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[254] Emma – Jane Austen

“Oh! had she never brought Harriet forward! . . . Had she not, with a folly which no tongue could express, prevented her marrying the unexceptionable young man who would have made her happy and respectable in the line of life to which she ought to belong—all would have been safe; none of this dreadful sequel would have been.” [387]

Devoting to guard the comfort of her father, beautiful, rich, and clever Emma Woodhouse is resolved not to marry. After self-acclaimed success at matchmaking between her governess (Miss Taylor) and Mr. Weston, a village widower, Emma, who thinks too highly of herself, as her friend Mr. George Knightley repeatedly admonishes, with insufferable vanity and arrogance, believes she beholds the secret of everyone’s feelings and superintends happiness. She takes it upon herself to find an eligible match for her new friend, Harriet Smit, who, in Knightley’s opinion, is “not a sensible girl, nor a girl of information, and has no experience and little wit.” [60] Knightley disfavors their association, believing that vanity working on a weak head produces every sort of mischief. Indeed.

She desired nothing better herself. Till you choose to turn her into a friend, her mind had no distaste for her own set, nor any ambition beyond it. She was as happy as possible with the Martins in the summer. She had no sense of superiority then. If she has it now, you have given it. [61]

As Emma advises her friend to reject a farmer (Robert Martin) who appears to be of a different social disposition, a comedy of errors ensues, causing zigzags of embarrassment and exposing a secret engagement on behalf of others. When her plans go awry, suspicion, misunderstanding, and intrigue arouse—all as a result of her stubbornness and vanity. While she is well-meant, she doesn’t possess the humility and common sense that are conducive to fully understand the nuances of relationships. After Harriet’s matchmaking flop, which is yet her worst mistake, she perpetrates more error of imagination, flirting and allowing herself to be tempted by someone she doesn’t care for. Most of all, rather than being committed to remaining single,

I have never been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall. [82]

she is in love with the one whom she willfully opposes and whose advice she slights, often intentionally. She never concedes because he would not acknowledge her false and insolent estimate of her own—and her pride needs to be tamed.

Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken… [404]

As much the novel is about marriage and status, and the power given to woman on marriage, it offers critical illustrations of the ways in which personal biases, prejudice, or desires (such as a preference over social disposition) impede objective judgment. Even the most impartial, infallible person could not pass an unbiased judgment when romantic feeling is involved. Inventions of emotional engagement contribute to the comedy of errors that are revealed to readers by way of the ironic detachment of the narrator. Social propriety, which often discourages open expression and keeps public show of emotion at bay, also plays a role in furthering the misunderstandings. The dialogues, which often afford multiple subtexts, fuel the misunderstanding, but also play a role in the possibility of revealing too much at the wrong timing. Half the fun is trying to find out exactly what is going on behind the embarrassment, and the truth of everyone’s feelings.

453 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

27 Responses

  1. I love Emma! It ties with Persuasion as my second favourite Austen book. I also particularly enjoy the fact that it got slammed by so many critics and authors (including Charlotte Bronte and Mark Twain). They totally missed the point, in my humble opinion.

    • Really?? You’re not the first person who suggests Persuasion along with Emma. I’m not a huge fan of Charlotte Bronte so I won’t have to worry about that. I’ve gotta check out Persuasion.

  2. I’ve tried several times to read “Emma” and every single time, I’ve failed, unable to make it past the 30 page mark. There’s something so… clunky to the writing. And I’m never able to come to terms with Emma as a character. I’ll try again soon, of course (as I’ve tried many times before), but I’ve learned not to expect too much…

  3. Nice. I love this book. Emma is my 2nd favorite Jane Austen after Persuasion and I just love it. She’s such a great character and I love how the matches and mismatches unfold. I just rented the Gwyneth Paltrow version of the movie, because my husband and I were watching Clueless a week or so ago and talking about how he’s never seen a traditional film adaptation. I think I’ll put it on tonight and indulge.

    • Another vote for Persuasion. The other day another blogger comments about how he got goosebumps (a positive thing) at some revelation of the end of Persuasion. As to the movie, I have to catch up with Clueless as well as the Gwyneth Paltrow version. 🙂

    • Emma with GP is so so good. It’s fresh and fun and charming. It’s a go-to happy movie for me.

      (Could Jeremy Northam be more attractive?)

  4. I’m reading this one now (for the first time…shame on me!) and loving it. It’s been far too long since I’ve read Austen, and it’s good to revisit her society.

  5. Oooh, I adore Emma. In fact, I adore Jane Austen. hehe. My favourite is Northanger Abbey but I really did enjoy this. I love Austen’s sense of irony in all of her works and, even though you can kind of predict how it’s all going to end, her writing it wonderful and never leaves you bored. 🙂 ❤

    • Northanger Abbey is also on my shelf waiting for its turn. I am sure the next one of hers would be Persuasion, which is highly endorsed by almost every book blogger! 🙂

  6. What a wonderful post!! I so look forward to when i get to spend time with Emma!

  7. Ohh Marie – is that a good adaptation? I want to watch it because a) I haven’t seen it and b) I have a weird and massive crush on Mark Strong and apparently he plays Mr. Knightley…

    • To Elena: Actually Jeremy Northam plays Mr. Knightley in the Gwenyth Paltrow adaptation of “Emma”. Mark Strong is Mr. Knightley in the BBC version. In that one Kate Beckinsale plays Emma. I’ve seen both and I like some things better about one version, other things better about the other one. Both are definitely worth watching.

    • I’ve always been a fan of the BCC adaptation but I’m also interested in the Gweyneth Paltrow version. By the way, is anyone going to watch the PBS premiere of Emma this coming Sunday?

  8. Very true! One of the best parts of Austen is figuring out how the characters really feel as opposed to what they say on the surface.

    • I think Jane Austen is a genius in controlling how much of the characters’ feelings she wants to disclose. Many a time characters are not aware of how one another feels. The dialogues just demonstrate the ingenue because there are multiple subtexts going on.

  9. I love this one! To me, it is better than Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility. It isn’t up there with Northanger Abbey or Persuasion but it is definitely up there. Emma is so likeable and yet so utterly detestable in her superiority attitude. It’s an interesting mix.

    • I totally agree! P&P and S&S are more popular because they are so widely read and taught. But I have just discovered the jewel of Emma, which is a series of comedy errors that wrap around each other. I cannot wait to read Persuasion, which is highly recommended by many book bloggers. While I don’t hate Emma, I do enjoy her being brought down from pride. She needs to be humbled and what’s better than being humbled by someone whom she actually develops an affection for?

  10. I hated Emma the first time I read it, but it’s gradually become my favorite of Jane Austen’s books. Despite my general dislike for self-righteous Mr. Knightley (Paul Rudd is nicer in Clueless :P), I just love Emma so much she makes me forget any flaws the book might have. I love giving advice myself, so I can identify. 🙂

    • Emma is just ridiculously arrogant and self-conceited. Who does she think she is to superintend people’s happiness? That she has succeeded in matching her governess to a widower is just a lucky guess.

  11. Susanna: Thanks for clearing that up! I guess I have two adaptations to watch 😛

  12. For anyone who hasn’t heard this yet, PBS begins a new adaptation of Emma on Masterpiece Classics, beginning Sunday, Jan 23 and running for three weeks. My DVR is set and ready!!

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  14. […] Emma Jane Austen: Even the most impartial, infallible person could not pass an unbiased judgment when romantic feeling is involved. Inventions of emotional engagement contribute to the comedy of errors that are revealed to readers by way of the ironic detachment of the narrator. […]

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