In the previous post, I wrote about the structure, POV, and narration of Emma by Jane Austen. Part II is focused on the characters of the novel.
Disclaimer: Spoilers. If you haven’t read Emma, you may want to stop reading.
Emma, the character
Emma is Jane Austen’s only major novel titled after its main character, and it is easy to see why: Emma Woodhouse is its life and soul. There may be an ensemble cast of characters, but Emma is central to Highbury and is the center of the narrative.
Austen famously wrote, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” Not true, many bookworms have grown to adore Emma (myself included). She would not fit everyone’s taste, certainly, but her creator had severely underestimated Emma’s charm. Emma the novel would lose 95% of its sparkle without Emma the character.
So, how shall I describe Emma Woodhouse?
- She’s lively, cheerful, charming, delightful, and witty. TL;DR: she’s fun to be with. Odd, seeing how she grew up with a gloomy, always anxious father. Neither her sister nor her governess is a sparkling conversationalist. Mr. Knightley, while giving her the intellectual challenge she needed, is too sensible to engage in the whimsical play that witty banter requires.
- She loves her family dearly and takes care of her father to the best of her ability. It’s surprising how someone as lively and sociable as Emma had never been cross to her father, whose extreme worries had limited much of Emma’s life and movements. Yet Emma warmly accommodated all his whims.
- She tries her best to be a good friend. I do think despite Harriet being at the right place and the right time (by which I mean, if anyone other than Harriet had been available to befriend, Emma was likely to take the other person and be snobby to Harriet), Emma was a genuine friend to her – even though she had many limitations.
- There were clear instances where she was shown to be both compassionate and sensible.
- Despite her at times wicked humor, Emma is surprisingly conflict averse. She wanted everyone to get along, and to that end she always tried hard to be amiable and civil. She used her great social intuition to direct conversations away from topical minefields so everyone could have a great time without drawing attention to herself.
On the other hand:
- As mentioned in the first post, she’s indulged and a little lazy. All the resources at her disposal and she never maximized them to be someone as accomplished as she could be. Instead, she flitted from one interest to another. It was mentioned that she could have been an expert at drawing/music/whatever if only she really applied herself. Ha! I know people like this. Learning comes easily to them; they don’t have to work hard to grasp concepts. In a counterproductive way, their own natural intellect stood in the way.
- She’s totally a snob. I both wanted to laugh and roll my eyes when Emma waited for an invitation from the Coles, whom she considered her social inferiors, so she could reject it as propriety demanded. Then she became indignant when the invitation was slow in coming. Haha. Basically: ‘how dare they snub me by taking their time as I am about to snub them!’ Emma’s behavior was in accordance to the etiquette of the time but it wasn’t exactly endearing.
- The flip side of wit: Emma can be unnecessarily cutting and cruel with her words. Worse? She’s loose-lipped. It’s entertaining to the reader as she’s so fun and witty, but I wished she held her tongue at times. Witty people often cut deep. And the world is full of those who easily get butthurt.
- She’s prone to self-delusion and self-inflation (despite being aware of her own attempts at self-delusion). In one instance, she paints a flattering portrait of Harriet – adding a little extra height in her drawing. Emma is conscious of the artifice, even if everyone else (except Mr. Knightley) agree with her rendition.
Man, seeing the above makes me appreciate how despite Austen’s love for Emma, she never shied away from baldly displaying her worse traits.
If Emma is a mystery novel, Emma Woodhouse is our unreliable narrator. Her personality and her centrality in Highbury life created many blind spots. Sometimes the real action happened at the margins, yet those minor events held the key to solving the mysteries. Sometimes it was Emma herself who fogged things. LOL at her analysis of Jane Fairfax’s story. She concluded that Jane had torrid, romantic feelings for her best friend’s husband. Emma was right that something suspicious was going on, and when you think about it, she was on the right track – her takeaway was just too dramatic. Clearly, Emma had been reading too many overblown romances. Wonder if this was a reference to Northanger Abbey?
I know some readers doubt Emma’s intelligence. After all, how could she be smart when she got so much wrong? Well, yes. But I chalk that up to inexperience, which is different from lacking sense. Emma always had the sharp instinct to read between the lines, to know from a situation that something wasn’t right. She may have created the wrong conclusions, but her wits and intuition were sound.
Matchmaking was completely the wrong venture for Emma. Someone with no firsthand experience of romantic love had no business interfering in love affairs.
I suspect Emma was simply bored and stifled in Highbury, with no outlet for her creativity. Matchmaking was a misguided activity, but Emma needed something to occupy her time.
Emma is the star, but the novel has a cast of memorable side characters. Mr. Woodhouse, for one, reminds me of a dear, affable grandfather. When you think about the extent of his hypochondriac restrictions, he could easily veer into a tyrant type or an object of mockery. Yet he was somehow so likeable – a testament to Jane Austen’s characterization. I think Mr. Woodhouse was one of her great comic creations. Loveable and quirky enough for us to side with him, inane and ridiculous enough for us to laugh at him. It was a fine balance that Austen pulled off with aplomb, where the humor is perfectly good-natured.
I suspect Miss Bates, Jane Fairfax’s aunt, was based on a real person Austen had to suffer through during her lifetime. She was too annoying to be a product of writerly imagination. I felt trapped and exhausted reading 2 pages of her monologuing and going off tangents when just one sentence would do.
Every time Miss Bates opened her mouth, she reminded me of Genos from the Japanese manga One-Punch Man blathering about his convoluted origin story to Saitama.
As if to compensate for her aunt’s constant chatter, Jane Fairfax is reserved, almost boringly so in my opinion. Jane Fairfax is presented as Emma’s foil, an elegant and educated young lady who made full use of the opportunities available to her. For example, Jane was a better musician than Emma despite the time and resources at the latter’s disposal. It is implied that Emma was jealous of Jane’s accomplishments, even if she masked it by commenting on how cold and aloof Jane was.
Personally though, I found Jane’s parts a slog. Yes, the narrative is filtered through Emma’s biases, but I thought the only moments Jane could be made interesting were when Emma would snark and comment on her. I mean, Jane’s elegant – but so is vanilla pudding. To me, she never held a candle to the charming and mischievous Emma Woodhouse.
Thank goodness for Frank Churchill, who livened things up alongside Emma. Poor Emma for having to shoulder nearly all the charm of the novel!
It’s funny to read through other people’s comments about Emma the novel and Emma the character. Such a pastime is made especially easy with the recently released 2020 film adaptation. I can find anything from “Emma is snobby but has a good heart” to “Emma is a tone-deaf self-inflated mediocre woman who likes to poke her nose into other people’s business. The entire novel is a satire on how clueless and dimwitted the nobility is. Only Mr. Knightley is portrayed as respectable.” (I’m paraphrasing, of course.)
I mean, LOL. Obviously, my thoughts are more aligned with the former. In fact, I must apologize for subjecting you to all this word vomit when one phrase would do. I may be more like Miss Bates than I’d like. Oh, the irony!!
So you’ve a masterful structure, witty writing, and lively characterization: all the hallmarks of a novel that stands the test of time. What else is there to talk about? Themes, of course. I will discuss those at the next and final installment of my Emma blog posts.