Monday, 25 November 2013

How Does Austen Present Harriet Smith at the Opening of 'Emma'?

As with all of Jane Austen’s novels, one can learn a lot about the themes and qualities of the plot (or indeed certain characters) in the first few chapters, so it is sensible to pay particular attention to the opening of this novel. Harriet Smith is introduced by Austen in the third chapter, and is certainly not presented as the centre of attention. We first meet Harriet in paragraph seven, and she is described as ‘a most welcome guest’ and Austen writes that Emma ‘had long felt an interest in’ her ‘on account of her beauty’. This tells the reader that Harriet is a very pretty girl, but also implies that Harriet is perceived as rather insignificant in the society of Highbury, as she is not already well-known to Emma.

Harriet is introduced properly in the eighth paragraph, which suggests that, unlike Emma, she is not self-obsessed or confident. Her name is, however, emphatically placed at the beginning of the paragraph, which tells the reader that she is an important character in the novel. Austen writes that Harriet is the ‘natural daughter of somebody’ and the word ‘somebody’ is repeated on a number of occasions, which highlights the fact that Harriet does not come from a respected family, and has few connections, unlike Emma. This begs the question of why Emma wants to be friends with Harriet, who has ‘no visible friends’. Harriet is also described as ‘a very pretty girl’. This is the second descriptive fact we learn about Harriet, whereas Emma is introduced as a ‘handsome’ girl before we learn anything else about her – this suggests Emma’s extreme vanity, and Harriet’s lack of it.

Furthermore, Austen tells us that Harriet was a scholar at Mrs Goddard’s school, which was earlier described as a place ‘where a reasonable quantity of accomplishments were sold at a reasonable price’, indicating that it is an average school. Harriet’s education will therefore be no match for Emma’s high intelligence. Again we question Emma’s motives for being Harriet’s friend, and the contrast between the two girls is emphasized. Many scholars have suggested that Harriet Smith’s name was chosen intentionally so that she is displayed as rather boring. ‘Miss Smith’, a rather dreary name, suggests that she is a rather dull character, who lacks a certain wit, intellect or humour that is so evident in Emma Woodhouse.

Harriet’s stupidity is then supported by Austen’s writing: ‘She was not struck by any thing remarkably clever in Miss Smith’s conversation’. Again, this contrasts with Emma (who is previously described as ‘clever’) and so Austen is keen to present Harriet as particularly mediocre. In Chapter four it is then repeated that ‘Harriet certainly was not clever,’ and that she was ‘only desiring to be guided by any one she looked up to.’ Harriet is painted by Austen as oblivious and in need of guidance. Her stupidity is also emphasized by Austen’s employment of short sentences in Harriet’s speech. In Austen’s novels, characters that use short sentences (such as Miss Bates) are particularly stupid and trivial, and this is what Austen is keen to highlight.

One thing we immediately learn about Harriet is her respect for Emma. Emma befriends Harriet because she feeds her ego, and revels in Harriet’s praise. Austen shows this by writing that Harriet seemed ‘so pleasantly grateful for being admitted to Hartfield’. Austen again suggests that Harriet’s role is as Emma’s protégé by using the phrases: ‘She would notice her; she would improve her.’ Emma sees Harriet as her next distraction from her uneventful life. This makes Harriet look rather stupid for entering the relationship so eagerly, oblivious of Emma’s true intentions. But despite Harriet’s flaws, Emma is still keen on befriending her, and believes Harriet’s earlier acquaintances to be ‘unworthy of her’. The reader can infer that Harriet’s intelligence could be wishful thinking on Emma’s part; she is so desperate for a new friend that sheis prepared to overlook her naivety. We see again that Harriet is nothing but a game to Emma when Jane Austen writes: ‘Harriet would be loved as one to whom she could be useful.’ Again, because Harriet does not realise this, her ignorance is highlighted.

Overall, we see Harriet as rather ignorant and oblivious to Emma’s real intentions, but still keen to be raised above her rank – and she will do anything to achieve this. She hopes for nothing more but to be friends with Emma, who is, unlike her, very intelligent and well educated. Austen is keen to paint Harriet as a character with a significant amount of beauty (and this is perhaps suggested by the portrait of her by Emma), but with a huge lack of intelligence. She needs everything explained for her, and has a need for knowledge of the upper class. In spite of her naivety, the reader feels a certain amount of sympathy for Harriet, because in contrast with Emma’s manipulative attitude, and along with her beauty, she is presented as a rather amiable character.

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