Monday, May 26, 2008

Emma (70-73) -- "the blunders which often arise from a partial knowledge of circumstances"

There are times in this read through where I've wondered what it might have looked like if Jane Austen had written a whodunit.

Emma is full of surprises that shouldn't be surprising and revelations of things that weren't all that hidden to begin with but which nevertheless always seem to catch us (and Emma) off our guard.

In most of the closing readings thus far, I've suggested the way this is accomplished is through a mostly seamless integration of the narrator's voice and Emma's consciousness that allows Austen to exploit the fact that we often don't know if the narrator is telling us something that is true or only describing what her chief character was thinking.

In the first half of Chapter 13, however, we get a relatively rare instance of the narrator directly contradicting Emma. After Emma visits Harriet who has developed a sore throat on the eve of a dinner party at Randalls, Emma meets Elton and suggests that he he send his regrets to Mr. and Mrs. Weston, assuming (wrongly) that he would have no interested in attending the party if Harriet is not present and giving him an excuse by commenting that he looks himself as though he may be catching a cold. In an out of the ordinary example of directness, the narrator not only describes Elton's response but his motivation and internal thought process:

Mr. Elton looked as if he did not very well know what answer to make; which was exactly the case; for though very much gratified by the kind care of a such a fair lady, and not liking to resist any advice of her's, he had not really the least inclination to give up the visit;--but Emma, too eager and and busy in her own previous conceptions and views to hear him impartially, or to see him with clear vision, was very well satisfied with his muttering acknowledgment of its being "very cold, certainly very cold," and walked on rejoicing in having extricated himself from Randalls, and secured him the power of sending to inquire after Harriet every hour of the evening. (72, emphasis added)

The structural purpose for such a passage can be both that it provides foreshadowing of a later scene when the seeds of this misunderstanding will blossom into conflict (comic or serious) and that it highlights the irony (and hence the satirical bite) when Emma prides herself in her clarity of perception. In fact, it is in the very next passage that John Knightley gently probes Emma's feelings towards Elton and makes clear that he, among other observers, suspects it is Emma who is the object of Elton's affection and intentions. Emma's response is perfunctory, and we are told she "walked on, amusing herself in the consideration of blunders which often arise from a partial knowledge of circumstances, of the mistakes which people of high pretensions to judgment are ever falling into" (71).

The humor in having Emma describe her own situation without realizing it is clear enough, at least on anything other than a first reading. The odd thing, however, is that even on a first reading the immediate proximity a rare narrative statement of fact that contradicts Emma's consciousness perhaps ought to allow us to see this irony right away rather than in retrospect.

Why don't we?

Perhaps we do. My own first reading of Emma is remote enough in the past to make assertions about it suspect. The fact, though, that what was experienced as a surprise in my current reading--what flew in the face of my recollections--was not the second passage (where Emma laughs at another's "blunder") but the first (where the narrator flatly contradicts Emma's perception). And if this direct contradiction is rare, and the ironic humor not entirely dependent upon it, what is it's purpose?

Before I can answer that, I have to start an apparent tangent about the first passage. It is peculiar in another way besides being (allegedly) out of character for the narrator. The grammar doesn't parse. "Her's" ought to be "hers," but let's chalk that up to fact that punctuation and spelling wasn't exactly standardized by this time (and because I have no desire to go hunting through manuscripts to see how frequent are modernizations made by editors). In addition, it seems to me that "himself" at the end needs to be "him."

This could just as easily be an editor's error or a grammatical convention of the time of which I am unfamiliar. The more likely explanation, for me, is that Austen has confused herself or forgotten herself whose consciousness she is in. "But Emma," immediately after the dash, establishes Emma as the grammatical subject of the second half of the quote. We are told how she feels "eager" and "busy" as an explanation of how and why she misinterprets what she sees and hears: Elton muttering and (presumably) walking on. It is equally clear that the last part of the quote, the image of Elton checking in on Harriet every hour, is taking place entirely in Emma's imagination. I would prefer a "for" in between "secured" and "him" but that's a stylistic preference, not a syntatical puzzle. I think Austen is working at cross purposes in this paragraph and trips herself up. She is trying to simultaneously contradict Emma and illustrate Emma's penchant for conflating her imagination with her observation. That this is the most likely explanation for the grammatical confusion provides a suggestion (if one is needed) that the device of blurring the line between Emma's consciousness and the narrator's voice is deliberate.

There is another word in the passage that is odd in retrospect, and that is "power." Emma--if we agree that despite the use of "himself" this passage describes Emma's thoughts--believes she has secured for Elton the "power" to ask after Harriet not, as we might more probably expect the "freedom" to do so.

That word choice strikes me as important. For one, it foreshadows (probably unconsciously but maybe not) the volume ending argument between Emma and Mr. Knightley about whether or not Frank Churchill is able to visit his mother-in-law, whether he is unable or simply unwilling to cross his adoptive guardians. In a broader sense, it speaks to the confinement of Emma's position by social conditions and suggests that her belief (articulated in that argument) that one is often powerless or trapped by circumstances is sincere and not merely an excuse for her or her friends when it is convenient to let them off the hook.

Emma is about the moral and psychological development of Emma. Elsewhere, I've written about discussions I've had with other readers about the extent to which Austen may expect readers to identify with Emma and even, perhaps, vicariously participate in some of her actions through tacit or mental encouragement. I've disagreed with some friends or colleagues (though not vehemently) about the extent to which Austen expects or desires this mental participation (and hence, complicity). Perhaps it is the case that as we move towards the end of each section, Austen (or her narrator) becomes a bit more explicit about Emma's problems with distinguishing between fact and desire and uses those problems to make serious points rather than (merely) humorous ones. It's hard to get too worked up over the impending consequences of Emma's misunderstanding since we know (if not in a first reading) that they will be more comic than tragic. But I think, and here's the point, the intervening conversation between Emma and John Knightley--indeed this whole passage--can be read with a more ominous tone than we are inclined to give it.

Emma's interaction with Elton in Book I does have negative consequences. That she does not mean it to be a flirtation does not entirely excuse it from having the appeareance of being one--a lesson she herself learns from being on the other side of matters when Frank Churchill exploits the ambiguity between flirtation and downright impropriety. We are quick to read Elton as the cause of his own embarrassment, and his rebound marriage no doubt contributes to our lack of sympathy at any case he might make for actually being led on, but it is worth reflecting on the sober thought that Elton is not the only one who interprets Emma's behavior this way.

Emma's brother-in-law, a family member says:

"Such an imagination [that Emma is Mr. Elton's object] has crossed me, I own Emma: and if it never occurred to you before, you may as well take it into consideration now" (73)


"I do not say it is so; but you will do well to consider whether it is so or not, and to regulate your behaviour accordingly. I think your manners to him encouraging. I speak as a friend, Emma. You had better look about you, and ascertain what you mean to do" (73, emphasis as a friend).

These two speeches take me all the way back to Chapter 1 and the narrator's assertion about the real "evils" of Emma's situation, which were the tendency to think too well of herself and the power to have too much her own way. Within the novel's broader context, Emma's blithe dismissal of John's warning is not merely humorous or ironic, it is indicative of what the narrator has insisted (and will continue to insist) is a character flaw. Emma's response focuses exclusively on the part of John's speech that characterizes Elton's motivations and entirely ignores that part of it that focuses on Emma's behavior. In fact when the narrator says in the next paragraph that Emma was "not very well pleased with her brother" (73) it is not for impugning her conduct but slighting her perception. It is for "imagining her blind and ignorant, and in want of counsel" (73).

The fact that we know, based on the previous page, that Emma is wrong about her ability to read Elton (we may suspect but not yet know the extent to which she is wrong or that she is wrong on this particular point, though the narrator has done everything but come out and tell us) may obscure that fact that the question of whether she is right or wrong about Elton's motivation ought not to change the concern she should have about her own conduct and how it is being construed. In fact, were Emma to actually believe as completely and confidently what she says she believes (that Elton desires Harriet) one might nevertheless expect her, were she particularly self aware, to contemplate whether or not his picking up some of the signals or actions that John alludes to might account for the peculiar nature of some of their (her's and Elton's) interactions that she has been puzzled by. Instead she feels irritated at her brother and sluffs it off by amusing herself at how his blunders are causes by his "pretensions" and partial knowledge of the situation.

In other words, some of the darker connotations of this scene that contribute to its ominousness rather than merely its humor is that is doesn't merely show the pot calling the kettle black about a relatively benign practice such as interpreting social behavior. The blunder, Emma's blunder, is not just a misreading but a falsely encouraging manner and a haughty resistance (rejection) of friendly...not even correction...of friendly caution. The blunders which arise from a partial knowledge of the situation are bad enough; the blunders that arise from a partial knowledge of a situation in conjunction with the power of having rather too much one's own way and a disposition to think a little too well of oneself are a bit more severe.

There remains the problem with this reading of this passage that it, like most of my readings thus far, comes across as more critical of Emma than I feel. It seems to hold Emma up to a particularly high standard and thus align me with those about whom Austen was thinking in her famous quote that Emma would be a heroine that nobody would like but her. Is a reading critical of Emma a misreading of Emma? We shall have to explore that question more. The short answer is, no, I don't think it is. But I do think we must be cautious when being critical of Emma to remember that a reader who dislikes Emma is giving a reading that Austen "feared," rather than wanted. I think some of the ambivalence Austen reported about possible criticisms of Emma stem more, perhaps, from Emma's how Emma's character stands out relative to others rather than to some ideal. George Knightley, remember, had a bit of a quick fuse around the dinner table and is not without faults of his own, so even in this passage we get a sense of how Emma (and other women) are forced to live in a society where the expectations about conduct are high universally but enforced (or even just commented upon) selectively.

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