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Jane Austen
publisher: Querido, Amsterdam, 1816

refered to by:
To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee

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Though her novels are known for their relatively small scale and controlled emotion, few authors inspire such extremes of feeling as Jane Austen. Self-professed 'Janeites' form societies in her honor, while detractors call her fiction insular and trivial. Because Austen's name and a general idea of the world of her fiction are common cultural currency, it is difficult for readers to approach her novels without preconceptions but essential that they do so to appreciate her art. Emma opens as if it will be a simple narrative about a young woman who is 'handsome, clever, and rich', but it becomes instead a penetrating study of the human capacity for self-deception, self-knowledge, and love.

The novel is dominated by Emma Woodhouse, a young woman who possesses great social and personal advantages but no awareness of her limitations. We learn in the opening chapter that Emma has 'lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her' – an indication that something soon will. The story's action begins when Isabella Taylor, Emma's former governess and current companion, leaves the household to marry. Long motherless, Emma is now left with only a well-meaning father who imposes no restraint on her.

One of the most important lessons Emma must learn is the folly of plotting the fates of others. She begins the novel determined to 'improve' and make a brilliant marriage for Harriet Smith, the illegitimate young woman new to Highbury. Emma believes she is acting solely for Harriet's benefit, but the narrator makes clear Emma's unacknowledged motives. Emma declares matchmaking 'the greatest amusement in the world!', and her failure to take seriously the marriage market's strictures leads to Harriet's humiliation and threatens her with permanent unhappiness. Emma cannot see the intentions of Mr. Elton and Frank Churchill, believing both are smitten with Harriet even as clues to their true feelings abound. Why is Harriet's future so important to Emma that she is blind to many of the realities of her world, even disregarding the warnings of her old friend Mr. Knightley?

If Emma represents a restless personality often impatient with social expectations, Mr. George Knightley embodies the rational embrace of those expectations. Sixteen years older than Emma, Mr. Knightley is the only character in the novel able to see Emma's faults and rebuke her for them. He warns Emma that her friendship with Harriet will harm both of them and predicts that Mr. Elton will never marry a woman who is not his social equal. When, despite Emma's efforts, Mr. Elton proposes to her rather than to Harriet and, rebuffed, goes on to marry the socially superior if personally odious Miss Hawkins, Emma is shocked, but not enlightened. Mr. Knightley's coolness toward newcomer Frank Churchill, whose impetuousness and flirtatious manner attracts
Emma, distances them further. Because the reader understands early on that it is Mr. Knightley who loves Emma and whom she loves, we wonder when she will realize this.

Austen never allows us to forget how high the stakes are for marriageable young women, whose only power in this society is consenting to or refusing the men they attract. A woman's social, economic, and emotional future is almost wholly determined by her marriage, as illustrated by the marriages of Mr. Elton and Miss Hawkins, Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, and Robert Martin and Harriet Smith. Emma's own development is revealed primarily through her reactions to her romantic prospects. In the course of the novel she receives a proposal from Mr. Elton, which she refuses; recognizes that she does not want to marry Frank Churchill if he asks her; and, at long last, realizes that it is Mr. Knightley she loves.

Emma's final realization is delayed until the last chapter, when a group outing to Box Hill leads her to reassess Frank, Knightley, and herself. Led on by Frank's flirtatiousness, Emma makes a joke at the expense of her old friend Miss Bates, an aging spinster whose prolix rambling irritates Emma. Despite Miss Bates's blushing embarrassment, Emma does not realize she has pained her friend until Mr. Knightley asks, 'How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?'. Mr. Knightley's rebuke awakens Emma to the reality of social status, and to her unthinking abuse of her advantages over Miss Bates. Emma can no longer ignore Mr. Knightley's advice; he has shown her where her attitudes lead.

Whether Austen's novels endorse or critique the class system that they depict has been the subject of much scholarly debate. Emma's marriage to Mr. Knightley weds high social status to worth of character. Yet the novel also makes us aware of how often social class and true worth are not united. Mr. and Mrs. Elton, for example, are in every way but social status far inferior to Robert Martin and Harriet Smith. Does Austen's depiction of the range of worth within each social class imply criticism of the class system itself?

Emma also illustrates the potential conflicts between an ethical life and society's demands. Emma and Mr. Knightley's marriage unites the two, but the convoluted plot leading to it implies the unlikeliness of such a pairing. The novel suggests that true communication and real connections between people are difficult to achieve. The misunderstandings that drive much of the plot, while superficially comic, also highlight the disasters that can result from miscommunication. To what extent misunderstandings are inevitable and to what extent they result from a society's way of organizing itself is a puzzle that lingers long after we lay the book aside.



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The Age of Innocence
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[Joop ter Heul]
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Daphne du Maurier, 1938
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High Fidelity
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Immature music lover seeks ideal woman and ends up in the arms of his ex.


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A.L.G. Bosboom-Touissant, 1874
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George Eliot, 1871-1872
Provincial beauty marries (second time around) for love instead of fortune.

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Quick-witted, beautiful, headstrong and rich, Emma Woodhouse is inordinately fond of matchmaking. Yet the irony is that she is oblivious to the question of who she herself might marry. Through this comedy of sentimental education, she discovers a capacity for love and marriage.
1818 (posthumous)
Differing from Austen's other novels in adopting a more sober tone, this one describes the ordeals of Anne Elliot, who has been persuaded by her family to reject Captain Wentworth. The novel opens several years later, when she is 27 and still unattached.
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The Ledge
editor-in-chief: Stacey Knecht,
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Copyright: Pieter Steinz, Stacey Knecht
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