Jane Austen had passed her fortieth year when her fourth published novel, Emma, appeared in 1816, the year before her death. Although Pride and Prejudice (1813) has always been her most popular novel, Emma is generally regarded as her greatest. In this work of her maturity, she deals once more with the milieu she preferred: “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on.”
Emma can be viewed as a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, in which the main character grows in awareness of herself and others. Emma Woodhouse, pretty and clever, lives in a world no bigger than the village of Highbury and a few surrounding estates; in that small world, the Woodhouse family is the most important. As Austen states, the real dangers for Emma are “the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.”
These dangers are unperceived by Emma. In the blind exercise of her power over Highbury, she involves herself in a series of ridiculous errors, mistakenly judging that the Reverend Philip Elton cares for Harriet Smith rather than for her; Frank Churchill for her rather than for Jane Fairfax; Harriet for Frank rather than for George Knightley; and Knightley for Harriet rather than for her. It is the triumph of Austen’s art that however absurd or obvious Emma’s miscalculations, they are convincingly a part of Emma’s charming egotism. Emma’s vulnerability to error can in part be attributed to inexperience, since her life has been circumscribed by the boundaries of Highbury and its environs. She is further restricted by her valetudinarian father’s gentle selfishness, which resists any kind of change and insists on a social life limited to his own small circle.
Emma is convinced that she has no equals in Highbury. Knightley well understands the underlying assumption of superiority in Emma’s friendship for Harriet: “How can Emma imagine she has anything to learn herself, while Harriet is presenting such a delightful inferiority?” Emma fears superiority in others as a threat. Of the capable farmer Robert Martin, Harriet’s wooer, she observes, “But a farmer can need none of my help, and is therefore in one sense as much above my notice as in every other way he is below it.” Her resolution to like Jane is repeatedly shattered by the praise everybody else gives Jane’s superior attractions.
Emma’s task is to become undeceived and to break free of the limitations imposed by her pride, by her father’s flattering tyranny, and by the limited views of Highbury. She must accomplish all this without abandoning her self-esteem and intelligence, her father, or society. The author prepares for the possibility of a resolution from the beginning, especially by establishing Knightley as the standard of maturity for which Emma must strive. Emma is always somewhat aware of his significance, and she often puts her folly to the test of his judgment. There are brief, important occasions when the two, united by instinctive understanding, work together to create or restore social harmony; however, it is not until Harriet presumes to think of herself as worthy of his love that Emma is shocked into recognizing that Knightley is superior to her as well as to Harriet. She is basically deficient in human sympathy, categorizing people as second or third rank in Highbury or analyzing them to display her own wit. She begins to develop a sensitivity, however, as she experiences her own humiliations. She regrets her rudeness to Miss Bates not only because Knightley is displeased but also because she herself perceives that she has been cruel.
Far more, however, than merely a coming-of-age novel, Emma also examines the larger themes of community and class. Austen’s idea of community, while circumscribed by geography, ignores physical proximity as the sole determinant of neighborhood in favor of class discrimination. In Austen, the strictures of class determine both the community’s...
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