Five Minute Study Guide | Jane Austen – Emma

As we approach the 200-year anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, it is still difficult to deny that she stands in a league of her own. Emma is perhaps the best of her six novels, but such an assumption ignores the fact that any of them can be considered her best, and those who have tirelessly read all six over and over again will come up with poignant arguments about each novel’s merits. It is hard to deny, though, that Emma is one of her most unsentimental treatments of budding Romance in the quarters of wealthy, rural England that she knew so well.

the novel is about Emma Woodhouse, a wealthy young woman living in rural England who spends most of her time and attention on matchmaking and maintaining her public figure. At the beginning, Mr.Weston, a prominent businessman, has married her governess, so she spends her time attending to Harriet Smith. Impressionable and naive, Emma loves showing her the ropes, and she attempts to get her together w/ the Reverend Elton, but a local farmer soon propositions her hand in marriage.

This soon turns on Emma, though, as she now must deal with the courtships of Mr.Elton. Emma, though, soon rejects him and he goes off and finds another woman in marriage. Emma is anxious for a romance to flourish between her and a suitable man, but as Frank Churchill suspiciously flirts with her, her old friend George Knightley must take care of her and make sure she does not revert to idiocy or maliciousness as she attempts her social climbing. He also insists that she do more good and not impede in Harriet’s life, nor treat Miss Jane Fairfax, a less wealthy woman supporting herself as a governess, with derision. But when she makes a fool of Miss Bates, Fairfax’s mother, during a social outing, Mr.Knightley immediately calls her out for it, forcing her to change for the better. By this time, many have confirmed rumors of marriage, and Emma will make the decision to either do what is right or continue to burn bridges with the people in both the lower and higher rungs of society.

A lot be said about the style that Jane Austen employs in her novels, as there is much rhyme and reason to it. I’d like to first place her style within a historical context; at the time of its publication, England’s obsession with the gothic novel was still in full swing, and just as the irksome Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight series have shaped many people’s ideas of tumultuous Romance, fiction was arguably being sold out to baser ideas for the sake of sales and popularity. Austen, on the other hand, views these idealisations of Romance with skepticism. The narrator is omniscient and separate from the story, but they garnish the narrative with an ironic tone. Consider the opening lines and how they establish who Emma is and how the narrator sees her:

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

On the first reading, the three adjectives may suggest wholly positive qualities, but if they are considered with respect to the plot itself, they say more about her shortcomings than her virtues. She is clever but not wise, wealthy but not useful, and the narrator knows she would enjoy being described by these characteristics while also knowing that they represent what she lacks. So based off of this disparity, we can read into how she succeeds in actually making herself a better person. Jane Austen has the sublime ability to make dinner conversation a combative proving ground for socialites, and I think that each of these interactions demonstrates what she lacks and eventually gains in decorum.

One superfluous observation many make about Austen is that it suffers from a lack of action. But I think that what it lacks the most is an audience for close reading; Austen’s Highbury is not just a playground for the wealthy. Some people, like Miss Bates, will barely make it out alive, and Emma will at many times threaten to destroy her own social standing without even realizing it. On that topic, Austen will often satirize the disparity between social classes, but her unsentimental view of life does not necessarily make her a Socialist. She knows that wealth, as well as a connection with people in the same social stature, is important. To become a fully-functioning member of this society, Emma must learn how to read it and not just make false assumptions. She must also realize that she may be a pawn in someone else’s game, and that such social complexities are enacted to reward those most acutely aware of its mechanisms. Frank Churchill’s red herring to distract people from his paramours with Jane Fairfax is commonplace and should be treated as such.

Most authors squander the opportunity to treat the themes they deal with by choosing exoticism and Romanticism over Jane Austen’s proverbial “Sense and Sensibility”. What I want to tell readers, especially those who think Austen is only for women, or Austen’s exploration of Rural England is outdated, that it doesn’t really matter where and when this occurs. the high school rom-com Clueless, a loose adaptation of Emma, proves that the story is very malleable, and so long as there is social decorum and marriage in this world, the rules of engagement will serve as a slate upon which people can make themselves in society. Austen’s novels are actually quite redeeming, then, as they conclude at least two things: that a close reading will not only make this particular book better, but it will help those who feel clueless gain safe passage through life.

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