Term Paper, 2005
9 Pages, Grade: 17/20
On Emma, Scottish novelist and poet Walter Scott comments that it ‘has even less story than either of the preceding novels’, and that ‘the subjects are not often elegant, and certainly never grand’. And it is for this precisely that Jane Austen has often been criticised in the past: that her subjects are not grand and that neither are her personages. Multiple critics resent her one-sided concern with the marriage business, whereas others begrudge the limitations of writing about English country gentry. Richard Simpson, for instance, contends that ‘the great coil Miss Austen makes to bring people together is really much ado about nothing’. Dorothy Van Ghent, on her side, claims that ‘the subject matter itself is so limited – limited to the manners of a small section of English country gentry who apparently have never have been worried about death or sex, hunger or war, guilt or God’. In defence of Austen’s choice of setting and narration, one can claim, that ‘the reader senses the author’s perception of her own limitations, so that she deliberately leaves out of her works whatever she cannot personally know and emphasizes what is most malleable to her talent’. As the author declares herself with conviction: ‘3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on’.
However, the most powerful vindication of her works is the fact that all of them are still widely read and studied today, and some have even been made into films. So it seems that there is undoubtedly something either in her subject matter, her way of writing or her style that, throughout the years, has made her writings appealing and attractive.
In the case of Emma, some of the attractiveness definitely lies in the maturation and growth of the characters, the reason for this being that maturation and development of one’s character is an experience inherent in and well known to all human beings. A reader, in most cases, can identify to some extent with the points of view and feelings of the heroine having to realise that what she once held to be true and right may not be so anymore.
This essay will focus on why and how the heroine of the eponymous novel Emma undergoes a development in her character and how she comes to be, at the end of the novel, more mature than at the beginning.
Emma’s situation in life is disclosed on the very first page of the novel. Miss Woodhouse is ‘handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition’. Throughout the chapter, the reader learns that her father is a ‘nervous man, easily depressed, […] of gentle selfishness’. Their situation of just having lost ‘poor Miss Taylor’ is described as an enormous loss, to both father and daughter. The narrator, for his part, enables the reader from the very start to eye Emma critically, as he deems the ‘real evils of [her] situation … the power of having too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself’. However, ‘the danger [of this is] … unperceived’ by Emma, and the narrator makes it clear from the very first page that the reader can expect at least some of the action of the novel to stem from this weakness, and that it is on this blindness that the further development of Emma’s character will always depend.
Instead of getting herself involved in a romantic relationship, she makes them for others. In the very first chapter, after the wedding of Miss Taylor and Mr Weston, she proudly proclaims that she ‘made the match [her]self’, but after some rebuke from Mr Knightley, who suspects it to be a fantasy in her head that happens to have come true, Emma has to yield to the fact that it was indeed a ‘lucky guess’. But Miss Taylor is indeed now Mrs Weston, and Emma sees this as a success good enough to encourage her to continue with her ‘talent’. Her next object, or should one say victim, unlucky enough to taste the ambition of Emma’s heart, is Harriet Smith, an orphaned young lady, who lives in Mrs Goddard’s boarding school. Now that Miss Taylor is gone, Emma finds herself with too much time on her hands, and Harriet, naïve and insecure, comes in handy as a doll-like surrogate for the companion that was Miss Taylor, who she can bend into shape to her heart’s commands. After having made ‘a lady out of Harriet Smith’ by associating her fine features with noble birth, it is now her endeavour to find her a suitor. With arrogance and snobbery, Emma edges Harriet into refusing Mr Martin, a respectable and intelligent farmer, telling her that her supposed noble birth entitles her to marrying someone more highly regarded. And who could be more fitting than Mr Elton, the parish priest, ‘compliant and friendly to those around him’. Although she is harshly rebuked by the family’s old friend, Mr Knightly, who warns her of the dangers of ‘vanity working on a weak head’, she ‘[does] not repent what she [has] done; she still [thinks] of herself as a better judge of such a point of female right and refinement than he could be’. Again, it is through Emma’s conceit that she fails to acknowledge and accept Knightley’s sense of judgement. Although, at the end of their row, he has worked out who exactly she intends to match Harriet with and explicitly warns her about considering Mr Elton as a suitor, Emma denies her plans. Nevertheless, this conversation leaves her ‘in a state of vexation’, but she concludes, after giving it some thought, that Mr Knightly ‘had spoken … hastily and in anger’. She is even more encouraged to proceed with her plan after talking to Miss Nash, who tells her ‘looking so very significantly at her “that she did not pretend to understand what his [Mr Elton’s] business might be, but she only knew that any woman whom Mr Elton could prefer, she should think the luckiest woman in the world; for, beyond a doubt, Mr Elton had not his equal for beauty or agreeableness’. Although the end of Chapter VIII creates delicious dramatic irony for the reader, who by now has learnt to trust the judgment of Mr Knightley and has probably anticipated what is likely to happen anyhow, namely, that Mr Elton is actually in love with Emma, it is also a painful demonstration of her naiveté and too colourful imagination. All the way through the misjudged riddle in Chapter IX and Mr Elton’s attention-seeking in the following chapters, the reader has to watch Emma getting more and more embroiled in the blindness that is her imagination. The situation climaxes dramatically in chapter XV, when Mr Elton proposes to her. ‘It would be impossible to say what Emma felt, on hearing this- which of all unpleasant sensations was uppermost’. She is in a state of ‘deep mortification’ and ‘her mind [has] never been in such perturbation’. The following chapter brings insight to Emma. Firstly, she realises that ‘it was foolish, it was wrong, to take so active a part in bringing any two people together. […] She was quite concerned and ashamed, and resolved to do such things no more’. Significantly, she also admits ‘how much truer a knowledge of [Mr Elton’s] character’ her friend had when warning her. Ironically, however, she lets her pride and vanity act upon herself the way she let it act on Harriet by exclaiming how preposterous it is of Mr Elton to propose to her, who is so much higher in rank and connection.
 Walter Scott in the Quarterly Review 14 (1815): pp. 188 and 201.
 Richard Simpson, ‘Jane Austen’ in the North British Review 52 (1870): p. 135.
 Dorothy Van Ghent, The English Novel, Form and Function, (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1953), p. 111.
 Andrew H. Wright, Jane Austen’s Novels: A Study in Structure, (London: Chatto & Windus, 1961), p. 3.
 Letters, ‘To Anna Austen’ (Friday 9-Sunday 18 September 1814) in Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, ed. Donald Gray, (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001), p. 276.
 Jane Austen, Emma, ed. Stephen M. Parrish, (London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000), p. 1.
 Ibid., p. 3.
 This is, and will be, for the rest of the essay, a generic ‘he’.
 Ibid., p. 1.
 Jane Austen, Emma, ed. Stephen M. Parrish, p. 5.
 Ibid., p. 6.
 Sarah Rowbotham, Jane Austen’s Emma, (London: York Press, 2001), p. 72.
 Ibid., p. 74.
 Jane Austen, Emma, ed. Stephen M. Parrish, p. 41.
 Ibid., p. 42.
 Ibid., p. 43.
 Ibid., p. 44.
 Ibid., p. 86.
 Ibid., p. 87.
 Ibid., p. 89.
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