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Almost 21, witty, and altogether charming, Emma Woodhouse has never learned to follow anybody’s guidance but her own. She lives with her father in Hartfield, a gorgeous house that’s second only to Donwell Abbey in size and importance. That’s by Highbury standards, of course – in fact, pretty much every social judgment Emma makes has something to do with the standards of her hometown. Luckily, Emma’s pretty sure that she herself sets the town’s standards. After all, she manages its social calendar. And her determination to "raise" her friend Harriet into good society demonstrates confidence in her ability to re-write the books of Highbury etiquette. She makes plenty of mistakes along the way. In fact, by the end of the novel, Highbury hasn’t changed – Emma has.
Love. It’s such a nice word, isn’t it? Too bad that Emma seems to have decided never to apply it to herself. She’s bound and determined to see little hearts floating over everyone’s head – everyone’s but her own, that is. Of course, in an Austen novel, love is never really about love. (What? That doesn’t make any sense. Let us explain.) As Emma herself says, when a girl’s got money, who needs a man? What Emma does need, however, is a little bit of excitement in her life. She’s not sure that she actually wants love – but she’s perfectly willing to imagine a romance for herself with Frank - before he shows up in real life, of course. After that, he’s not nearly as great. We suspect that she’s actually in love with the idea of a change, not love, at all. In fact, she’s actually pretty blind to all the men who do like her (Mr. Elton, for example).
When Emma finally does fall in love with Mr. Knightley, her language makes it sound a lot like…respect. Here’s Emma’s play-by-play on Mr. Knightley leaving town, for example:
He took her hand;—whether she had not herself made the first motion, she could not say—she might, perhaps, have rather offered it—but he took her hand, pressed it, and certainly was on the point of carrying it to his lips—when, from some fancy or other, he suddenly let it go.—Why he should feel such a scruple, why he should change his mind when it was all but done, she could not perceive.[…] The intention, however, was indubitable; and whether it was that his manners had in general so little gallantry, or however else it happened, but she thought nothing became him more.— It was with him, of so simple, yet so dignified a nature.— She could not but recall the attempt with great satisfaction. It spoke such perfect amity.—
That’s a really, really long and elaborate way to describe Mr. Knightley as a good...gentleman? Hmm. How hot is that? Well, we’re not really sure. Perhaps Emma actually does love Mr. Knightley more than she admitted to herself (see our section on "Emma and Mr. Knightley" below). Or perhaps Austen intends to demonstrate that love can look a lot like friendship. Emma doesn’t have to imagine anything about this relationship, because she knows all about Mr. Knightley’s character. In fact, at one point she’s ready to give up any claims to him as a husband – if she can just keep him as the friend that drops by every day: "Let him but continue the same Mr. Knightley to her and her father, the same Mr. Knightley to all the world; let Donwell and Hartfield lose none of their precious intercourse of friendship and confidence, and her peace would be fully secured." Who wants peace when they could have love? Well, apparently Emma.
OK, so Emma might have some pretty screwed-up sense of what love looks like for most of the novel. When it comes to family, however, this girl’s got her heart in the right place. Taking care of a crotchety old man day after day after day can’t be a walk in the park – but we never once hear Emma complain. She looks after all of her father’s needs: finding him dinner guests who’ll eat his gruel, easing his worries about thieves and sudden illnesses, and even deciding not to get married until he dies. We’re glad Mr. Knightley talked her out of that one.
Ironically, although Emma frequently imagines how horrible it must be for Jane to live with her grandmother and aunt, she never considers the costs of her own loyalty to her father. She just loves him unconditionally. How many of us could say that for our parents?
Emma’s unconditional love extends to the rest of her family, as well. She gets pretty huffy when Mr. John Knightley suggests that she might not have time to look after her nephews. In fact, she’s almost as fierce a mother hen as she is a ridiculous matchmaker.
Perhaps most interestingly, Emma forges new kinship bonds with people that she truly loves. Treating Mrs. Weston, her old governess, as the mother she never had, Emma demonstrates a trust in and respect for her good friend that never wavers. When Mr. Weston marries her good friend, he becomes part of the family, too. And when Frank comes into town, Emma does him the favor of imagining herself to be in love with him. After all, he’s almost family. OK, that’s creepy. But you get the picture.
Emma’s not vain about her looks, although Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston are pretty sure that she could be. If Emma does posses an over-inflated ego (and let’s face it, she REALLY does), it’s because of her smarts. In fact, it’s probably not coincidental that Emma herself is the first person to comment on her all-too healthy sense of self. Here are her own thoughts on the matter:"How improperly had she been acting by Harriet! How inconsiderate, how indelicate, how irrational, how unfeeling had been her conduct! What blindness, what madness, had led her on! It struck her with dreadful force, and she was ready to give it every bad name in the world."
Here she is again, just a few moments later: "Every moment had brought a fresh surprize; and every surprize must be matter of humiliation to her.—How to understand it all! How to understand the deceptions she had been thus practising on herself, and living under!—The blunders, the blindness of her own head and heart!—"
As readers, we follow Emma’s thoughts in this (as in almost everything else). Even as Austen’s narrator encourages us to criticize her heroine, the fact that we’re in her head makes her just a bit sympathetic. After all, it’s hard to hear someone beat themselves up (however well-deserved a good bashing might be) without trying to step in to make them feel better. We can’t really try to console Emma (c’mon, she’s a character, remember?), but we can give her our sympathy. And boy, we sure do.
Certain that she understands Highbury society and the hearts of all its residents, Emma feels free at first to imagine love affairs for just about everyone she meets. That’s all well and good…but as it turns out, Emma’s imagination rarely has any basis in reality. As Mr. Knightley reminds her when Emma tries out her first theories of Mr. Elton’s love for Harriet on him, Mr. Elton is far too much a man of the world to marry a poor girl without a family. Emma’s character seems to oscillate between an incredibly adept grasp of social situations and a complete (or even willful) blindness to the facts of life.
Of course, when Emma screws up Harriet’s life by encouraging her to love Mr. Elton, she has the decency to feel pretty crummy about it afterwards. Fully aware of the humor of Mr. Elton’s choice, she nevertheless worries about her friend’s reaction: "It was to herself an amusing and a very welcome piece of news, as proving that Mr. Elton could not have suffered long; but she was sorry for Harriet: Harriet must feel it—and all that she could hope was, by giving the first information herself, to save her from hearing it abruptly from others."
But that doesn’t stop her from continuing to imagine other love affairs for Harriet (perhaps Mr. Cox, the new lawyer? No…) – or even for herself.
So why does Emma stretch her imagination only when it comes to love? Why not saving the environment? Or creating world peace? Well, as Emma herself points out, women only have a certain number of acceptable roles to play in society. Remember, this is the early nineteenth century. No jobs for women are immediately available, unless you happen to want to become a mother or a governess. Property is, for the most part, entailed (which means that it passes directly from one male heir to the next). Daughters don’t inherit land. Remember how Emma argues for Donwell Abbey passing to her nephew, Harry? It’s telling that we never hear Emma’s opinion on land, in general. After all, we learn her thoughts on just about everything else! Perhaps Austen consciously excludes Emma (and women in general) from areas of society that they just can’t participate in.
Emma doesn’t even imagine owning land – she sticks to topics that she can realistically control. Matchmaking happens to be one of them. If Emma were poorer, she’d probably imagine her way into a pretty nice gig as a governess. If she were a man, she’d probably conquer all of Europe (or at least London). As a woman, however, she’s smart enough to realize that her options are limited. Austen may make fun of Emma’s tendency to miss the reality train, but she’s just as quick to point out that there aren’t many other rides for women to take.
Emma’s the top of the food chain. The head of the class. The president of the Highbury Social Club. OK, there’s not a Highbury Social Club – but there should be. And she’d be its president. Emma organizes society; from dinner parties for her father to the Westons’ ball, just about every social gathering (except Box Hill, of course) has Emma’s fingerprints on it. When Mr. Woodhouse asks people over to dinner, it’s Emma that makes sure they get fed. When Mr. Weston decides to hold a ball, it’s Emma who paces through rooms with Frank to determine where the event should be held. Frank’s decision to focus the games at Box Hill on Emma sends Mrs. Elton into a rage largely because it affirms what everybody else implicitly acknowledges: Emma’s the queen of her social scene.
Emma’s also keeping close tabs on who’s who in Highbury. Of course, it’s not like Highbury is a bustling social center, but nonetheless, it’s good to know just who’s doing what. As the reigning queen of the Highbury social scene, Emma feels like it’s her duty to remind people of where they stand on her social scale: the Coles, for example, just aren’t quite the thing. That’s not to say that Emma doesn’t want to be invited to their party…she’d just like to have the option of turning them down. When Mrs. Elton comes to town, all of Emma’s competitive hackles are raised. The woman actually has the nerve to think that she’s on the same social level as Emma herself. Seriously! We all know that Mrs. Elton’s money isn’t really good, old family cash…which is why our narrator agrees with Emma – it’s OK to hate on Mrs. E.
Interestingly, although Emma definitely looks down on social climbers like Mrs. Elton, she doesn’t seem to realize that many folks might put Harriet in the same category as the dreaded Mrs. E. Maybe Emma doesn’t have such a great grasp on social standards, after all! How do we get to this conclusion? Well, for one thing, Mr. Knightley tells us as much. After all, if we agree with Emma when she says that Mr. Knightley always has good judgment, then perhaps we should be listening to him about this. He’s so worried about Emma’s new friend that he rushes to Mrs. Weston for her advice.
Emma and Mr. Knightley are like brother and sister. Er…we mean, they were like brother and sister. Now they’re like husband and wife. Their relationship remains the one stable thing in Emma’s life, even after she screws up her friendship with Harriet and her almost-love affair with Frank. Mr. Knightley just keeps stopping by the house all the time, offering advice and laughing at Emma’s mistakes. They’ve known each other for years and years, which means that Mr. Knightley can say things to Emma that no one else can. They’ve also been arguing for years and years – which means that Emma has at least one person that she can flex her formidable brain-powers on. It’s a good thing that Mr. Knightley is in town. Without him, who knows what Emma would be up to?
We could think of Mr. Knightley as Emma’s reality check. It’s not exactly a sexy role, we know, but Emma seems to find it pretty hot. And hey, who are we to judge? Even before Emma realizes how amazing and perfect and loveable Mr. Knightley is, she uses him as the standard of good behavior. As in, Frank’s pretty nice…but not as nice as Mr. Knightley. Or Mr. Weston: he’s polite, but compared to Mr. Knightley…
With Emma thinking Mr. Knightley is so perfect and all, it’s hard for us to disagree. In fact, when Mr. John Knightley writes to tell his brother that Emma doesn’t deserve him, we’re inclined to agree. But is Mr. Knightley really always that perfect? Or are we just too far into Emma’s mind to be able to be critical of him?
Which brings us to our last point: our relationship to Emma is sort of like our relationship to bad reality TV: we hate ourselves for liking it so much, but it’s just so hard to turn off! Readers probably agree with everything that Mr. Knightley says about Emma – heck, maybe even some of the snide jabs Mrs. Elton makes ring pretty true. Even though we admit that Emma can be vain and snotty and a crummy friend, however, we can’t seem to stop liking her. Perhaps that’s because our narrator spends so much time inside Emma’s head – or because, for all of her faults, Emma’s still the most creative person in the novel. Whatever it is, we find ourselves on Emma’s side even though we see right through everything that she’s trying to do.
That’s what makes her the perfect Austen heroine: she’s likeable, but she’s not infallible. And as long as folks learn from her mess-ups, we’re probably all better off in the long run.