Sunday, July 24, 2016

Lessons from Emma

To understand, thoroughly understand her own heart, was the first endeavor. 

When Jane Austen prepared to write her novel Emma, she determined to create a protagonist "whom no one but myself will like much."  As such, Emma Woodhouse is wealthy, beautiful, proud, spoiled, self-centered, and vain.  

The real evils 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. 

Despite this characterization, Emma may be my favorite Austen heroine thus far.  She is very flawed.  Her vices are clearly articulated and on display.  Emma's vices are also very engaging: they drive the plot and anticipation builds as her flaws bring the action to a climax.  

Her wrongdoing and defects make Emma is so very human.  In her follies and stumbles--caused by her own doing--I see myself.  Though she has faults, Emma remains a very sympathetic character: she is a caring individual, who desires to do what is right (though she often fails) and feels remorse when she errs.  So, at least for me, Emma was a character I could thoroughly understand in all her blunders and for whom I could cheer.

Emma's source of undoing is her efforts at matchmaking.  As the novel opens, Emma boasts of having brought about the marriage of her doting tutor.  She thus desires another match-making endeavor and sets her eyes upon Harriet Smith, a young girl with unknown parentage whose naïveté and humble background make her unmatched for Emma's social circle--a fact Emma promptly disregards.  

Thus sets the course for the rest of the story as Emma steers Harriet from one suitor to another, doing her best to arrange things just so, but repeatedly causing misinterpretations and romantic blunders.  

The principle people that surround Emma are as blind to her wrongdoing as she.  Her father can see only good in his daughter.  With such an approving audience, it is regretfully understandable why Emma is so assured of herself and ignorant of any possible misdeed.  As her father lauds,

With all dear Emma's little faults, she is an excellent creature.  Where shall we see a better daughter, or a kinder sister, or a truer friend?  No, no; she has qualities which may be trusted; she will never lead any one really wrong; she will make no lasting blunder; where Emma errs once, she is in the right a hundred times.

The only one who has the gumption to confront Emma is their longtime family friend Mr. Knightley.  When he confronts Emma on one occasion, Mr. Knightley explains,

This is not pleasant to you, Emma--and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will--I will tell you truths while I can, satisfied with proving myself your friend by very faithful counsel, and trusting that you will some time or other do me greater justice than you can do now.

In his counsel and correction, Mr. Knightley proves his love for Emma.  For love is not flattery, but honesty.  While other possible suitors encourage Emma's inflated self-image, Mr. Knightley gently humbles her and directs her to a higher course.  It is Mr. Knightley who truly loves Emma because he challenges her to be a better version of herself and calls her out when she settles for something lower.  

Indeed, love is honesty.  Emma's principle downfall occurs because she is convinced that she can arrange, manipulate, and direct love.  But to attribute that power to herself is a lie.  One can perhaps arrange a date or ask for another's phone number, of course.  However, a person cannot force or connive love.  To do so complicates something that should be simple.  Love is organic, mysterious, and a gift--because its source is Love.  

And that may constitute Emma's chief vice: she is not honest with herself.  The praise and adulation she has always had heaped upon her have formed a deep blindness for Emma.  She lacks self-knowledge.  Yet, how well do any of us know ourselves?  We see the splinter in the other's eye; we can't detect the wooden beam in our own.  That is why, as the opening quote illustrates, understanding one's own heart is the first step toward honesty.  

While Emma sets out to arrange other peoples' love, she is entirely ignorant of the love she holds in her own heart for someone.  That truth, the truth of love that should scream louder than anything, is muffled by her self-assurance.

With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of everybody's feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange everybody's destiny.  She was proved to have been universally mistaken; and she had not quite done nothing--for she had done mischief.

Watching Emma's transformation from blindness, realization, repentance, and honesty is a journey for self-reflection.  For though she sought to make a character no one would like, I believe Austen actually created a character most like all of us.  

No comments:

Post a Comment