Friday, September 14, 2007

Emma (15-16)--A Mutually Satisfying Friendship

Emma, we are told in the beginning of Chapter IV, lost no time in "inviting, encouraging, and telling [Harriet] to come very often" (15). The escalation of rhetoric here gives us a glimpse of one possible interpretation of Emma--nice enough when things go according to (her) plan but more overtly demanding when they don't. Is that the hallmark of immaturity or diplomacy? We must not forget that Emma is doing Harriet a real service and Harriet is satisfied with her companion as well.

Even so, the opening paragraph is filled with language that depersonalizes Harriet and makes Emma's motives look venal. "As a walking companion, Emma had very early foreseen how useful she might find her" (15) suggests Emma is looking for someone who could meet her needs and is not particularly interested in Harriet as a person. At the end of the same paragraph we are told that "a Harriet Smith [...] one whom she could summon at any time [...] would be a valuable addition to her privileges" (15). The use of the article "a" before Harriet Smith is damning. Emma needs not Harriet but "a Harriet," that is someone of the category of Harriet, who can provide for Emma what she needs. Thinking of Harriet as a "valuable addition to her privileges" both commodifies Harriet and reinforces Emma's bossiness.

Austen uses two significant words "elegant" and "clever" to contrast the two friends. Harriet was "not clever" but had the "power of appreciating what was elegant and clever" (15). On the surface this suggests that Harriet appeals to Emma's vanity, which is true. There is a more subtle hint here that we are getting only Emma's perception and that is in the word "elegant." This word is rarely used by the narrator to describe Emma (it is actually more often attached to Jane Fairfax), so this sentence can be read to suggest that Harriet reinforces Emma's self-conception, even when it isn't based in reality. This reading is reinforced by the next sentence where we are told "altogether she was quite convinced of Harriet Smith's being exactly the young friend she wanted" (15, emphasis added). The word "wanted" with its dual, conflicting meanings of "desired" and "lacked" is perfectly crafted by Austen to simultaneously underline and hide the conflict between Emma's sensibilities and her own.

Emma's first attempt to assist Harriet is an "endeavor" to find out about Harriet's parents, an effort which apparently consists of grilling Harriet, who knows nothing, and going no further. A close reading of Austen shows, I think, how strongly language can shape our reading, and the introduction of this paragraph with a word like "endeavor" (from Emma's perception) can lull us to sleep and help us miss the fact that the subsequent description (from the narrator's more neutral perception) is not at all in keeping with the label given to it.

We are also told that "she could never believe that in the same situation she should not have discovered the truth" (15, emphasis in text). Emma, apparently, does not believe in social environmental determinism, but then what handsome, clever, and rich person ever does? Many modern readers might be trained to think "there but for the grace of God go I," meaning if I were in another's situation, I might be susceptible to the same forces that caused him or her to make the decisions he/she did. Not so, Emma. She can't believe she would ever be any different and thus (it is implied) can't understand why anyone, despite their circumstances, does not act like her.

I would like to suggest using this passage that Emma's primary fault is a lack of imagination. She interprets actions as meaning what they would mean if she were to do them and thus unthinkingly makes her perceptions the standard for reality that ought to govern all judgments. It is precisely this inability to place herself in another's position that will cause her to misjudge Elton and insult Miss Bates. Similarly, she will be portrayed at her best when she is fearful of losing her just realized true love but is able to try to see things from another's perspective.

Finally, it is hard for me to decide how Austen would have us feel about Harriet. The most obvious answer is that Harriet is not too bright and we should feel about her the way Emma does--with a sort of benign condescension. One wonders, sometimes, though, whether this is the real Harriet or a role she is (and has been) conditioned to play. Most people of all classes, education, and ages have an innate radar that tells them when friends are genuinely interested in them and when they are being used. Is Harriet's broken? Is it not developed? Is she an innocent savant seeing good in Emma that we do not yet have evidence of? Or is she, perhaps, complicit in her own humiliations, willing to play the role of sycophant in exchange for the valuable addition of privileges an Emma Woodhouse brings to the table?

The more they saw of each other the more their "satisfaction in each other" increased (15). Perhaps this means Harriet is just obtuse or easily satisfied, but perhaps it suggests on some unspoken level a bargain being struck that Harriet is aware of. It is easy enough to read the rest of the novel as Harriet being the naively trusting party who is hurt by Emma's constant (if well meaning) meddling. Is it equally possible to read Harriet as playing a role--of making a conscious decision to try to parlay her friendship with Emma into something better for herself? What strikes me as odd about these two readings is that they are so diametrically opposed to one another and yet, in their own ways, so equally plausible.

[For more close readings of Emma, click on the labels below this post.]

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