Panning for Gold: Why Should We Listen to Miss Bates?

Miss Bates is famously verbose, a quality Emma dislikes and occasionally ridicules.  Miss Bates’s speech is limited more often by her need to take a breath than by effective interruptions or concerns about her listeners.  Her ramblings are often confusing and fragmented, as Emma mimics after Mrs. Weston suggests to her that Mr. Knightley might love Jane Fairfax: “’So very kind and obliging!—But he always had been such a very kind neighbour!’ And then fly off, through half a sentence, to her mother’s old petticoat. ‘Not that it was such a very old petticoat either‘” (217).  Much of what she says is empty and little is clearly stated.  So why is she allowed so much space to ramble in the novel itself?  Character-space is limited, particularly in a novel this short, so Miss Bates’s allotted space must be significant.

Austen does not represent all characters’ speeches at length, even when they are important.  For example, Mr. Elton’s marriage proposal to Emma is rendered in description, rather than dialogue:

“she found her subject cut up—her hand seized—her attention demanded, and Mr. Elton actually making violent love to her: availing himself of the precious opportunity, declaring sentiments which must be already well known, hoping—fearing—adoring—ready to die if she refused him; but flattering himself that his ardent attachment and unequalled love and unexampled passion could not fail of having some effect, and in short, very much resolved on being seriously accepted as soon as possible” (149).

Letters that might otherwise be interposed into the text are often presented, instead, though Miss Bates’s description of what is in them, and her speech even pushes Emma herself out of the way on occasion.  For example, when Miss Bates comes to Ford’s to invite Emma and Harriet to visit alongside Frank Churchill and Mrs. Weston, a 497-word paragraph of Miss Bates’s idiosyncratic storytelling is followed by:

“Emma would be ‘very happy to wait on Mrs. Bates, &c.,’ and they did at last move out of the shop, with no farther delay from Miss Bates than, ‘How do you do, Mrs. Ford? I beg your pardon. I did not see you before. I hear you have a charming collection of new ribbons from town. Jane came back delighted yesterday. Thank ye, the gloves do very well—only a little too large about the wrist; but Jane is taking them in’” (225).

Emma’s words are reduced to an “&c,” while Miss Bates continues on apace.  Miss Bates is certainly not always present in the novel, but when she is present, she has an unusual ability to take over the narrative space.

One reason for the inclusion of Miss Bates’s rambling is that it often stands in place of longer narration, allowing for a perspective besides Emma’s.  Though the perspectives of other characters are elided when Miss Bates explains their letters rather than reading them, obscuring other perspectives, her rambling at the ball allows us to construct the scene through her perspective, allowing us to see more clearly: “Here is your tippet.  Mrs. Weston begs you to put on your tippet . . . My dear Jane, indeed you must.  Mr. Churchill, oh! you are too obliging! – How well you put it on! – so gratified!” (291).  As she talks to Frank, we know where he is and what he’s doing – putting on Jane’s tippet, offering both Jane and Miss Bates his arm to go through the passage to dinner, and helping the ladies get seated – but we experience it not through Emma’s perspective, but through Miss Bates’s.  The absence of Emma’s perspective allows us to read Frank’s actions without Emma’s assumptions obscuring them.  Miss Bates’s fragmentary narrative does not render his actions clearly, but it allows the audience a different perspective.

Miss Bates’s rambling also hides information about the town’s activities that Emma does not pick up on, allowing the audience a fuller understanding of things.  As she announces Mr. Elton’s upcoming marriage, she says:

“Well, I had always rather fancied it would be some young lady hereabouts; not that I ever—Mrs. Cole once whispered to me—but I immediately said, ‘No, Mr. Elton is a most worthy young man—but’—In short, I do not think I am particularly quick at those sort of discoveries. I do not pretend to it. What is before me, I see. At the same time, nobody could wonder if Mr. Elton should have aspired—Miss Woodhouse lets me chatter on, so good-humouredly. She knows I would not offend for the world” (181).

It is clear that the townspeople have been engaged in some matchmaking gossip of their own, discussing Mr. Elton’s “aspirations” and never quite saying what those were “whispered” to be.  Emma cannot read what Miss Bates says because she is not listening, but the audience can put together clues about what has been going on in town and realize that Emma is not as clever or unique as she pretends.  Emma makes several assumptions about what “everybody” must think, but Miss Bates allows us to see other options, leading us to question Emma’s assertions.

Intellectual Equals: Why Mr. Knightley Needs to be Wrong

Emma and Knightley’s relationship changes significantly in chapter 38 of the novel, when both admit they have been wrong and have misread others. Emma’s apology here is fuller than it had been before, and she admits that she was “completely mistaken” about Elton, when Knightley had discovered his “littleness.” She concludes this acknowledgement without fully admitting her own culpability in the matter: “I was fully convinced of his being in love with Harriet. It was through a series of strange blunders!” (222). Her apology, which places the cause of her misperception in the passive voice, and references equally ambiguous “strange blunders” does not, perhaps, take full ownership of her mistake. But, at this point, this is perhaps the best we can expect from Emma, and it does show a trajectory of character growth.

More remarkable than Emma’s apology, however, is Knightley’s apology that follows. He says, “And, in return for your acknowledging so much, I will do you the justice to say, that you would have chosen for him [Elton] better than he has chosen for himself. Harriet Smith has some first-rate qualities…An unpretending, single-minded, artless girl– infinitely to be preferred by any man of sense and taste to such a woman as Mrs. Elton” (222). With this statement, he revises his earlier judgment that Harriet “is not a sensible girl, nor a girl of any information. She has been taught nothing useful, and is too young and too simple to have acquired any thing herself. At her age she can have no experience, and with her little wit, is not very likely ever to have any that can avail her. She is pretty, and she is good tempered, and that is all.” By acknowledging his own failure to judge Harriet well, Knightley reveals that he, too, is wrong (and this is the first of several misperceptions that he owns by the end of the novel– including the misperception that Emma cared for Frank; once freed from jealousy, he also allows for Frank’s potential and admits that jealousy has blinded him).

Why does it matter that Knightley is wrong, especially when Emma provides such an immature contrast? I argue that the novel’s key problem– set up in the first chapter– is Emma’s quest for an intellectual equal. Emma begins “handsome, clever, and rich,” but she also starts out by losing a friend. Miss Taylor/Mrs. Weston had been her intellectual equal, but even she has not challenged Emma enough; Knightley criticizes her for being too indulgent of Emma’s whims. Harriet Smith is too admiring and sycophantic to be an equal, and Jane Fairfax (who by all accounts should be friends with Emma) is too reserved. Yet at the beginning of the novel, Knightley is also not Emma’s equal. He does not value Emma’s opinion, and sees himself as her intellectual superior.

Knightley’s belief that he is superior to Emma keeps him from filling the heroine’s lack, and he must admit that he is wrong in order to level the playing ground. After their disagreement about Harriet and Mr. Martin, Emma complains, “To be sure—our discordancies must always arise from my being in the wrong.” “Yes,” said he, smiling—“and reason good. I was sixteen years old when you were born.” She replies, “Does not the lapse of one-and-twenty years bring our understandings a good deal nearer?” Though Knightley acknowledges that their judgments are now “nearer,” Emma points out that they are “not near enough to give me a chance of being right, if we think differently.” This scene clearly sets up that Knightley sees himself as sixteen years older, and Emma is both “a pretty young woman and a spoiled child.”

To make himself fit for Emma, then, Knightley’s acknowledgements of wrong are key. They show his transformation from the superior mentor to the eligible marriage partner. He fulfills a need that Emma is unable to find in her female community: someone who is able to match her intelligence, while at the same time forming an honest recognition of her faults and his own.

Mr. Woodhouse: Fool, Villain, or Victim

So, what’s up with Mr. Woodhouse? He’s a funny, old curmudgeon, but what is his role in the novel?

His most obvious role seems to be as comic relief. From the reader’s first observation of his conversation with Mr. Knightley, Mr. Woodhouse was clearly a character to make one laugh. In referring to Mr. Knightley’s short walk to Hartfield, Mr. Woodhouse exclaims that he “must have had a shocking walk” (7). Moments continue to pop up to spotlight Mr. Woodhouse’s eccentricities: his summer vs winter walks (both quite short), his fear of all food and most weather, his lengthy conversation with his daughter arguing whose doctor was better. However, Mr. Woodhouse is not truely needed as a figure of comic relief, because there are so many others from whom to choose. Miss Bates for example is quite laughable (I would insert a quote here, but I believe my fingers could not withstand the exercise). Also, Elton and then his wife are fun to laugh at because we kind of hate them. But Mr. Woodhouse occupies a greater role in the novel. Could he be a kind of Shakespearean fool? One who teaches lessons through his foolishness. I like that thought, in a proper British literature – Geek kind of way. But his wisdom seems to appear to the reader only in brief moments: “My dear, you do not understand me. This is a matter of mere common politeness and good-breeding, and has nothing to do with any encouragement to people to marry” (270). This is one of the many social lessons Emma must learn in the novel, but this seems to be one of the (very) few nuggets of wisdom Mr. Woodhouse offers, aside from the health benefits of gruel.

How about a villain? From the start, Mr. Woodhouse is defined as a man who required support,” was often depressed and nervous, and had “habits of gentle selfishness” (5). While all of these are pitiable and forgivable behaviors (even endearing) in people of a certain age, Mr. Woodhouse’s impact on Emma’s life is not to be understated. In a moment of impolite impertinence, Mrs. Elton comments on Emma’s life with her father: “I perfectly understand your situation, however, Miss Woodhouse – (looking towards Mr. Woodhouse) – your father’s state of health must be a great drawback” (264-5). She’s not wrong. She’s contemptible, but she’s not wrong. Mr. Woodhouse’s habits have placed an immense amount of responsibility on Emma starting at an early age (when her eldest sister got married). And his inability (or lack of desire) to travel or make any decisive action has compounded in the need for Emma to be educated on proper social behavior in her adulthood rather than as a child. Mrs. Elton hit the mark in her comments to Emma, because Mr. Woodhouse could be an anchor, tied to Emma and restricting her growth.

Could he be a victim? Christine Roulston, in “Discourse, Gender, and Gossip,” says that “Emma’s narcissism and sense of self therefore depend on a weakened construction of the masculine order, which in turn allows her a maximum sphere of influence” (45). In short, the control Emma desires is only possible around weakened men, and Mr. Woodhouse seems to fit the bill. Not only is he weak, but he is feminized. His life consists of the private sphere (as he hardly ever leaves the house) and his conversation involves domestic worries: health, food, comfort, visits, etc. Has the novel emasculated Mr. Woodhouse to allow Emma to become the authority of the home? Why must he be weak for her to be strong?

So, can Mr. Woodhouse be fool, villain, and victim all at the same time? Or does he fall into one category more than the others? On the surface, I am apt to pity Mr. Woodhouse, but his weakness is a privilege. He is rich and is sure that his neighbors will respect his eccentricities. Perhaps his choice to dominate the domestic realm, instead of the public realm, is a different demonstration of class privilege – and by thrusting Emma into a more public role in her youth, Mr. Woodhouse has created a situation where Emma is set up to fail.

Sentimentalism and Secret Engagements

Secret engagements are a bad business in Austen’s universe. Emma calls Frank and Jane’s engagement “a very abominable sort of proceeding,” and despite her compassionate feelings for Jane at the novel’s end, believes Miss Fairfax allowed her affection to “overpower her judgment” (III.1, III.12). Mr. Knightley agrees, calling Jane’s consenting to the engagement her “one fault” (III.15). For their part, Frank and Jane admit in several instances that their actions are cause for guilt and repentance.

How should modern readers understand the condemnation so forcefully placed upon Frank and Jane’s secret agreement? Why do Austen’s characters — Mr. Knightley in particular — believe the couple to have acted improperly? Mrs. Churchill’s discovery of the relationship would have no doubt ended all communication between the lovers, and, while their actions are deceptive to a certain degree, they could have been painted in a more positively romantic light than Austen chooses to use.

Frank’s actions are perhaps more understandably reprehensible. In his flirtations with Emma, he needlessly exposed her to censure from the community and heartbreak for herself. As Emma states, he came among them with “professions of openness and simplicity” and led them to believe they were all on “an equal footing of truth and honour” (III.10). Emma’s feelings, of course, are colored by her embarrassment: Frank’s honesty would have saved her from unkind conjectures about Jane and Mr. Dixon. But Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley share Emma’s belief in Frank’s impropriety, and Frank himself admits he acted poorly in hiding his engagement and flirting with Emma.

But what of Jane? She feels the weight of her part in the scheme, as evidenced by her sickness, but her actions are less clearly worthy of blame. She never flirts with other men or acts, like Frank, with a deceptively “open temper” that serves to hide “trick and littleness” (II.7, III.10). And yet, Jane feels guilty. She tells Mrs. Weston that she “never can be blameless”: “I have been acting contrary to all my sense of right; …and the kindness I am now receiving, is what my conscience tells me ought not to be” (III.12). Jane’s decision to enter into a secret engagement is private and personal. But both she and her community seem to believe that she owes them a window into her most intimate secrets. How can we account for this?

I’m sure this question could be answered from a historical perspective to shed light on proper nineteenth century courtship practices. This would be an important and interesting analysis, but I wonder if the novel’s portrayal of Jane’s actions also reveals its indebtedness to eighteenth century sentimental fiction. Understanding Jane’s feeling of guilt, I think, may shed light on the larger role of sentimentality in Austen’s world.

Emma criticizes Jane throughout the novel for being too “reserved.” The narrator, channeling Emma, even says that Jane was “disgustingly… suspiciously reserved” (II.2). Readers understand (and Emma later admits) that the heroine’s dislike of Miss Fairfax stems primarily from jealousy. But Emma’s observation about Jane isn’t wrong. Mr. Knightley, in one of his most obvious signs of affection for Emma, says that “Jane Fairfax has feeling… but [her temper] wants openness. She is reserved, more reserved, I think, than she used to be—And I love an open temper” (III.15). In this passage Mr. Knightley, arguably (arguably!) the moral compass of the novel, echoes Emma’s desire for open and honest sensibility.

It is not enough to have feeling, according to Knightley. To be a good sentimental character, Jane must show that feeling as well. It is a social behavior, and Jane’s community has a right to know her emotions. Emma observes late in the novel that the more sensibility Jane “betrays” of the horrors of living with the Bates, “the more I shall like you” (III.6). Jane’s decision to keep her engagement a secret thus precludes her from displaying true sensibility. Her decision may be personal, but if she wants to interact properly with her community, it cannot be private. Jane’s lack of sensibility is her true crime, and, I think, one of the reasons the novel condemns her actions.

Understanding Emma as indebted to sentimental fiction sheds light on other characters as well. The narrator’s emphasis on both Emma and Knightley’s sensibility, for example, sets them apart as morally exemplary (despite their other flaws). Miss Bates and Mr. Woodhouse also fall into this category. While they both possess tiresome habits, they are entirely open and honest about their feelings. The novel thus presents them in a positive light and the other characters conceive of them as such.

With all this being said, there appears in Emma, alongside a valorization of sensibility, a desire to keep emotion in check. Despite her open temper, Emma constantly tries (and usually, unlike Camilla, succeeds) to hide her true feelings. When Mr. Knightley tells Emma of Harriet’s engagement, Emma cannot look at him for fear she will betray the true extent of her happiness. She frequently has to hide her feelings from Harriet and keep her dislike of Mrs. Elton in check. Fully explaining this tension would require a much longer analysis, but Austen seems to be advocating for a controlled show of sensibility. While public emotional responses are appropriate in certain settings, sometimes feelings need to be concealed. Beyond that, I’m not sure what to make of this tension or the precise balance between sentiment and restraint that Emma works to encourage.

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?

Mr. Woodhouse as the Stereotypical “Little Old Lady”

In Emma, most characters provoke serious considerations of judgement and propriety. Most of Emma’s characters are fallible, most have some shade of ambiguity in character, and most characters experience change or growth in the course of the story. Mr. Woodhouse, however, is not one of those characters. Throughout Emma, Mr. Woodhouse acts ridiculously. Whether he’s urging his guests not to eat the cake they’ve been given, or panicking over the atmosphere’s influence on physical health, the scenes which prominently feature Mr. Woodhouse inject humor and absurdity into an otherwise serious story (65, 121). Despite Mr. Woodhouse’s ridiculous personality, a serious consideration of his role in Emma reveals that his character also provides a satire on gender stereotypes and of the stereotypical “Lord of the Manor.”

Of all the characters in Emma, very few didn’t change at all through the course of the novel. Mr. Woodhouse, obviously, is one example. In Volume I, Mr. Woodhouse worries about the air around the coast and the health risks of visiting a seaside location such as Bath. In Volume II, Mr. Woodhouse must be consulted to consider the drafts and microclimates of a ballroom before the location must be booked. Finally, in Volume III, Mr. Woodhouse receives special accommodations during his visit at Donwell Abbey, and must be placed inside by the fire despite the heat of the summer season. Throughout Emma, Mr. Woodhouse is portrayed as a delicate, finicky, and anxious old person. In her characterization of Mr. Woodhouse, Austen intentionally endows him with many of the characteristics readers would often associate with older women, such as his anxiety on trivial matters, dislike of changing social situations, and old-fashioned anecdotes regarding health.

In Chapter III, the narrator introduces Mrs. Bates as “a very old lady, almost past everything but tea and quadrille” (67). Mrs. Bates is another one of the static characters in Emma, since she features such a small role and is portrayed as the almost perfect trope of a little old lady throughout the novel. Despite Mrs. Bates frailty, and despite her lower social rank, she seems to be great company for the anxious old man that is Mr.Woodhouse. The narrator tells us, “[Mrs. Bates] was a great talker upon little matters, which exactly suited Mr. Woodhouse, full of trivial communications and harmless gossip” (67). Emma’s narrator tells us of Mr. Woodhouse and Mrs. Bates’ relationship early in the novel, so that the reader can begin to mentally connect the frail old widow with the anxious old widower. Mr. Woodhouse’s close connection to Mrs. Bates further exaggerates the stereotypically feminine aspects of his personality such as his love of the trivial and gossip.

In discovering Mr. Woodhouse’s traditionally womanly traits, and in laughing at his comical behavior, readers engage in a subversion of socially accepted gender roles. Mr. Woodhouse is the Lord of Hartfield, and ought to be seen as a gentleman and an authority. Instead, his character provides comedic relief for the more serious considerations being made by his daughter and caretaker, Emma.

A Source of Errors in Judgment

Austen’s treatment of judgment centers on Emma’s inability to judge well. A passage from page 136 indicates that a lack of information is a key part of the issue: “she walked on, amusing herself in the consideration of the blunders which often arise from a partial knowledge of circumstances, of the mistakes which people of high pretentions to judgment are for ever falling into; and not very well pleased with her brother for imagining her blind and ignorant, and in want of counsel” (136). The passage’s use of irony (and the coming revelation of Mr. Elton’s affection for Emma) suggest that her information about Mr. Elton’s love of Harriet is incomplete, throwing her method of observation and judgment into question. Emma collects information through the type of observation she implores Harriet to employ: “Be observant of him. Let his behaviour be the guide of your sensations” (301). While Emma relies heavily on physical behavior and manners of speech, she cannot gather enough information to make informed judgments.

Clearly, Emma errs, as in trying to bring Harriet and Mr. Elton together: “it was wrong, to take so active a part in bringing any two people together. It was adventuring too far, assuming too much” (154). Even as Emma pulls away from meddling, at least somewhat, she still finds trouble in the form of Frank Churchill and misinterpreting his actions as romantic. This suggests her issue primarily stems from a lack of access to information. She, as a young, unmarried woman, does not have access to all of the interactions that married women, or men have with people to make better judgments.

For example, Mr. John Knightley’s comment about Mr. Elton suggests that he knows more of him than Emma could: “‘I never in my life saw a man more intent on being agreeable than Mr. Elton. It is downright labour to him where ladies are concerned. With men he can be rational and unaffected, but when he has ladies to please every feature works” (136). In this case, Emma simply cannot see a holistic view of Mr. Elton and gauge his intentions well because she can only see him in certain environments.

Even in the environments to which Emma has access to information, cultural limitations often prevent complete communication. When she interacts with Frank Churchill, his actions seem to indicate infatuation because she’s been conditioned (primarily by Mr. Elton’s romantic advances) to interpret his actions and sincere talking as romantic advances: “‘It was something to feel that all the rest of my time might be given to Hartfield’…He [stopped] again, rose again, and seemed quite embarrassed.—He was more in love with her than Emma had supposed” (242). Emma thus incorrectly perceived Frank as being in love with her. Austen thus suggests that Emma is forced into poor judgments because she is not given access to adequate information to judge people, nor do social rules of propriety permit complete communication. She must make do, rather poorly, with what she is given.

The Vain Spirit and Serious Spirit

“‘Does my vain spirit ever tell me I am wrong?’

‘Not your vain spirit, but your serious spirit.–If one leads you wrong, I am sure the other tells you of it’ (292).

Mr. Knightly’s comment on Emma’s two sides perfectly sums up Emma’s character and demonstrates Emma’s growth throughout the novel. There are many areas in which Emma’s character needs to grow. However, her biggest is needing to, as Mr. Knightly puts it, let her serious side tell her vain side when she is wrong. Emma’s changes becomes noticeable when her “serious spirit” overcomes her “vain spirit” more often than not.

One of the biggest moments of self reflection is after the Box-Hill incident. While Emma acted wrongly, she evaluates herself more than she does in any other part of the novel. She notes, “She had been often remiss, her conscience told her so […] But it should be be so no more. She would call upon her the very next morning, and it should be the beginning, on her side, of a regular, equal, kindly intercourse” (327). This is when Emma begins to truly attempt to listen to her serious spirit more than her vain spirit.

Emma’s views on Jane Fairfax change drastically throughout the novel. Emma is always uncertain of Jane as Jane gives little insight to what she is feeling or thinking. However, she finally puts aside her vain spirit in regards to Jane Fairfax when she apologizes. “I feel that all the apologies should be on my side. Let us forgive each other at once” (387).

By the end of the novel, Emma has not changed completely, which reflects a realistic view of her character. She still believes she is right in certain ways, but she reevaluates herself and holds back more than she did in the beginning of the novel. In the beginning of the novel, Emma manipulated Harriet into declining Mr. Martin’s proposal, and she denies to Mr. Knightly that she persuaded Harriet. She responds to his accusation by saying, “And if I did, (which, however, I am far from allowing, I should not feel that I had done wrong” (97). In this instance, her vain spirit trumps her serious spirit.

However, when Emma hears of Harriet’s engagement to Mr. Martin at the end, she does not become completely ecstatic or accepting of Mr. Martin. She still doesn’t believe that Harriet would accept his proposal. “Are you perfectly sure that she has absolutely and downright accepted him” (397). However, instead of expressing disdain or arguing that Harriet is too good for Mr. Martin, Emma accepts their marriage by saying, “I am perfectly satisfied, and most sincerely wish them happy” (398). While Emma hasn’t completely changed her mind about Mr. Martin, she doesn’t let her vain spirit and judgement take precedence.

Emma can be classified as a bildungsroman because Emma does undergo changes. It’s uncharacteristic of Emma to completely change her views, but she does grow as a character when she doesn’t let her vain side dominate.

“I love him, I love him not…”

flower-2              In Austen’s 19th century novel, Emma, it’s a twist on the old elementary game of “he loves me, he loves me not”, for the protagonist Emma Woodhouse and her suitor, Frank Churchill. In this case however, Emma is not the one wondering if Frank loves her, but rather if she could or even should fall in love with the new, big deal in town. Women of this time period are expected to fall in love and be married at a young age, but not in Emma Woodhouse’s case. Austen loves playing with this rebellious type of behavior with Emma throughout the novel, in other cases than just her love life.

Emma is the head of her father’s household. Her mother is dead and her older sister is already married. This makes for a special relationship between her father and her. She doesn’t want to leave him to care for himself if she were to get married. Thus, her anticipation toward falling in love. However, when a new guy in town starts to get in her eye sight, she begins to fall…or so we think.

Emma’s first impression of Frank is honestly, rather shallow. She describes him first as, “a very good looking young man; height, air, address, all were unexceptionable, and his countenance had a great deal of the spirit and liveliness of his fathers…” (191) Austen has Emma first describe his physical attributes. This is when I, as a reader, inferred that this would not work out in the end. Emma did have an urgency when it came to talking to Frank though. “She felt immediately that she should like him; and there was…a readiness to talk.” (191) Without even seeing him in person first, Emma thought she should like him just because he was the new deal in town. This comes across very shallow to readers.

Further in the novel, in Chapter XIII, readers finally see Emma become honest with herself and this “I love him, I love him not”, situation. The narrator tells us first that Emma had “no doubt of her being in love”, but then immediately explains that, “at first, she thought it was a good deal; and afterwards, but little.” (244) Later it’s determined that their affection could only ever be a friendship after all. “When she became sensible of this, it struck her that she could not be very much in love.” (244) As readers, we see Emma go from having no doubt, to having doubt.

This love game between Emma and Frank is important to the novel because it helps develop Emma’s bildungsroman, and we see her become more honest with herself and the situation of rather she will ever marry or not. As a romanticist, I wanted this to turn into some form of lovey dovey love relationship, but I was let down by Austen rather quickly. Oh well! Emma DOES end up getting married, so I am satisfied.

On the Character of Frank Churchill

In the first volume of Austen’s Emma, Frank Churchill is a character often mentioned and never met. The little town (village?) of Highbury “boasts” of him as one of their own (Vol. I, Ch. II), and he is a popular subject among the gossiping residents, including our heroine and the perfect Mr. Knightly, who’s judge of character is highly respected by all (especially by Emma herself). Slightly ironic, then, is Mr. Knightly’s insistent determination to dislike Frank Churchill before their meeting, which we are led to see is uncharacteristic, even “unworthy” (Vol. 1, Ch. XVIII), of him. Consequently, here at the beginning of volume II I feel we are being called to judge Frank Churchill for ourselves, with the understanding that both of our main sources of judgement (Emma and Mr. Knightly) are too biased to completely trust.

Emma eventually learns her own feelings for Frank Churchill and calms herself to the point where they are just friends in her eyes, and two chapters in volume III from Mr. Knightly’s perspective (Chapters V and VI) nicely explain that, while he is biased, he also has legitimate concerns over Mr. Frank Churchill’s actions toward his two favorite people, Jane Fairfax and Emma Woodhouse, and has reason to suspect him of “double dealing” (Vol. III, Ch V). By this time, we have watched Frank be cruel towards Jane with Emma, with the two of them laughing over her and creating rumors over her supposed unrequited love with Mr. Dixon (oh, Emma and her grand fantasies). Frank Churchill has also demanded Jane play more music when she is recovering from a cold, which make the gallant Mr. Knightly angry on her behalf (Vol. II, Ch. VIII). It comes as quite a shock, then, when we all discover that Jane and Frank are secretly engaged (Vol. III, Ch. X).

Forcing Jane to keep an engagement secret is one thing – everyone can agree that it was an unreasonable decision (Mr. Knightly being the most credible source on the matter, of course (Vol. III, Ch. XIII)). Openly flirting with another woman in front of her, however, is nothing short of cruel, especially when much of this flirting is gossiping about Jane in general. There is also the point of the piano-forte. Frank Churchill sent Jane a rather extravagant gift, but because he sent it anonymously she could not refuse it and send it back, which he knew she would want to do (Vol. III, Ch. XIV). Perhaps in comparison with his flagrant flirting the piano-forte is a small slight, but the fact of the matter is he refused to give her the option of declining the gift. He made her uncomfortable and did so knowingly. I cannot forgive him.

Emma has a realization concerning the difference between Mrs. Churchill and Jane Fairfax and their “importance in the world….one was everything, the other nothing” (Vol. III, Ch. VIII). Though she does not really consider Frank’s opinions in relation to this thought, it is a response to Frank’s sudden quitting of Highbury to return to his sickly aunt, which we later realize was a snub toward sickly Jane (the parallels between Mrs. Churchill and Jane Fairfax really highlight their differences). I think it illustrates where Jane Fairfax falls in Frank Churchill’s affections, and while I cannot blame him for being worried about money, I also cannot forgive him for worrying about it to the point of neglecting his sick fiancee when he has already purposely hurt her.

Frank Churchill is young, and perhaps he will grow to be a better person after a bildungsroman of his own, especially with a friend like Emma, who is determined to be better and do better by Jane, and who he regards as a sort of sister. For now, however, I find myself disappointed, and wish that there were more consequences for his actions that affected him, when so many affected Jane.

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.

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.

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 is 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.

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.