By Maya Gal
Why we initially don’t like her: Manipulation, Selfishness, Arrogance, Carelessness
In a letter to her sister, Jane Austen predicted Emma Woodhouse would be a heroine “whom no one but [her]self would much like”, and indeed, her sister Cassandra “could not bare Emma herself”. Even so, Austen’s prediction proved mostly inaccurate, and Emma Woodhouse became a favourite among Austen’s readers at the time of the novel’s publication.
In Jane Austen’s “Opinions of Mansfield Park and Emma”, a handwritten collection of the novel’s reception in Austen’s social circle, a Miss Sharp commented being “pleased with the heroine for her Originality”, a Mr. Haden “admired the character of Emma”, and Mrs. B. Lefroy “preferred Emma herself to all the heroines”. Yet admiring Emma is problematic and difficult at times; she is rude, selfish, self-absorbed, and carelessly manipulative of other characters. Emma is an imperfect character; this allows Austen’s readers to relate to the plausibly realistic and authentic heroine. The question stands: how did Austen, or alternatively the Narrator of Emma, produce a positive reception to Emma as a heroine despite her imperfections?
Verdict: Guilty of being flawed.
First, Emma and the rest of the characters in the novel are plausible. In “Opinions of Mansfield Park and Emma”, a Mr. Lefroy depicts the characters were “well drawn and supported”, and a Mrs. Cage thought “every character is thoroughly kept up”. In fact, a Mrs. Guiton even found Emma “too natural to be interesting”. Emma is a typical Regency woman of her class and status (in all ways but economic), and the mundane life of gossips and tea parties she lives are reflective of that. The novel does not depict anything beyond the mundane, and even in its conclusion, every character finds his/her rightful and plausible place in society (ie. Emma with Mr. Knightley, Harriet Smith with Mr. Martin).
Second, the fact Emma is displayed as a flawed character also portrays her as a relatable heroine. As humans, we are naturally flawed. Emma makes mistakes; she is arrogant, self absorbed, she carelessly manipulates Harriet Smith with little genuine interest in her well-being, and publically shames Miss Bates. The fact that she is unable to be perfect makes her human, rather than fictional. Emma is not merely realistic, she could be your next-door neighbor, your best friend, or even yourself. She invites the reader to become her, and thus forgive and accept her misdeeds (and she certainly has a few).
Sentencing: Rehabilitation (or the schooling of a rational Mr. Knightley)
Ultimately, Emma is a novel in which very little takes place, and whatever does, is restricted to the heroine’s knowledge; that is, we know what Emma knows. In that sense, Emma’s flaws serve as the ultimate conflict in the novel and ignite the plot. She must be taught, shaped, and made modest through her love to Mr. Knightley, who appears to love her despite (and even for) her flaws. Early in the novel Emma comments “Mr. Knightley loves to find fault with [her]” and that they “always say what [they] like to one another”. Moreover, it is mentioned that “Mr. Knightley, in fact, was one of the few people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever told her of them” (Austen 12,14). Faults and imperfections are made important from chapter One, particularly in establishing the relationship between the hero and heroine. Upon realizing her affections for Mr. Knightley, Emma at last confronts her imperfections:
She had herself been first with him for many years past. She had not deserved it; she had often been negligent or perverse, slighting his advice, or even wilfully opposing him, insensible of half his merits, and quarrelling with him because he would not acknowledge her false and insolent estimate of her own – but still…he had loved her, and watched over her from a girl, with an endeavour to improve her, and an anxiety for her doing right, which no other creature had at all shared. In spite of all her faults, she knew she was dear to him; might she not say, very dear? (Austen 224)
There is arrogance in this passage, but there is also acknowledgement of her own flaws, modesty, fear, and love. Here, the Narrator again establishes the importance of flaws in the relationship between Emma and Knightley. If Knightley loves Emma for her imperfections, then perhaps the positive reception of the young snobbish heroine can be attributed to the same reasons. The reader, as much as Mr. Knightley, has an anxiety to “improve” Emma, who mirrors the typical Regency woman of her social class. It is the authentic journey of growth that captivates the hearts of Emma’s readers. Emma is a flawed character, but she learns from her mistakes in a relatable realistic manner, as reflected in the passage above.
Both Knightley and the readers of Emma learn to love the heroine for her plausible relatable flaws, her bold and charismatic personality, and her authentic journey to love.