Friday, October 05, 2007

Emma (25-31)--Almost too Gallant to be in Love

I find I don't have much to say about Chapter Six of Volume I, in which the obsequious Mr. Elton graces the stage in body for the first time. The bulk of this chapter centers on Emma's drawing a portrait of Harriet Smith and her misunderstanding Elton's praise of it as an infatuation for its subject rather than its creator.

There are two prominent instances in which the omniscient narrator reads and recites Emma's thoughts, a technique Austen uses throughout to blur the line between objective fact and subjective perspective. After Elton praises the art work of Emma's he has seen at Randalls, the next paragraph begins:

Yes, good man!--thought Emma--but what has all that to do with taking likenesses? You know nothing of drawing. Don't pretend to be in raptures about mine. Keep your raptures for Harriet's face. (27)

At the end of the chapter, when Elton asks to take the picture to London, we are told:

"This man is almost too gallant to be in love," thought Emma. "I should say so, but that I suppose there may be a hundred different ways of being in love."

One odd feature that stands out when these two exchanges are juxtaposed is that the latter uses traditional punctuation (the quotation marks) to denote that we are hearing Emma's exact thoughts and not a general description of them. The former example does not come with those quotation marks, but surely we are meant to understand the first example as being a direct quote as well, aren't we?

One could, I suppose look at these quotes and attribute the difference to the non-standard use of punctuation in a culture where printing is not quite ubiquitous. Whether this is the case, or whether Austen is intentional, the effect is a further obscuring of the line between thought and speech, public and private, narrator and Austen.

Oh, when these quotes are wrenched out of context and placed side by side, I don't think too many readers would have any trouble distinguishing whose thoughts are being represented. Over the course of a novel, though, I wonder if the gradual conflation of narrative description with Emma's thoughts doesn't give us a skewed representation of reality making us as surprised as Emma when objective reality imposes itself on our (and her) subjective experience.

The most obvious example in this chapter of what I am calling an abrupt narrative shift is Knightley's comment "You have made her too tall, Emma" (30). The paragraphs immediately preceding this comment are meant, I think, to convey a composite of several different interactions. (The chapter covers the formation of the idea of the painting to the completion of the painting.) We move rather seamlessly from Elton's representative comments (supplied to illustrate how Emma received them) to one specific comment of Knightley during one specific viewing.

My point here is not that this narrative foreshortening is unique to Austen--it isn't. What is interesting and somewhat different is the lack of signals indicating the transition from montage to specific event. We are forever doing double-takes, large and small, in this novel. Although less egregious (and irritating), this device reminds of those dream scenes in film where there is no music nor fuzzy lighting to designate that a person is dreaming.

More so with the conflation of narrator's description and Emma's thoughts than the movement from montage to specific scene, I find these devices have a cumulative effect of pushing us towards Emma's views of the world. With their repetition, I would argue, we gradually forget how much of the novel's other characters and our opinions of them are mediated through Emma. It's a surprise not just when they don't conform to our (i.e. Emma's) expectations, but also when they are surprised by Emma's behavior. (Since her motivations and thoughts--not accessible to them--are so thoroughly familiar to us.)

The comic nature of these surprises is how often they occur in the novel without us getting clued in. Mr. Elton is not almost too gallant to be in love...he is too gallant because he is not in love (with Harriet).

Austen doesn't hide the voice of reason, whether Knightley's or her own, she just shows how easy it is to not hear it while attending to those other more vibrant voices that confirm what we want to hear. Of Emma's art, the narrator says, "There was merit in every drawing--in the least finished, perhaps the most; her style was spirited; but had there been much more or less, or had there been ten times more, the delight and admiration of her two companions would have been the same" (27). The observation that it is the drawings that are "least finished" that show the most merit symbolizes easily and clearly that Emma's core nature is good but that the more she applies her art(ifice) to her projects, the less merit they express.

This is a reading of Emma that is not inconsistent with what we are told in Chapter One. That she thinks a little too well of herself should not be taken to mean there is nothing in her to think well of. That her admirers are not serving in the office of true friend (as Knightley will put it later) with their flattery is easily overlooked in its lack of immediate consequences.

The paragraph regarding Emma's drawings ends with a perfect example of the blending of sincere narrative description with judgmental evaluation: "A likeness pleases every body; and Miss Woodhouse's performance must be capital" (27). It is only in the word "must" that the tone of censure is heard, and how easy it is to rush past it, to not linger on the unpleasant (such as Emma does not linger on the paintings when the work becomes burdensome).

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

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