Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Emma Woodhouse - Why do readers love such a snob?
This girl easily collects her share of critics down through the centuries because of her massive, inflated ego. And no wonder. For a bit of background, see my original review of Emma.
1) She's manipulative
Her matchmaking activity reminds me of a little girl playing with a dolls house, and saying, 'These ones can go here, and these can go over there.' On the surface, it may come across as a generous interest in others. That's Emma's intent, but it conceals her smug opinion that she knows enough to oranise not just herself but everyone else too. And as the story proves, her busybody activity simply causes hassles. If Emma's plans had worked out, she could have ruined people's lives.
2) She's a super snob
Giving good young farmer Robert Martin the thumbs down for her friend Harriet is just the start. Remember Emma's abysmal attitude toward the Cole family, who decided to hold a ball? She thought it would be audacious of them to invite such important people as her father and herself, and intended to coolly refuse, to keep them in their place. Only when the invitation was slow in coming did she realise it might be fun to attend after all.
She's like the popular head girl of an elite private school. It's easy to be amiable and pleasant when everyone pays you homage and wants to be like you. Big fish in small ponds keep getting their high opinions of themselves reinforced by general praise. Harriet boosts Emma's ego until she almost launches into space. It seems to be a sort of vicious circle of big-headedness. Everyone thinks you're wonderful because you seem to be good-tempered, so you continue to be good-tempered because everyone thinks you're wonderful. Negative qualities can remain dormant for a long time because nothing happens in your well-ordered little world to shake them out.
So who cares to read about a main character like that? Lots of people don't. On every Jane Austen forum or review of this book, you'll find readers who can't bear Emma for those very reasons. Yet her popularity seems to stay constant over the years. And if you were to ask me, I'd say that in spite of these qualities, she always grows on me. Here's why.
1) Her author knows she's a snob
You may ask who cares, since the author isn't part of the story? It makes a bigger difference than we might think. Perhaps the crucial difference between Emma Woodhouse and enormously snobby main characters from other books is that the author wrote her that way on purpose. Austen levels with us right from the start that Emma had 'too much of her own way and a disposition to think too well of herself.' Getting this straight from an omniscient narrator's mouth humanises Emma. We enter into her world hoping that her haughty edges may be smoothed by circumstances. The type of characters I really can't stand are those whose authors evidently don't realise they're stuck up! We're supposed to love them too, but just want to smack their faces. Emma isn't like that. Or at least we trust that the metaphorical smack in the face is coming. (A modern, animated male counterpart may be Emperor Kuzco from 'The Emperor's New Groove.' They're horrible snobs, but we know there's some heart buried there somewhere.)
2) She's relatable and real
Emma inner attitudes, which she won't ever to admit to others, may strike a chord with similar secret feelings we may have harboured ourselves. Take as an example her reasons for not liking Jane Fairfax. Emma knows that Jane is more accomplished than her in many ways, and feels shown up. Also, she senses that the reserved Jane may be holding part of herself back, and hates to think that anybody has private thoughts she's not privy to. Emma's feelings aren't honourable to reveal, so she keeps them to herself. And that appeals to parts of us we might have decided to keep hidden too, because they don't quite show us up in the light we'd choose. It gives us a sort of camaraderie with Emma, which we can acknowledge secretly to ourselves as we read.
3) She really is something special
That's partly why so many people admire her. It's not all about her wealth, although that holds huge sway with gold diggers like Mr Elton. But Emma is also beautiful, intelligent, and athletic too, for a girl of her era. Mrs Weston, her former governess and biggest fan takes every opportunity to rave about Emma's superiority. 'There is health, not merely in her bloom, but in her air, her head, her glance. One hears sometimes of a child being the picture of health. Emma always gives me the idea of being the complete picture of grown up health. She is loveliness itself Mr Knightley, is she not?' He has to agree it's all true, and the fact that Emma has a fussy, hypochondriac father probably makes the validity of all this even more admirable.
4) She speaks up when she's offended
You've to got cheer on someone who makes an excellent point! Emma learns that the good-looking Mr Frank Churchill had been using her as a foil, to hide his romantic interest in Jane Fairfax. She's understandably furious because he never stopped to consider that he was trifling with a lady's heart.
The phrase 'two timing jerk' hadn't been coined back then, but you've got to applaud Emma for her Regency era equivalent. 'What right had he to come among us with affection and faith engaged and manners so very disengaged?' Then she goes on to rage about his, 'hypocrisy and deceit, espionage and treachery,' which we can't help grinning at, under the circumstances. 'It is fit that the fortune is on his side, for the merit is all on hers!' Frank's loyal stepmum suggests that Emma might be going a bit far, but no, we readers don't mind her going on and on! Nothing like the satisfaction of someone voicing their indignation.
5) She has many resources
I love it when Emma declares her intention to never seek a husband for herself, and Harriet asks, 'Well, how shall you employ yourself when you grow old?' Emma doesn't even need to think about it. 'Mine is an active, busy mind, and I don't see why I should be more in want of employment at forty or fifty than at one and twenty. Woman's usual occupations of hand and mind will be as open to me then as they are now, or with no important variation. If I draw less, I shall read more. If I give up music, I shall take to carpet work. As for objects of interest for the affections, I shall be very well off with all the children of a sister I love so much to care about. There will be enough of them, in all probability, to supply every sort of sensation that declining life should need.' Bravo! Emma clearly wasn't a bad influence on Harriet in every respect.
6) When the crunch comes, she has the grace to feel bad
We surely all remember that turning point. Emma's impromptu comment to Miss Bates at the picnic is pretty witty, but considering the social positions of both of them, is in poor taste. But when Mr Knightley tells Emma it was 'badly done', she suddenly has a long-overdue blast of empathy, and it breaks her heart. She cries all the way home in her carriage, and next day pays a call on the Bates', with a different motive than ever before. This time it's genuinely with a desire to give pleasure, rather than be a duty. The scales have been ripped from Emma's eyes at last, and the fact that she was so snobby to start with may make her even easier to like at this point. If there's hope for such a habitual snob as Emma Woodhouse, there might be hope for anyone.
So that Jane Austen's attempt at presenting readers with a main character who is so unlikable in one main point, but coerces us to like her anyway. If you've read Emma, did you like the main character or not? And if you haven't, how do you feel about the thought of reading a whole novel about a main character you're told straight off is an awful snob?