“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.” So wrote Jane Austen in the novel, now seen by many of the most esteemed literary critics in the world as an early feminist masterpiece, Emma. In the opening chapters of the novel, Austen begins to paint a beautifully rich contradiction of a woman in the form of Emma Woodhouse – “handsome, clever, and rich.” Emma is manipulative, solipsistic, and snobbish. She is difficult, privileged, and “treats people like paper products”, to paraphrase Rebecca Miller. Through her complex creation, Austen challenges the reader to care deeply for her eponymous heroine, despite our objections. Austen uses Emma to function as humanity itself: she’s complicated, selfish, and yet we love her – even if we find it difficult to like her.
Opening lines in the oeuvre of Austen are extraordinarily important (the “truth universally acknowledged” in Pride and Prejudice, for instance), and Emma features one of her most exquisite. “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich,” this simple piece of characterisation is very effective in our first exposure to Emma. Those first two descriptions are unequivocally positive, but the last – to the contemporary reader – has more ambiguity to it. We may see this as an early sign to the spoilt nature of our heroine. Indeed, the fact that life gave “little to distress or vex her” may further leave a sour taste in the mouth of the reader. And yet, it is important to remember that Emma is “clever”. If Austen is to be seen as a descendant of the Age of Enlightenment (which of course gave the world the Vindication of the Rights of Woman) – then perhaps Emma is to be seen as an empowering heroine of pre-feminism. She takes matters into her own hands with very little help from the men in her life – her father is a rather helpless “valetudinarian”, and Emma gives very little time to the criticisms of Mr Knightley – challenging the patriarchy still very much at the centre of Regency-era English society. Therefore, Austen’s creation may be seen to further the early feminism set out by women like Mary Wollstonecraft. Emma being “rich” makes it difficult to sympathise with the character – as class-conscious readers of today’s society; that she is “clever”, quick-witted and resourceful, we surely cannot help but love.
Furthermore, the reader may take Emma’s reaction to her mother’s death as a sign that she is cold. However, when Miss Taylor – a matriarchal figure to Emma – marries and leaves Hartfield, Austen deploys contrast to Emma’s reaction to the death of her mother – as Austen leaves Emma in “mournful thought”. This genuine and striking emotional reaction is evidence that to think of Emma as solely self-absorbed is perhaps a shallow interpretation of the character. Emma is shown to feel grief towards this losing of a woman who “had fallen little short of a mother in affection.” The vulnerability and humaneness displayed by this means the reader cannot help but sympathise. The sense of warmth directed toward Mrs Weston (formerly Miss Taylor) and also to her neurotic father, is Austen’s way of making us feel affection for her heroine, which is important so that we care for her as she deals with misfortune in the novel – and that we are able to take pleasure in her successes. Even though it’s difficult, Austen makes us like Emma.
On the other hand, Austen makes this difficult for the reader by making Emma’s arrogance apparent even within the moment of vulnerability previously described. “I made the match, you know,” the precociousness of Emma that comes through Austen’s use of dialogue, could be nauseating to the reader. Shortly after our sympathy for Emma in her grief, she is already back in her own little corner of the world, showing off to Mr Knightley about her own abilities, even when she is taking credit for the romantic pairing of two people of which she is neither. This element of Emma’s character makes her quite unlikeable – solipsistic tendencies being undesirable to any reader. However, we are all self-centred and self-serving. This is simply a part of human nature to which, until quietly revolutionary novels like Emma, were omitted (especially with female characters), to maintain likeability. Not only is Emma’s arrogance important in literary history – it also makes the reader question why they should feel anything but contempt toward Emma, yet somehow falling for her anyway.
This might be partly through the influence of the free indirect discourse Austen uses to narrate the work. We are told that Emma is “of no feeble character”: subtly Austen makes the reader feel more understandingly toward Emma – an essential aspect of the novel as Emma revolves around its eponymous heroine’s point of view; if Emma was completely unlikeable, the novel would be unreadable (something that you could not designate any Austen novel as being). This skill – an important part of literary development (that, this critic believes, directly leads up to the stylistic revolutions of such geniuses as Virginia Woolf) – lightly directs the reader into a certain frame of mind, as all great literature does, and through it: we cannot help but love Emma.
Yet another interpretation is that Emma really is incredibly unlikeable. The superficiality implied in Emma’s self-serving choosing of companions could be seen as evidence for this. The glint of irony (omnipresent in Austen’s works) in Emma’s deciding of Harriet Smith’s “good sense” – based entirely on Harriet liking Emma is utterly egotistical and any laughter triggered is likely to be at Emma rather than with her. However, even though that Emma is flawed is undeniable – and that it absolutely makes it extraordinarily difficult to like Austen’s protagonist. However, literature is filled with male protagonists guilty of many of the same faults and yet this is rarely seen as a problem in the reader liking the character. Austen is seen as a conformist by many – but Emma’s foibles, present straight from the opening chapters, are one of the many examples of Austen’s ahead-of-the-times views on femininity and its representation in literature. This beautiful piece of irony makes Emma difficult to like, and easy to love, however irrational the feeling is.
In Jane Austen’s magnum opus Emma, her heroine is arrogant, spoilt, and has little (although not zero) regard for other people. Yet this is true humanity represented: flawed yet beautiful. The imperfections are the beauty. Even the most misanthropic of readers surely could not fail to succumb to Emma’s endearing self-love, or be charmed by the pure humanity of her flaws.