PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.24, NO.1 (Winter 2003)

Reading Emma: Comic Irony, the Follies of Janeites, and Hermeneutic Mastery

William C. Duckworth


William C. Duckworth has published articles on Jane Austen in Persuasions.  He has also published poetry and authored articles on other subjects.  He is a retired writer who enjoys English literature, especially Jane Austen and nineteenth-century writers.


most contemporary readers of Jane Austen, though remote from her social and moral milieu, find her novels vivid slices of life, presenting living characters whose foibles lead to ridiculous and entertaining mischances.  So Austen’s intended readers are shocked when they encounter readers who, lacking ironic vision, are repelled by her comic irony, call her “detached,” even “cynical,” and argue that her characters are merely objects of comic ridicule, or when they encounter readers who, seeking hermeneutic mastery, argue that the reward of reading her novels is discovery of an abstract tenet embedded in the text, such as a feminist view of society, rather than enjoyment of an entertaining slice of life in a satisfying work of art.


In the following pages, the experience of Austen’s intended reader—a reader of ironic vision who enjoys “the extensive and unaffected pleasure” of finding the display of “the greatest powers of the mind,” “the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties,” and “the liveliest effusions of wit and humor . . . in the best chosen language”—as Jane Austen, in Northanger Abbey (38), described the pleasure of reading a good novel—in reconstructing the ironies in Emma will be compared with responses of readers whose defective ironic vision prevents them from enjoying Austen’s comedy and with those of theorists whose search for hermeneutic mastery leads them to emphasize an abstract tenet, rather than enjoying a narrative delineating the characteristics of human nature, as the reward for reading.


Responses of readers to Austen’s ironic presentation of Mr. Woodhouse reveal how the intended reader laughs at Austen’s jests, while some critical misreaders of those ironies encounter a major barrier to appreciation of her comic characterizations.  Early in the novel the narrator observes that Mr. Woodhouse “was no longer teased by being wished joy of so sorrowful an event” as Miss Taylor’s wedding (19).  The intended reader, noting the criticism of Mr. Woodhouse, recognizes it to be ironic because the narrator’s commentary has shown the wedding to be a happy event, and seeks an alternative meaning.  As an ironist who in “searching the orchards of human experience” has found “the bitter-sweet apple of confusing appearance and ambiguous essence” and has become a person of “the divided, the ironic vision” (Wright 113), the intended reader, in search of a new meaning among the alternatives hidden in the ambiguous essence of the irony, seeks the assistance of the narrator.  Recalling her comments that though Mr. Woodhouse was “everywhere beloved for the friendliness of his heart and his amiable temper, his talents could not have recommended him at any time,” and that he hated “change of any kind,” especially “matrimony, as the origin of change” (7), this reader, reconstructing the irony according to these clues, finds Mr. Woodhouse’s response to the marriage to be a flaw in his character, but one mitigated by his amiable temper and his limited talents.  In order to reconstruct Austen’s ironies successfully, the reader must be a person of ironic vision who observes the “positive aspect” of an ironic criticism which remains after the critical thrust has passed (Goubert 42).


So Mr. Woodhouse is presented throughout the novel—hospitable, but so excessively concerned about the digestion of his guests that “his care for their health made him grieve that they would eat” (24), or about the condition of the roads that he feared that Mr. Knightley had a “shocking walk” over the short mile from Donwell Abbey to Hartfield (10).  The intended reader, having noted these and other comments about Mr. Woodhouse, takes the divided view of the ironist, and approves of him even while laughing at his foibles.  Creation of such sympathetic “fools” is one mark of Austen’s genius.


Emma herself is repeatedly made the object of critical ironies, as in her persuasion of Harriet to reject the offer of Mr. Martin (50-53), and in her musing about rejecting the expected invitation of the Coles to a dinner party (207-08).  An ironic criticism that continues through much of the novel is the implied comparison of Emma with a snob whom she intensely dislikes, Miss Hawkins (later Mrs. Elton).  She is characterized as boasting of a sister who “was very well married to a gentleman in a great way . . . who kept two carriages . . . that was the glory of Miss Hawkins” (183).  Biting ironic criticisms of Miss Hawkins abound, especially after she becomes Mrs. Elton, and presentation of mitigating factors is muted.  Her most irritating defects, like Emma’s, are her snobbishness and her officious interference in affairs of others.  As Marvin Mudrick has observed, Mrs. Elton is Emma without intelligence or breeding (195), so Emma’s criticism might equally be directed at herself.  Throughout much of the novel, Emma plays Alazon to the narrator’s Eiron, and the reader, seeing the novel through her eyes, must be alert to avoid joining her in this role.  In order to avoid doing so, the reader must be perceptive, as Mary Lascelles and many other readers have noted.  In a letter to Cassandra, Austen included a playful verse.  “I do not write for such dull elves / As have not a great deal of ingenuity themselves” (29 January 1815).  The intended reader is skeptical of the views of the unreliable center of consciousness, but the inside view of the heroine’s good intentions, her contrition for her errors, and her resolution to change, win the approval of the reader.


The narrator of Emma quotes a line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “The course of true love never did run smooth” (I), commenting that a Hartfield edition of Shakespeare “would have a long note on that passage” (75).  Such a note could mention that, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the lovers in Emma are laughably confused, that one of them is revealed to be an ass, that the heroine, who pretends to play the part of Puck, finds that she is only one of the confused lovers, while the narrator is the real Puck, and that both works end with three weddings.  Emma’s narrator, like Elizabeth Bennet, is diverted by the “‘follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies’” of her characters, and “‘laugh[s] at them whenever [she] can’” (57).


While the tone of Emma is not as light and bright and sparkling as that of Pride and Prejudice or of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the pleasure of reading Emma is intensified by recognition of its artistic construction.  After turning its final page, the reader may conclude that the final page of that Hartfield edition of Shakespeare’s comedy also has just been turned.  In order to reach this satisfying conclusion, the reader must be familiar with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as other works of classical and modern English literature to which Austen occasionally alludes.


A. C. Bradley—one among many Shakespearean scholars who have commented on Austen’s relationship to Shakespeare—notes that the “follies, illusions, and self-contradictions of human nature are a joy to [Austen], for their own sakes” (355).  They are also a joy to Jane Austen’s intended reader, who closes the book with a sense of satisfaction in the pure and unaffected pleasure of her reading.


But some readers are repelled by Austen’s comedy.  Marvin Mudrick is one who finds her irony “almost inhumanly cold and penetrating, diverting the audience with unengaged laughter” (1).  Austen’s characters are “not persons about whom one feels,” he says, “but figures in a comedy, whose audience may laugh at every incongruity of social behavior without becoming involved or responsible” (2-3).  Overlooking the narrator’s comments about Mr. Woodhouse, he calls him “an idiot” and “an annoyance” (195-196).  He asserts that “sympathy is irrelevant to irony” (2), so he misses the sympathetic remainder in Austen’s ironies, which, combined with the narrator’s commentary, convinces A. C. Bradley that to Austen, “much of the world is amusing, and much more of it is right” (356).


Mudrick, like misreaders lacking ironic vision (a group to which one feels he must not belong), sometimes seems oblivious to ironies, as shown by his comment that “even morality shrinks to the dimension of social error, as Lord Craven, a patron of the Austen’s, is qualified [by Jane Austen in a letter of 8 January 1801]: ‘The little flaw of having a mistress now living with him at Ashdown Park, seems to be the only unpleasant instance about him.” (192).  Of the narrator’s statement in Northanger Abbey that she leaves it “to be settled by whomsoever it may concern whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny or to reward filial disobedience” (252),  Mudrick comments that “in a final flourish of unconcern, she leaves the reader with a choice of morals” (58).


Like Mudrick, John Halperin is often an astute reader of Jane Austen, but also like Mudrick, he sometimes misses or misreads her ironies.  In his biography of Jane Austen, he says that bitter irony is the mode of Northanger Abbey (110), which he characterizes as “such a sarcastic, cynical, caustic and ironic performance” (113).  The reader is surprised to find the playful humor of Northanger Abbey so bitterly characterized.  A reader who so characterizes that novel ignores the fact that it is a gothic novel that is a parody of the gothic novel.  Many readers, including Julia Prewitt Brown (28) and Vladimir Jankelovich (160-64), feel as Pierre Goubert does that there is a positive residue from many ironies after the critical thrust has passed (42).  Overlooking this aspect of Austen’s ironies prevents readers like Mudrick and Halperin from noticing that, while the author’s detachment is necessary to allow her to take the divided, ironic view, her ironic presentation of characters contains a sympathetic residue.  So Mudrick finds her cold and detached and Halperin finds Northanger Abbey bitter.  One feels that critics of the stature of these two must be free of that defect.


Claudia Johnson cites literary theorists as a “high-handed party contending for access to the real Jane Austen” (“Austen Cults” 213).  Judy Simons is another of that group whose reading is entirely different from that here attributed to the intended reader.  “Conventional formal readings of Austen as a comic novelist,” she feels, need to be counteracted “by drawing attention to the discordant textual features” (Mansfield Park and Persuasion 5).  Reference to “moral or critical absolutes as central to critical discussion of Austen has been replaced by a desire to resituate the novels in a historical, often politicised, context whether the perspective utilised be Marxist, feminist, cultural or linguistic.”  For, since the discovery of the death of the author by Roland Barthes in 1968 and the rejection of concepts of literary art which have been under development for centuries, it has been found that the text may be “transformed when read as indicative of the contemporary political climate and the gender issues which that encodes” (Mansfield Park and Persuasion 7), so its subject may be gender or race in this generation, other issues in the next.


Johnson criticizes the “ludic enthusiasm” with which Janeites celebrate Austenian trivia with dramatizations, games, and costume balls, as well as with extra-textual material on sailors, Addison’s disease, and petty theft (“Austen Cults” 223).  Johnson is not hostile to humor and enjoyment, but to the triviality of amateur study (224).


And she is hostile to an important aspect of the reading of Janeites when she asserts that “so long as novels were believed to be about characters, novel studies could seem to be a species of gossip of precisely the sort in which Janeites delight” (221).  Janeites regard depiction of character as an important aspect of the study of Austen, but literary theorists, in their task of locating Austen’s text “within one of a number of possible theoretical contexts,” seek to accommodate “multiplex codes of signification” in order to understand “the conditions which determine textual production” (Simons, Mansfield Park and Persuasion 4).  This difference is perhaps a result of the more visionary or poetic view of literary theorists, whose search for hermeneutic mastery enables them to emphasize presentation of an idea, rather than of living characters, as the tendency of the text.  This emphasis leads to readings devoted to Jane Austen’s feminism or some other current issue.  Examples of such readings are presented later.


Both Simons and Johnson are reluctant to make a judgment in this divergence between the readings of Janeites and those of literary theorists.  Simons asks, “Can her novels be simultaneously common property”—that is, within the scope of the literate reader— “and the subject of sophisticated theorisation?  Or does theory disable both text and reader, and in the process of dismantlement create an exclusive community of theorists, whose language is opaque and who paradoxically reinshrine Austen’s works as an impenetrable nexus of codes and sign systems?” (Mansfield Park and Persuasion 3).  She notes that “universities professionalize reading strategies and determine ownership of reading skills, which tends to demote the common reader to the margins as an uninitiated amateur” (“Classics” 32).  And Claudia Johnson cautions that “by insisting that reading Austen is a social practice contingent upon our desires, needs, and historical circumstances, I would like to suggest that it may not be the novel that polices us, but criticism as a discourse that has done so” (224).


These differences in meaning conveyed by the words of Austen’s novels bring to mind the words of the narrator of Madame Bovary that “human speech is like a cracked cauldron where we beat out melodies to make bears dance, when we would like to reach the stars” (II 44).  Fashions in art probably will change from age to age until truth is revealed at the millennium. But if tempted to abandon the attempt to communicate, one must remember that civilization exists, or at least it seems to do so.


To derive maximum enjoyment from reading Austen, readers require other qualities not mentioned in this brief discussion.  Some readers, such as Ralph W. Emerson and Mark Twain, are repelled by Austen’s moral view—always apparent, but never obtrusive.  Unwilling to take the tragic view, the narrator presents herself, as Gary Kelly notes (149-69), as a devout Anglican and Tory.  Examples of such views are found in Emma’s appreciation of Harriet’s deference (53) and in Emma’s reverence for Donwell Abbey (357).  The reader must be willing to grant the narrator license to entertain these views.  But the reader also observes, with Joseph Litvak (763), that Jane Austen sometimes is “subtly subversive of the ideology her novels seem to endorse.” Mary Waldron notes that Mr. Knightley is less rational than Emma in their disagreement about Harriet’s rejection of Mr. Martin (“Men of Sense” 141-57).


Every reader notices that Austen’s narrator often makes comments revealing distaste for the subservient role her society assigned to women, though few would assert that she is as zealous an advocate as Mary Wolstonecraft and feminists of her time.  So it is not surprising that feminism in the novels is one of the principal themes of academic critics.  A feminist view of Emma is presented by Claudia Johnson.  She observes that patriarchal society in the novel is treated with great deference in order to “savage” that picture, enabling the novel to explore “what was precluded in those novels, the place such a world can afford to women with authority.”  For in Emma woman does “reign alone . . . All of the people in control are women,” including Mrs. Churchill, Emma, and, to a more limited extent, Mrs. Elton.  Emma explores female power.  Johnson says that Mr. Knightley is “not nearly as wise as he seems to think.”  He is “fretfully minute” in his criticisms of Emma’s assertion of feminine reason (Women, Politics 121-43).


Another feminist view is given by Robyn Warhal, who argues that narrative discourse in Persuasion reveals Austen’s feminism through representation of the heroine’s access to knowledge through “textual consciousness” of the body.  Anne Elliot’s accurate perception, which “is part of the text’s construction of feminism,” places the female body in the foreground.  Persuasion, says Warhal, demonstrates male aggression and opens it to inspection (1-19).  Joan Lescinski argues that Austen’s heroines are in revolt against their subservient roles (2-4).


Several critics, such as Marvin Mudrick (192), Edmund Wilson, and Terry Castle, have argued that Emma is more attracted to women than to men.  Susan M. Korba (139-63) says that sexuality is actually a statement about power.  Through sexual assertion, Emma “expressed her desire for mastery, for domination.”  But, denied her preferred role, she must “play the wife.”


Laura M. White cites Edward Said’s comment that Austen affirms the geographical process of expansion, production, and trade that “predates, underlies, and guarantees the morality” of slavery, which provides the means of support for the Bertrams at Mansfield Park (9).  But Mary Waldron says that to cite Austen’s concern with slavery as an issue in her fiction is perhaps an unjustified “foreshadowing” of another world (JA and Fiction 177).


Probably there is no resolution of these disagreements about a novel revealing human character, but no interdiction lies on enjoyment of Jane Austen novels.  Janeites are free to enjoy the novels, but should remember that the source of the celebration is a work of art whose beauty is to be revealed.  Claudia Johnson observes that if Samuel Johnson was right in asserting that the purpose of literature is to help us better enjoy or endure life, “we must be glad . . . that ‘Jane’ is ‘theirs,’ ‘yours,’ and ‘ours’ after all” (“Austen Cults” 224).  So “Jane” belongs to us all—all, that is, except those who miss her ironic comedy.  And even some of those are appreciative readers who may claim a share as well.



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  The Novels of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933.

_____.  Selected Letters.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  Oxford: OUP, 1955.

Bradley, A. C.  “Jane Austen: A Lecture.”  Essays and Studies by Members of the British Association II (1911):7-36.  Rpt. in Emma: An Authoritative Text: Backgrounds, Reviews, and Criticism.  Ed. Stephen C. Parish.  N.Y.: Norton, 1993.  354-57.

Brown, Julia P.  Jane Austen’s Novels: Social Change and Literary Form.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1979.

Flaubert, Gustave.  Madame Bovary.  Geneva: Editions Pierre Caillet.  2 vols.  Undated.

Goubert, Pierre.  “L’Ironie de Jane Austen.”  Études Anglais: Grande-Bretagne, États-Unis 48 (1995). 38-49.

Halperin, John.  The Life of Jane Austen.  Baltimore: JHUP, 1984.

Jankelovich, Vladimir.  L’Ironie.  Paris: Flammarion, 1984.

Johnson, Claudia L.  “Austen Cults and Cultures.”  The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen.  Ed. Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster.  Cambridge: CUP, 1999. 211-26.

_____.  “Emma: Woman, Lovely Woman, Reigns Alone.”  Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel.  Chicago: U Chicago P, 1988. 121-43.

Kelly, Gary.  “Religion and Politics.”  The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen.  Ed. Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster.  Cambridge: CUP, 1999. 149-69.

Korba, Susan M.  “Improper and Dangerous Distinctions: Female Relationships and Erotic Domination in Emma.”  Studies in the Novel 29: (1997).  139-63.

Lescinski, Jean.  “Heroines under Fire: Rebels in Austen and James.”  CEA Critic 49 (1986-87). 2-4.

Litvak, Joseph.  “Reading Characters: Self, Society, and Text in Emma.”  PMLA 100 (1985).  763-73.

Mudrick, Marvin.  Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery.  Berkeley: UCP, 1968.

Simons, Judy.  “Classics and Trash: Reading Austen in the 1990s.”  Women’s Writing 5 (1998).  27-39.

Simons, Judy, Ed.  Mansfield Park and Persuasion.  New York: St. Martin’s, 1997.

Waldron, Mary.  “Men of Sense and Silly Wives.”  Studies in the Novel 28 (1966).  141-57.

_____.  Jane Austen and the Fiction of her Time.  Cambridge: CUP, 1999: 1-15.

Warhal, Robyn R.  “The Look, the Body, and the Heroine: A Feminist-Narratological Reading of Persuasion.”  Novel 26 (Fall 1993). 1-19.

White, Laura M.  Jane Austen: Critical Essays on Jane Austen.  New York: G. K. Hall, 1998.

Wright, Andrew H.  “Irony and Fiction.”  Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism X II (1953).  111-18.


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