A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter — William Deresiewicz

I really like and admire A Jane Austen Education, despite agreeing with the younger Deresiewicz who the older one mocks for believing sentiments like this one, about Jane Austen’s Emma: “The story seemed to consist of nothing more than a lot of chitchat among a bunch of commonplace characters in a country village. No grand events, no great issues, and, inexplicably for a writer of romance novels, not even any passion.” Deresiewicz is setting himself up to be knocked down, and yet when I read Emma I, too, was bored by the “chitchat” among the bumpkins.

But Deresiewicz goes on to explain why his younger self was totally wrong, and how he grew as a person through closely reading Jane Austen and applying her novels to his life experience. Though his explanation is persuasive, I still don’t buy it. To me, the characters in Emma are still “a pretty unpromising bunch of people to begin with, and then all they seemed to do was sit around and talk: about who was sick, who had had a card party the night before, who had said what to whom. Mr. Woodhouse’s idea of a big time was taking a stroll around the garden.” I usually call the ceaseless chatter without any action referent “empty status games,” because the games don’t refer to anything outside their immediate social situations (granted, it might also be that I don’t usually excel in them). These sorts of situations are akin to the ones Paul Graham describes in “Why Nerds Are Unpopular:”

I think the important thing about the real world is [that. . . ] it’s very large, and the things you do have real effects. That’s what school, prison, and ladies-who-lunch all lack. The inhabitants of all those worlds are trapped in little bubbles where nothing they do can have more than a local effect. Naturally these societies degenerate into savagery. They have no function for their form to follow.

Jane Austen’s societies obviously don’t generate into savagery—unless they’ve been transformed into Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (“Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!”)—but their inhabitants do feel “trapped in little bubbles where nothing they do can have more than a local effect,” which makes them unsatisfying, at least to my temperament. Graham might also not be an ideal person to cite, given how much he admires Austen: “Everyone admires Jane Austen. Add my name to the list. To me she seems the best novelist of all time.” Still, strike me from the list: her style is amazing and her content vapid. Consider this description, also from Deresiewicz:

One whole chapter—Isabella had just brought her family home for Christmas—consisted entirely of aimless talk, as everyone caught up on one another’s news. For more than half a dozen pages, the plot simply came to a halt. But the truth was, for long stretches of the book there really wasn’t much plot to speak of.

Or this: “What could be duller, I thought, than a bunch of long, heavy novels, by women novelists, in stilted language, on trivial subjects?” There are much duller books—Beckett’s trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable comes to mind, since those are novels written to make some philosophical statement about the meaninglessness of life or to give English professors a bone to gnaw into scholarly papers—but the point stands. I’m not opposed to “women novelists,” and anyone who is on the grounds of perceived unimportance should try The Secret History and Gone Girl, but “long, heavy novels [. . .] on trivial subjects” are tedious regardless of their author’s gender.

Moreover, I’m not alone: “As it turned out, people had been reacting to Jane Austen exactly as I had for as long as they’d been reading her. The first reviews warned that readers might find her stories ‘trifling,’ with ‘no great variety,’ ‘extremely deficient’ in imagination and ‘entirely devoid of invention,’ with ‘so little narrative’ that it was hard to even describe what they were about.” At some level, as happens with much art, a preference for Austen may come down to temperament, and to what a person believes about what The Novel or a novel should do. I’ve never been able to get into novels that don’t have some kind of narrative drive or energy—both vague terms that I could spend the rest of this essay describing, or, rather, trying to describe—and, like Lev Grossman, I think “Plot makes perverts of us all:”

A good story is a dirty secret that we all share. It’s what makes guilty pleasures so pleasurable, but it’s also what makes them so guilty. A juicy tale reeks of crass commercialism and cheap thrills. We crave such entertainments, but we despise them.

For as long as a century, however, if not longer, literary culture has been bifurcating between high-culture, non-plot types who inhabit universities and book reviews and institutions, and common readers, who like something to happen and maybe some T&A or depraved longings in their fiction, even if the language used for the T&A and depraved longings isn’t very interesting. Most of us are taught that long, tedious books written in stilted language are more valuable than those that do the opposite.

To be sure, I don’t think the people who genuinely love Austen have been academically brainwashed—I think they do authentically love her writing—but I also think the original reviewers and the younger Deresiewicz have a point too, but that point is mostly drowned in school-based settings.

At the time Deresiewicz had his Austen breakthrough, he was seeing a waitress, and they “had little in common and had never progressed beyond the sex. She was gorgeous, bisexual, impulsive, experienced, with a look that knew things and a laugh that didn’t give a damn.” Perhaps this is a function of me being in my 20s, but this arrangement doesn’t sound so bad, and, having dated the equivalent woman, I rather enjoyed those things at the time. Furthermore, I don’t think such relationships are wrong—though I would also say, obviously, that they’re not the only kind of relationships available, or the only kind a person should have over the course of their life. Sometimes people eat fast food; other times they dine in fine restaurants, or at the Cheesecake Factory, or cook for themselves, or cook with another person, or cook simple foods, or complex ones, or have potlucks. I leave it to you to map that metaphor onto sexuality and relationships, but the point about variety in relationships is useful. For Deresiewicz, “Austen taught me a new kind of moral seriousness—taught me what moral seriousness really means. It means taking responsibility for the little world, not the big one. It means taking responsibility for yourself.” But people who are always morally serious can also be dull, just as people who are never morally serious are often unintentionally cruel.

The trick is being able to distinguish the two, and to find a middle way, and to develop some self-awareness, which is hard for many if not most of us. Certainly it was hard for Deresiewicz’s younger self:

If you’re oblivious to other people, chances are pretty good that you’re going to hurt them. I knew now that if I was ever going to have any real friends—or I should say, any real friends with my friends—I’d have to do something about it. I’d have to learn to stop being a defensive, reactive, self-enclosed jerk.

On the other hand, being oblivious to other people sometimes means being very tuned into technical or other problems that need solving—for the best example of this I’ve seen in literature, consider Lawrence Waterhouse in Cryptonomicon, who is shockingly oblivious and essential to the Allied war effort and who extends cryptography. It should also be noted that he’s not intentionally mean to others, and in the novel no one is emotionally hurt by him in an obvious fashion, but the depiction of his thought process as an engineer / mathematician seems pretty accurate. You get moments like this: “In particular, the final steps of the organist’s explanation were like a falcon’s dive through layer after layer of pretense and illusion, thrilling or sickening or confusing depending on what you were. The heavens were riven open. Lawrence glimpsed choirs of angels ranking off into geometrical infinity,” perhaps in exchange for attention to other people. To what extent are dispositions trade-offs? It’s a decent question, I think, but also one I can’t really answer.

Which is the kind of thing that I’m encouraged to do; in one moment, Deresiewicz praises the kind of professor we all hope to have: “When my professor asked a question, it wasn’t because he wanted us to get or guess ‘the’ answer; it was because he hadn’t figured out an answer yet himself, and genuinely wanted to hear what we had to say.” This is what I try to do in the classroom, although I’m guessing this kind of strategy works better for humanities students than for, say, math students, when the answer or answers are well-known, at least up to a fairly high level.

There are also intellectual surprises in A Jane Austen Education, and those surprises made me realize things I didn’t before:

Popular music is one giant shout of desire, one great rallying cry for freedom and pleasure. Pop psychology sends us the same signals, and so does advertising. ‘Trust your feelings,’ we are told. ‘Listen to your heart.’ ‘If it feels good, do it.’

And if everything is pointing you in one direction, it might be time to ask what lies in the other. Literature seems to ask this question. Pop music, as Deresiewicz points out, doesn’t. In Deresiewicz’s rendition, Austen herself was reacting against her time, which is to be commended:

Austen lived in the great age of trash fiction: the gothic novel, the sentimental novel, the bodice ripper—crumbling castles, creaking doors, and secret passageways; heavenly maidens and dark seducers, piercing shrieks and floods of tears, wild rides and breathless escapes; shipwrecks, deathbeds, abductions, avowals; poverty, misery, rape, and incest.

In other words, she lived in “the great age” of all the good stuff, though I would argue that the good stuff is still with us if we know where to look—I’m pretty sure Game of Thrones has every element in the Deresiewicz list.

Some weird stylistic quirks recur in the book, like the habit of “Austen was showing me” or “Austen was saying”-style constructions (“I could grow up and finding happiness, Austen was letting me know, but only if I was willing to give up something very important” or “Austen taught me a new kind of moral seriousness—taught me what moral seriousness really means” or “Austen understood that kids are going to make mistakes, and she also understood that making mistakes is not the end of the world”). But the overall effectiveness is tremendous, and not only because I might be a major component of Deresiewicz’s target audience: self-absorbed people who secretly think they have the answers other people lack.

The power of story: Jane Austen / William Deresiewicz edition

“People’s stories are the most personal thing they have, and paying attention to those stories is just about the most important thing you can do for them.”

—William Deresiewicz, A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter

Effi Briest — Theodore Fontane, with a side of James Wood and Samuel Delany's Paris Review interview

Despite what I wrote in this post, I got a copy of Effi Briest. And you know what? I couldn’t finish it. There were some great lines—my favorite is Effi’s father saying, “There’s nothing so good for one as a wedding, provided of course it isn’t one’s own”—but I couldn’t take the rest, even though I stopped reading the very nice introduction by Helen Chambers after realizing it was prejudicing me against the book:

The sexual dimensions of the age gap [between Effi and her husband] remain beneath the surface of this discreet and allusive novel. They are suggested, as is much that is vital in the inner action, by the symbolic texture of the narrative. Effi’s sexual inexperience at the beginning of the novel is beyond question, and the premature loss of her virginity is prefigured by the twins calling her back to the garden through a window framed by Virginia Creeper

This explains why little seems to happen, since “remain beneath the surface” feels like another phrase for “buried so deeply that you need an even dirtier mind than mine to excavate it. In a Paris Review interview, Robertson Davies says:

I do not respond quite so immediately and warmly to writers in the United States, because their concerns are different from mine and their approach to them is different from mine. They seem to be infinitely concerned with very subtle details of feeling and life. I find this exemplified, for instance, in many stories in The New Yorker where whether the family will have pumpkin pie or something else on Thanksgiving Day is a decision with infinite psychological and sexual repercussions. I take this quite seriously. I admire their subtlety—but I get so sick of it. I wish they would deal with larger themes.

With enough subtlety, substance disappears, and I love his characterization of American Thanksgivings as portrayed in stories. Anyway, Chambers also says of Effi’s husband, “It seems that after years of self-discipline and mortification of the flesh Innstetten has regulated his natural urges into a state of atrophy.” In the margin I wrote, “Yawn,” a judgment that still seems reasonable a week later. Practically the entire text of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach could fit between the end of the wedding scene on page 26 and the next paragraph, which begins, “The day after the wedding was a bright October day,” as if one of the presumably major events of Effi’s life hadn’t just happened. And I’m not talking about the wedding.

I was thinking about Effi Briest when I read Samuel Delany’s Paris Review interview in the Summer 2011 issue. He talks about two characters in his work Nova who almost have an incestuous relationship. The interviewer begins this exchange:

Did you intentionally want to make something the reader could only speculate about, rather than be certain of?

Delany: Certainly as far as the incest goes. Suggestion is a literary strategy. But when, in 1968, works like Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring and Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover were legal to publish and sell in this country, the age of innuendo and the coyly placed line of white space, as the hero envelops the heroine in his arms, ended. Fifteen years later, AIDS rendered them permanently obsolete.

Today, I watch seminar rooms full of graduate students misread both [Alfred] Bester and [Joseph] Conrad, because they no longer have to wonder about the possibility of such illegal elements occurring in the story and the compensating possibility of suggestion as a writerly strategy for representing sex and violence.

I am one of those graduate students, and I evidently don’t have the exquisitely tuned sex detector that pre-’68 readers might have developed. This became especially clear in a seminar on Henry James’ The Golden Bowl, when one of my professors at the University of Arizona began to point out the many euphemisms and double entendres left by James, beginning with the name “Assingham” and proceeding from there. I mostly wondered what the big fuss was about, given the modesty of the phrases in questions, but I didn’t realize how generational my readings were until I discovered the Delany interview an hour ago.

Delany is right—I don’t have a lot of tolerance of “innuendo and the coyly placed line of white space.” That doesn’t mean I want every novel to be wildly explicit, or that I want pornography to merge with literary fiction, but it does mean that a lot of older books seem coy. Like Effi Briest. Today, when McEwan’s aforementioned novel takes those white spaces and turns them into entire works of their own, it’s hard to accept the white space, or an extraordinarily “discreet and allusive novel” where Virginia Creepers (or pumpkin pie) have “infinite psychological and sexual repercussions”

I didn’t expect to have my malady so accurately and suddenly diagnosed, however, and it wasn’t until I read Delany that I was able to write this post. He makes me want to be a more careful and considerate reader. Or maybe novels do have a sense of technological progression, or something like progress, or even progress itself. James Wood speculates on the subject in his review of Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered:

Does literature progress, like medicine or engineering? Nabokov seems to have thought so, and pointed out that Tolstoy, unlike Homer, was able to describe childbirth in convincing detail. Yet you could argue the opposite view; after all, no novelist strikes the modern reader as more Homeric than Tolstoy. [. . .] Perhaps it is as absurd to talk about progress in literature as it is to talk about progress in electricity—both are natural resources awaiting different forms of activation. The novel is peculiar in this respect, because while anyone painting today exactly like Courbet, or composing music exactly like Brahms, would be accounted a fraud or a forger, much contemporary fiction borrows the codes and conventions—the basic narrative grammar—of Flaubert or Balzac without essential alteration.

If literature progresses technologically, it still doesn’t do so in quite the same way as technology: no one would use a camera from 1925 unless they were a masochist, had a historical fetish, or were trying to achieve some very peculiar artistic effect. The rest of us use digital cameras manufactured in the last five years, or phones, given the obvious advantages of convenience. But many writers from 1925 still feel quite modern—Fitzgerald, most obviously, but many others too. Yet I don’t find that much 19th Century fiction really moves me (exceptions: Moby-Dick, The Scarlet Letter). Contemporary writers have a greater and perhaps infinite rein to express what they need to express, and by contrast older writers do seem coy, even if this is an unfair judgment on my part—or the kind of judgment that might be tempered by age. The more I think about the idea, the more I see how others have considered it. For example, this review of William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education is bizarre because it’s like reading about myself, right down to the love for Madame Bovary:

In 1990, William Deresiewicz was on his way to gaining a Ph.D. in English literature at Columbia University. Describing that time in the opening pages of his sharp, endearingly self-effacing new book, “A Jane Austen Education,” Deresiewicz explains that he faced one crucial obstacle. He loathed not just Jane Austen but the entire gang of 19th-century British novelists: Hardy, Dickens, Eliot . . . the lot.

At 26, Deresiewicz wasn’t experiencing the hatred born of surfeit that Mark Twain described when he told a friend, “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shinbone.” What Deresiewicz (who has considerable fun at the expense of his pompous younger self) was going through was the rebel phase in which Dostoyevsky rules Planet Gloom, that stage during which the best available image of marriage is a prison gate.

Sardonic students do not, as Deresiewicz points out, make suitable shrine-­tenders for a female novelist whose books, while short on wedding scenes, never skimp on proposals. Emma Bovary fulfilled all the young scholar’s expectations of literary culture at its finest; Emma Woodhouse left him cold. “Her life,” he lamented, “was impossibly narrow.” Her story, such as it was, “seemed to consist of nothing more than a lot of chitchat among a bunch of commonplace characters in a country village.” Hypochondriacal Mr. Woodhouse, garrulous Miss Bates — weren’t these just the sort of bores Deresiewicz had spent his college years struggling to avoid? Maybe, he describes himself conceding, the sole redeeming feature of smug Miss Woodhouse was that she seemed to share his distaste for the dull society of Highbury.

I’m 27. Maybe I’ll have considerable fun at the expense of my pompous younger self one day.

I bought A Jane Austen Education, which shouldn’t be surprising given my feelings about Deresiewicz. Maybe he will teach me to read Austen more kindly, more attentively (Wood has succeeded at least somewhat in that respect: his discussion of free indirect speech in How Fiction Works finally gave me the tools to figure out why people like Austen). I’m still not sure that it will bring Effi Briest to life, and even if it does, it might be more like reanimating a corpse (which, as genre fiction teaches us, is replete with dangers) than interacting with a live person.

Effi Briest — Theodore Fontane, with a side of James Wood and Samuel Delany’s Paris Review interview

Despite what I wrote in this post, I got a copy of Effi Briest. And you know what? I couldn’t finish it. There were some great lines—my favorite is Effi’s father saying, “There’s nothing so good for one as a wedding, provided of course it isn’t one’s own”—but I couldn’t take the rest, even though I stopped reading the very nice introduction by Helen Chambers after realizing it was prejudicing me against the book:

The sexual dimensions of the age gap [between Effi and her husband] remain beneath the surface of this discreet and allusive novel. They are suggested, as is much that is vital in the inner action, by the symbolic texture of the narrative. Effi’s sexual inexperience at the beginning of the novel is beyond question, and the premature loss of her virginity is prefigured by the twins calling her back to the garden through a window framed by Virginia Creeper

This explains why little seems to happen, since “remain beneath the surface” feels like another phrase for “buried so deeply that you need an even dirtier mind than mine to excavate it. In a Paris Review interview, Robertson Davies says:

I do not respond quite so immediately and warmly to writers in the United States, because their concerns are different from mine and their approach to them is different from mine. They seem to be infinitely concerned with very subtle details of feeling and life. I find this exemplified, for instance, in many stories in The New Yorker where whether the family will have pumpkin pie or something else on Thanksgiving Day is a decision with infinite psychological and sexual repercussions. I take this quite seriously. I admire their subtlety—but I get so sick of it. I wish they would deal with larger themes.

With enough subtlety, substance disappears, and I love his characterization of American Thanksgivings as portrayed in stories. Anyway, Chambers also says of Effi’s husband, “It seems that after years of self-discipline and mortification of the flesh Innstetten has regulated his natural urges into a state of atrophy.” In the margin I wrote, “Yawn,” a judgment that still seems reasonable a week later. Practically the entire text of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach could fit between the end of the wedding scene on page 26 and the next paragraph, which begins, “The day after the wedding was a bright October day,” as if one of the presumably major events of Effi’s life hadn’t just happened. And I’m not talking about the wedding.

I was thinking about Effi Briest when I read Samuel Delany’s Paris Review interview in the Summer 2011 issue. He talks about two characters in his work Nova who almost have an incestuous relationship. The interviewer begins this exchange:

Did you intentionally want to make something the reader could only speculate about, rather than be certain of?

Delany: Certainly as far as the incest goes. Suggestion is a literary strategy. But when, in 1968, works like Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring and Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover were legal to publish and sell in this country, the age of innuendo and the coyly placed line of white space, as the hero envelops the heroine in his arms, ended. Fifteen years later, AIDS rendered them permanently obsolete.

Today, I watch seminar rooms full of graduate students misread both [Alfred] Bester and [Joseph] Conrad, because they no longer have to wonder about the possibility of such illegal elements occurring in the story and the compensating possibility of suggestion as a writerly strategy for representing sex and violence.

I am one of those graduate students, and I evidently don’t have the exquisitely tuned sex detector that pre-’68 readers might have developed. This became especially clear in a seminar on Henry James’ The Golden Bowl, when one of my professors at the University of Arizona began to point out the many euphemisms and double entendres left by James, beginning with the name “Assingham” and proceeding from there. I mostly wondered what the big fuss was about, given the modesty of the phrases in questions, but I didn’t realize how generational my readings were until I discovered the Delany interview an hour ago.

Delany is right—I don’t have a lot of tolerance of “innuendo and the coyly placed line of white space.” That doesn’t mean I want every novel to be wildly explicit, or that I want pornography to merge with literary fiction, but it does mean that a lot of older books seem coy. Like Effi Briest. Today, when McEwan’s aforementioned novel takes those white spaces and turns them into entire works of their own, it’s hard to accept the white space, or an extraordinarily “discreet and allusive novel” where Virginia Creepers (or pumpkin pie) have “infinite psychological and sexual repercussions”

I didn’t expect to have my malady so accurately and suddenly diagnosed, however, and it wasn’t until I read Delany that I was able to write this post. He makes me want to be a more careful and considerate reader. Or maybe novels do have a sense of technological progression, or something like progress, or even progress itself. James Wood speculates on the subject in his review of Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered:

Does literature progress, like medicine or engineering? Nabokov seems to have thought so, and pointed out that Tolstoy, unlike Homer, was able to describe childbirth in convincing detail. Yet you could argue the opposite view; after all, no novelist strikes the modern reader as more Homeric than Tolstoy. [. . .] Perhaps it is as absurd to talk about progress in literature as it is to talk about progress in electricity—both are natural resources awaiting different forms of activation. The novel is peculiar in this respect, because while anyone painting today exactly like Courbet, or composing music exactly like Brahms, would be accounted a fraud or a forger, much contemporary fiction borrows the codes and conventions—the basic narrative grammar—of Flaubert or Balzac without essential alteration.

If literature progresses technologically, it still doesn’t do so in quite the same way as technology: no one would use a camera from 1925 unless they were a masochist, had a historical fetish, or were trying to achieve some very peculiar artistic effect. The rest of us use digital cameras manufactured in the last five years, or phones, given the obvious advantages of convenience. But many writers from 1925 still feel quite modern—Fitzgerald, most obviously, but many others too. Yet I don’t find that much 19th Century fiction really moves me (exceptions: Moby-Dick, The Scarlet Letter). Contemporary writers have a greater and perhaps infinite rein to express what they need to express, and by contrast older writers do seem coy, even if this is an unfair judgment on my part—or the kind of judgment that might be tempered by age. The more I think about the idea, the more I see how others have considered it. For example, this review of William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education is bizarre because it’s like reading about myself, right down to the love for Madame Bovary:

In 1990, William Deresiewicz was on his way to gaining a Ph.D. in English literature at Columbia University. Describing that time in the opening pages of his sharp, endearingly self-effacing new book, “A Jane Austen Education,” Deresiewicz explains that he faced one crucial obstacle. He loathed not just Jane Austen but the entire gang of 19th-century British novelists: Hardy, Dickens, Eliot . . . the lot.

At 26, Deresiewicz wasn’t experiencing the hatred born of surfeit that Mark Twain described when he told a friend, “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shinbone.” What Deresiewicz (who has considerable fun at the expense of his pompous younger self) was going through was the rebel phase in which Dostoyevsky rules Planet Gloom, that stage during which the best available image of marriage is a prison gate.

Sardonic students do not, as Deresiewicz points out, make suitable shrine-­tenders for a female novelist whose books, while short on wedding scenes, never skimp on proposals. Emma Bovary fulfilled all the young scholar’s expectations of literary culture at its finest; Emma Woodhouse left him cold. “Her life,” he lamented, “was impossibly narrow.” Her story, such as it was, “seemed to consist of nothing more than a lot of chitchat among a bunch of commonplace characters in a country village.” Hypochondriacal Mr. Woodhouse, garrulous Miss Bates — weren’t these just the sort of bores Deresiewicz had spent his college years struggling to avoid? Maybe, he describes himself conceding, the sole redeeming feature of smug Miss Woodhouse was that she seemed to share his distaste for the dull society of Highbury.

I’m 27. Maybe I’ll have considerable fun at the expense of my pompous younger self one day.

I bought A Jane Austen Education, which shouldn’t be surprising given my feelings about Deresiewicz. Maybe he will teach me to read Austen more kindly, more attentively (Wood has succeeded at least somewhat in that respect: his discussion of free indirect speech in How Fiction Works finally gave me the tools to figure out why people like Austen). I’m still not sure that it will bring Effi Briest to life, and even if it does, it might be more like reanimating a corpse (which, as genre fiction teaches us, is replete with dangers) than interacting with a live person.

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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