Doppelgangers of the self in Emma

Jane Austen mirrors certain features of certain characters in order to showcase the narrowness of choice for eighteenth and nineteenth century women.

Jane Fairfax represents a specific kind of a possibility for Harriet Smith. She, just like Harriet, are plucked out of a life of anonymous destitution and an attempt is made to transform them in order to give them a better prospect for life. In Jane’s case, the transformation is successful in the sense that George Knightley thinks is significant; she attains a superior level of learning. Harriet on the other hand, attains an ambition for higher society that is not equivalent to her learning due mainly to her role model Emma Woodhouse. Both Harriet and Jane show that making such a Pygmalion level attempt to improve someone is unjust, because in order to achieve complete transformation one must change all of the circumstances of a person’s life. Harriet even has the opportunity to play the gothic victim, when she is attacked by the gypsies and she is allowed to partake of the pleasure of shock, something reserved for gothic heroines like Jane Fairfax (Miller 143-146) .

Augusta Elton, née Hawkins, is Emma Woodhouse’s mirror. George Knightley criticizes Emma for not applying herself more to her reading and her instrument, and we are given a vision of the danger of Emma turning into a Mrs. Elton. Mrs. Elton shows her inferior understanding of the Italian language, often misaddressing Mr. Elton as “Cara Sposo”.  Emma and Mrs. Elton dominate whatever space they are in; Emma presides over all domestic matters in her father’s house and Mrs. Elton dominates any space she is in, to the point of being overbearing: she insists on being “lady patroness” at any social functions at Donwell Abbey. Emma shows her imperious attitude by meddling in Harriet’s marriage prospects and Mrs. Elton demonstrates her pompous demeanor by over-exerting her kindness towards Jane Fairfax in obtaining a governess position. Additionally, they are both self-important creatures; Mrs. Elton believes the ball at the Crown is being given in her honour, instead of Emma’s and Emma shows that she is desperate to get invited to the Coles’ gathering because the lack of an inclusion at such an event would decrease her perceived value.

Miss Bates is tolerated in Austen’s Highbury because all women can see the unhappy potential of their future turning out like Miss. Bates’. Her life represents the parallel future of any woman’s; she is the gothic victim like Jane Fairfax with reduced prison-like circumstances, she has little learning like Emma and Mrs. Elton, and she has the blind kindness of Mrs. Weston. She is grateful to others for their kindness but they are grateful for not having her life. When Emma declares to Harriet Smith, that she is not inclined to being married, Harriet reminds her that in choosing this path she might be choosing future akin to that of Miss Bates.

It is valuable to examine Austen’s novel by looking at doppelgangers of characters because they represent either a missed opportunity, a narrow escape, or a gentle caution. Mrs. Elton’s presence is a reminder to Emma, to not be so imperious; Jane Fairfax’s proficiency in music remind Emma of her own imperfections; Harriet Smith is reminded that she truly cannot belong in the same society as Emma because of her lower class and illegitimacy.


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One thought on “Doppelgangers of the self in Emma

  1. I really enjoyed reading this piece and seeing how you connected the primary female characters to each other through the potential they have of being almost interchangeable except, of course, for the (mainly) socio-economic markers that divide them. You mention how Austen describes “certain features of certain characters” and of how this is limiting in terms of character choice, but I think your post has also demonstrated “Austen’s attempt to broaden the sphere of her characterization” (Thaden 56), since Emma is quite different from her usual heroine and provides an “insider” view of high society that is normally viewed from the outside and captured in a caricatural context. Whereas Emma might normally be a caricature of a “self important creature” as Mrs. Elton has been portrayed, Mrs. Elton’s “pompous demeanour” softens by comparison Emma’s meddling with Harriet’s marriage prospects because Emma’s intentions seem genuinely above the wish to only give an appearance of benevolence as in the case of Mrs. Elton. I agree with you on their similarities, but wish to make the distinction between Emma as the original, and Mrs. Elton as her parody, noting again that this is possible because Austen has written the novel from a different societal perspective.


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