The precarious situation of a reader seeing through the eyes of a heroine who is a poor decoder of others: such is the case for readers of Jane Austen’s Emma. As the focal point in Jane Austen’s novel, we find Emma Woodhouse, the heroine through whom the reader primarily learns about the world of Highbury and its characters. However, it becomes clear that Emma is an unreliable source as she takes no effort to read herself or others. Emma’s inability to ‘read’ in many contexts – books, people, life – stems from the fact that she believes she already knows all there is to know about her world and therefore sees no reason to examine it further. The trouble for the reader comes from the fact that we are following along with Emma, so we miss the opportunity to study the observations critically ourselves, and thereby mirror Emma’s experience. Austen places the reader in this position so that the truths are revealed to the reader in the same way that they are to Emma.
In order to read, one must be willing to decode. When it comes to reading books or reading people, Emma sees no cause to examine either. Instead, she is sure of her presumptions. We find that although she has all the resources at her disposal, Emma does not make time to read which leads us to wonder if she finds any value in it. Even when it is not just for her own benefit but for Harriett’s, whom she claims to be mentoring, Emma puts aside the books as it was “easier to chat than study” (Austen 103). It is clear from this that she would rather not be challenged. Emma’s assumption that she always knows best reveals her lack of understanding. She does not examine or question the world. She does not seek to decode it. She accepts it as she believes it to be, even to her detriment.
Emma’s lack of understanding is exemplified in her inability to recognize her privileged position in society. She proudly proclaims on several occasions that she has no intention to marry without being mindful of the fact that it is only because of her advantaged family resources that she is able to make this choice in life. Her public shaming of Miss Bates’ incessant discourse (Austen 322) also epitomizes Emma’s lack of appreciation of her position and that others don’t have the same freedoms. Given her privileged position, she can get away with not decoding the world around her, despite the fact that she has more opportunity than others to do so.
As it turns out, Emma is wrong about everything. She is wrong about the right match for Harriett, for Mr. Elton, and for Frank. She is wrong about Jane Fairfax and her circumstances. She is wrong about Mr. Knightley’s true feelings. When the truth comes out, about Frank and Jane’s secret engagement, about who is truly the best suitor for Harriett, or even the true nature of her relationship with Mr. Knightley, she is surprised by it all. She is surprised because she has not considered that she might be wrong about anything or that she may need to read herself and others better. The reader finds himself or herself just as surprised by these revelations. This allows us to better understand Emma and how unclearly she views the world.
The process of reading Emma is a mutual act of decoding done by both Emma and the reader, a process that is not possible until Emma has developed from her experiences. Throughout the novel, Emma’s inability to read others has kept her in the dark, but the revelation of secrets comes as much of a surprise to the reader as it does to Emma. This mirrored experience helps the reader to better appreciate Emma and how important it is for her to read, in all sense of the word, in order to better understand her world.