Jane Austin has always been viewed by many literary critics as one of the most prominent English novelists. Among her most famous works, we can single out the following ones: “Sense and Sensibility”, “Pride and Prejudice”, “Persuasion”, “”Emma” etc. The author’s novels can be interpreted from several perspectives. First, it is quite possible to discuss them within the context of the eighteenth century England because Jane Austin provides deep insights into the then British society.
However, one cannot overlook psychological aspects of her novels (Le Faye, 43).
The geneses of Jane Austin’s characters has always been a subject of thorough physiological analysis. Moreover, the author is renowned for her ability to mislead the reader especially, it concerns the so-called “happy endings”, which in fact prove to be personal tragedies, though, at first glance it may seem the person is perfectly happy and his or her life is cloudless (Todd, 74). The novel “Emma” represents such tragedy, which is skillfully disguised as a comedy.
Prior to analyzing the main character of the novel Emma, it is necessary to single out the most important aspects of her personality and behavior. First, we should discuss the way in which she perceives herself, whether this perception is adequate or inadequate. It is also of the utmost importance to show how her self-image affects her relationships with other people.
Secondly, one should also analyze Emma’s criteria for judging other people whether these criteria are objective or subjective. For instance, one may discuss the way in which Emma chooses her friends, acquaintances and finally her husband. We should answer the question whether it is only love that makes her marry Mr. Knightly or maybe there is some hidden motive. Apart from that, it is necessary to identify the change (if there is any) in Emma’s attitude towards marriage and family.
The author also attracts the readers attention to Emma’s attitude towards the role of women in the society. In particular, what values should they possess, in her opinion, what is obligatory for them and what is inadmissible? We should also show how Emma views other women whom she encounters, whether they are friends or rivals for her. What are the major criteria according to which she decides on a woman’s status?
Furthermore, it would be prudent to identify the motives that shape the behavior of the main character, whether these motives are egoistic or altruistic. How does Emma explain this or that action? For example, we can trace her relationships with Harriet Smith, paying extra attention to Emma’s role as a matchmaker. Why does the main character want to help this girl, is it only compassion and empathy? The main task of this research is to trace the evolvement of Emma’s personality (if there is any) and show how her views and attitude towards other people transform in the course of the story.
Her novel “Emma” is a bright example of such psychological description. Such character as Emma Woodhouse is a rather controversial figure because her behavior is often rather contradictory or even illogical. Prior to analyzing her inner development, we should show how the author introduces Emma.
She says, “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of the existence, and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her” (Austin, 3). One may easily say that every woman should envy her; however, as it turns even such form of existence can have some disadvantages, for instance, boredom.
The analysis of the main character should be performed within the context of then British society, because Jane Austen discusses several rather acute and even universal problems, especially the position of women and the relationships between a person’s status and his or her lineage (Lambdin, 64). The author does not attract the reader’s attention to this problem but her novel shows that success of a marriage very often depends only on the social status of the two partners but not on their love (as it should be).
In fact while speaking about Emma it is not possible to say she has ever experienced this feeling. At first such statement may seem very strange to say the least, but probably one should bear in mind that Emma, herself whether she has ever loved any person. She say “I must be in love; I should be the oddest creature in the world if I were not — for a few weeks at least” (Austin, 240).
Certainly, one can object to this statement and say that there are many people who do not fully understand the meaning of the word ”love”. Nevertheless, Emma’s case is a little bit different because she doubts whether she has ever had this feeling, though it is not very surprising because her behavior is mostly based not on love or compassion but on egoism. Therefore, it is quite possible for us to question her alleged love for Mr. Knightly. It is also worth mentioning that even his name is to a certain degree symbolic. At the end of the novel Emma believes that she needs to be rescued by a knight in shining armor, and Mr. Knightly is the only person who can do that. Again we should speak not only about love between these two people but about necessity.
There are some other examples that can substantiate this statement. For instance, when Emma pays a visit to a poor family, living near the vicarage, she describes her attitude to them in such a way “How trifling they make every thing else appear 1 I feel now as if I could think of nothing but these poor creatures all the rest of the day; and yet who knows how soon it may vanish from my mind” (Austin, 81). Naturally, we cannot deny that somewhere deep in hear Emma may take some compassion on these people but in general, she takes interest in them because they make her problems smaller. It seems to her that in contrast with this family, her life is perfectly normal, though it is just self-deception.
At first glance, it may seem that she is a rather disinteresting person. However, it should be taken into consideration that in this passage the author gives as some clues about Emma. Probably, it is a far-fetched conclusion but one can deduce that this character is a light-hearted and carefree person. In fact, Emma position is something that many women can only dream of but with time passing, it becomes obvious that such dream can eventually turn into nightmare.
As the story progresses, the author warns the reader that such seemingly cloudless life has some drawbacks, in Emma’s case it is “the propensity “to have too much her own way and think too well of herself” (Austin, 4). This peculiarity of Emma’s character shapes and determines practically every aspect of her behavior. She cannot adequate perceive herself; therefore she is very often mistaken in her judgment about other people. For example, she is firmly convinced that Harriet Smith should marry a gentlemen, who would be much more appropriate for her. Emma rejects Robert Martin as a match saying that a farmer is not someone that a woman should long for.
Her prejudiced attitude could have resulted in a catastrophe for Harriett. In addition to that Emma criticizes Jane Fairfax mostly because she views her as a rival. However, her major mistake is that she turns a blind eye to Mr. Knightly and attempts to persuade herself that she has no affection to him. It is curious that she realizes that she loves this man only when her friend Harriet Smith secretly confesses to her she feels affection for Mr. Knightly. At this very point, the heroine realizes that she may lose him forever just because of her vanity and self-confidence.
The opening chapters present a very complex portrait of Emma Woodhouse. The attitude of the author to this character is now explicitly stated. Probably it would be better to say that Jane Austen makes the reader form his own conclusions. However, there are some hints.
For instance while describing Emmas relationships with other people, especially Harriet Smith, the author mentions that Emma takes interest in this girl just because she is sweet-looking and possesses good manners(Austen,, 20). It may seem that this description virtually tells nothing about the heroine but one can see that she is inclined to judge a person by appearance (outer world) but not by his or her virtues.
The question arises why Jane is so intend to help Harriet find a match. Is it true altruism or it is something else. First, it should be borne in mind that Emma lives only with her father, an elderly man and their house is not full of visitors. For the main character, this affair is just a good chance to fulfill her potential. Jane Austin describes Emma’s motives in the following way “It would be an interesting and certainly a very kind undertaking, highly becoming her own position in life, her leisure and her powers”(Austin, 20).
It can be observed that she attaches primary importance to entertaining, though one cannot say that it is selflessness: more likely, she intends to help poor young girl just out of boredom. Therefore, we can arrive at the conclusion that at the very beginning of the novel Emmas actions are mostly motivated by her selfishness.
Apart from that it is very interesting how Jane perceives her role in this affair. She says “She would notice her she would improve her ; she would detach her from her bad acquaintance, and introduce her into good society ; she would form her”(Austin, 20).It can be seen that Emma views matchmaking as some kind of personal challenge. It does not even occur to her that probably she should probably look at herself and maybe it is Harriet who can improve her.
Her behavior can be also interpreted from psychological standpoint; Emma is so “concerned” with Harriet because her inner life is shallow and poor even despite her cleverness and relative wealth. The main point is that individuals who have some personal problems (but they do not admit this fact ) are sometimes inclined to intervene into lives of other people In addition to that, Emma thinks very highly of herself therefore it seems to her that she is able to decide the fate of another person.
Nevertheless, she is not an altogether unsympathetic character, because Emma sincerely cares about her father. Overall, she is a person who attempts to show what she is capable of because she has yet to demonstrate her talents, her intelligence, and her inexhaustible wit. Finding a match for Harriet Smith is one way to do it.
Later the author reveals some other features of Emma Woodlouse’s character. First, it is quite possible for us to say that she can be very prejudiced in her judgment especially regarding social classes. For example, when she meets a young man Robert Martin and Harriet shows affection toward him, Emma warns young girl against this man “The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do. A degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance might interest me” (Austin, 26). She dissuades Harriet from establishing a relationship with Robert but deep in heart, she feels he is attractive both physically and intellectually.
This scene throws light on Emma’s character but first, it is necessary to answer why she sets Harriet against this man. Naturally, one can ascribe it to her prejudiced attitude towards lower classes but such explanation seems insufficient and rather one-sided. As it has been pointed out before, Jane views matchmaking as a “very interesting undertaking”, close relationships between Harriet and Robert would definitely deprive her of this pleasure. Secondly, the heroine believes that she is more competent to judge than Harriet.
Apart from that, one cannot forget about such strong feeling as envy, she is jealous of her friend. Naturally, the author never mentions envy as one Emma’s motives but it is quite noticeable in many of her actions, though the main character desperately tries to disguise it. We can also mention her relationships with Jane Fairfax; a woman who possesses qualities that Emma does not, for example ability to feel true empathy for another person, though the main character fails to see it; she mostly envies her musical talents.
Naturally, Harriet Smith is not the only acquaintance of Emma. She is very close to Mr. Knightly, the person who knows her better than anyone else. He describes her in a very laconic but very concise way “Emma is spoiled by being the cleverest of her family” (Austin, 33). He also points out that Emma also possess some positive qualities, apart from her intelligence. Their conversations with each other can tell much about Emma’s perception of the fair sex, and the relationships between a wife and husband (Bloom..232).
While arguing with Knightly, Emma says “I am very much mistaken if your sex in general would not think such beauty, and such temper, the highest claims a woman could possess”(Austin, 59). It is quite noticeable that Emma is of somewhat ironical opinion about marriage. She understands that a woman should definitely have some other qualities save from beauty and temper. However as it proves later she remains content with such stereotypical image of a woman.
We should also pay extra attention to Emma’s propensity to search for some hidden meaning in everything that she hears or sees. She is compared with Mr. Eton is also inclined to be verbose and very ambiguous. In this case, the tendency to complicate everything can be analyzed from several points of view. Emma belongs to upper and more educated classes of the then British society and sophistication seems to her an indication of good manners (Byrne, 111). Furthermore, sophistication is a very good means, shielding her from some the reality of life, for instance from the fact that she is lonely.
Naturally, the novel ends in a classical happy end but this is just a very deceptive façade. Probably to substantiate this statement we should discuss Emma’s motives for marrying Mr. Knightly. That is how narrator describes her reasoning “Nothing, but to grow more worthy of him, whose intentions and judgment had been ever so superior to her own. Nothing but that the lessons of her past folly might teach her humility and circumspection in the future” (Austin, 441). In fact Emma prefers him not because she greatly loves (which should have been the main reason) but because she needs his guidance and authority. Her love for this man is awakened only when she knows that Harriet is also in love with Mr. Knightly.We can observe a very curious paradox a person who has always placed stress on independence, prefers to be guided by someone else.
Apart from that, we cannot forget about the fear of remaining lonely, which is probably the under-lying cause of love for Mr. Knightly. It is very interesting how Emma refers to him only as “Mr. Knightly” though she can easily call him by name. In her case, it is not only veneration bur rather docility. In this respect it should be mentioned that Jane Austin raises a very stressing issue for then British society, in particular, social position of women. For them marriage was a necessary condition for obtaining social status, and Emma is not an exception to this rule, her financial situation greatly depends upon effective marriage (Stafford, 88).
The docility that Emma shows is also an inseparable part of women’s behavior especially towards their husbands. Certainly, Jane Austen never focuses her attention on this particular aspect but the plot of the story clearly indicates that position of women in the then England left very much to be desired. It can also be observed that at the very beginning of the novel, the main character wants to look like a very independent woman but at the end she views marriage as the only possible solutions to all her problems.
It should be also taken into consideration that Emma still judges people mostly according to their social position. For instance, she prefers to break her relationships with Harriet Smith, because “Mrs. Knightly” (it is no longer Emma) is not supposed to see a person of a “natural” or illegitimate birth. She does not even regret not having seen Harriet for a very long time; in her opinion it is just a natural course of events and there is virtually no way to change it.
The main character is also firmly convinced that a husband and wife should be matched to each other in terms of their social position. Emma says, “The stain of illegitimacy, unbleached by nobility or wealth, would have been a stain indeed” (Austin, 448). We can see that the heroine is still not able to set aside her social prejudices.
Thus, having traced the genesis of Emma’s character we can arrive at the following conclusions. First, the motives, determining her behavior remain virtually unchanged throughout the novel. Secondly, she is still inclined to judge people by their appearance (or outer world to be more exact, for instance social position). The only thing that changes is her attitude to marriage and her independence. She chooses to marry Mr. Knightly just because in her view such form of relationships would be more convenient to her. Additionally her sudden love for Mr. Knightly can be explained by the fear that he would abandon her for some other woman.
Deirdre Le Faye. “Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels” Frances Lincoln ltd, 2003.
Edward Copeland, Juliet McMaster. “The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen” Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Fiona J. Stafford. “Jane Austen’s Emma: A Casebook”. Oxford University Press US, 2007.
Harold Bloom. “Jane Austen’s Emma” Chelsea House, 1987.
Jane Austen. “Emma: A Novel” Harvard University Press, 2008.
Janet Todd. “Jane Austen: New Perspectives” Holmes & Meier.
Laura C. Lambdin. “A Companion to Jane Austen Studies” Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000.
Paula Byrne. “Jane Austen’s Emma: A Sourcebook” Routledge, 2004.