Friday, March 25, 2011

Who is Emma Woodhouse?

Can we read the first sentence of Emma in the following way?: “Jane Austen, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and has lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her” (1).

Upon examining Emma we find some distinct similarities between Emma Woodhouse and her author, Jane Austen. The reader can’t help but wonder if the character of Emma is based off of Austen herself, that perhaps she might be offering a sort of critique of her own character while asserting her power of authorship. The first and most obvious similarity of Emma to Jane Austen is the role she takes on as a novelist. It seems often times that it is Emma who is displaying Austen’s typical “free and direct discourse” as she attempts to sense the feelings, words, and motives of other characters. She even forces herself into their lives and puts them in whatever situation she sees fit, most notably with Harriet. Emma, the match maker, after being pleased with the match she made with Mr. and Mrs. Watson, tries to match Harriet with Mr. Elton, just as Austen the author sets her characters up in certain situations “uniting some of the best blessings of existence” through the characters in her novels. Is her failure a critique of Austen as a novelist? Does Austen ever fail in her match making?

Emma’s judgments of characters is ever present throughout the novel. She attempts to examine the character of Mr. Elton concerning his match for Harriet:

This man is almost too gallant to be in love… I should say so, but that I suppose there may be a hundred different ways of being in love. He is an excellent young man, and will suit Harriet exactly; it will be an ‘Exactly so’ as he says himself; but he does sigh and languish and study for compliments rather more than I could endure as a principal. I come in for a pretty good share as a second. But it is his gratitude for Harriet’s account (48).

This is but one example of Emma offering her own judgment of the different characters in the novel, in this way, she plays the role of author, offering the reader judgments in the way that Austen usually does as narrator.

Emma even takes on the role of author in the way that she speaks for the characters, particularly Harriet. After reading Elton’s charade, “[Harriet] was not wanted to speak. It was enough for her to feel. Emma spoke for her” (71). She then goes on to praise herself for the match and even says "It will give you everything you want--consideration. independence, a proper home" noting ever so pointedly what Harriet's desires are without Harriet uttering a word. Such is the characteristic of free and direct discourse: this is not an epistolary novel where the characters seemingly speak for themselves without any intrusion or creation of feelings or words by an author. Emma takes on the role of the author and even goes so far as to speak for the characters, inserting her judgments and feelings in the way that Jane Austen would as author. Ferguson cites Casey Finch and Peter Bowen who say ““the development in Austen’s hands of free indirect style marks a crucial moment in the history of novelistic technique in which narrative authority is seemingly elided, ostensibly giving way to what Flaubert called a transparent style in which the author is ‘everywhere felt, but never seen.’” (162). In Emma, the author is surely “everywhere felt” but she is also always seen because in some ways it seems that Emma is the author herself, ever present throughout the novel.

We cannot help but note that this is the first time the protagonist of an Austen novel is not striving for marriage, in fact she is only trying to set up others' marriages and appears to be perfectly content with her single life. Of course, we cannot ignore that Austen herself never married but only wrote about marriage. Though Emma is anything but "Dear Aunt Jane," the novel might be offering a glimpse into who Jane Austen really was, outside the confines of her heavily edited letters. In Auerbach’s Searching for Jane Austen she quotes Leanoard Woolf who “called the happy marriages in Austen’s novels ‘a kind of compensation daydream for her failure in real life” (31). What if Emma Woodhouse is Jane Austen’s portrayal of herself, unmarried, a creator, author, spectator, and intruder of other’s lives? Their difference might be that Emma eventually married, and perhaps this was what Austen may have wished of herself. Was Jane Austen offering a critique of herself through Emma? Is this novel just fiction, or is there something behind the character of Emma? Is it even possible to discover anything about the author’s own life through the lives of her characters? If so, what can we learn about Jane Austen through her novels?

Also note, if we find that Emma could not possibly be an avatar of Austen, are there any other characters that could be?


  1. Lauren, I find your analysis of Emma as a possible representation of Austen herself interesting. It does indeed seem as though many of her own characteristics from what little is known about Austen are present in Emma’s character. However, in one way I question whether Emma as a whole is representative of Austen. My reason for feeling this way is the conclusion of the novel, and how Emma turns out in the end. Emma does not appear to “learn” much from her experiences throughout the novel. Her notions of class superiority are not challenged; in the end, she marries within her class, as does Harriet. She even steps back from her friendship with Harriet; “the intimacy between [Harriet] and Emma must sink; their friendship must change into a calmer sort of goodwill,” (Austen 451).
    I find this analysis of Emma’s lack of change in terms of social class views disturbing because, as evidenced throughout Austen’s novels excepting Emma, the narrative voice appears to take a sympathetic look at the lower class, and often portrays marriages that defy class expectations (unlike Emma and Mr. Knightley). If Emma is to truly represent Austen as a person, what does this say about Austen’s view of class differences?

  2. I am hesitant to suggest in so many words that the character of Emma is Jane Austen’s representation of herself, but I would argue that there are parts of the “real” Jane Austen in Emma, just as I would argue that there are parts of Jane Austen in all of her other protagonists. I, much like Leaonard Woolf, find is especially interesting that all of Austen’s novels end in marriage despite the fact that Austen herself never married. I don’t know if I would go so far as arguing that Austen is compensating for the crushing regret she feels in never having married, but I absolutely think that the presence of marriage in her novels is neither coincidental nor unimportant.

    Still, I would agree that there are some very real ties between the character of Emma and what the world knows about Jane Austen. After all, Austen, in organizing the matches in her novels, plays matchmaker. Emma’s attempts at matchmaking are complicated by her personal opinions as well as her relationships with the people of the potential matches. This is very unlike the uncomplicated nature of Austen’s matching fictional characters of her own creation. Perhaps, Austen, after having played with and become familiar with the techniques of fictional matchmaking, was interested in creating a character whose hobby was complicated by having to deal with people who could fight back.

    I think Jessica brings up a good point by reminding us that Emma’s opinions about social class are very different from what Austen’s novels lead us to believe are her true feelings about class. I think that this is evidence that Austen does not see herself as Emma; I think it is far likelier that Austen uses Emma, just as she uses all of her other female protagonists, as a social experiment. Austen uses parts of herself to bring reality to her characters, but she changes each of her characters for some greater, possibly unknown, purpose. Maybe she changes them to create dynamic and diverse characters, or maybe she changes them to keep herself entertained. I doubt we’ll ever know, but I do know that this uncertainty makes for some great conversation.

  3. I agree that Jane Austen manifests pieces of herself directly through the character of Emma. Emma can be viewed as an appropriation of Austen, however, the reader should not be bound by this assumption. The critical view asserting Austen’s life was a failure (Woolf), in turn causing her to create the character of Emma as her ideal aspiration, is discrediting Austen as a person and as an artist. Despite the stagnancy which we understand to be Austen’s life, I don’t think that we should automatically assume Emma was an antithetical response to this. Emma might be viewed as idealistic through her ambitions and wit, however, she is still a flawed character, as evidenced through her inability to truly change and the fact that she still ends up with a man of her class in the end of the novel. Is Austen perhaps saying that Emma has elements of her own ideal, but in reality, we are all flawed? With the little we know about Austen’s actual life, I think it is judgmental to assert that Emma is the perfect representation of Austen’s ideal. There are surely elements of Austen in Emma-their authorship, creation of characters, and the fact that neither is constrained by men-but there also may be elements of her in her other works. Perhaps Austen’s ultimate ideal self can be created by taking aspects of each of her protagonists, to whom she also gives a part of herself.

  4. I definitely agree that there are aspects of Austen that come through in the character of Emma. Jessica, you argue that if this is the case, Emma's seemingly nonexistent development throughout the course of the novel is troubling. I tend to see this as even more evidence that Emma does embody some of the author's personality. Emma seems much more human than many of Austen's other heroines, and we even argued last week that she is almost unlikeable. She suffers one error of judgment after another throughout the course of the novel but in the end the reader is privy to her private inner turmoil. Rarely, if ever, do people see themselves as having grown personally, and Emma's flaws may be Austen's attempt to capture her own character as she saw it: imperfect, human, and capable of being a little annoying.

    I agree that there are elements of Austen in each of her heroines, as Mallory said. One could argue that their are elements of Emma in many other Austen protagonists as well. I definitely find myself agreeing that Emma may be a brutally honest and self-conscious self-portrait.