Author: Jane Austen
Genre: Fiction: Classics
Beautiful, clever, rich – and single – Emma Woodhouse is perfectly content with her life and sees no need for either love or marriage. Nothing, however, delights her more than interfering in the romantic lives of others. But when she ignores the warnings of her good friend Mr Knightley and attempts to arrange a suitable match for her protegé Harriet Smith, her carefully laid plans soon unravel and have consequences that she never expected. With its imperfect but charming heroine and its witty and subtle exploration of relationships, Emma is often seen as Jane Austen’s most flawless work (from Goodreads).
Thoughts: Emma is the fourth book by Austen that I’ve read. Although I’ve liked all Austen’s books so far, my favorite has been the first one I read and the first one Austen published- Sense and Sensibility. After reading Emma, however, I have a new favorite! Emma was so good, so readable, and so funny. I loved it!
Perhaps what I liked best about Emma was Emma herself. Emma is rich, spoiled, and selfish. Although she loves her father and her friends and is kept somewhat in place by society’s rules regarding behavior and politeness, she is mainly concerned about herself and her own pleasure. She is not bad- she does not mean to cause anyone harm- but her flights of fancy, over-active imagination, and her conviction that she knows whats best for the people around her cause havoc and pain. This is especially to her poor friend Harriet who, through Emma’s well-meaning scheming, very nearly looses any chance of future happiness and contentment.
I knew how the story would end before I read this book; I was well and truly spoiled in regards to the plot. Rather then this lessening my enthusiasm for this book, it increased it! Because I knew exactly how everything would turn out, I could delight and laugh at all of Emma’s plotting and planning. I had the most fun laughing at Emma and her delusions and the way she would twist reality in her mind to make things appear as she thought they ought to be. Emma’s is completely convinced that she know’s everything and that she alone knows best as to what will make her friends happy, when in fact she is totally clueless about not only her friends’ wants and desires, but her own as well. She even convinces herself for a time that she is in love with someone because she feels like she ought to be in love with him! Emma is in no way a reliable narrator; because we see everything through her eyes, it is only towards the end of the novel that we realize just how wrong Emma’s, and hence our own, ideas have been the whole time. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure if I would have liked this book as much as I did if I hadn’t known what would happen beforehand; laughing at Emma constantly drawing the wrong conclusions was the high point of the book for me. I would have liked it, I’m sure, if I hadn’t known the plot beforehand, but I’m not entirely convinced that it would still have beaten Sense and Sensibility and taken first place in my own little Austen rankings.
Regardless, this book is funny. Funny and greatly ironic in a way that I really appreciated. That last book I read by Jane Austen was Mansfield Park; I liked it, but like Fanny that book was very somber and serious. Reading Emma was a completely different experience; Emma herself is gay, energetic, bright, and witty and I found the book the same. I particularly liked the passage where Emma visits the rector, Mr. Elton, with Harriet to meet Mr. Elton’s new wife for the first time. An earlier scheme of Emma’s had backfired spectacularly and made what should have been a happy first meeting quite painful for some and extremely awkward and uncomfortable for all:
” As for Mr. Elton, his manners did not appear- but no, she would not permit a hasty or witty word from herself about his manners. It was an awkward ceremony at any time to be receiving wedding-visits, and a man had need be all grace to acquit himself well through it … and when she considered how peculiarly unlucky poor Mr. Elton was in being in the same room at once with the woman he had just married, the woman he had wanted to marry, and the woman whom he had been expected to marry, she must allow him to have the right to look as little wise, and to be as much affectedly, and as little really easy as could be.” — Chapter XXXII, page 211
I just love this! Emma knows that she has created this unfavorable situation herself and has dragged everyone else down with her and yet, when the meeting ends, she continues on with her new plans, determined that this time she is not deceived by her own desires and that she truly knows what everyone else wants and aspires for. Of course, she is wrong, if not more so, then she was before! I know Emma caused a lot of pain and heartache, especially to poor little Harriet, and that perhaps I shouldn’t find her as amusing as I do but I can’t help it. Emma means well (even if she is sometimes motivated by selfishness) and everything turns out for the best despite her interference so I can’t help but be entertained by all the commotion and misunderstandings she causes.
If there is a downside to Emma, it is that, when Emma finally realizes what a mess she’s made of things and what, or rather who, she really wants, I found her sudden and strong attachment a little to quick to be entirely believable. But as that the entire book is based on Emma’s total blindness to what is actually going on around her, it was not a huge difficultly for me. What I had more of an issue with is that Emma’s match made in heaven, Mr. Knightly, is 37, while she is only 21. He’s known her since birth, and although he was only joking (I’m almost entirely certain) when he says that he loved her since she was 13 (and himself 29) I still find their age difference uncomfortable. However, this unease cannot be placed on Austen’s shoulders; in her time Emma and Mr. Knightly were perfectly matching in temperaments and that was it- their age difference was not an issue. This is just a product of my living and reading in the age that I do and Austen writing in her own. So my unease about Emma’s match didn’t really affect my opinion of the book because I knew where it came from and why I was feeling it.
Another thing I loved about this book was that it was just so readable. I actually just had a conversation with my sister about Austen today- she doesn’t like her because she thinks the language is too antiquated and it distracts her. I, of course, do not agree and I found this book very fast and smooth going. Of course, this may be partly because I would take breaks from reading Ulysses by reading a chapter or two of Emma. Reading Emma after slugging through a section of Ulysses was like taking a breath of fresh air! But I don’t think that the two books’ contrast was the only reason I loved Emma so much. I loved it so much that it makes that impossible. Seriously, this book was so good! I can’t say it enough: the humor, irony, the mess Emma gets herself and everyone else into unknowingly, and her ability to convince herself time and again that she was living in an entirely different reality then the one that she was staring her in the face. So witty, so fun, and just a pleasure to read, Emma is, so far, my favorite book of 2014!
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