In Emma (1815) Jane Austen gives her protagonist a quirk of thought and speech so slight that it is almost imperceptible—and, yet, once one notices this tendency, it appears as the telltale sign of Emma’s famously flawed character. The earliest instance of this logic appears in the novel’s first chapter, when Emma sullenly reflects on her governess’s marriage to Mr. Weston: “How was she to bear the change?—It was true that her friend was going only half a mile from them; but Emma was aware that great must be the difference between a Mrs. Weston, only half a mile from them, and a Miss Taylor in the house” (5). Here, Emma uses a rhetorical device—putting an indefinite article in front of another person’s name, “a Mrs. Weston,” “a Miss Taylor”—to dramatize to herself the difference her former governess’s marriage will make in her life. Throughout Austen’s novel, Emma employs this rhetorical device to consider abstractly the social identities of others and interrogate their constitutive elements. Emma’s indefinite article tips off her thought experiments in which she considers other characters, who otherwise appear to her as the organic, inevitable products of Highbury, as creations of broader socioeconomic forces. As promising as this habit may sound, Emma’s indefinite logic does not lead her to a deeper understanding of personhood and subjectivity but instead signals to the reader Emma’s incoherent conception of identity.
Tracing this indefinite logic, the reader observes Emma’s confusion about how individuals’ socioeconomic positions affect their sociable personalities. For instance, in the above passage, the indefinite article allows Emma to conceptualize the new Mrs. Weston through her shift in the socioeconomic hierarchy (from employee to approximate peer) and in her sociable identity (from live-in companion to family friend), but it leaves her only little more equipped than her father, Mr. Woodhouse, to truly recognize how the socioeconomic has shaped her relationship with her former governess. At this point in the novel, Emma cannot understand how the Highbury hierarchy—even the name of the neighborhood suggests a pecking order—structures the way its residents relate to one another when socializing for entertainment and pleasure. Through this rhetorical device, the reader can trace Emma’s struggle to fully understand how social status and personality affect one another.
The social theorist Georg Simmel names social interaction intended only for amusement “sociability,” which he calls “the play-form of association” (255). Simmel’s exploration of what we colloquially call “socializing” shows it operating under different rules from other types of social interaction. His discussion of playful sociability is particularly relevant to Austen’s Emma, in which characters frequently meet for this sole purpose. Simmel describes sociability as a momentary fiction in which its participants’ socioeconomic statuses are unimportant and, instead, “the personal traits of amiability, breeding, cordiality, and attractiveness of all kinds” are paramount (255). Simmel sees this reversal of the status quo as “a very remarkable sociological structure” and marvels that “riches and social position, learning and fame, exceptional capacities and merits of the individual have no role” in sociability or, at most, “a slight nuance of that immateriality with which alone reality dares penetrate into [this] artificial structure” (256). In sociability, status diminishes in the face of the in-the-moment demands of social interaction, and personality rises to prominence. In Jane Austen and Modernization: Sociological Readings, James Thompson discusses how, in Emma, Austen exhibits a Simmel-esque conception of sociability; for Thompson, Austen uses sociability as a way “to preserve moral consensus” (88). Thompson elucidates the similarities between Austen’s and Simmel’s depictions of sociability and how, for both, status temporarily takes a backseat to conversation, mutual points of interest, and pleasure. Indeed, Simmel’s definition of sociability gives critics a useful term for reading Emma, in which the party at the Coles’, the ball at the Crown, and the picnics at Donwell Abbey and Box Hill appear as such important events. All are clear instances of sociability, with its distinct atmosphere departing from business-as-usual in Highbury.
This understanding of sociability also allows us to precisely identify the nature of Emma’s flawed thinking about others: she does not understand how socioeconomic status and personality interact and create what she experiences as the holistic identities of other people. Simmel describes sociability as momentarily diminishing the importance of worldly hierarchy, but Emma takes this one step further, flattering herself that, in sociability, hierarchical status completely disappears. Of course, there is bountiful evidence of how, indeed, Emma herself keeps hierarchy in mind while socializing, but throughout the novel she is in denial about even her own internal acknowledgements of status when being sociable with others. Emma wants “the artificial world” of sociability to be its own reality wholly separate from socioeconomic hierarchy, to have hierarchical position be irrelevant to evaluations of sociable personality, so she tries to act as though that is the case (Simmel 257). Emma ignores how socioeconomic hierarchy structures sociable interaction because she wants to believe that she has earned her own sociable eminence through the natural charms of her personality.
In Emma, no one wields indefinite logic but the protagonist; Miss Bates and Mrs. Elton both use the indefinite article before someone else’s name once, but to different effects. Both women use this construction to refer to those unknown to themselves or others—respectively, “‘a Miss Hawkins,’” Mr. Elton’s then-unknown fiancée, and “‘a Mrs. Smallridge,’” the prospective employer of Jane Fairfax (186, 413). This usage is the standard way to employ this rhetorical device—to refer to someone unknown to you or your listener except by name. Austen herself often employed it in this way in her letters, writing, for example, to her sister Cassandra about new acquaintances: “We met only the Brittons at Chilham Castle, besides a Mr & Mrs Osborne & a Miss Lee staying in the House, & were only 14 altogether” (6–7 November 1813). At the end of Persuasion, the Austen narrator uses this device to consider the impending marriage between her hero and heroine in a manner almost like Emma’s: “When any two young people take it into their heads to marry, they are pretty sure by perseverance to carry their point, be they ever so poor, or ever so imprudent, or ever so little likely to be necessary to each other’s ultimate comforts. . . . [I]f such parties succeed, how should a Captain Wentworth and an Anne Elliot, with the advantage of maturity of mind, consciousness of right, and one independent fortune between them, fail of bearing down every opposition?” (270). Frederick Wentworth and Anne Elliot are not exactly unknown to either the narrator or the reader. This usage would seem to be an instance of Austen’s narrator alluding to the fictionality of her characters while simultaneously emphasizing the verisimilitude of their marriage despite earlier opposition to it.
When Emma employs her indefinite logic, however, she treats those around her as Austen’s narrator does her characters—as if they are realistic yet fictional, plausible extrapolations. Emma almost never employs this device to refer to those unknown to her or to whom she is speaking but rather to think about people she does know well, often intimately. Over the course of the novel, Emma puts to use this particular rhetorical device at least twelve times, almost always in this unusual fashion. Through tracking her odd treatment of a common construction, one can see Emma’s growing realization that hierarchical identity does affect the terms of sociability, and that sociable behavior more often than not reflects the anxieties and concerns of its actors’ hierarchical statuses.
As many critics have noted, Emma struggles throughout this novel to temper her imagination with reality. Notable theories in this vein include D. A. Miller’s figuring of Emma as the inferior stylothete that makes Austenian style possible (55); Ned Schantz’s interpretation that “instead of friendship, we might say, Emma chooses readership” in regard to Harriet and Jane Fairfax (20); Juliet McMaster’s claim that Emma over-interprets others’ speech, often “assum[ing] an innuendo, a secret message, that isn’t there; and while she is assuming a non-existent secret message, she is likely to miss that one is there” (93); Tara Ghoshal Wallace’s detailing of the novel as a series of misreadings on the part of all of its characters, especially Emma, who “believes in class distinction, but denies the power of gender hierarchies” (84). To detect Emma’s indefinite logic is to catch her engaging in fantasy or making fiction out of life: she recognizes the sociable identity of those around her and their hierarchical identity; she does not want to see how the two work together, however, so she imagines them as separate.
The presence of “indefinite logic” in Emma is just one example of the many almost invisible structures that critics have noticed ordering the world of Austen’s novels, like Bharat Tandon’s exploration of silent yet ever-present servants (121–22) or Sarah Raff’s detection of the narrator’s desire to inspire devotion in her readers (1). With this almost imperceptible grammatical pattern, Emma’s limited understanding of personhood becomes legible. Emma cannot see why Miss Bates might be poor and silly; why Jane Fairfax might be impoverished, highly educated, and diffident; why Mrs. Elton might be extremely affected and a woman who has just sunk her £10,000 fortune into a marriage with a man she hardly knows; why Mr. Woodhouse might be an insular hypochondriac and a rich old man in a rural community—in short, that there is often a causal relationship between an individual’s hierarchical position and his or her sociable personality. Emma struggles to make this mental leap at the beginning of the novel, of course, because her own social position has offered her only—as Austen informs us—reasons to construct an open, inviting, witty sociable presence or, in other words, a sociable personality that is attractive and advantageous. It is not until the end of the novel, when she recognizes her own sociable foibles and their relationship to her hierarchical position, that Emma is able to see this connection in the identity of others. After this recognition, her indefinite logic—as much an affectation as Mrs. Elton’s own name-based colloquialisms (“‘Mr. E’” and “‘Knightley!’”)—disappears from the page.
That this rhetorical maneuver symbolizes the particular flaw of Emma’s thinking is manifest from the first time it appears. “A Miss Taylor” and “a Mrs. Weston” construct two competing views of her former governess: the sociable identity and the hierarchical one. First, the sociable: “a Miss Taylor” is “intelligent, well-informed, useful, gentle, knowing all the ways of the family, interested in all its concerns, and peculiarly interested in herself, in every pleasure, every scheme of her’s” (4). On the other hand, there is “a Mrs. Weston,” who still presumably has all of these qualities but with diminished effect, due to her move out of Emma’s house and into one of her own. And then there is the hierarchical identity: “a Miss Taylor,” who was, despite their intimacy, an employee and a dependent; and “a Mrs. Weston,” who is no longer a dependent of Hartfield but Mr. Weston’s wife. Emma’s implicit concern—unstated—is that her former governess will not have the same interest in her now that she is not obligated by economic necessity. As Sheryl Bonar Craig notes, Miss Taylor was, before her marriage, in a precarious position at Hartfield, “living in a childless home with a quirky older employer and his willful, grown daughter.” Her heartbreak at Miss Taylor’s marriage seems to arise partially from the dawning realization—quickly suppressed—that her friend’s solicitude towards her was not unrelated to her position as an employee. To admit that she fears Miss Taylor could change towards her—that by necessity, in fact, she must to some degree—is to admit that their sociable relationship before was alloyed by Miss Taylor’s subordinate position. By evoking her former governess as “a Miss Taylor” and “a Mrs. Weston,” Emma soothes herself by keeping her former governess’s hierarchical identity and sociable identity separate. It is hardly a surprise that, shortly after these thoughts, she seeks out another friend, Harriet Smith, who is also hierarchically subordinate to her.
The above example shows Emma using indefinite logic in a vulnerable moment, but she begins using it more aggressively. After first seeing Robert Martin, Emma reflects on the probability of Harriet’s falling in love with Mr. Elton instead: “the girl who could be gratified by a Robert Martin’s riding about the country to get walnuts for her, might very well be conquered by Mr. Elton’s admiration” (35). Similarly, Emma employs indefinite logic here to make a comparison, but she only abstracts Robert Martin through this device, leaving Mr. Elton as an unexamined whole. Emma dissects Robert Martin’s position in the community (a young farmer, soon-to-be “‘thinking of nothing but profit and loss’” ) and his sociable qualities (“‘very plain’” , with an “‘entire want of gentility’” , “‘awkward and abrupt’” , and “‘so very clownish’” ). As with Miss Taylor and Mrs. Weston, Emma does not bring these two identities into conjunction. By comparison, Mr. Elton’s identity is not altered by an indefinite article, and Emma thinks that she has made a well-reasoned, holistic assessment of him as an individual: on the one hand, he has “a very sufficient income”; on the other, “she thought very highly of him as a good-humoured, well-meaning, respectable young man, . . . whom any woman not fastidious might like” (35). In the case of “a Robert Martin,” Emma holds the man’s sociable qualities and his profession apart, not considering one in light of the other; she does not consider that a frank demeanor, with a lack of affectation, would be appropriate for a man who must interact with everyone from his farm hands to Mr. Knightley. She considers both his ungentlemanly demeanor and his profession as a farmer as marks against him, and she does not ask how they might work together. By contrast, she attempts to understand what she sees as the two puzzle pieces of Mr. Elton’s identity—his material possessions and his sociable personality—but still cannot fully integrate the two. Emma does not see that the confident cheerfulness of Mr. Elton’s sociable persona arises from an awareness of his promising prospects, but she instead takes the two conditions as independent, even as she actively strains to mentally give herself a full account of his identity.
Another particularly biting example of Emma’s indefinite logic occurs in a conversation between Emma and Harriet. After the party at the Coles’, Harriet informs Emma that Robert Martin dined with the Cox family the Saturday before. “‘They talked a great deal about him, especially Anne Cox,’” supplies Harriet; “‘I do not know what she meant, but she asked me if I thought I should go and stay there again next summer.’” Emma responds to this information with a quip: “‘She meant to be impertinently curious, just as such an Anne Cox should be’” (251). Here, more than ever, Emma uses indefinite logic as put-down. She reduces Anne Cox to two independently unimpressive qualities: her banal sociable presence and her lowly hierarchical position in respectable Highbury society. Anne is part of the up-and-coming Cox family; her father is “the lawyer of Highbury,” and her brother William is training to take his father’s place (231). Thus, the Cox family does not have a large amount of money—particularly, one can assume, not enough to provide economically meaningful dowries for their daughters. The result is a gendered split within the Cox family: while William Cox will have a genteel, middle-class existence, his sisters do not necessarily share the same fate. At the Coles’ party, the Cox mother and sisters are classed among the “less worthy females” and not invited to dinner but only for the dancing afterwards (231). It is not surprising then that Miss Nash, Harriet’s friend at Mrs. Goddard’s, might think that either of the Cox sisters “‘would be very glad to marry’” Robert Martin (251).
As to Anne Cox’s sociable identity, Emma pronounces her and her sister “vulgar” twice: once, when Harriet asks her how she thinks the Cox sisters looked (“‘Just as they always do—very vulgar’” ) and then again when responding to Harriet’s assertion that the Cox sisters would be happy to marry Robert Martin (“‘Very likely.—I think they are, without exception, the most vulgar girls in Highbury’” ). The Cox sisters are vulgar because they seem to be using the supposedly unworldly realm of sociable interaction to gauge their marriage prospects (250–51). Because Emma sees Anne Cox’s behavior only in terms of the rules of sociability, she does not understand that Anne Cox might risk being thought vulgar or “‘impertinently curious’” by Miss Woodhouse when a comfortable future with Mr. Martin hangs in the balance, nor does Emma understand that Anne Cox may not have the luxury of sociable interaction unpressured by marital concerns. Emma also does not consider that Anne Cox might appear brash and vulgar to her because she has not benefited from the same level of monetary investment in assets particularly influential to one’s sociable identity (education, clothing, etc.).
Whenever Emma uses the flattening indefinite article, she constructs, for the reader, her own misunderstanding of the relationship between an individual’s hierarchical position and sociable personality. Emma believes that the sociable can be divorced from the hierarchy that dictates the relative positions of those in Highbury. Of course, she can hold this belief because her own affluence makes the effects of hierarchy invisible to her. She repeats the same mistake with Jane Fairfax: speaking to herself after one of Harriet’s warm-hearted outpourings of affection, Emma reflects,
“Dear Harriet!—I would not change you for the clearest-headed, longest-sighted, best-judging female breathing. Oh! the coldness of a Jane Fairfax!—Harriet is worth a hundred such—And for a wife—a sensible man’s wife—it is invaluable. I mention no names; but happy the man who changes Emma for Harriet!” (289–90).
Here, Jane Fairfax is reduced to her diffident social demeanor and Harriet to her tender-heartedness, with Emma herself lying, implicitly, somewhere in between. She does not consider that Jane Fairfax’s coldness might arise from her embarrassment at soon having to seek work as a governess (or that Jane must experience Emma’s cheerfulness, better health, and lesser accomplishment as unbearable signifiers of her wealth), nor does she consider that Harriet’s amiable nature may help her paper over the unsavory connotations of her anonymous parentage and the precariousness of that ambiguous social position. Emma certainly does not consider that her own blithe sociable personality—not overly affectionate but willing and ready to gossip—stems in part from the security of her hierarchical position. Her future comfort is much less dependent on the outcome of her sociable interactions.
Famously, Emma’s moment of reform comes when Mr. Knightley chastises her for humiliating Miss Bates; it is this moment that causes Emma to finally see that sociability is not divorced from hierarchy but often necessarily reflective of these conditions. When responding to Emma’s assessment that “‘what is good and what is ridiculous are most unfortunately blended’” in Miss Bates, Mr. Knightley makes this connection between hierarchical identity and personality explicit: “‘Were she a woman of fortune, I would leave every harmless absurdity to take its chance. . . . Were she your equal in situation—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 live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion’” (408). Mr. Knightley jolts Emma out of her habit of isolating an individual’s hierarchical position from their sociable personality; he alerts her to the reciprocal relationship between these two aspects of individual identity by identifying a flaw in her own sociable conduct and its relationship to her eminent, affluent position in Highbury.
Mr. Knightley’s admonishment causes indefinite logic to disappear from Emma’s speech and thoughts. When the rhetorical device reappears twice at the end of the novel, its use has been altered, and it no longer constitutes indefinite logic. After Mrs. Weston has given birth to a girl, Emma reflects, “She had been decided in wishing for a Miss Weston. She could not acknowledge that it was with any view of making a match for her, hereafter, with either of Isabella’s sons; but she was convinced that a daughter would suit both father and mother best” (503). This “Miss Weston” is the first time in the novel that Emma has used this device in the conventional sense; “a Miss Weston” here is a hypothetical, unknown figure, and this appropriate usage signals Emma’s reformed, holistic view of identity. The analysis that follows of why Mr. and Mrs. Weston might both enjoy a daughter shows a newly skillful consideration of personality and hierarchical identity. Emma details the compatibility of a girl with the Westons’ economic situation and retired lifestyle: Mr. Weston will easily afford a decent dowry; Miss Weston will live with her parents until her marriage, without any departure from home for schooling or career-launching that a boy would require; in his encroaching old age Mr. Weston will need the comfort, and will enjoy, “the sports and the nonsense, the freaks and the fancies of a child never banished from home”; Mrs. Weston’s former trade as governess will be most compatible (and economical) with a daughter and, thus, most rewarding (503). This ability to integrate the sociable and the hierarchical gives Emma’s analyses of others a new empathy.
The last instance of this rhetorical device also shows Emma’s reform. Reflecting on Harriet’s engagement to Robert Martin and her rapid transfer of affections from Mr. Knightley back to Robert Martin, Emma ponders, “She must laugh at such a close! Such an end of the doleful disappointment of five weeks back! Such a heart—such a Harriet!” (519). In marked contrast to Emma’s scornful “‘such an Anne Cox,’” this exclamation—“such a Harriet!”—testifies to her perpetual mystification at Harriet’s changeable affections and supple emotions. From Emma’s perspective, Harriet’s affections change along with her self-interest, humorously bearing no marks of her earlier convictions. Emma can see how Harriet’s hierarchical identity and her emotions follow one another, but she also knows that Harriet has been sincere in each of her new loves; she sees her holistic identity while acknowledging that Harriet—like everyone else—is more than the sum of these parts.
During the word game at Box Hill, Mr. Weston asks the group, “‘What two letters of the alphabet are there, that express perfection?’” and then answers, “‘I will tell you.—M. and A.—Em-ma.—Do you understand?’” (404). This deconstruction of Emma’s name offers a regurgitation of her own breakdown of other’s identities using indefinite articles. Not only is Emma herself just one Emma of many (an M A), but, as Mr. Weston points out, her name contains that very same indefinite article she has been inflicting on others. Emma’s struggle all along has been to see that her identity is determined by the same structures as everyone else’s. By the end, she has learned to see herself as “an Emma”—as others might—a change that, paradoxically, leads her to being a better version of Emma herself.