Tuesday, November 15, 2011

"Emma" by Jane Austen Review

I'm completely unable to believe my eyes. Here I was thinking that I had a faithful Bronte following of eighteen, and yet I am commencing to write the review for Emma by Jane Austen. I didn't think I'd see the day when my blog followers would choose Emma over The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Yet, that day has come. Despair not, Bronte fans. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall will be reviewed next, followed by Anna Karenina. After that, I'll be back to depending on the whims of my fancy. This would also be a nice time to remind you that if you don't pay attention to the poll margin on the right side of my blog, I suggest you start doing so. I take you responses into heavy account, and I always enjoy seeing which way your fancy leans. Often times (such as now) I'm more inclined to follow yours than my own.
Emma is Jane Austen's fourth published novel, and she immediately makes the difference from the others known in the opening line of the first chapter. "Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home 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," Austen quotes. 

Emma Woodhouse isn't a daughter robbed of her fortune and home like Marianne or Elinor Dashwood. She isn't one of five daughters living under the roof of a struggling father and a frivolous mother. She is beautiful, rich, and possesses all the elegances that ensure a comfortable life. And yet, Emma is determined that she will never marry and instead devotes her time to finding husbands for those who don't enjoy her fortunate position. When our heroine looks in the mirror, she sees a successful matchmaker, and when she becomes acquainted with Harriet Smith she is provided the perfect opportunity to put her "skills" to work. 

Taking Harriet's strings in hand, Emma decides to turn her puppet's head towards a local gentleman, Mr Elton. She persuades Harriet to reject the proposal of the infatuated wealthy farmer, Mr. Martin, and pursue Mr. Elton. This decision leads to an unforeseen catastrophe. Emma fails to comprehend that the gentleman's affections are, in fact, for her. The plan results in an obvious failure that proves Emma's devoted friend and inner conscience, Mr. Knightley, correct. But Emma's intrigues don't stop here. The arrival of two new additions to Emma's social circle throws she and those connected to her into a tangled web of mistaken affections, misread signals, and emotional misconceptions that all succeed in strangling the main character. Somewhere in the midst, Emma may have lost the chance of ever being with the man she loves and has perhaps damaged the hearts of those she's trying to help. 

While the plot has its fair share of twists and tonal shifts, altogether I found Emma to be boring and decidedly the least entertaining of Jane Austen's novels. Lizzy Bennet, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, and Anne Elliot all had financial, emotional, and even physical conflicts to overcome. The aforementioned protagonists each had something to fight for. Emma Woodhouse has nothing. Believing herself to be in the right at all times, she manipulates those around her to secure her own amusement and self-satisfaction. Why? Because she has nothing else to do. She's directly characterized as wealthy, beautiful, and intelligent. In giving life to a character like Emma, Jane Austen failed to do what I personally found to be her best talent. She forgot to create a relatable protagonist. 

The faults don't stop at the protagonist, however. They extend to the plot as a whole. There is an obvious lack of conflict in Emma that makes it hard for any reader to honestly take the novel seriously. Upon its release centuries ago, Emma was criticized for its lack of substance. That same fault still holds true now. It's hard to see reality in Jane Austen novels where characters with distinct faults always attain a happy ending without the least bit of punishment for their failings. All the same, Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility are all masterpieces regardless. Emma is incapable of obtaining such a legacy. It might be a favorite to read on a sunny day, but it has not been (and will not be) in the conversation of the greatest pieces of literature. 

I do not mean to be pessimistic, though that may be hard to believe after reading the above criticisms. I merely mean to say that Emma, though it possesses all the irony and wit common to Austen novels, is much too superficial to give the reader any sense of real attachment to the story or its characters. However, there are many in the world who would count this as their favorite novel. Opinions will continued to differ until the world ends. Humans were made with distinct mindsets. It will, therefore, do nothing to read my review and abstain from picking up the novel because of what you've read here. That would hold me somewhat responsible for withholding you from a potential favorite book of yours. I actually insist that you do read Emma and form your own opinion. And once you finish, I'd love to see a comment from you. 


  1. It sounds like have somewhat similar tastes to Charlotte Bronte.

    Charlotte disliked Austen's work and described it as "An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses."

    I love both ladies' work, but Emma is not one of my favourites. The Paltrow/Northam adaptation is one of my favourite go-to movies though, especially when I'm in the mood for something light. And I'm a little bit in love with Knightley...

    I just finished the Tenant Of Wildfell Hall after struggling with it for three years. I'm eagerly awaiting your review.

  2. We always have similar opinions. As much as I've just criticized the book, I actually enjoyed the Paltrow adaptation and I too like watching it when I'm in the mood for a happy ending and a dashing gentleman.

  3. Your post reminds me of what I read awhile back about Austen's view on this novel. She said something along the lines of how she would create a character that only she (Austen) would like, and I'd say she's pretty much succeeded. Emma's my least favourite of Austen's leading ladies (excepting Catherine Morland, because it's been awhile since I read NA so let's just leave her out of it for now) - she's manipulative, a bit too full of herself, and petty in some ways (especially in her self-imagined rivalry with Jane Fairax - evident in how unfavorably she depicts Jane to Harriet).

    I didn't really think there was a problem with the plot as such - but, as you say, the thing that most impresses itself, is that she doesn't have anything to fight for for most of the novel. By the time she realises what she should've been fighting for all along (speaking of Knightley here), we're more than halfway through. Oh, and I LOVE Mr. Knightley. He's the most appealing to me out of the Austen heroes, after Wentworth (the man continued to love Anne for nearly 8 years, even at such a distance. I love that!), simply because I find him to be more realistic than Darcy. I love his relationship with Emma, their playful banter and witty repartee.

    Great post, btw! And haha, I didn't actually vote - your surprise at the start is amusing. Although I am an equally avid Austen fan as well as a Bronte one. Hmm, maybe I should do an Austen review soon. Ooo, the pleasure that awaits. Speaking of! I spilt water in my bag and now my Sense & Sensibility copy is all wet and fat on one side and normal on the other :( It's driving me. insane. Anyway, sorry, this is turning into a bit of a novella. I shall be off.

  4. I always love getting comments from you Lady. :) You always have a lot to say. I regret that I didn't really say much about Mr. Knightley because I was so heated about Emma. But Mr. Knightley is a great hero. Their relationship is actually one of the few relatable things in the novel. Falling in love with your best friend who you often argue with more than actually have a conversation with is an everyday occurrence in love.

    And its a shame you don't like Darcy, because December of my blog is actually going to be devoted to him and Pride and Prejudice for the most part. For some reason I've found myself revisiting Pride and Prejudice and books having to do with it. I hope you won't stop commenting during my Darcy December!

  5. Oh dear, oh dear! Well, I've read Emma, and I'm reading Emma right now, and it's probably my second or third favorite Jane Austen novel. But you know, when I was first acquainted with the story, I didn't like it nearly as much as I do now. It's one of those stories that can really grow on people.

    And I must say, I quite like Emma and Mr. Knightley's romance. I really do. I think it's quite sweet. Although you've caught me when I wouldn't be quite so defensive about Emma as usual. I've been on a Mr. Knightley kick for a long time and within the last few days I've gotten back to Mr. Darcy...so....;-)

    I remember reading some of the 'opinions on Emma' that Jane Austen kept track of (writing down what other people said about it), and it seemed to me that she was just sort of sitting back and watching what people would think, and of course, being quite amused by it.

    I don't think it has lack of substance. Of course, it's not like P&P, where a bunch of things are happening all over the place...people going here and there, saying this and that, feeling one way and then another...but, I still think it's an amazing and intricate plot. It may all take place with only a few people and in a small town, but I think the characters are so realistic. Mr. Woodhouse makes me laugh, and so does Mrs. Elton even though she drives me nuts. I see real people in these characters. And Emma herself is such an interesting heroine...the character development is splendid, I think. And you really have to get to know her. Like before, the first time or two I was getting to know Emma, I didn't really like her much. But now I do. Don't ask me why... but I do. She's actually one of my favorite heroines now. "You know with all her faults, she really is an excellent creature." (Mrs. Weston) And she does learn her lessons and improves herself.

    Another thing I like about Emma (which I often compare to P&P) is its light-heartedness. Not all Jane Austen's novels have that. Of course, Charlotte Bronte wouldn't like that. :P But I confess, while I do love dramatic things (I was myself just a few days ago sticking up for the melodramticness of Jane Eyre) I really like light and bright things, too. I love the comedy in it.

    I've read that many 'Austen Scholars' say that Emma is Jane Austen's masterpiece. Others say Mansfield Park. Pride and Prejudice is, of course, the best-loved.

    So, have you seen any of the movie adaptations?

    Well well! This comment was much longer than I intended it! I hope you don't mind this long, bordering on argumentative (believe me, I'm usually that way only when it comes to Miss Austen) comment.

  6. I love your review on Emma even though our opinions conrast. I used it for my paper actually, and you are sourced in it ^.^. You should be very proud of your work.

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  8. Melody: I have seen all of the movie adaptations and have a sort of tender spot for the '96 starring Gwyneth Paltrow. The characters were all much more likable in that movie, even though it didn't mirror the book in the way I expected. I could understand how people love this book. I, on the other hand, (as you can probably see) enjoy the darker sides of romance. There is no secret or mystery to be revealed in Emma. Even Austen's other novels had it. Sense and Sensibility had a dark undertone beneath the character of Willoughby and even Pride and Prejudice had the secret underlying George Wickham.

    @Anonymous: Even though I'm not quite sure who you are, I am SOOO grateful for your words of encouragement and compliments. :)

  9. Haha! Well, personally I'd say there are several mysteries and secrets in Emma! In fact I'd say it has even more twists than some of the other ones. Frank & Jane is an interesting mystery... besides for that, it's mostly because of Emma's mistakes; but still, the way it's written is very clever, making us just go along with what Emma's thinking, yet laying it open that it could be another way... (I just imagine this, because the first time I read this I already knew the ending. :P)
    I really like the 2009 miniseries.

    I'd actually consider P&P to be one of the lighter stories, and reading Emma seems to have the same tone for me. My favorite is always P&P though. :-) I also really like S&S. Actually, I really like all of them...;-)

  10. The 2009 Miniseries was lovely.

    Perhaps I'm a bit more biased towards Pride and Prejudice because I read it first or just because it's so widely adored that it's hard not to love it. I think Persuasion is my favorite, followed by what seems to be a close tie between Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. I hope to get to Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey later. :)

  11. I really like Emma and I love Mr. Knightley. I read it after watching the 2009 mini series, aged 20 which I love. The strange fact is that if I hadn't watched this version of Emma, I would have never have read the novel as I disliked Emma as a character & I also dislike the Paltrow/Beckinsale versions I have never warmed to Emma until I saw this adaptation. I thought Romola made Emma like able and gave her a personality. Micheal Gambon played Mr Woodhouse brilliantly and made him very funny to watch. This is my all time favourite adaptation of Emma!

    Leeds, England.

  12. @kate: I'm not sure I really love any of the Emma adaptations, but I like the 2009 well enough and also enjoyed the Paltrow version (not for Paltrow, but for the man who played Mr. Knightley whose name escapes me right now). I hope to do a review of some of the adaptations in the future so watch out! :)