Emma Woodhouse is the heroine of Jane Austen’s widely recognised novel Emma. She is a rather isolated twenty year-old girl, described in the first line of the novel as “handsome, clever, and rich”, living in the small and somewhat dull society of Highbury, Surrey.
Emma is undeniably the centre of attention. She is the youngest, the prettiest and arguably (at least compared to the likes of Miss Bates and Mr Woodhouse) one of the cleverest characters of the novel. She has, from an early age, been “mistress” of her father’s house, doing “just what she liked”. Austen seems keen to highlight early on that this is one of Emma’s flaws: she has had “rather too much her own way”. She is presented as supercilious by Austen’s placing of her name as the first words in the novel, and indeed it is the only Austen novel to be named after the heroine. On the other hand, Anne Elliot of Persuasion is utterly overlooked, and indeed is one of Austen’s most likeable heroines – her only real fault is her susceptibility to persuasion from characters like Lady Russell. Emma’s egocentricity and arrogance could, perhaps, have been caused by her mother’s death, and possibly by Highbury’s high regard for her opinions. For example, Mr Knightley explains to Emma that everybody in Highbury is “entirely guided” by Emma’s treatment of people. For this reason it is hard to hold Emma entirely accountable. It is the fault of her “indulgent” father and Miss Taylor, her governess, that she had too liberal a reign, and Austen suggests that although Emma is extremely arrogant, she cannot be held liable. Philip Larkin would use this to illustrate his famous and controversial line: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” Emma has had her ego so inflated by her father’s constant praise that Emma even begins to look down on him. In fact, when they are alone together she is described as being in “intellectual solitude”, and although this may be true, to quote Septimus Hodge from Stoppard’s Arcadia: “You must not be cleverer than your elders. It is not polite.” Perhaps what Stoppard meant was that, even if one is cleverer, they ought not to believe it, as Emma does. And so we are confronted with a dilemma – ought we to blame Emma?
In contrast to many of Austen’s other heroines, Emma seems immune to the perils of romantic attraction. Unlike Marianne Dashwood (of Sense and Sensibility), Emma tells herself throughout the novel that she will never marry, and she believes herself to be far above any male suitor. To support this, Emma says that she “must see somebody very superior to any one I have yet seen, to be tempted…” Emma is also unable to understand the relationship between Harriet and Robert Martin, and considers marriage to be only a method of raising one’s own status in society. It is true that we admire Emma’s lack of sensibility, and it is Austen’s method of distancing her from other heroines, who are depicted as simple (or “silly” in Mr Knightley’s words), with love and marriage their only attention. However, this is not always seen as an attribute: Emma is depicted as a girl without a heart, and therefore her motive is rarely one of compassion, but rather one of selfish gain. For example, Emma advises Harriet to reject Robert Martin not on account of Harriet’s opinion of him, but rather of raising herself in situation, and indeed becoming a gentlemen’s wife. She is blind to Harriet’s love, and struggles to comprehend why two people would want to marry for love, rather than for money or to better themselves. Emma believes that love ‘is not her nature’, and the reader can infer that she sees herself as above the petty ideals of love and romance, and for this reason we dislike her. However, the reader discovers later on that this was all a façade of Emma’s complicated character. She eventually marries Mr Knightley, with whom she has been deeply in love, much against her own will. She realises that she has been wrong about her opinions of love, romance and marriage. The reader therefore warms to Emma for changing her mind.
Emma could be described as the apotheosis of sense; she is held in direct contrast to Marianne Dashwood, and arguably, Emma has more sense than Elinor herself, who is one of English literature’s most sensible heroines. Austen describes Emma as “clever”, and indeed Mrs Weston, in a conversation with Mr Knightley, says that “where Emma errs once, she is in the right a hundred times”. And so in Highbury’s eyes, Emma can do no wrong; the reader agrees with this at first, and Emma is seen as an extremely intelligent and rational girl. And yet the reader still questions whether intelligence is an admirable characteristic for a heroine; for example in Mansfield Park Fanny’s adversary is an extremely clever woman, implying that intelligence is not necessarily a virtue.
However, it becomes more clear that Emma is not as sensible as Highbury esteem her to be; Knightley, who is referred to by Austen as a “sensible man”, and has been labelled the ‘voice of reason’ in the novel, is able to see fault in Emma. He constantly chastises her for her behaviour, and Emma’s actions, when closely inspected by Austen through Knightley, seem to have been made less through sense but rather through selfishness. Mr Knightley admits that Emma is a girl of sense, but says that Emma misapplies it with horrific consequences, and indeed Emma is described as “abusing her reason”. For example he believes that Emma’s relationship with Harriet is a “very foolish intimacy”, and that Emma’s irrational, selfish actions will have a devastating effect on Harriet’s life. The reader, although they are able to sympathise with Emma for making mistakes, dislikes her for habitually thinking herself immune to fault.
Furthermore, Emma is often depicted by Austen as a girl who acts without considering the consequences. For example when, at the Box Hill Picnic, Emma crudely insults Miss Bates. Mr Knightley is horrified at Emma at saying such a horrible thing, and reminds her that Miss Bates is a “poor” woman who “has sunk from the comforts she was born to”. Emma, to the reader’s satisfaction, greatly regrets what she said to Miss Bates, and indeed Austen exclaims: “How could she have been so brutal…” Although the reader has a natural aversion from the heroine for her ruthless comment, they still sympathise with Emma: it is clear that she is ashamed of herself, and that she was not thinking when she said it; this is yet another example of when Emma’s ignorance and rashness cause her fault. But then another factor comes into play: it seems that Emma only regrets making her comment because it has deterred Mr Knightley, and this is clearly a selfish reason. She does not care about Miss Bates’ feelings, but more about her own.
Austen may have intended for Emma to be a particularly dislikeable heroine, but I certainly do not think she succeeded. It is very easy to dislike any character in a novel, and indeed the reader feels a certain loathing of Mrs Elton, amongst others, but it is often very hard to be completely averse to the protagonist of a novel. The reader spends so much time exploring the protagonist’s feelings and emotions that very often they take their side. Emma is a very likeable character who, because of her innocent youth and naivety, causes a lot of trouble. But can one really be disliked because they make naïve mistakes? Although Emma is clearly a very intelligent girl, she is still young, and doesn’t necessarily make the right decisions. She rarely thinks about the consequences, and this can be blamed on her selfishness. A significant flaw in Emma’s character is her self-centred approach to almost every situation. She thinks too much about herself and we find that even when Emma is repenting it is for selfish reasons. However, the society of Highbury (bar Mr Knightley) can in part be held accountable for Emma’s egocentric approach – their constant approval feeds her the opinion that she is infallible. This outcome is almost inevitable in an intelligent girl living in a small, insignificant society. And so, the overall opinion of Emma is that she never means to directly cause people harm, but through her inevitably selfish actions, harm is often the outcome. Austen displays this by, rather than naming her novel something along the lines of Arrogance and Greediness, naming the novel Emma, showing her main fault to be her self-obsession, as she is the centre of everything. Nonetheless, despite her selfishness, Emma is still a likeable character.