text in a comment box? It's embarassing not to know. It makes me look ignorant on the www, of all places!

    Hope you and Tiny Girl are feeling much better, BTW. And that M. and Miss Priss stay well.


  3. Hi Mindy! You make some great points and supported them very well. It is true that the static characters are more true to life, but I want more pizzazz in my literature! And you are also right that quick major character changes are rare; I've always admired Austen for being able to portray changes of heart or mind (and greater understanding) as progressions that develop over the course of the novel; something that is not as apparent (to me, at least!) in _Emma_. And it's more interesting when several characters experience this, and not just the protagonist.

    Please know I'm not slamming _Emma_! It's far and away MUCH better than many other books. It just lacks, to a degree, several Austen characteristics that I adore.

    Under the Comment window, there's a note about HTML tags. I tried to use the italics one in this comment, but it didn't work. I got an error msg. about the tag not being "closed." I thought I knew how to make it work, but I see I don't! Maybe someone else will pipe up.

  4. I didn't think you were slamming Emma, just because it isn't your favorite! I just think that the characters seem more real to me in this book. I love that her characters are not perfect. I think it is kind of funny that Jane Fairfax doesn't really change at all, although Emma's perception of and attitude toward her does change.

    I do understand what you mean by pizzaz in literature. Actually, this is similar to the reason I reject lots of movies and TV shows. I can get reality fromt he news. I'd rather have a happy ending any day!

    Thanks for answering me. As I said, I appreciate the opportunity to talk Austen. Maybe a post on your favorite would be fun for you to write? It would be fun for me to read!



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