“The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her.” -pp. 55
Upon the first reading of Jane Austen’s Emma this passage may seem like nothing more than a brief introduction to Emma and her situation. However, after completing the novel, these words take on a great depth of meaning, which summarize the book’s essence. The passage captures not only Emma’s character and corresponding paradox, but also foreshadows the nature of the plot’s conflicts, and satirizes the insular, privileged society of Highbury.
The passage above describes Emma’s character, but also the paradoxes therein. She describes herself as “having rather too much her own way” and “a disposition to think a little too well of herself” but one who has read the novel in full knows that it also showcases the gaping holes in her self-perception. Specifically, her quickness is reiterated time and again throughout the novel, but the narrator also offers statements that contrast this: “how to understand it all! How to understand the deceptions and blunders, the blindness of her own head and heart!” (Austen, 221) Through this quote, which appears after a series of blunders, we can see that Jane is consistently blind. The passage takes on a comical tone when contrasted with Emma’s repeat offenses, and lack of self-perception.
In addition to showcasing Emma’s ignorance of self, the above passage also foreshadows the conflicts in the novel. The combination of Emma’s lofty sense of self, and her experience of too often getting her own way causes issues for her throughout the novel. For example, we can turn to Emma and Harriet’s relationship. Because of their friendship, Emma automatically elevates Harriet’s status in relation to her own, which is evidenced in the following: “”If Harriet, from being humble, were grown vain, it was her doing too” (Austen, 222) In light of this, she insists that Harriet is too good for Robert Martin, who is, in reality, an excellent match. Moreover, Emma is so accustomed to getting her own way that Harriet takes her advice without question. We can turn to the interplay between Emma and Frank Churchill to see evidence of Emma’s self-absorption and tendency to get her own way. Frank is able to identify these qualities in Emma from the beginning, and as a consequence, he manipulates her into thinking he has romantic feelings for her, thereby causing her embarrassment and misery. Through these examples, it is clear that these personality traits of Emma contribute largely to main conflicts of the novel.
The passage above, in addition to highlighting the paradoxes of Emma’s character, and foreshadowing the conflict, also satirizes life in Highbury through its use of adjectives like “disadvantage” “danger” and “misfortune.” By using these adjectives, Austen showcases just how insular and ignorant the Highbury society is of the world outside themselves. The “misfortunes” Emma experiences only pertain to injuries inflicted upon her ego through her being mistaken in judgement. Similarly, the novel presents no real danger to anyone in the novel; the only aspect which comes close to resembling any sort of danger is exposure to the weather, or ingesting foods Mr. Woodhouse considers questionable. To further dramatize the ignorance and privilege of Highbury society, Austen includes the encounter with the gypsies. Through this event, Austen contrasts the perceieved “disadvantages” and “misfortunes” experienced by Emma’s friends, with a truly disadvantaged group of people.