“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.
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.