The Emma Dilemma

The Emma Dilemma

charles-haigh-wood-the-proposalJane Austen herself said about her main character of Emma Woodhouse that she was a heroine “no one but myself will much like.”  It’s an interesting statement, I think, for Jane Austen to have made: firstly it implies her expectation that readers may not like Emma very much– but secondly, Austen’s words clearly mean that she does like Emma.

Emma is described in the opening of the novel as, “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition.”  She is twenty years old, and motherless.  Her father is rather foolish and fretful, and leaves the running of the household entirely to Emma.  She has no one save Mr. Knightly to correct her behavior, so it’s maybe not surprising that she has an inflated sense of her own intelligence and abilities.

Emma is genuinely kind and considerate of her father and of other characters in the book.  But she is also headstrong and at times snobby.  She takes pretty Harriet Smith, ‘the natural daughter of somebody,’ under her wing– more as a cause than as a true friend. Guided by Emma’s snobbery, Harriet refuses a proposal from a local farmer, Robert Martin.   Emma is hopeful that she can engineer a match between Harriet and Mr. Elton, the vicar. Unluckily, Mr. Elton misunderstands the intrigues and believes Emma is interested in him for herself. He is also proved to be a social snob, and declares that marrying Harriet Smith would be far beneath him.

Of course, Emma’s gravest mistake in the book is her unkindness to Miss Bates at the picnic.  Miss Bates is a kindhearted spinster who lives in poverty compared with Emma– and Emma’s insult is both unprovoked and cruel.  It’s certainly not the act of a likeable heroine.  And yet, when Knightley reprimands Emma, she weeps and does resolve to change.

Something that I’ve repeatedly emphasized to my own daughters is that people who feel the impulse to put down and belittle others are almost always unhappy with themselves.  Although it doesn’t overtly show, it’s possible that Emma’s insult to Miss Bates stemmed in fact from Emma’s own deeply buried insecurities, and the knowledge that she IS a flawed character and not a perfect one.

I don’t approve of some of Emma’s behaviors and choices, but I do like her for her strength of character and for her willingness to learn from her mistakes in the end.

What do you think?  Do you think Jane Austen was right in her statement that Emma is a character that  “no one but myself will much like”?  Or do you like her for being imperfectly human, but still trying to improve?

10 Responses to The Emma Dilemma

  1. Even as a young adult (about age 14) when I first read Emma, I found her character too much like the girls with whom I attended school. Quite shallow. I can’t say that I have grown to adore her over the years, but more to the place where I can tolerate Emma, now that I understand more of her personality.

  2. I didn’t hate Emma when I first read her. Or maybe I watched one of the adaptations first. At the first read, I actually thought she and Mr. Knightley were too perfect. I like them both more on each reread, as I think there are other nuances to discover in the other characters and the setting and how they contribute to making up Emma’s character. But, I am always a bit shocked when people hate Emma so much. I consider all the ways Elizabeth Bennet was human and flawed and Emma seems quite bearable in comparison. However, I see a bit of myself in Emma now so of course a fellow Emma wouldn’t think she’s so bad off!

  3. Emma is not my favorite but at least she did make an effort to take Knightly’s words to heart and make changes. And in the end she was truly happy for Harriet. Knightly will be the making of her.

  4. Emma is actually my favorite. Not only because I adore Mr. Knightley, but because I WAS Emma at one point in my life. Well, in behavior. Did I deserve to be? No not by any stretch but I lived in my own world (and had been verrrrryyy sheltered) so believed myself to be right. It took some epic set downs before I saw myself and began to improve. I often wonder how different it would have been if I had had a Mr. K to prod me a bit. I see Emma as a very flawed product of her restricted environment. When Mr. Churchill comes, she finds it quite natural to have his attentions to herself, and I think if she hadn’t, she very well could have flirted outrageously with him because she was “entitled” to his attentions. The way it worked out though (Jane’s genius) makes Frank not an object in the end because EMMA decides she’s not really interested. Her cruelty, per se, to Miss Bates is, once again, her immaturity, thoughtlessness and pettiness as she tries to be witty and have the attention squarely on herself. She also just assumes things will always go on as they always have with Mr. Knightley even though he is a very eligible gentleman. I see Emma as a tale about a sheltered girl who, though beautiful and charming, has a stunted maturity and shows the beginning of her development into the woman she should be. I think Mr. Knightley’s love and admonition and broadening her horizons (a few trips to London and seeing her insignificance) will round her out. Of course Jane leaves that to our imagination.

    • Stephanie, That was a most excellent explanation of Emma’s behavior. It is also a great description of the cause and effect of how we were raised in relation to how we behave. If we all were honest, none of us are who or what we were in our early twenty’s. Lord thank you Jesus. I was a mess and wouldn’t go back for love or money, great post.

  5. I like Fanny because of her personality and her values. I think Emma was careless. She didn’t take things as seriously which is why she got on so well with what’s his name–Frank the flirt!? They were both lighthearted extroverted folk who loved life and were very lucky to have such wonderful fathers who doted on them. Perhaps because of their nature/circumstances, they couldn’t see the depth of suffering others go through. I love how Mr. Knightly was able to see that in Frank, although I do think Emma was the same yet he never told Emma off because he was so scared of losing her if he did. probably. not sure. But I do like how he told her off after the picnic. She needed to see that being so careless of others was not a good people skill after all. She was lucky to have a Mr. K to care for her and tell her off, and she knew that. And I like her for that.

    Fanny felt things deeply. She was sensitive. She wasn’t extroverted. She would see things through a different lens than an extroverted Emma would. Such different worlds. Different personalities. Differen t concerns. Fanny had deep spiritual values that guided her decisions and colored the vision of what she liked and didn’t like, and want, and didn’t want. In Edward she saw all the qualities that would make her happier in her dour life. therefore, I’m happy she ended up marrying him, otherwise, she would end up a bitter old maid. Fanny was grateful, finally, and that made her a beautiful creature. I didn’t like her female cousins–they remind me of every typical boring “worldly” character in all Austen’s novels; not very interesting and utterly boring because of their lack of character/values and depth. Emma almost fell into that category except for her saving grace–a willingness to listen to Mr. K’s corrections. Imagine Emma without that quality and for sure, no one would like her. 😉

  6. I thought that statement was in reference to Fanny in Mansfield Park. Fanny is my least favourite heroine. I lose count of the reasons I dislike her. I never disliked Emma. She was socially inept, probably because of her Father. In fact, in a way that horrible faux pas makes her more human. She is not perfect. Classic foot-in-mouth disease!

  7. If Emma had not been rich would anyone have taken her seriously? She was truly clueless to the consequence and feelings of others. She viewed everything through the rose-colored lens of EMMA. Once her governess [a mother-friend figure] left she was no longer the center of anyone’s life but her father’s and his passive-aggressive behavior. She needed to feel important… and what better way than the pride of being known as a successful matchmaker. So was she clueless, prideful or prejudice? Those seem to be the eternal questions that plague Austen’s books.

    Emma is a love hate story where we really want to like her but resent her blindness and cruelty to the true feelings of others: of Miss Bates, Miss Smith [a true love nearly lost], of the subterfuge of Mr. Churchill [and his secret engagement to Jane], to Frank’s influence on Emma [Mr. Knightly’s words], to Mr. Elton’s misplaced attentions, then to the introduction of Mrs. Elton [along with her self-appointed importance] into Emma’s circle, and the list goes on. Emma didn’t want to see what was really there but lived in her own fantasy world of EMMA. Perhaps it was a protection against facing herself in the mirror and her feelings of importance and insecurity. Mr. Knightly was the ONLY man to manage her and fill the void in her life. I so liked him.

Your thoughts are precious!