Stellar Reflections on a Clueless Emma

As far as a reader’s emotional connection with a novel’s protagonist goes, there is little by way of empathy in our hearts towards Jane Austen’s heroine in the novel of the same name, Emma. Sympathy, maybe, in some situations, but empathy? Not likely. The two quotes provided that discuss the impact of a novel on its reader both apply to Emma in relatively distinct ways, but Marina MacKay’s quotation I like even better in application to Emma, therefore hers is the quote I will focus on.

MacKay says in her piece, “Why the Novel Matters,” that a novel has the duty (privilege?) of “managing our minds as it moves our emotions,” and at first, I thought “sure, okay” and did not think much more of it. However, this quote in particular now seems to me especially applicable in accurately describing the reader interaction with the protagonist, Emma. The novel manages our minds in that we are told what happens to whom in what order and where. We are puppeteered by the author, as far as plot goes. Emma does this to this person, or this person does this to Emma, or any of the characters. However, we are told that our emotions are “moved,” and herein lies our “ah, there’s the rub” moment. Our emotions are not managed, they are simply moved. We are free to choose how they are moved, and what by. Sometimes, we have almost a hive mind reaction to a certain scene or character. I think most people think that Mr. Woodhouse is a ridiculous character, especially when introduced at the beginning as a feeble hypochondriac of a man. However, we have ample opportunity to come to our own conclusions. For example, when Emma makes that snarky comment in chapter 43 about Miss Bates being “limited as to number – only three at once” after Miss Bates makes a self-deprecating comment – although in good nature – about how she will have no problem with supplying “three things very dull indeed” to amuse Frank Churchill, and later Emma is said to never have felt “so agitated, so mortified” in her life, we as the reader are free to come up with whatever opinions we have on the matter. I am unsure as to what Austen wanted us to feel at that point. Should we feel sorry for Emma? Personally, I felt a judgmental sort of dislike towards her, and although I knew it was a bit misplaced being as one of Emma’s predominant characteristics is (for most of the novel) naivety, I am still free to form my own opinions concerning the actions presented. By the end of the novel, such as when Emma and Mr. Knightly walk in the garden, Emma expresses regret about her behavior, namely that between Harriet and Mr. Martin, and it seems here that most readers would be united in their emotions of acceptance and almost like of this reformed Emma, who, thank goodness, is no longer clueless.

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