What is the relationship of form and meaning in Emma by Jane Austen?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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When you ask about "form and meaning," you are asking a critical analysis question from the perspective of Formalism critical theory. Formalists (form-alists) attempted to evaluate literary texts (especially poetry) in an objective (scientific) way that excluded consideration of (1) the author's biography and intentions and excluded consideration of (2) the social, economic and political influences and realities of the literary work's era.

To understand this, think of how Gulliver's Travels was critically analyzed in the 1800s (19th century). It was/is typically analyzed as a political and social satire aimed at critiquing British society and government by comparing it to imaginary other societies. The work was not analyzed for form (as defined by formalists); it was not examined to see if or why it stood up to the idea of literariness (as defined by formalists). Formalists sought to change this trend and analyze literature based on how its form gives it meaning without reference to anything outside the text.

Therefore the relationship between form and meaning in Emma is that of how form itself gives the text meaning without reference to the biographical or socio-economic/political aspects that usually enter into analysis of Emma as a literary work.

To find meaning through form in Emma, we would analyze diction, defamiliarization, general literariness, motif, rhetorical and literary devices, narration and compositional motivation, to name a few literary functions to be considered.

To briefly illustrate the relationship between form and meaning, the rhetorical device of diction is high though accessible and personable, thus the text presents an educated upper-class, witty perspective. Defamiliarization is apparent in the relationships between different generations and different social classes, particularly regarding Emma's relations to Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates. Defamiliarization is the process by which the commonplace and overlooked is highlighted and imbued with literariness in a text so that it is seen under new and revelatory light.

Of the motifs that occur in this novel, one is the appropriateness of relationships: Emma's relationship with Harriet, with Jane Fairfax, with Mr. Elton, with Miss Taylor, with Mr. Knightley and with Miss Bates. Narration, in formalist terms, is from a near, not distanced, point of view that provides analysis of actions, thoughts, reactions and feelings. Thus narration closely cues the perceiver/reader in how to construct a detailed fabula (story) from the syuzhet (plot) movements, which maintain tight compositional motivation as the elements that advance the syuzhet (plot) are readily justified.  

Literariness is the motifs, devices and other functions of literature that are present in the text that either bestow literary quality or withhold it. Literariness is how literature presents writing that is different from other forms of writing. Literariness is the umbrella term that might be considered part of the end conclusion: this text does or does not present literariness because .... This present token analysis reveals that meaning is embedded in the text of Emma and does not require externals to reveal it:

  • An upper class young woman has little understanding of relationships but comes to learn much and advance in wisdom.

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