The Evolution of Emma

Jane Austen’s nineteenth century novel Emma is an excellent example of a bildungsroman. The novel begins at a catalytic moment in Emma’s life, just after her governess marries. While Emma never leaves the nest, Mrs. Weston’s departure represents the removal of direct oversight from her life. Now Emma must make her own choices and act independently. Initially, Emma uses her freedom and power to control and manipulate the lives of others. While she claims to act for the good of others, her projects revolve around her own self-interest by fulfilling her inescapable boredom. Her lack of perception and maturity coupled with an overabundance of self-confidence makes Emma a powerful but immature driver of the social scene of Highbury. As described by Mr. Knightley, Emma is “a pretty young woman and a spoiled child” (Vol. 1 Ch. 12).

Several events mark the evolution of Emma from childishness to maturity. The first is when Emma misreads Mr. Elton’s attachments not towards Harriet but towards herself. Through this experience, of which “every part of it brought pain and humiliation,” she learns that she is fallible and that her actions can have ruinous consequences (Vol. I Ch. 16).

Another incident is when Emma tests and finds her limits when she is cruel to Mrs. Bates at Box Hill. In a poignant, reflective moment after the incident, Emma realizes “she had been often remiss, her conscience told her so… scornful, ungracious” (Vol. 2 Ch. 8). With this epiphany she decides to “call upon [Mrs. Bates] the very next morning, and it should be the beginning, on her side, of a regular, equal, kindly intercourse” (Vol. 2 Ch. 8). Emma’s walk to Mrs. Bates’ door represents her first steps into adulthood. Here we see Emma humbled to the point of apologizing to a women she previously considered ridiculous and pitiable. Yet the focus – for once – is not on Emma’s externalities, such as beauty or position, but on the internal emotions of another.

Finally, Emma realizes her feelings for her longtime friend and confidant Mr. Knightley. This realization marks Emma’s newfound ability to be introspective. In a final act of maturity, Emma even decides to postpone her marriage until her father passes so she may be able to care for him and make his last days pleasant. Emma exchanges her ignorance and selfishness for self-sacrifice and perception. Mr. Knightley even remarks that Emma is “materially changed” (Vol. 3 Ch. 18). This evolution marks the novel Emma as a clear and powerful nineteenth century bildungsroman.

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