Sunday, January 20, 2008

Emma (59-63) -- "But she struggled, and let it pass."

I don't really have much to say about Chapter 11. It begins with a conscious decision to put aside the matchmaking for the moment and ends with details about Isabella's and John's visit.

I see two interesting passages that give insight into Emma.

In describing how the impending visit does not leave time for Emma to promote the match, the text says:

"It was no longer in Emma's power to superintend his happiness or quicken measures" (59).

This passage is ironic because it implies that it once was in Emma's power to superintend anyone's happiness or quicken his measures. Clearly we are still in a part of Emma's development where she believes she can impose her will on the world. Harriet is a gentleman's child because Emma says she is, she can superintend the happiness of others.

Just as in other passages, however, we also see Emma's capability of self-government. When John Knightley claims that Mr. Weston probably does not feel the absence of Frank as strongly as Isabella would since Weston relies on public pleasures more than family for happiness, Emma "could not like what bordered on a reflection on Mr. Weston and had half a mind to take it up" (63).

I would say it doesn't border on a reflection; it is a reflection. Emma "would keep the peace if possible" (63). This passage would be interesting if it were solely a matter of self-discipline. In addition, though, Emma has a reflection on John: "there was something honourable and valuable in the strong domestic habits, the all-sufficiency of home to himself, whence resulted her brother's disposition to look down on the common rate of social intercourse, and those to whom it was important.--It had a high claim to forbearance" (63).

This passage is one that is likely to provoke different responses on a second as opposed to a first reading, in part because it can reasonably be interpreted in different ways. Is John really as he is described or is Emma merely making excuses for him as well? What exactly is the connection between his "strong domestic habits" and the "high claim to forbearance"? It is something more than a fancy way of saying that Emma held her tongue to keep the peace, since the passage insists that Emma "let it pass" not just to keep the peace but because the source of his looking down on Weston is a habit which has the "honourable and valuable" in it. Or is this a lie Emma tells herself to make swallowing her tongue more palatable (no pun intended). On a subconscious level does she know it would irk her (or that she would not be able) to keep silent in the face of someone less than deserving? Perhaps, though her subsequent conduct towards Mrs. Elton makes this line of argument tentative at best.

It's also worth pointing out that John "suspects" Mr. Weston belongs to the class of people depending on "the power of eating and drinking, and playing whist with neighbors" (63). This portrait doesn't really mesh with the portrait we have of Weston who has been portrayed as giving up a lot of the comforts of society to marry for love. It's also somewhat odd that John suggests a connection between the dependence on society and "an easy, cheerful tempered" disposition. In my own experience, at least, it is those of "strong feelings" who most crave social interaction, and a cheerful, easy disposition is held by many of my friends who I would classify as introverts or who are content to find pleasure in family. So Emma might not be the only one in her family who makes pronouncements out of thin air without much reference to logical reasoning or contrary evidence.

Then again, perhaps John is simply saying this to divert the conversation from an unpleasant (and rather inappropriate) turn. What "borders on a reflection" of Weston's disposition is part of a conversation that is quite frankly a combination of censure and gossip, since it it prompted by Isabella's reflection on his character--a question of how he could give up his child to the Churchills. It is strange that Emma takes more umbrage at John's defense of Weston, containing as it does an oblique critique of his character but not at Isabella's labeling of living arrangement as beyond comprehension, containing as it does a rather overt critique of Weston's character for allowing it.

Or maybe it isn't strange at all. Perhaps part of the reason she struggled and let it pass was that she could not come up with a way of taking exception to John's conduct here without taking exception at Isabella's.

In any case, this passage is a prime example of how, especially early on (and in a first reading) the strong association with the narrative, semi-omniscient voice and Emma's voice can lull the reader into accepting as fact characterizations and conclusions that the text presents only as Emma's assumptions or interpretations.

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