Persuasions #5, 1983                                                                                                                                            Pages 10-12





Mary Poovey

Department of English Literature, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA 19081


In Jane Austen’s society – and in her novels in a slightly different way – romantic love provided one of the very few opportunities for a woman to exercise fantasies of autonomy and power. In that brief interval between marriageability and marriage, a woman was empowered as never before; not only could she wield her mighty “negative” but she could also enjoy the attentions of a man – or men – intent upon impressing her. It is the unspoken “after” of this formula that made it a paradox and pushed it toward contradiction. For when a woman married, she was subsumed into the representative of her husband, losing her legal existence, her right to own property, even her responsibility for crime. This contradiction between imagined autonomy and legal negation is the contradiction that romantic love denies and the marriage plot suspends. And even though it does not appear in this precise form in Emma, I want to argue that this paradox – and the contradiction it foreshadows – constitutes the ideological tension the novel is trying to manage and the terms in which plot complications are engendered and resolved. Let me explain a little more fully what I mean.

Emma Woodhouse is sure from the very beginning of the novel that she will not marry, for she is perfectly aware that she does not lack the validation and power that other women seek through marriage. “I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s houses as I am of Hartfield,” she tells Harriet, “and never, never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man’s eyes as I am in my father’s.” Emma sees with uncommon clarity the limitations marriage places upon women, and throughout the early part of the novel – even though she is obsessed with plotting romantic attachments for others – she is intent upon protecting herself from any emotional engagement that might lead to marriage vows. What Emma does not recognize is the extent to which she is already ensnared by the attractions of romantic love. Jane Austen uses this powerful attraction and Emma’s blindness to entice her heroine to accept her “natural” place as a woman just like any other; she uses, in other words, the vanity associated with romantic love to distract Emma from the dependence that will come with marriage and that she is already defended against.

This ideological pattern is most sharply focused in the Box Hill episode, for in this scene Jane Austen separates vanity and dependence from the theme of love and marriage and then links them to each other as parts of a more general ethical pattern, Emma’s vanity, of course, is immediately alluded to and soon gratified. Her initial disappointment with Frank – that he “listened without knowing what she said” – disappears when he begins to speak for the benefit of the assembled company. “Frank Churchill grew talkative and gay, making her his first object. Every distinguishing attention that could be paid, was paid to her.” Neither Emma nor the reader is aware that Frank’s behaviour is part of his troubled romance with Jane Fairfax. For Emma, this mock flirtation is explicitly not linked to romantic feelings: his attentions “were not winning back her heart.” Because love seems safely distant, Emma is particularly unguarded. When Frank taunts the company, ostensibly on her behalf, to say whatever they are thinking, he is actually inviting his friends to indulge another version of the vanity permitted by romantic love. Only Emma is rash enough to take up his challenge. Even though he changes his command to a solicitation for “something very entertaining,” Emma responds to his first invitation: her sharp jibe at Miss Bates expresses exactly what she thinks about the unfortunate old maid.

Emma’s self-indulgence at this moment reproduces the indulgence she experienced as a child, when she enjoyed in Miss Taylor “one to whom she could speak every thought as it arose, and who had such an affection for her as could never find fault.” The vanity Frank invites reawakens the “original narcissism” of his auditors, for implicit in his challenge is the opportunity to imagine, for just a moment, that every thought is as precious to one’s listeners as to oneself, that one is, in short, the centre of a non-judgmental little universe. Frank and his father continue to reinforce Emma’s egotism when Mr. Weston makes a conundrum linking “perfection” to her name, and Frank asks her jokingly to find and form a wife for him. “And make her like myself,” Emma complacently adds.

But the rest of Emma’s companions are not so ready to accede to her “presiding,” and when Mr. Knightley chides her for her “insolence,” he makes explicit what is at stake in such indulgences of wit. Significantly, his argument turns on the issue of dependence and it appeals to the responsibilities that accrue to Emma’s social position. “Were she your equal in situation,” Mr. Knightley tells Emma, “I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner …. but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case. She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and if she lives to old age must probably sink more …. You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour – to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her – and before her niece too – and before others, many of whom (certainly some) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her.” Mr. Knightley reminds Emma not only of her current place in the social hierarchy but also of that moment when the notice of any adult – even Miss Bates – was an “honour” for a child. This reminder undercuts the egotism of the child’s view of things, and in positioning Emma twice in relation to others – first as chronological inferior, then as social superior – Mr. Knightley points to the implicit connection between responsibility and dependence. Because some are dependent (whether as children or as the unprotected poor), others must assume responsibility; to assume responsibility is to voluntarily limit one’s childlike desires, to think of others before or in relation to oneself.

We know Mr. Knightley is right. More important, Emma knows it. She is “forcibly struck” by his criticism, “agitated, mortified, grieved” – and, significantly, speechless. When Emma acknowledges that Mr. Knightley is right to identify her joke as vanity, and when she voluntarily accepts responsibility for someone else’s dependence, she prepares herself to curb her egotism and to accept her dependence upon someone else. The way is then open for other revelations, which culminate in the exposure of her feelings about Mr. Knightley: “It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!” The fact that accepting responsibility for a superior social position may not be exactly the same as accepting someone else’s authority over you remains unexamined in this novel. Nor does it have to be examined, for Jane Austen still has in reserve the reward that makes dependence tolerable – the fulfilment promised by romantic love.

When Emma initially tells Harriet that she will not marry, she adds one important qualification. “Were I to fall in love,” she says, “indeed, it would be a different thing.” But, as we have seen, Emma has confidently believed herself immune to love. “I never have been in love,” she says; “it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall.” Love is always the unaccountable, indefinable, but undeniable qualification, theoretically capable of dismissing the “dangers of dependency” that Emma fears in marriage. But it is crucial for the preservation of this qualification – and the aesthetic resolution that it brings about – that genuine romantic love and all its complications remain offstage for most of the novel. This is true for at least two reasons. In the first place, the passion between Jane and Frank contains all the disruptive elements that Jane Austen is at pains to control. Their desire for each other defies class distinctions, social decorum, parental approval; it is an alliance formed in secret and operating subversively; it gives the lie to the illusion of class stability and the importance of thinking of others’ comfort before one thinks of oneself. And in the second place, the romance between Frank and Jane reveals that, despite the promises of autonomy and power implicit in romantic love, it actually entails vulnerabilities as painful as any marriage may institutionalize. Given the strength of Jane’s love for Frank and the weakness of her social position, she suffers more than we will ever know. The unspoken pain and desperation that just barely surface at Box Hill betray the genuine wounds that the “arrow” that gives Emma just a twinge can actually inflict.

To introduce these complexities would imperil the resolution achieved by segmenting romantic love into its component issues. In Emma, Jane Austen simply does not focus on this mysterious and powerful desire. The wishes of Frank and Jane don’t conflict with anyone else’s desires, and because the novel’s conclusion arranges the characters in their proper social places, there is no need to examine the way that personal desire can conflict with social order. Instead, romantic love remains unproblematic, uncompromised. Emma has remained blind to herself for so long that the recognition that she loves Mr. Knightley – accompanied, as it is, with the momentarily terrifying possibility that his affections might not be fixed – contains all the drama one could reasonably ask of love. Moreover, ending the novel, as Jane Austen does, with the wedding ceremony of Mr. Knightley and Emma suspends whatever questions we might have about Emma’s ability to enjoy her new dependence. The last sentence of the novel has the effect of robbing the future of its potential for change, for its temporal stasis freezes the Knightley’s marriage in an eternal repetition of their current “perfect happiness.” Here is the sentence: “In spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.”

What I’m suggesting, then, is that Emma at least implicitly leaves more questions unanswered than we are accustomed to think it does. The problems about love and marriage, vanity and dependence, that inhere in the subplot and are raised in all kinds of peripheral ways are not really resolved. Given the contradictions implicit in the discrepancy between what the ideology of romantic love promised and the actual inequality marriage in this society entailed, resolution was in fact impossible. In order to preserve the ideology and the social order of which it is one anchor, Jane Austen displaces this unresolvable contradiction, separates and transforms its inherent issues, and resolves them for the purposes of her art within an ethical schema that we can all accept. This involves, of course, the substitution of an aesthetic resolution for a genuine social solution, but the fact that it both flatters our sense of our superior perception and gratifies our wish that no contradiction exists between love and marriage makes us as readers perfectly happy to overlook unanswered questions. We, like Emma, long to be “always first and always right.” We, like Jane Austen, long for a world in which “perfect happiness” automatically aligns the personal desires of both men and women with society’s moral imperatives.

Implicit in this reading of Emma is a theoretical model about the relationship of novels to the societies in which they are written, and perhaps if I make my assumptions clearer you’ll be more inclined to grant that issues that are not explicitly dramatized can nevertheless be important to the dynamics of narrative. I am suggesting that narratives, like myths, are attempts to manage tensions and contradictions that are a part of the author’s lived experience in society. Narratives, in other words, are symbolic actions. In the sense that they are only symbolic, they cannot really change social institutions; but in the sense that they are actions they can comment on society and on the desires that underwrite our willingness to accept even imperfect solutions. In the subtle aesthetic maneuvers necessary to transform and resolve actual social contradictions we as readers can identify the magnitude of the problems that continue to haunt our world. In our Utopian desire for resolution we can feel both the force that can be harnessed for change and the powerful inertia we must overcome in order to change. My comment that Jane Austen does not resolve the contradiction between the promises of romance and the realities of marriage is not a criticism of her insight or her narrative skill. It is an observation about the way things were in her society for women and about how one crucial contradiction provided both vital complications for fictional plots and debilitating complications for actual women.

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