Realism in Emma

Realism is one of the most important modes seen in 19th century literature, and Austen’s Emma exhibits qualities that place it among other realist novels. Through the character of Emma, we can see where Austen adds realist elements to the novel.

In “Realism,” George Levine argues that “no definition of realism can be quite satisfactory” (8). However, Levine attempts to describe realism and its qualities, claiming that, “despite its appearance of solidity, realism implies a fundamental uneasiness about self, society, and art” (12). Emma’s character best shows the implications of each of these qualities through her wishy-washiness.

At the beginning of Chapter 8, Volume 2, Emma, through indirect discourse with the narrator, contemplates her opinion of Frank. In the first sentence of the paragraph, she “continued to entertain no doubt of her being in love,” but by the end of the paragraph, “it struck her that she could not be very much in love.” Emma changes her mind so quickly that, although she has appeared to favor Frank up to this point, she is not as firmly planted in her opinion of him as she might have thought.

Additionally, Emma gives us an idea of the uneasiness that existed in society during the time. Her dislike of Miss Hawkins begins when she first learns about her existence. Emma guesses that her father, a merchant, “to be the drudge of some attorney, and too stupid to rise” (186), which is why the family has no real connections. Although Emma thinks Miss Hawkins below her, she does not reserve the same judgment for everyone. Emma steers Harriet away from Mr. Martin in Chapter 4, deciding that because Harriet has become Emma’s friend, “there can be no doubt of [Harriet’s] being a gentleman’s daughter” (75) and, as a result, a marriage to Mr. Martin would only lower her position. While class structure and etiquette seems to be permanent, Emma still bends the rules to suit her.

Last in Levine’s statement is that of the uneasiness about art, which is most clearly seen through Emma’s musical and artistic abilities. Emma spends much time on Jane Fairfax’s faults, but she concedes that Jane’s “performance … was infinitely superior to her own” (218). While she acknowledges this, she does not take it well, as, “with mixed feelings, she seated herself a distance from the … instrument” (218). Whereas Emma appears confident in her artistic abilities in Chapter 6, because of Jane she seems to become aware that she’s not the most talented all-around artist. This can be seen as a reflection of society’s views on art at the time, in which the establishment decided what constituted “good” and “bad” art—including the novel itself.

Levine’s description of realism as a sort of feigned solidity seems to be in line with certain aspects of Emma’s character. In this way, Austen displays elements of realism throughout the novel, indirectly pointing at issues in society through Emma’s everyday life.


4 thoughts on “Realism in Emma

  1. It is much bigger than the situation you cite. A close analysis of the objects mentioned in the novel, from the piano and the strawberries, to cite two examples, there are solid links to the situation of the day.

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