The serial nature of the plot does make for some repetition in the central parts of each volume, contributing to what strikes some as the plodding speed of the plot. The extent to which the themes rely on repetition (especially for comedy) provides a challenge for those wishing to adapt the plot to another medium--especially film--where a single instance of an action or behavior might have to stand in for a series of conversations. Repetitions emphasize the habitual nature of some actions, which I think is an important element to keep foregrounded in a novel such as Emma that focuses on character development. Emma's transformation can be gradual, allowing dramatic or climatic moments to serve as a points of revelation and culmination without placing on them the expectation that they have to be life-changing in and of themselves.
The length of the plot also allows a rich tapestry of secondary characters to be woven. If Jane Austen is second to anyone in literary reputation, it is Shakespeare, and that is usually because the latter has a breadth that some find lacking in the former's concentration on two or three country families. It is interesting how many secondary characters are introduced to the reader through Emma's comments or descriptions prior to their appearance on stage. If Pride and Prejudice is preoccupied with first impressions, Emma is equally preoccupied with prejudices--impressions created prior to any contact. Why, for instance, does it take us so long to realize Frank Churchill's faults except that we are expecting him (like Emma) to be the worthy person she has already decided he is? Conversely, why do we look past Knightley's rather on-the-nose estimations of why Emma dislikes Jane Fairfax?
When Harriet asks Emma if she is acquainted with Jane Fairfax, we get the following response:
Oh! yes; we are always forced to be acquainted whenever she comes to Highbury. By the bye, that is almost enough to put one out of conceit with a niece. Heaven forbid! at least, that I should ever bore people half so much about all the Knightley's together, as [Miss Bates] does about Jane Fairfax. One is sick of the very name of Jane Fairfax. Every letter from her is read forty times over; her compliments to all friends go round and round again, and if she does but send her aunt the pattern of a stomacher, or knit a pair of garters for her grandmother, one hears of nothing else for a month. I wish Jane Fairfax well, but she tires me to death. (56)
There is, of course, more in here about Miss Bates than Jane Fairfax. Even Emma seems partially aware of that fact with her final "I wish Jane Fairfax well." It is the subject of Jane Fairfax that tires her, not the person. The person of Jane Fairfax has no real chance, though, for by the time she arrives on the scene, there is nothing she can say or do that can change the fact that she has already worn out her non-welcome.
It is worth holding this passage up to the earlier one in the chapter in which Emma claims she has none of the usual inducements to marry. Scarcely a few moments earlier, Emma has said that she could never expect to be "so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right" (55) as she is in her father's eyes . This combination of pride and doting that Emma values so highly in her own father she finds tedious in Miss Bates and vows to not replicate in her own treatment of Isabella's children.
This could simply be another indication of Emma's hypocrisy--a double standard that is covered with a veneer of manners that makes it appear less narcissistic than it really is. It is interesting that this speech is followed immediately by a description of Emma's and Harriet's charitable visit to a cottage where Emma was "very compassionate" and we are told that "the distresses of the poor were as sure of relief from her personal attention and kindness, her counsel and her patience, as from her purse" (57).
Emma, in other words, seems capable of genuine altruism and compassion. Not just capable of it--practiced in it. For the ease in which she gives of herself and not just her purse is not a natural thing.
Before I go on to a fuller contrast of these two passages, let me make an aside here about charity. It is a virtue that those who possess seldom get enough credit for exercising because they are often the objects of envy for their ability to possess it. Stated differently, we always excuse ourselves for our lack of charity on the grounds of our own limited resources and like to think (and claim) that were we rich, we would, of course, be more gracious in our giving than we are at present. There is a big difference, though, between giving and giving graciously, and Emma is a model of instruction in the latter. Consider that she does not feel or act as though the giving of money entitles her to withhold her "personal attention." This passage inevitably makes me think back to the opening sentence of the novel and remind myself that we may prejudge Emma based on what we are told--she is handsome, clever, and rich--and that those prejudices can form static that interfere with our ability to fairly and accurately judge all her character (and not just those parts that conform to our expectations).
The contrast between these two glimpses of Emma--one blithely, hypocritically egoistic, the other altruistic and gracefully lacking in pretentiousness--lies at the heart, I think, of so many conflicting interpretations of her character and of the novel. The easiest way to resolve it is to do what we tend to do in real life--reject one of the images as a mask and insist the other is the "true" person. If we are looking for reasons to dismiss the good as a facade, we can usually find it. (We might note how quickly Emma's and Harriet's claims that being confronted with these "poor creatures" have banished all "trifling" thoughts from their mind give way to make room for schemes involving broken boot laces, and we wouldn't be wrong to note the irony in such a juxtaposition. But we would be wrong to dismiss the possibility that Emma's "yet, who can say how soon it may all vanish from my mind!" could indicate a growing self-awareness and a spirit genuinely troubled at sustaining its commitment to its better impulses.)
Which Emma we choose as the real one may have more to do with our own experiences with the rich, young, and privileged than with a careful weighing of the evidence in this particular case. Increasingly, I find with my own students, there is a tendency to believe that the former Emma is the real one--a sort of prototype of the villains in Lindsay Lohan's Mean Girls. Maybe that shouldn't surprise me since most of us have been in the position of Harriet or Jane more often than that of Emma, and absent being in another's shoes it is very difficult to accurately assess the effort needed to be patient, attentive, or charitable.
Not that I want to insist that the charitable Emma is the only real Emma and that the catty, selfish nature she exhibits in talking about Jane Fairfax is a momentary lapse. There are already too many examples of this sort of behavior to dismiss them as anomalies. What I will insist on, though, is that Emma is a work in progress. Her character is not yet fully formed. Mrs. Elton, Miss Bates, even Mr. Woodhouse, are less mirrors for what Emma is as they are reflections of what she might become. Even Emma senses this, with her "Heaven forbid! at least, that I should ever bore people half so much..." (56). She may be "convinced" that "there never can be any likeness" between her and Miss Bates except in their being unmarried (55), but within five minutes time she has let escape a subconscious fear that she is already more like her than she cares to admit and so could very easily fall into the same patterns of behavior she currently loathes.
It is difficult to portray characters evolving and changing, more difficult to show them doing so gradually. As much as I love Elizabeth Bennett, this reason may account for me being more fond of Emma. Elizabeth appears on the page already admirably mature and her setbacks are opportunities for her to exhibit character. In Emma we get a chance to see how that character can come to be.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention before closing that the being kind or patient with a relative stranger or acquaintance is quite different from exercising those same qualities in the face of a regular companion. This is not the first passage in Emma that reminds me of C.S. Lewis's careful dissection of familiar relationships in The Screwtape Letters. One would think that it would be easiest to exercise patience with those whom one claims to love the most, but perversely, the converse can be true. The familiarity with the faults of others and the constancy with which one is confronted with them can have as much to do with our responses to them as the predisposition we bring to relationships to attempt patience. One could, I suppose, see a connection between the emotional energy expended by Emma being patient with her father or with the objects of charity and her inability to be patient with Miss Bates, the energy spent showing personal interest in the poor and friendless and her inability to muster any personal interest in Jane Fairfax. It might even be accurate to claim that the poor woman who is the object of Emma's better impulses is not a threat to Emma's superiority. Knightley will claim as much. He will also realize, though, that recognizing this doesn't render the charity, compassion or interest she does manage to show (to those she manages to show it to) less real or less sincere. They are as much the expressions of the real Emma as are the slights towards Jane or Miss Bates.
[For more close readings of Emma, please click on the labels to this post below.]