Jane Austen introduces us, the reader to a certain aspect of Emma’s character right as the start, she says Emma, “seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence.” The word “seemed” shows us that Emma has some lessons to learn. Not lessons in the sense of schooling, but how she develops and matures. During the novel, Emma goes through many changes in her personality. I think she is growing up, helped along by a chain of events which change her outlook on life, and on people. Almost every character in the novel helps Emma on her way along the path to becoming an adult rather than a spoilt child. However, I think the only person in the novel who takes Emma seriously is Mr. Knightly. Though she defies him on many occasions, she has a “sort of habitual respect for his judgment” and her willingness to be guided by good principles helps her to change.
Life for women at the time of Emma’s existence was very different to life as we know it today. For a woman then, education was about how to become a good wife and mother. There were no career women. The only careers a woman could have were in the governess or servants trade. Moral fibres were needed to be a lady. Emma has these moral fibres, but she was lacking experience. Not until she learns self awareness and social awareness will she be a good wife. Emma thinks she will not marry and therefore has no need to change, but Jane Austen has other plans for her, and does not have her fall in love until she has changed into a lady. Although Emma knows she is the first lady of Highbury, she knows she is not as well accomplished and Jane Fairfax. This is where some of her jealousy for her comes from and why they are not good friends.
When Emma rides home in the carriage in tears after Mr. Knightley’s telling off at Box Hill, she decides to act more rationally from that point onwards. This is a significant point in the novel as it is the first time Emma cries, so the first time the reader knows Emma is hurt. She acknowledges that “With common sense, I am afraid I have had little to do”. It marks a point in her moral education, and now that she has become aware of her “insufferable vanity” and “unpardonable arrogance”, she can judge rightly. I think Jane Austen wants the reader to appreciate her honesty about herself, and her willingness to change.
Like Mr. Knightley,
“his eyes received the truth from her’s, and all that had passed of good in her feelings were at once caught and honoured,”
the reader takes her attempts to make amends with Miss Bates and Jane sincerely, for they are met with none of the self congratulation and complacency that were typical characteristics of Emma before her transformation. Though the reader may have felt that Emma was being a snob and lacking in care when she made the cruel remark, the reader also feels that she shows genuine regret for her sins.
Mr. Knightley is also put off by Emma’s inappropriate behaviour with Frank Churchill at Box Hill. Here Emma and Frank “flirted excessively”, breaking social convention, and because Mr. Knightley takes Emma seriously he believes that she is in love with Frank. Emma’s cruel remark to Miss Bates, prompted by the high spirits of Frank, brings out a strong reaction from Mr. Knightley, who tells her off for this because Miss Bates is poor and has less social status. This shows his strong sense of duty and good judgment. Miss Bates also, at this point, takes Emma seriously, but has the generosity and openness to forgive her. Though at the time, Emma says it was done in jest, she later feels Mr. Knightley’s words “at heart”, and responds by visiting Miss Bates the next day to make up for her cruelty. The language used in the chapter is used to make Emma feel like a sinner, and she has never felt so bad.
Emma’s encouragement of a romance between Mr. Elton and Harriet nearly wrecks the prospective marriage between Harriet and Mr. Martin, the match which is socially right. The unfortunate illegitimacy of Harriet encourages Emma’s imagination about Harriet being the daughter of a gentleman, because she is beautiful. Mr. Knightley, like the narrator, knows “Harriet is the “natural daughter of Somebody”, and lucky that Mr. Martin does not object to this.”
When Emma is happy that Harriet finds a match in Mr. Martin at the end the reader knows this happiness to be genuine: for Emma’s plots have almost prevented this from occurring. This is another event that makes Emma realize that she cannot control the events of everyone and everything. It makes her think about her actions, however, on more than one occasion, her matchmaking goes wrong and she swears not to do it again, but does. When Mr. Elton tells Emma he loves her, her first thoughts are of Harriet, but then of herself, and she feels rather offended. Having slept on it, she feels better, having learnt only half her lesson. By the end of the chapter she is considering match making again. This shows she needed some lessons teaching more than once.
After her mistakes, Emma realizes them and she displays an honesty which unites her to Mr. Knightley. The consequences of her absurdities, snobberies and misdirected mischievous ingenuities as well as her habit of self examination (seen after each of her mistakes) and Mr. Knightley giving her his good judgment, are what prompts Emma to “experience a moral rebirth, under the impetus of self knowledge. Mr. Knightley as the ‘moral yardstick’ of the novel is the standard by which Emma and the reader evaluate other characters in the novel,” and because Mr. Knightley takes Emma seriously, the reader too comes to have a concern for Emma’s moral development and education, and so take her seriously as the novel progresses. Though sometimes put off by her snobbery and vanity, these are the qualities of Emma which are reformed when the events that take place force her to face the truth about herself. These are also the very qualities which make her such an interesting character.
The eponymous heroine is “handsome, clever, and rich” but she is also arrogant and suffers from self deception. With the judgment of Mr. Knightley, and her own self scrutiny, Emma experiences a movement of psyche, from arrogance and vanity through the humiliation of self knowledge to clarity of judgment and ability to be a good wife.
As the novel progresses, the reader comes to take her seriously, because of the nature of the issues addressed in the novel, and while at times we may be put off by her snobbery, Jane Austen has written in such a way so as to make us feel sorry for her. “Emma is a character neither so good as to be uninteresting, nor so wholly cruel as to forfeit our sympathy.” By presenting things from Emma’s point of view for the most part of the novel, the reader gets an insight into her inner thoughts and unexpressed feelings. Despite Jane Austen declaring that she would create a heroine “whom no one but myself should much like”, the reader does like Emma by the end, and appreciate her ability to change for the better. There is a clear difference between Emma’s character at the beginning and at the end of the novel.
The main lessons Emma learns, and that are clear to the reader from the outset, are that she is like everyone else in the sense that she needs love, and companionship, to be found in marriage, and that Mr. Knightley is always right. He is her morality and keeps her on the right track.
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