The novel is about Emma Woodhouse who is endowed with wealth, good look and prestige has such a high opinion of her own worth that it blinds her to the opinions of others. She misuses her intelligence as a matchmaker and can’t realize her headstrong and self-opinionated willfulness, but Mr. Knightley, Emma’s brother-in-law, can see Emma’s faults in a way in which the girl herself cannot.
Jane Austen (1775-1817) is regarded as one of the famous British writers. She described her own writings as “a little bit of ivory” and she maintained, “Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on”. But readers can find the extraordinary richness of irony and implication in her writings. Her most prevalent theme is the need for men and women to find self-awareness and identity while accepting, out of necessity, the powerlessness and dependency which society so often confers upon them. After reading Emma, I build an insight into and a richer understanding of Jean Austen’s individual style, theme and concerns.
Emma, first published in 1816, was written when Jean Austen was at the height of her powers. Because there are full of ironies and implications in Emma, so I will analyze them from two aspects: the structure of the dialogue and the place of women.
In Chapter 23, Emma meets Frank Churchill for the first time. The following text is the extract from their talk.
“You cannot see too much perfection in Mrs. Weston, for my feelings,” said Emma; “were you to guess her to be eighteen, I should listen with pleasure; but she would be ready to quarrel with you for using such words. Don’t let her imagine that you have spoken of her as a pretty young woman.”
“I hope I should know better,” he replied; “no, depend on it, (with a gallant bow,) that in addressing Mrs. Weston I should understand whom I might praise without any danger of being thought in my terms.”
Emma wondered whether the same suspicion of what might be expected from their knowing each other, which had taken strong possession of her mind, had ever crossed his …… at present she only felt they were agreeable.
She had no doubt of what Mr. Weston was often thinking about …… and even, when he might have determined not to look, she was confident that he was often listening.
The conversation is carried on harmoniously, but we are aware of a number of ironies behind what they say. Frank Churchill and Emma agree that Mrs. Weston looks young and pretty, and both compliment her. Then, Emma talks about Mrs. Weston’s modest opinion of herself. This leads Frank to say that Mrs. Weston has a high opinion of Emma and to imply that he shares that high opinion of her. The conversation seems clichï¿½ and mutually complimentary on the surface.
But there are more implications of what they say. Emma loves Mrs. Weston, so she says ” You can’t see too much perfection in Mrs. Weston, for my feelings”. That’s true. However, she suggests that Frank could guess Mrs. Weston to be eighteen, but Mrs. Weston won’t imagine that he have spoken of her as a pretty young woman. The implied statement is ” We both know you are a flatterer, but the truth is different”.
Although Emma and Frank Churchill appear to be discussing, but what are they thinking about when they are talking? Jean Austen describes that Emma wondered whether the same suspicion of what might be expected from their knowing each other. That is to say Emma is thinking about whether they will fall in love and marry, meanwhile she is aware of Mr. Weston “often thinking about” the same thing. Frank is also aware of his father’s expectation, but he is thinking about to use this expectation to cover his real relationship with Jane Fairfax. So we can find that the two characters’ thoughts are different which gives me the impression that Frank enjoys tricking others and Emma is silly and naï¿½ve.
Then we can look at the later dialogues between Emma and Frank. There are many hidden emotions occurring within the character at the time of the conversations. For example, when Emma finds that Frank is insincere, she is still pleased by what he says. Why? Maybe she wants to please the Westons and to spite Mr. Knightley. Because she argued with him about Frank and they have conflict of views. As to Frank, he uses Emma to cover his true love towards Jane Fairfax. On the surface, they are both satisfied with each other by their dialogues, but the implication of what they say reveals that they just use each other to solve their own problems: Frank wants to keep his secret and Emma, who avoids the issues of love and marriage, thinks about flirting with Frank will be safe. (On the basis of understanding of the whole novel)
Then, from Emma, we can know the place of women. The following extract comes from Chapter 10. Harriet is surprised that Emma does not wish to marry.
“I do so wonder, Miss Woodhouse, that you should not be married, or going to be married! So charming as you are!”
“My being charming, Harriet, is not quite enough to induce me to marry ……”
“Ah! So you say; but I cannot believe it.”
” …… I would rather not be tempted. I cannot really change for the better. If I were to marry, I must expect to repent it.”
” Dear me! It’s so odd to hear a woman talk so!”
“I have none of the usual inducements of woman to marry …… but I never have been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall ……”
“But then, to be an old maid at last, like Miss Bates!”
“Dear me! But what shall you do? How shall you employ yourself when you grow old?”
” …… If I draw less, I shall read more; if I give up music, I shall take to carpet-work …… I shall be very well off with all the children of a sister I love so much, to care about ……I shall often have a niece with me.”
We can find Harriet express three attitudes in turn. First, when she finds that Emma doesn’t want to marry, she is so astonishing and unbelievable. What Emma says makes her “wonder”, ” I cannot believe it” and “It’s so odd to hear a woman talk so”. Harriet’s disbelief and astonishment are testaments to the conventional view. Her remark that it is odd to hear a woman talk so also reveals that men might have unorthodox thoughts, but not women. Second, she is horrified at the idea of an “old maid”. Third, she asks a question: “How shall you employ yourself when you grow old?” It indicates that marriage; childbearing and housekeeping are the purpose of a woman’s life.
Meanwhile, Emma’s argument is ironic. The implication of Emma’s reply is that women marry for fortune, employment and human needs. But in fact, she is glad to be a matchmaker. Harriet’s naï¿½ve, pretty personality is a feminine stereotype that, according to Emma, will allow her to “pick and choose”. So it gives me the impression that Harriet’s femininity is a commodity that will buy her a rich husband. And at last Emma herself falls in love with Mr. Knightley and marries him. So it’s an irony.
Emma, a girl of 21, is too absorbed in the dangers of matchmaking, which result in several disasters for her friend Harriet and her own continual blindness to the true feelings of the men around her. So, Emma shows a young woman attempting to deny the power of social imperatives. At the same time she denies her own natural feelings, only discovering her own heart after having struggled through bitter experience in order to understand herself.
After reading the book and watching the film based on this novel, I feel Emma is silly and spoiled at first, but then, I feel she is funny, well intentioned and sweet. Moreover, there are various characters. Mr. Knightley, in my point of view, acts as not only Emma’s neighbour, Emma’s brother-in-law, but also her friend, teacher and lover. Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates are very ridiculous. Frank Churchill is deceptive. Mr. Elton and Mrs. Elton, who represents society’s perpetual desire to be upper class. In addition, the novel gives readers insight into the times, and into Jean Austen’s views about society.
Emma is both a novel of intense emotional power and a comic masterpiece!