Thoughts on “Emma”

As I noted when talking about “Pride and Prejudice”, the key to Austen, I think, is the viewpoint character.  If you like the viewpoint character, you will probably like the book.  If you don’t like the viewpoint character, you probably won’t like the book.

I don’t care for Emma, so I don’t care for “Emma”.

And from reading the back of the book, it seems that Austen agreed with me, since it says that she had doubts about the character and yet for at least some people she’s their favourite of Austen’s heroines.  However, she is quite a bit different from “Pride and Prejudice”‘s Elizabeth, and just on a personal level I like people like Elizabeth more than I like people like Emma.  But I also think that her character doesn’t really work for the story that Austen is trying to tell in this, the last work that was published in her lifetime.

The book is described as a comedy of manners, and it does differ from the other books I’ve read — I just finished “Sense and Sensibility”, the last of the three that I purchased — in that while it retains Austen’s focus on matters of the heart and marriage, there isn’t a common, clear thread of love and love interests to follow like we see in the others.  “Pride and Prejudice” is the clearest of the ones I’ve read, where from the start we know that the relationships will be Darcy and Elizabeth and Bingley and Jane, and the story is about showing how they overcome the obstacles of pride and prejudice to get together.  But here the relationships are far more fluid, and yet at the end are ultimately predictable despite not really being developed.

Emma Woodhouse, our heroine, is reasonably accomplished and attractive, and also wealthy, but has committed to herself to never marry (in an Austen novel, one should probably expect this conviction to not last the novel).  But after her long time friend and household companion gets married and moves out, she moves to cultivate the friendship of a young woman who was staying at a local school with no knowledge of her parents.  She romantically assumes that the fact that her upbringing was paid for quite easily suggests some kind of parents of “quality” (money, in those times) and then tries to get her married off.  And, in fact, her views that her dear friend Garibaldi Harriet is of some quality causes her to spurn the advances of a local farmer as a match for Harriet and instead of push her towards the local Mr. Elton.  Who, as it turns out, is interested in Emma and not her.  This then ends badly for poor Harriet as Mr. Elton proposes to Emma, is rejected, and then marries someone else.  She then at some point sees promise in marrying Harriet to family friend Mr. Knightley (the only person who can reign in her misdirected passions), and you can probably guess what happens there.  At the end, Emma marries Knightley and Harriet ends up married to the original farmer Robert Martin, and so things end up just as they should.

But the problem with this is that while Austen doesn’t telegraph the relationships as much as she does in her other works, they still come across as being inevitable.  Martin is clearly enamoured with Harriet, and Harriet likes him and likes the farm where she stayed for some time, and it seems like a perfect match for the young girl who has no fortune of her own.  Doubts are raised when Emma forces Harriet to strongly reject his proposal, but when he keeps popping up in the story we’re pretty sure that they’ll end up together.  And while the tropes might not have been as strong in her time, the fact that Knightley is the only person who can reign Emma in and clearly is concerned for her and at the very least a strong friend makes it seem obvious that the two of them should get together, especially since both of them were noted for being seemingly committed to remaining unmarried.  Yes, the two characters whose personalities work well together, are close, and both don’t want to marry anybody end up married at the end.  I can’t say I’m surprised.

However, the big issue is with Emma’s personality.  By nature, I’d be biased against characters that are self-important and self-satisfied, and so cheered on Knightley when he called her out on that.  But I don’t think her character really works for this sort of work either.  This work is definitely more of a comedy, as evidenced by the number of silly characters in it (including Emma’s own father, who is essentially a fussy old man over things like wanting no rich food and worrying about illness all the time).  But Emma is the viewpoint character, and she doesn’t really work in a comedy.  She’s too silly and self-satisfied to work as the straight woman in the work, noting and shaking her head at the foibles of people around her (Knightley would have worked as that sort of character).  But she’s too serious and accomplished to work as a silly character for us to laugh at.  She does get a lot of things wrong, but she doesn’t get them humourously wrong.  So she doesn’t give us a respite from the silliness, but neither does she provide the silliness to make us laugh.  She’s too smart to make us laugh at her stupidity, but not smart enough to see the stupidity in herself and in the people around her.  The only thing that, for me, stops her from being utterly insufferable is that she does seem to legitimately care for her friends and isn’t just doing these things to make herself feel good or to prove her own abilities as a matchmaker.  But that’s about her only true saving grace.

This, then, is where the lack of central thread also hurts the work, because other than the happiness of Harriet — a very minor character throughout —  there really isn’t one to follow.  And Harriet drops in and out of the story so much that even that thread is lost.  This could be the story of Emma’s learning humility, except that she isn’t bad enough at the start for that to carry the entire novel nor is she sufficiently converted at the end of the book to make that the entire point.  And her breaking down over having cost her friends their happiness isn’t a surprise or a revelation.  We would expect that she would react that way, given what we know of her.  So how much, then, does she really learn?  All we have at the end is the knowledge that Knightley will still be reigning her in for the rest of their lives.

So I didn’t enjoy this one.  I didn’t care for Emma, and didn’t find a central plot or character thread to follow around the character.  For me, this isn’t a book that I’ll read again.

2 Responses to “Thoughts on “Emma””

  1. Thoughts on “Sense and Sensibility” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] a Jane Austen novel you really have to like the viewpoint heroine.  If you don’t — as was the case for me with “Emma” — then you aren’t going to enjoy the book since most of the time in the book is spent […]

  2. Is it Worth Reading? | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] not hold up for some people, and those “some people” might include me.  For example, in reading Jane Austen I liked “Pride and Prejudice” but didn’t like “Emma&…, even though Austen herself almost certainly liked the heroine in “Emma” better and so […]

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