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The narrator introduces Emma to us by emphasizing her
good fortune: “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home
and happy disposition,” Emma “had lived nearly twenty-one years
in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” But, the
narrator warns us, Emma possesses “the power of having rather too
much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of
herself.” Emma’s stubbornness and vanity produce many of the novel’s
conflicts, as Emma struggles to develop emotionally.
Emma makes three major mistakes. First, she attempts
to make Harriet into the wife of a gentleman, when Harriet’s social
position dictates that she would be better suited to the farmer
who loves her. Then, she flirts with Frank Churchill even though
she does not care for him, making unfair comments about Jane Fairfax
along the way. Most important, she does not realize that, rather
than being committed to staying single (as she always claims), she
is in love with and wants to marry Mr. Knightley. Though these mistakes
seriously threaten Harriet’s happiness, cause Emma embarrassment,
and create obstacles to Emma’s own achievement of true love, none
of them has lasting consequences. Throughout the novel, Knightley
corrects and guides Emma; in marrying Knightley, Emma signals that
her judgment has aligned with his.
Austen predicted that Emma would be “a character whom
no one but me will much like.” Though most of Austen’s readers have proven
her wrong, her narration creates many ambiguities. The novel is
narrated using free indirect discourse, which means that, although
the all-knowing narrator speaks in the third person, she often relates
things from Emma’s point of view and describes things in language
we might imagine Emma using. This style of narration creates a complex
mixture of sympathy with Emma and ironic judgment on her behavior.
It is not always clear when we are to share Emma’s perceptions and
when we are to see through them. Nor do we know how harshly Austen
expects us to judge Emma’s behavior. Though this narrative strategy
creates problems of interpretation for the reader, it makes Emma
a richly multidimensional character.
Emma does not have one specific foil, but the implicit
distinctions made between her and the other women in the novel offer
us a context within which to evaluate her character. Jane is similar
to Emma in most ways, but she does not have Emma’s financial independence,
so her difficulties underscore Emma’s privileged nature. Mrs. Elton,
like Emma, is independent and imposes her will upon her friends,
but her crudeness and vanity reinforce our sense of Emma’s refinement
and fundamentally good heart. Emma’s sister, Isabella, is stereo-typically
feminine—soft-hearted, completely devoted to her family, dependent,
and not terribly bright. The novel implicitly prefers Emma’s independence
and cleverness to her sister’s more traditional deportment, although
we are still faced with the paradox that though Emma is clever,
she is almost always mistaken.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Emma!