A Response to Jane Austen's Emma

Jane Austen remarked at the start of writing Emma that she would create a character that “no one but [herself] would much like.” Indeed, it is difficult to like Emma. She is a snob, arrogant, and disinclined towards any critical self-analysis; yet there is something refreshing about her character. Perhaps it has something to do with her essential good natured-ness or with the fact that everyone who knows her well loves her. Or, perhaps it has something to do with the fact that she undergoes a great change of habit and perspective by the end of the book, a change that endears her to her readers.

Emma, like Austen’s other novels, follows the standard marriage plot: heroine and hero meet; some adversity follows that prevents them from immediately marrying or liking each other; a dramatic event occurs that makes them both realize their love for the other; marriage follows. Unlike Austen’s other novels, however, Emma undergoes a change – an education – as a result of Mr. Knightley’s influence. Ironically, our heroine, who vows that she will never marry because she will find no one who will love her as much “as her father,” not only experiences great change as a result of a man other than her father, but ends up marrying him.

Emma evolves, then, into a novel that is primarily about the maturation of a young woman as a result of a man’s influence, rather than merely a novel about the romantic escapades leading up to marriage. In the beginning of the novel, after Mr. Knightley admonishes her for breaking Harriet from Mr. Martin, Emma refuses to criticize herself. She cannot regret or scrutinize her actions because she acted as she wanted to act. Emma believes that she has done right because it was she who did it. The notion that she could have been wrong is difficult for her to comprehend because in her mind everything that she does is correct. Unlike her father and her governess, Mr. Knightley does not believe that everything Emma does is perfect, and he does her the ultimate kindness of repeatedly explaining this to her.

However, it is not until she embarrasses Miss Bates that she begins to realize her capability for committing fault. Mr. Knightley’s remonstrance only further propounds the realization that she must alter her snobbish worldview. Yet, it is not until Harriet tells her that she loves Mr. Knightley that Emma begins to understand her role. If Harriet marries Mr. Knightley, it would be due to her influence. The realization that she, Emma, actually loves Mr. Knightley hits her concomitantly with the knowledge of what her perspective and meddling has done. The confluence of epiphanies brings about Emma’s change, and it is at this point that she becomes mature enough to marry Mr. Knightley.

Essentially, Mr. Knightley is Emma’s agent for change. Without him, she would never have evolved past the rotten child of an overly-dotting father. In other novels, namely Pride and Prejudice, both lovers experience change to prepare them for marriage. In Emma, only Emma must change in order to ready herself for marriage, and this change would not have happened without the direction of Mr. Knightley.

The implications here are unsettling for modern women. The notion that a woman must change at all to become a better person for marriage is not part of our cultural discussion. Women are taught to be who they are and that they will fit, wholesale, into a compatible marriage with a worthy partner – if they want to marry at all. Marriage is by no means a necessity, duty, or requirement in these times as it was reputed to be in Austen’s day. (Though Austen managed just fine outside of wedlock.) Despite, the antiquated views of womanhood and the educative properties of marriage, and the role husbands play in them, Emma continues to be popular with us. Again, this is perhaps because of her generally spunky character and, perhaps, because of the persistent idea that all of us – but particularly women – desire the heart-warming conclusion of “I do.”


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