Emma by Jane Austen

“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings in existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”

Young Emma Woodhouse of Hartfield has been the pet of her father and governess, and perhaps indulged by both to a faulty degree.  However, her character is one of kindness and charity, but enhanced with a healthy interest in the business of others, especially if it includes the subject of marriage.  Mr. Knightley, a close family friend and owner of Donwell Abbey, attempts to correct Emma and steer her on a more prudent path, but Emma’s high spirits require the correction of life experience. As she stumbles through her attempts at matchmaking based on her faulty reasoning, we see Emma grow from a willful, impressionable, decisive girl into a more careful, thoughtful, and empathetic woman.

From the first sentence we can see that this is a type of coming-of-age novel. The struggles and challenges of life are what develop strength of character. Because Emma has lived a relatively trouble-free and pampered life, we initially see in her character a willful blindness which often only serves to punctuate the errors in her thinking and of her actions.  The tension in the story is the uncertainty of Emma’s transformation.  We know that she is able to learn, but with her stubborn nature, will that be possible?  Her personal tenacity does not allow for an instant conversion, and instead we see small steps of correction in Emma’s character, even while she gets into more scrapes and misunderstandings.  Yet Emma realizes, or is forced to realize, the value of the advice of those closest to her, admitting her faults and seeking to amend them.

(Squerryes Court)

As I contemplated this read, I felt that it was not simply Emma who was often mistaken. Not only is Emma completely blind, but all the other characters exhibit their own sort of blindness to varying degrees.  Not only does no one know their neighbour or accurately guess their motivations, often people don’t even know themselves.  Each person is often attempting to hide their observations, either out of personal gain or out of societal politeness, but in each case, these decisions are shown to be unwise. Does this tell us that by understanding our fellow human beings that we will gain a deeper knowledge of ourselves?  However, perhaps Mr. Knightley had a more accurate indication of the issue, when he stated, “Mystery; Finesse —- how they pervert the understanding!  My Emma, does not every thing serve to prove more and more the beauty of truth and sincerity in all our dealings with each other?”  We need to be truthfully transparent with one another, even if it is difficult or uncomfortable, to truly cultivate relationships with minimum complication.

By the end of the novel, Emma is a much wiser woman.  Are all of her faults erased?  Not at all, but many of those faults are what make part of her character so delightful.  It is the opening of her mind, the willingness to admit her wrongs and the receptiveness to bettering herself, that makes her a truly likeable heroine.

22 thoughts on “Emma by Jane Austen

  1. Emma is a very likeable character. Have you seen any of the movies? Sense & Sensibility is my Austen re-read for 2016. I thought I knew P & P inside out but I listened to an audio recording recently while in the car & I was struck again by her wit & satire. Wonderful stuff.

  2. The Emma movie I like best is the one with Gwyneth Paltrow. I thought she portrayed Emma the best even though they took some liberties with the book. I read all the major Austen novels in 2015 and it was such fun. Austen is a master of observation and human understanding. And yes, her wit …… I love how she is able to make her characters insult someone politely. 🙂

  3. Your point about all the characters exhibiting some level of blindness is an interesting one. The way the community interacts is definitely one of the really interesting parts of the novel, and I think this blindness does have an important impact on the community. Emma is definitely a very interesting novel!

  4. I really enjoyed this book but disliked Emma a lot while I was reading it. I think that's probably why I loved the book so much, just because you see Emma change (and not change!) so much. I loved Mr Knightley's treatment of her – loving her for who she is but also gently trying to make her a better person (if that's the right way of putting it!). I guess he just tries to bring out the best in her. You've got some really interesting observations in this review too. I guess a lot of Austen is about misunderstanding and misinterpreting other people's characters and motives, and it's just more pronounced in this book. Great review 🙂

  5. Wonderful review of one of my favorite Austen novels–I'm planning a reread in January. You're right, it really is a coming of age novel, and despite her faults, Emma is definitely a diamond in the rough, as evidenced as you say, by her willingness to admit her wrongs.

  6. Once I started to think about it, I started noticing that Mr. Elton is blind to Emma's true feelings about him and blind to her plans for him and Harriet, the Westons & Mr. Knightley are mistaken about Emma's feelings toward Frank Churchill and blind to his feelings about Jane Fairfax, Harriet is often mistaken – sometimes because of Emma's erroneous guidance but even independently, and, of course, Emma is the most mistaken of them all.

    I'm really surprised that so many people dislike Emma …. for me she's full of live and verve! She may be mistaken but she engages with life and keeps moving through it, which allows things to happen that facilitate positive changes within her. If she'd just sat around and showed little interest in those around her, I would think that the negative aspects of her character would have become more firmly entrenched. She's one of my favourite Austen characters!

  7. I like Emma because I always thought her intentions were good. She wanted to see people happy, but she let her own desires override theirs, which caused some unhappiness and trouble. It was hard to watch her coax Harriet away from Robert Martin, knowing what a good, kind man he was, wasn't it?

    I love your point about Mr. Knightley! Yes and yes! He loved Emma for who she was, which was almost the opposite of how Emma was treating people, in loving them for who SHE wanted them to be.

    Thanks for your comment and kind words, Rachel!

  8. Thanks, Jane! There was a December read-along for this novel, which, sadly, I completely missed, so I was nearly finished when I learned about it. I'll be interested to read your comments when you finish in January.

    For me Emma is universal. We all have mistaken perceptions and act in ways that we later regret. Perhaps that's why people have such strong reactions to Emma. She can remind us of the negative aspects of our characters and makes us uncomfortable. But she also exemplifies change, which can give us hope. She truly is a wonderful character.

  9. Love your review! Emma was my favorite Austen book when I read it (too long ago) – like you say, even in the Regency setting, the lessons in it are still so applicable to modern readers. And I like reading about heroines who sometimes goof up, but learn from the experience and become better people. I guess that's why this one appealed to me most; some of Austen's other heroines are great role models from day one, but Emma shows us it's possible to "get there." 🙂

  10. Wonderful review! I love what you say for Emma that she does have everybody's best interest at heart; it's just that she is blinded by circumstances and her own lack of knowledge of human nature to see the actual true characters of all. What I have loved about Emma is that she is a mortal; she makes mistakes like all of us and she learns from those to be become a better individual.

  11. I'm so glad to hear you say Emma was your favourite Austen. I'd say that it's still my favourite after Pride and Prejudice. What you say is so true about "perfect" heroines vs flawed ones. Emma really teaches us about ourselves, and in a very engaging way!

  12. Thanks, Cirtnece! Me too; I love how Austen shows the development of Emma, but she still doesn't make her perfect. We can see that she is probably going to make more blunders, but now has her Mr. Knightley to set her straight.

  13. I think for me (other than Emma herself who so awful and wonderful at the same time) the best part of the novel is something we take for granted today but was very innovative in her time: the third-person writing style she uses that's closely links to the thoughts and feelings of the character being discussed at the moment. Austen does an amazing job of this, which is another reason why this is my favorite book from her.

  14. Great point, Frank. I've seen it done poorly, but Austen inserts the third-person narrative rather seamlessly, doesn't she? While I noticed it in a sort of off-hand way, I didn't really let it permeate the story as I read. Something to concentrate on during my next reading of Emma!

  15. Definitely. I think what makes her version of it so special is that everyone, especially Emma, is "unreliable." They are all deceiving each other and themselves so the narration has to be perfect in giving us just enough to "believe" it all. It's fascinating.

  16. I agree that was a very good point about how other characters in the novel suffered their own kind of naiveté that just added to the drama. I've heard other say that don't like Emma as a character, but I feel fairly neutral about her. However, Mr. Knightley is probably my favourite Austen leading man.

  17. "It is the opening of her mind, the willingness to admit her wrongs and the receptiveness to bettering herself, that makes her a truly likeable heroine." – Good point. I wish I could have gotten into this novel. The extent of my knowledge / understanding of it is a vague sense of the plot – I couldn't get into it enough to really dig deep. Definitely not my favourite Austen (Pride and Prejudice is, without a doubt!).

  18. Have you watched the movie with Gwyneth Paltrow? It helped me to get a grasp on the dichotomy of Emma's personality. She is both selfish and generous, sometimes broad-minded and at other times small. They took some liberties with the text, but I think the overall portrayal was excellent.

    Pride and Prejudice is my favourite too!

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