Implications of the Narrative Technique in Jane Austen's Emma

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2012

15 Pages, Grade: 1,0










1. Introduction

Jane Austen’s novel Emma tells the story of Emma Woodhouse, an interesting, intelligent and wealthy young woman, gradually learning the importance of accepting the people around her for what they are.

The novel is set in early 19th century England in and around the fictional village of Highbury. Emma and her father lead a somewhat isolated life due to a perceived social and intellectual superiority to most of the other families in the village. Bored with herself and her life at times, she develops an interest in interfering with the lives of others for their alleged benefit, especially in contriving love-matches between her acquaintances. As the novel progresses, however, Emma is forced to accept that she is repeatedly mistaken in her conceptions and ventures. Striving to match her protégé Harriet to Mr Elton, the village vicar, she is unaware that he is in fact in love with her; her subsequent attempts to interest Frank Churchill, a young man from a sophisticated family background, in Harriet go awry when it turns out that he has long been secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax, a highly accomplished young woman from a modest background. Moreover, Emma believes she perceives signs of attachment between Mr Knightley, her brother-in-law and an old friend of her family, and Harriet and Jane Fairfax at different stages of the novel. Yet the realisation of her frequent misapprehensions and subsequent repentance help her to an awareness of her own flaws and to maturing her personality. Although she, ironically enough, frequently declares that she herself has never had any interest in marriage herself, this development in character also ultimately allows her to discover her love for Mr Knightley, whom she almost alienates repeatedly owing to her constant charades. Despite many misunderstandings, the novel closes with Emma's acquaintances being married one way or another, nonetheless, including herself.

Emma is regarded by many as Jane Austen’s most skilfully crafted novel. Not only the simple eloquence, but also the differentiated characters and amusing discourse of the novel render it appealing to most readers and, consequently, a classic of the British literary canon. What is more, Jane Austen undoubtedly commanded the ability to maintain the reader’s interest throughout her narrative, as Somerset Maugham rightly observed. Though, frankly, the topic of the narrative might not generally be my first choice, I, too, experienced this sensation of continued interest and would now argue Emma to be a valuable reading experience. To my mind, this is greatly due to Austen’s choice of narrative technique.

The aim of this term paper is, therefore, to examine in what way the narrative technique influences our reading experience. To this end, I will begin with determining what type of narrator Jane Austen decided to employ. Thereafter, I will analyse how this influences the creation of suspense and our reception of characters. In a final step, I will attempt to define the distinct quality of the narrator’s voice, before giving a conclusion.

2. The narrative voice

Any analysis of the narrative techniques of a novel necessarily has to begin with discerning what type of narrator we are confronted with. In the case of Emma, this is easy to accomplish as we have a narrator who holds a fairly large share of the narrative discourse, especially over the first few pages of the novel, readily allowing us to gain a number of important impressions early on.

The narrative begins with the introduction and characterization of the eponymous heroine Emma Woodhouse and gives background information on the family, as well as some of the major characters to be, to an addressee:

‘Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. […] he was very much disposed to think Miss Taylor had done as sad thing for herself as for them, […].’ (pp 5-7)1

As we can see, the narrator purposefully communicates this information about the setting, the protagonist and the other characters. Though, as the story unfolds, much of the plot is developed through discourse between the characters, we find she2 never shies away from actually guiding the addressee to a certain insight or making a humorous remark, which are addressed directly at the reader, whenever this is necessary. Due to this distinct narrative voice, the narrator can be characterized as overt (Jahn 2005). In consequence, we are aware of her presence throughout the novel - though sometimes more, sometimes less, this undoubtedly adds to the development of a relationship between narrator and reader. Furthermore, we can quickly ascertain that the narrator is not present as a character in the narrative itself, but rather describes characters and relates incidents which happen to them. As the incipit above shows, characters and actions are referred to in the 3rd person pronoun singular or plural; at no point in the narrative does the narrator refer to herself; she has no part in the action related, plot-promoting sentences. Following a distinction proposed by Genette (1980), the narrator can, therefore, additionally be described as heterodiegetic. As the narrator is not part of the story, she can, consequently, choose to assume omniscience, which she displays in many instances - she moves in and out of characters’ minds, provides background information, as the quoted passage above, once more, shows, and, at times, subtly foreshadows subsequent events. Yet, it is important to state that she does not actually ever exercise these omniscient capabilities to the fullest.

Subsuming these traits of the narrator, we can consequently, though at a basic level, characterize the narrative situation in Emma as an authorial narrative (Jahn 2005). Yet this definition by no means suffices to account for the differentiated reading experience provided in Emma - it is rather more complex. Therefore, we will now reflect upon how Austen employs this authorial narrator.

3. Employing omniscience

As I determined above, the narrator in Emma can be characterized as heterodiegenetic so she can choose to possess certain knowledge privileges. It is quite noticeable how the narrator chooses to employ this omniscience to effectuate suspense. One manner, in which she exercises her abilities, is shown in the delicate foreshadowing of events. The reader is confronted with this omniscience, fairly early on. Once again, allow me to draw attention to the incipient sentence:


1 All references to the core text are quoted from the same edition of Emma, listed in the bibliography

2 As it cannot be determined otherwise, I will refer to the narrator throughout as ‘she’ etc

Excerpt out of 15 pages


Implications of the Narrative Technique in Jane Austen's Emma
Ruhr-University of Bochum  (Englisches Seminar)
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ISBN (eBook)
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implications, narrative, technique, jane, austen, emma
Quote paper
Rajanikanta Das (Author), 2012, Implications of the Narrative Technique in Jane Austen's Emma, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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