Jane Austen has a long history of being underestimated, perhaps most famously by Henry James, who praised the “extraordinary grace of her facility, . . . as if, at the most, for difficulty, . . . she sometimes, over her workbasket . . . fell a-musing,” and attributed her popularity to the way she had been “sentimentalized,” from “the same lucky box as the Brontës” (372). D. W. Harding even better expressed the lack of respect for Austen by extending it to her readers, suggesting that “she provided a refuge for the sensitive when the contemporary world grew too much for them” (378). Critical respect seems to lie on a continuum of difficulty, with feminine, easy-to-read novels that offer “refuge” from reality being at one end and authors of “difficulty,” including the high modernists, at the furthest extreme of the other, where, some would argue, the real work of literature is done. Granting the continuum of difficulty, relegating Austen to the simplistic end of the stick is a mistake that betrays the naïveté of the critic.
Take the following description of experimental dramatization involving narrative point of view:
When, unaccountably, the narrative voice shifts between the first and third person . . . , we begin to detect an experimentation with the fractured narrative sequences and multiple points of view. . . . This alternating narrative voice marks a break with unified . . . modes of narration and contests the possibility of an objective narrative, as Levenson explains: “the shifts reveal the pressures upon an omniscience no longer confident that it knows all,” . . . signaling a radical move . . . and an attempt to connect with . . . readers’ experiences. (Dryden 224)
Although Jane Austen is “one of the unquestionable masters in the use of technique to control the reader’s judgment” (Booth 95), it is surprising to realize that Linda Dryden is here actually discussing the narrative technique of Joseph Conrad, writing nearly one hundred years after Emma was published. The description of these innovative narrative techniques, here attributed to Conrad, apply also to Austen’s.
Authors have to varying degrees understood intersubjectivity as an essential part of the art of communication since Aristotle developed the concept of the enthymeme, the part of an orator’s argument that must be supplied by his audience so that they feel almost as if they have persuaded themselves rather than that they were persuaded by a rhetorician. Such work done between audience and artist does more than illustrate: by including the audience in his story or play, the author-artist can compose that audience in the same way that the rhetorician persuades his—by creating a path by which the audience can pick up a brush, fill in the enthymeme, finish the story. Such an approach to art can be chaotic, because the artist is risking his art by placing it in the hands of his audience; such radically unpredictable art competes in some ways with pure mimesis.
Unless the artist and the audience succeed in a kind of mutual understanding, enthymematic—or intersubjective—art fails; the artist fails to compose. In such a failure, he risks skepticism and other such breaks with the reality he has observed and wants to share. As Wayne C. Booth observes, “the chances for technical failure are great” (95). If a viewer misinterprets the importance of a painting that takes no such risks, the integrity of the work is not threatened: the painting remains what it is. If the artist has given the brush to the viewer, however, along with a palette filled with all the possibilities of watered-down modern philosophy, the artist risks everything.
Austen takes an increasingly enthymematic approach to her art, staking her reputation on skillful readers’ ability to supply the implied parts of her argument. Let us measure Emma against James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, the difficulty of which is renowned. With Joyce there is no hope of obtaining a story line without significant work on the part of the reader. Brett Bourbon explains, “What Finnegan’s Wake or any sentence in the Wake means, for example, must be determined by explaining how it means given its distortions of sense and form.” He argues that “aesthetics replaces genre as the means of establishing how a poem or fiction can or could be meaningful and taken as art” (12). In contrast to such difficulty, Emma seems to be easily translated into film, children’s adaptations, soaps, and teas. There is a surface story that seems to follow the traditional rules of narrative, such that one can read Austen without the aid of a thick volume of notes. This apparent understanding is misleading, however, making the reading of Emma a more dangerous endeavor than reading Finnegan’s Wake. Like Joyce, Austen is working under the surface of things; she disguises this project, however, with a surface-level storyline that sifts readers who inadvertently follow that surface story, barring their admittance to the depths of Emma unless they become ethically involved. By disguising her difficulty with facility rather than nonsense, Austen emerges as the most difficult of modern experimentalists, ignoring “such dull Elves / As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves” (29 January 1813) in favor of those who will read beneath the surface.
Austen creates in her titular character a persona renowned above all for her flaws, with whom readers are disinclined to sympathize, “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,” Austen herself admits (Austen-Leigh 119). As friendship is a surface-level encounter that finds some way to slip past inevitable character flaws to the depths of another, so Austen similarly problematizes Emma. The literal content of the novel’s opening says that Emma Woodhouse has had “very little to distress or vex her” (5), tempting readers to assume that Mrs. Woodhouse’s passing, briefly mentioned, is “little.” We subconsciously resolve the problem in the text by choosing one narrative over another: that Emma’s father is “indulgent” and she does not remember her mother’s passing; that her governess has a temper so mild that it would not allow Miss Taylor “to impose any restraint” (5). Austen has removed all sympathetic access to her heroine from the beginning, using the surface-level dislikability of Emma to challenge readers’ ability to reconcile content with style.
Indeed, the surface-level dislikability of Emma is so great that D. A. Miller describes her as a narcissist whose “doting father maintains Emma’s self-love” as she “acts out her fantasies of omnipotent manipulation in a blinded search for mirror substitutes” (14–15). Likewise, Jane Nardin identifies Emma as “the most egotistical” of Austen’s heroines, calling “self-love” Emma’s “basic character trait” (109). Booth condemns her for “manipulat[ing] Harriet not from an excess of kindness but from a desire for power and admiration” and for “flirt[ing] with Frank Churchill out of vanity and irresponsibility” (98). If this description of Emma is accurate, what reader could like her? How could Austen like her?
We believe Emma has been spoiled for the same reason Nardin believes it: because on the surface, the text tells us so. On the surface, Emma sees Harriet Smith as a person she might “summon at any time to a walk” (26). Austen tucks Emma’s assessment of another person as useful to herself into the indefinite article, “a” which modifies the girl’s name: “a Harriet Smith,” a person who would be a “privilege” by being “a valuable addition to [the] privileges” that Emma already possesses (26), the act of possession being tucked as subtly as the indefinite article into the use of the word “privileges.”
Emma’s character continues to come across as haughty and demanding, as her thought language is peppered with modal auxiliaries in the same way that her privileges are peppered with people. Emma sizes up Harriet, and Austen alerts us of her character’s point of view with the word “seeming.” The narrator observes in the middle of a long paragraph on Harriet’s seeming “so pleasantly grateful for being admitted to Hartfield, and so artlessly impressed . . . that she must have good sense and deserve encouragement” (23). To whom does Harriet seem this way? The answer becomes clearer when the narration adopts the use of modal auxiliaries which “figure so prominently . . . in Austen and create the texture of so much of her work” (Boyd 127). The modal language is Emma’s; it is the determinate “must” that dictates Harriet’s “good sense” as well as Emma’s tendency toward inductive reasoning.
Surface-level descriptions of Emma’s charmed life reach a smug crescendo within the first few paragraphs of the novel, when the narrator observes that the marriage of Mr. Weston to Miss Taylor offered “some satisfaction in considering with what self-denying, generous friendship [Emma] had always wished and promoted the match” (6). The flattery here is easy to read in Emma’s voice, bringing to mind the sentimental self-narration of Gerty MacDowell in Ulysses, who imagines herself to be “as fair a specimen of winsome Irish girlhood as one could wish to see” with a “face [that] was almost spiritual in its ivorylike purity” (285–86). Whether these descriptions are the mockery of an unsympathetic narrator or the self-aggrandizement of two narcissistic girls hardly matters; these descriptions serve only to underscore the reader’s distaste for Emma and Gerty alike.
In order to read the dissonance between content and style as merely the narrator’s commentary on Emma’s life, however, we must believe that the narrator perceives the value of Mrs. Woodhouse’s life as insignificant. Such a narrator must be rather cold, but when combined with the light tone she takes in relating these details, a more sinister picture of the narrator would emerge, if the tone itself did not veil the strangeness. Who is this narrator? Likewise, we must ask what readers can understand that Emma has lost her mother and then simultaneously believe that she has had “very little to distress or vex her” (5)? If we know that her father is so old that he needs constant care, to the degree that she cannot even leave him to marry, how can we still believe that he is “indulgent”?
Nardin pauses over this resolution, if briefly, observing that Emma’s father “must be an unbelievably trying man to live with” (110), but then she chooses the false narrative, arguing that “Emma loves him tenderly and never resents him for a moment . . . because she is, as she herself accurately remarks, ‘always first and always right’ in her father’s eyes” (110). Austen makes it easy for us to believe this latter narrative because it is given key words and repeated. She shows Emma caring for her father’s comfort as well as his health while saying that he is “indulgent” (5); she shows Emma visiting the poor (86–87) while saying that she has had “rather too much her own way” (5); she shows Emma caring about Harriet (63–65) and being more civil to Mrs. Elton than most mere humans could manage (281), but the narrative also says that Emma sees Harriet as one of her “privileges” (26). While the “privilege” that Emma sees in Harriet is a term more commonly used with reference to rights associated with legal standing or property according to the OED (2a), the term can also be simply an honor or the benefit of something like friendship (3b). Such ambiguity tests the reader: do we interpret Emma’s diction as that of a conqueror or of a friend?
What Austen is actually showing us with the opening description of Emma is how Emma perceives herself as she struggles to become something better. She does not give in to self-pity over the loss of her mother. She refuses to see her father as a burden. She will not impute any shortcomings in Miss Taylor’s abilities as a governess to the woman herself; instead, Emma adopts them as surely her own shortcomings, the result of Miss Taylor’s excessive mildness of temper. Austen’s project in Emma is a “moral, not merely technical” project (Booth 116). As Peter Mathews defines it, Austen “invites her readers into her fictional world not in order to indoctrinate them into a morality, but to expose them to the infinitely problematic ethical questions that her work poses” (253), to participate in the questions she raises. Our participation in these questions determines the story we read just as the enthymeme we supply determines the argument we hear.
Austen begins with a character who is naturally repulsive to the reader and puts her in a corner where she can whisper the gossip about Jane Fairfax and Mr. Dixon to Frank Churchill. We feel as if we are catching Emma in the act of misbehaving because Austen lets us believe that we are chummy with the narrator, who is giving us the best gossip on Emma. This vantage point prevents us from feeling the imperative of forgiveness and allows our real nature to show, as we demonstrate what we do with gossip when we think we are in the company of a sympathetic ear: we cluck our tongues and hate her, just as Emma does Jane.
Austen offers the readers clues regarding the source of the gossip we overhear, “correctives to insure our placing [Emma’s] errors precisely” (Booth 104). She begins with diction, and her control allows careless readers to be misled by their own negligence; herein lies the drama. We too easily believe, for example, that Emma Woodhouse “unite[s] some of the best blessings of existence” and that she had so little to “distress or vex her” that her own narrator chooses these mocking verbs to emphasize her spoiled subsistence (5). Closer readers may put due pressure on the “seemed” that governs Emma’s ability to unite the “best blessings of existence,” but the tendency is to forget to ask, “To whom does Emma seem this way?” Next, we forget altogether that she only seems that way.
The free indirect discourse of the opening passage is consistently overlooked by critics, including the novel visualizations on the Austen Said website. Neglecting the “seems” in these first lines sets the tone for misunderstanding the entire novel: we fail to be close readers in the same way that Emma fails to be a close reader of relationships. In both situations, the moral flaws of the one failing to read well are revealed. We become like Emma, standing in the corner of the novel with the narrator, whispering and judging, as Emma stands in the corner with Frank doing the same.
The human response to such a revelation is defensive: we view ourselves through a lens of good intentions. We “laugh at ourselves in a thoroughly forgiving way, . . . convinced that [our hearts are] in the right place” (Booth 98). In fact, if Austen had written Emma straight, without the use of free indirect discourse, we might continue in such a vein, seeing Emma’s flaws as Emma’s and not our own. Instead, “in developing the sustained use of a sympathetic inside view,” Booth writes, Austen “has mastered one of the most successful of all devices for inducing a parallel emotional response between the deficient heroine and the reader” (100). Of course, he realizes that “the very effectiveness of the rhetoric for sympathy might itself lead to a serious misreading of the book. . . . In reacting to Emma’s faults from the inside out, as if they were our own, we may very well not only forgive them but overlook them” (101). By moving between narrative positions, however, Austen sets a trap that readers will only trigger if they share Emma’s faults.
By juxtaposing Emma’s treatment of Harriet with Mrs. Elton’s treatment of Jane Fairfax, however, Austen removes that possibility of generosity toward our own misdeeds while weighing Emma herself on a harsher scale. In Mrs. Elton, we see the same misguided attempts at charity that we see in Emma, “most of [her] faults and none of her virtues” (Booth 114); what we do not see is the same goodwill. Mrs. Elton’s miscalculations seem quite calculated, persisting in efforts toward “‘the sale . . . of human intellect’” even after Jane suggests a relationship between the “‘governess-trade’” and “slave-trade,’” stating clearly that she is not interested yet in pursuing “misery” and “mortifications” (300). Mrs. Elton ignores these statements, saying that Jane has “‘a right to move in the first circle’” as a governess (301). In positioning herself as an advisor and benefactor and Jane as a commodity who would be worth more “‘if you knew the harp’” (301), Mrs. Elton is attempting to cement her own position above Jane in the perception of their group.
By contrast, Emma befriends a girl who is “the natural daughter of somebody” (22), so clearly beneath Emma’s social status that even the kind opinion of Mrs. Weston recognizes the difference, observing that Harriet is “‘not the superior young woman which Emma’s friend ought to be’” (36). Emma, however, proceeds to do everything in her power to bring this new friend up to social equality with herself simply because Emma believes in that equality based on Harriet’s good nature rather than her good birth. Emma defends Harriet to Mr. Knightley as having “‘real, thorough sweetness of temper and manner, a very humble opinion of herself, and a great readiness to be pleased with other people’” in addition to “understanding” and “loveliness” (63). If Emma had really intended to cause problems for Harriet, she would have had to do no more than ignore her.
When we choose to read Emma as consciously causing problems for Harriet, we must see no distinction between her character and Mrs. Elton’s. Failure to distinguish between these two characters outlines disaster for ourselves, for what we fail to see in literature, we often fail to see in life. If we overlook Mrs. Elton’s cruelty, we are liable to be gullible like Harriet; if we overlook Emma’s good intentions, our judgment of Emma becomes tinged with the voice of Mrs. Elton, judging Emma too harshly in order to elevate our own self-perception.
Unlike Mrs. Elton—or Emma, for that matter—Mr. Knightley is the model for success in judging character, correcting his mistakes about Harriet and reaching through the layers of Emma’s own flawed humanity to declare to her that it was actually “‘by dint of fancying so many errors’” that he has loved her for years (462). Until we can see Emma as Mr. Knightley does, “‘faults and all’” (318), we cannot truly love her; moreover, without Mr. Knightley’s compassion for human flaws, we cannot truly love anyone. Any affection we might have will be jeopardized as we move toward intimacy, as the otherness and flaws of the beloved come into focus.
Does Austen intend that readers love Emma “faults and all” as Mr. Knightley does? Such a question undercuts the scope of Austen’s artistic project, and so a better question might be this: What does each narrative say about the reader who reads Emma in that way? Austen has moved beyond moralizing into effecting the kind of change in her audience that normally rises only out of deep friendship. In such a friendship, two people see each other for who they are, “faults and all,” and still choose to love one another. In such a friendship, two people tell each other the truth about themselves and about each other, and in the face of those revelations, they still allow the other one to love them and be loved by them.
To this end, Emma is, as Mathews says about Pride and Prejudice, “an open invitation, one continually awaiting the future response of new readers to come” (247). The risk Mr. Knightley takes at Box Hill, when he tells Emma how badly she has behaved toward Miss Bates, is the narrative example of such friendship. The risk that Austen takes with her readers, when she writes Emma in such an unlikeable way, is the dramatic example, “a beautiful case of the dramatized author as friend and guide” (Booth 115). Joyce took an aesthetic risk to dramatize problems with modern philosophy. A century before Ulysses, Austen took the same aesthetic risk for the sake of forging a true friendship with her readers.