Emma’s Moral Stagnation in a Realist Novel

At the beginning of Emma, the reader is introduced to a character that is quite sure of herself. Emma Woodhouse prances around the small country town of Highbury as if she contains all of life’s mysteries concerning love and matching. In perspective, it appears that Emma, who does nothing in life other than look after her father, is just plain bored. She has nothing better to do but try to find a pair for everyone in her circle. She needs an enhancement in life. Levine would refer to this in his essay on Realism as “valuing the ordinary as the touchstone of human experience” (22). Jane Austen’s Emma┬áis an example of a late 18th century novel that transitions into a realist novel that was more common of the 19th century.

Falling under the notion of Realism is the Bildungsroman; the idea that the main character in a novel grows or develops over time. Many arguments could be made for Emma’s growth. For example, she comes to be more open to love as the novel progresses. Also, her judgments of Jane Fairfax evolve over the course of the story. But in the case of her relationship with Harriet Smith, Emma’s morals seem conflicted. She does feel some guilt for her role in causing the consistent disappointments of her friend. But by the novel’s end, Emma has not allowed herself any conviction over this guilt, and rather tries to do away with her friend to London while she enjoys the love of her friend’s current crush, Mr. Knightly.

In Volume One, Emma reflects on her attempts to match Harriet and Mr. Elton. She acknowledges that it was, “foolish.. wrong, to take so active a part in bringing two people together” (154, Broadview version). Yet she continues to try to find a match for Harriet, until Harriet begins to fancy Mr. Knightly and Emma decides that she actually is in love with Knightly. After realizing he loves her back, instead of being truthful with her friend, she guiltily sends her away so that “she could talk, and she could listen with true happiness, unchecked by… guilt, of something most painful, which has haunted her when remembering how disappointed a heart was near her” (381).

Over the course of the novel, Emma’s moral convictions remain stagnant. There is no development to her character that indicates she has become a better person. While she does charitably look after the better interests of Harriet, she still considers Harriet lesser than herself and treats her accordingly.

Emma values the simplicity of matching with extreme ordinance, and Austen so cleverly crafts a work of fiction that simplifies the social conflicts which were familiar at this time. But by simplifying these conflicts, Austen masterfully unveiled purposes of judgment, love, gossip, fears and more. Yet her protagonist sadly grows very little as a human being, leaving this text a realist novel that lacks bildungsroman.

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