I’m Not Supposed to Like Emma, Right? or The Complicated Relationship Between the Narrator and Emma

Jane Austen, witty, intelligent, and talented, with an impressive oeuvre and droll disposition, seems to unite some of the best words in the opening statements of her novels; and these passages have for over two hundred years distressed or vexed readers. Emma is no exception. What should readers make of the pithy remarks that open this novel?

While the first sentence of Emma tells readers that the heroine, Emma Woodhouse, is “handsome, clever, and rich,” it also says that she “seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence” (55, emphasis mine). The first part of the passage appears straightforward, apparently giving readers a direct, unbiased presentation of Miss Woodhouse’s attributes. But the “seemed” throws a wrench in this narrative presentation. With this word, it seems that the narrator is no longer just telling readers about Emma but also commenting on the character. This “seemed” creates a tension that, for me, runs throughout the novel: the relationship between Emma and the narrator. It is clear that the novel is (mostly) focalized through Emma’s perspective. At times, however, this narrow focalization purposely keeps information from the reader. At other times, it feels like the narrative voice creates distance to question or comment on Emma’s behavior (See: Box Hill party, Emma’s rude comment to Miss Bates, p. 322). How are we supposed to know how to interpret Emma’s character—or for that matter, what is “real” in the world of the novel—if the narrator vacillates between these positions?

Like the opening passage, there are other times that the unclear relationship between the narrative voice and Emma muddles our understanding of “reality” in the novel. For instance, the narrator seems to participate in Emma’s self-delusion, allowing the character to suppress her “true” feelings. When Emma contemplates taking the young, naïve Harriet Smith under her (patronizing) wing, she compares Harriet to Mrs. Weston: “Such a friend as Mrs. Weston was out of the question. Two such could never be granted. Two such she did not want. It was quite a different sort of thing—a sentiment distinct and independent” (71). In this passage, there is a sense of loss that slips through in the sentence, “Two such could never be granted.” But the narrative voice cuts this feeling off abruptly, moving to a self-delusional statement, “Two such she did not want.” How could this be true? Why wouldn’t Emma want another close, equal friend? In this abrupt shift, the narrator follows the movement of Emma’s mind, which keeps the reader from Emma’s true feelings or sympathizing with Emma. Consider this revision: “Two such could never be granted. Two such she did not want, Emma thought, trying to ignore her sadness over the loss of Mrs. Weston.” My revision adds commentary on Emma’s thoughts to show how the narrative voice in Emma keeps certain truths from the reader. How could Emma not feel sadness, even with Mrs. Weston only a half mile away? Why wouldn’t the narrator clue us into this (potential) sense of loss? Do these hidden truths make the novel more realistic or less?

It is my sense that Austen constructs the novel in this way so readers can experience and see Emma’s self-delusion early in the novel. We are not supposed to “like” Emma, right? I’m not sure I’d want her in my circle of friends. However, I think it is significant that as Emma gains more self-reflection, the narrator offers a clearer sense of the “truth.” (See: Emma’s reflection on the possible loss of Mr. Knightley). By the end of the novel, I have the feeling that what we see through Emma’s perspective is closer to reality than earlier in the novel, showing her growth as a character.

My overall question seems pretty fundamental to novel reading: What is the relationship between the narrator and the characters in the novel? For Emma, I think this is a vital question because the novel is so focused on how imagination can create “truth” and the consequences that come from made-up reality. But I also think these passages force questions about reading the novel: How are we supposed to read this narrator? Does the narrative voice teach us to read against it? Is it a more realistic novel because the narrative voice follows Emma’s self-delusion? Or is it less realistic? And, most importantly, (but really not important at all), am I supposed to like Emma?

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