Jane Austen, Emma, and what characters do

I’m rereading Jane Austen’s Emma and realized that when the characters in the novel debate the validity, respectability, or wisdom of the minor actions of other characters in the novel—which is essentially all that happens—they are really judging themselves and their own choices. For example, there’s a moment when Emma is considering Knightley’s observations about Elton’s real motives:

He had frightened her a little about Mr. Elton; but when she considered that Mr. Knightley could not have observed him as she had done, neither with the interest, nor (she must be allowed to tell herself, in spite of Mr. Knightley’s pretensions) with the skill of such an observer on such a question as herself, that he had spoken it hastily and in anger, she was able to believe, that he had rather said what he wished resentfully to be true, than what he knew any thing about.

When Emma says that Knightley “could not have observed him as she had done,” she’s really saying that she’s a more able observer than Knightley and that she doesn’t merely base things on what she “wished resentfully to be true.” This is proved wrong, of course, like many of her comments and ideas, and it shows that while she thinks she values seeing things clearly, given her “skill” as “such an observer,” she actually sees no more clearly than anyone else. The reader figures out that Emma is self-deceptive, while within the novel she is proclaiming that her own choice of Elton as a sexual partner for Harriet is an appropriate one.

Emma also tends not to have much meta-cognition—instead, we, the readers, act as her meta evaluator. For example, she moves briefly in this direction after Elton foolish declares her love, but she pulls back before it can come to fruition:

She had had many a hint from Mr. Knightley and some from her own heart, as to her deficiency—but none were equal to counteract the persuasion of its being very disagreeable,—a waste of time—tiresome women—and all the horror of being in danger of falling in with the second-rate and third-rate of Highbury, who were calling on them for ever, and therefore she seldom went near [the Bates, who she considers inferiors].

Whatever hints Knightley drops Emma ignores through most of the novel—likewise the ones “from her own heart.” Her own choices must be right because they come from her, even when those choices spring from unarticulated values that don’t hold up to Knightley’s clarifying vision. Emma never interrogates what “the second rate and third rate” mean: that’s one of the frustrating parts about this novel and so many others. The characters lack the ability to explicitly question their own values, even as they express what values they hold by denigrating the values of other characters. This is part of the joke and the irony of the novel, of course, but I tend prefer characters with somewhat greater self-awareness.

But the pleasure of Emma is realizing that its characters lack much of the self-awareness we think they should have. They debate values when they should be debating their debate on values. That, instead, is left to the critics.

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