Friday, July 27, 2007

Emma (1-3)

I enjoyed discussing Jane Austen with my most recent class, so I thought I'd try something different and blog about passages once a week as a means of working through one of her works--creating a book discussion platform if anyone wants to join.

I'm starting with Emma because it is the book with which I am most familiar, having discussed it with a panel of scholars at a National Humanities Center study a few years ago.

Emma begins with, well Emma.

We are told that she IS "handsome, clever, and rich" but only that she "seemed" to unite "some of the best blessings of existence." The negation effect of "seemed" is tantalizingly ambiguous. Are money, looks, and wit only seeming blessings, or does Emma only seem to unite them (either with each other or something else)?

More ambiguous still is the transition between the first paragraph, where we are told that Emma has lived "twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her" and the second paragraph where we are told that "her mother had died too long ago for her to have more than an indistinct remembrance of her caresses" (1).

The juxtaposition of these roughly contradictory statements is too archly delicious to be anything other than intentional, coming as it does so early in the novel. What do we make of it, then? "Things aren't always what they seem" is a master trope in Austen's fiction, and it makes an early appearance here. Beyond that, though, the order with which we are given these statements strikes me as telling. The words "handsome," "clever," and "rich" are bold words, and they create a near immediate impression. By the time we are told about her mother, we are already subtly envious with and frustrated at her. Why should Emma have all the best blessings of existence?

Why indeed? Is there a satisfying answer to that question, or are we all by nature prone to envy? Part of Austen's achievement in this novel is that she stacks the deck in Emma's favor and then makes us feel guilty for our natural reaction. She does this, in part, by letting us see how little sympathy those we envy usually receive. Miss Weston had "fallen little short of a mother in affection" (1), but the gulf between a mother's caresses and the excellent service of a governess, exemplifying as it does the "very little" that has distressed or vexed Emma ought to make us wary right off the bat of taking anything the narrator says (especially about Emma) at face value.

Oh and a word about Emma's father--he is "affectionate" and "indulgent." These are two seemingly benign (or fortuitous) adjectives. Given the fact, though, that Emma's condition of having too much her own way is described as "evil" (more on that in another post) and that although he is amiably high maintenance, he is high maintenance indeed, we have yet another example of first impressions not being exactly trustworthy.

What are the best blessings of existence--of ours or someone else's? We certainly act as though we know and pursue the answers that come to mind with a relentless vigor. Oftentimes the conditions or material things that we are most desirous of, though, can be the most injurious to us, while those we are the most fearful of surrendering are the portals to richer blessings still.

[To read more examples of close readings, click on the label for Emma at the bottom of this post.]

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