Emma by Jane Austen: A

From the back cover:
“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable house and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”

With this opening sentence, a reader might seem quite justified in thinking Jane Austen to have painted herself into a corner. What could possibly happen from here? In Austen’s comedic masterpiece, however, Emma fancies herself a superb judge of human character and becomes entrenched in the amorous affairs of her friends. In doing so, she remains oblivious to her own romantic possibilities, and the resulting comical misunderstandings are highly entertaining.

This book is the acme of Jane Austen’s work, wry and funny all at the same time.

Review:
Merriam-Webster defines bildungsroman as “a novel about the moral and psychological growth of the main character.” I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that fit that description more than Emma.

I didn’t much care for the title character at first. In fact, she initially reminded me of Lady Catherine from Pride and Prejudice, dispensing unsolicited advice and basing many of her opinions on assumptions and an inordinate amount of focus on social standing. I found myself gleefully anticipating her comeuppance.

When she did begin to improve, Austen handled the transition incrementally, using friends to prompt Emma to give up meddling or urge her to accept a social engagement she’d believed beneath her notice. She learned from rebukes and mistakes and gradually became someone more likeable. The feminist in me tells me I should be perturbed that so many of these chastising remarks were delivered by her eventual love interest, but since Mr. Knightley was my favorite character, I can’t really be bothered.

The events of the plot were somewhat predictable, in a “the young lady introduced into the story in act two must be destined for the young man introduced not long after” sort of way. A big secret revealed toward the end was not a particular surprise, and also seemed recycled from Sense and Sensibility. Also, as I’m coming to find common in Austen’s novels, the sillier characters were given such free rein to display their ridiculousness that they really got on my nerves.

The end of the novel, however, was satisfying. I liked the way in which Emma was forced to finally realize her feelings for Mr. Knightley, as well as the mortification and regret over her past conduct that ensued. The conclusion could be called too tidy, I suppose, with no one left lonely or unhappy, but I found no fault with it.

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Comments

  1. Really, you pointed out the only problems I ever have with Jane Austen.

    She takes a little bit too much delight in making silly characters and having “happily-ever-after endings”. Nothing wrong with that, but it should at least be fairly realistic.

    Some of her later novels are really not as good as her early ones. I think quite a few of them should’ve been revised. Pity she died so young….

  2. This is actually the first of the later novels that I’ve read, so I can’t really comment on them as a whole. I did kind of wish that things were left unresolved with Harriet, that Emma found happiness but that it was more tinged with regret at how she’d botched things for her friend.


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