“One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.”
Few people would ever argue that little treasures are hidden in all of Jane Austen’s novels. This quote from Emma, however, remains one of my favorites.
Let’s start with the “speaker” of this quote. Emma is a young woman who has scarcely seen a fraction of her country, never mind the world. She speaks with a candor far beyond her age and experience. Indeed, Emma would most likely place herself in the category of those who are astute enough to understand the pleasures sought by others while, unbeknowingly, casting her father in the other.
The problem is that Emma is, frankly, oblivious to the real world (both the “half” she has seen and the “half” she hasn’t) and what types of things please other people. In fact, she considers herself far superior when it comes to knowing the mindset of others. Whenever she encounters is resistance, she attempts to persuade her opinion, rather than acknowledge that she might not always know best, indeed.
And that’s what I love about this novel.
Reading Emma for the bazillionth time, I’m often struck by how many people I personally know who are exactly like Emma.
Surely I’m not alone in having colleagues, friends, even family, who always try (or, rather, tried) to tell me what I should or shouldn’t do, say, or think. It turns out that, in most cases, like Emma’s father, they don’t understand why others do not conform to their manner of conduct. Rather than trying to accept that people have differences, they attempt to force their concept of appropriate behavior on others.
Personally, I’m not a conformist. For my entire life, my curiosity about knowledge and nature, culture and religion, and people and places has led me on more adventures than one person should ever enjoy. Along the way, I have been criticized and put down, often due to ignorance as well as snobbery…much like how Henry Woodhouse is far too “dignified” to understand the pleasures of a little boy, eager to be tossed in the air repeatedly. In fact, Henry most likely considered such a simple joy as beneath the dignity of any person merely because he couldn’t begin to comprehend how anyone else might think differently than he thought.
The irony of the situation is that Emma adopts the attitude that she is not like one of those people. But fast forward a few chapters and witness her own inability to understand how Harriet Smith could possibly prefer the company of a simple farmer, Robert Martin, over that of the town vicar, Mr. Elton!
Perhaps that is one of the reasons I (and thousands of other people) continue to love reading and re-reading Jane Austen. Besides writing amazing stories with strong character development, she had the ability to dissect the human psyche in a way that, two hundred years later, is still relatable. We can identify with her characters because we know her characters in real life.
Just one more of the many treasures found in Jane Austen’s writing.