Posted by Kali on August 15, 1997 at 05:05:16:
Recently on Austen-L, there's been some discussion on Emma as the center of the novel. Someone mentioned, I believe, that Austen's great technical feat in this story is making the reader empathize with Emma, her skewed perceptions, and her false morality. Some may even say that Austen even does as well as to induce the reader to LIKE Emma in spite of her despicable philosophies.
Do you think these views do justice to the work? I personally believe that this view doesn't quite describe the situation. I think Austen's main achievement, in successfully maintaining Emma as the conscious center of the novel, is in hoodwinking the reader as to the REAL centers of action and truth in the story. A matter of symantics, true, but depending on which idea you subscribe to, the real focus of the novel changes drastically.
Emma is so hyperbolically wrong and blind that the attention she gets is not nearly as much empathy or affection but a sort of gruesome fascination - the kind rubbernecks have with car accidents. We're interested in seeing how Emma turns out - if she turns out. The mystery sideshows seem to serve merely as icing on the cake, unless one has been paying attention to the hidden clues all along. When the clues are properly taken into account, we, like Emma, finally figure out what the people of Highbury and beyond are really all about.
The story is on one level all about Emma the character. After all, the story traces her maturing social perception, unfolding the story through her eyes, filtered through her limitations and prejudices. But inasmuch as we see things through her eyes, the story becomes just as much about her world as it is about her. The genius here lies in Austen's ability to subtly slide reality under our doors while she creates a ruckus outside of our windows; most of us waste so much of our attention and energy denouncing Emma's obviously flawed blusterings that we neglect to see the logic and sense so carefully situated right next to them. We dismiss Harriet as a fool, for example, and we take Mr.Knightley's taciturn silences and fits for the crotchety grouchies of an older brother. By the same token, we ignore the ironic perfection of the Frank-and-Jane connection in allowing ourselves to be incredibly amused by Emma's silly fantasies about the two.
Does this make sense?