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 chapter, so it is necessary to pay particular attention to the opening of every novel. Jane Austen opens her highly-celebrated novel, Emma, with the famous sentence: ‘Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence.’. At first glance, Austen is praising Emma for all of her attributes, and it seems that Emma could have no possible reason for discomfort.
However, when examined we immediately see Austen’s real opinion of Emma, and so our own views of Emma’s qualities are strongly influenced. Austen’s emphatic placement of ‘Emma Woodhouse’ as the first two words of her novel immediately suggests to the reader that the heroine is rather self-obsessed and selfish. This is the only Austen novel to start with the name of the protagonist, and indeed her popular novel Pride and Prejudice does not introduce Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine, until Chapter Three. Furthermore Austen’s tricolon (‘handsome, clever, and rich’) tells us a lot about Emma’s personality. She is vain, which we can discern from the emphatic placement of ‘handsome’, and she is also perhaps rather crafty, suggested by Austen’s employment of the word ‘clever’. It is very possible that Austen is being ironic by praising Emma so highly, and maybe Emma’s life isn’t as comfortable as it may appear to be, and Austen hopes to accentuate this.
The second warning light is, undoubtedly, Jane Austen’s use of the telling word ‘seemed’. Austen is immediately questioning Emma’s ‘happy disposition’, and therefore the reader feels that she is not the model heroine that she is described as. We must keep in mind that Austen was writing in a time of typical romantic novels with standard heroines, and that Austen’s writings were, in many ways, satires of these common tales. Despite being described as the typical heroine, perhaps Emma Woodhouse is nothing of the sort. The author is hinting that Emma has some less admirable qualities, and in this way she is qualifying our view of Emma.
The next paragraph highlights and suggests a number of Emma’s flaws. Austen seems intent on emphasizing Emma’s freedom and indulgence, and she achieves this by referring to Mr Woodhouse, a rather silly and trivial character, as ‘indulgent’, and she also says that Emma was ‘mistress of his house’. This implies that she has had all the authority she could want, again leading the reader to the conclusion that she is rather bigheaded. It is clear that Emma has had too liberal a reign, and is spoilt, by Austen’s use of the phrases ‘doing just what she liked’ and also ‘directed chiefly by her own’. Emma is clearly very independent, particularly for somebody who is not yet 21 years old.
Austen’s authorial and omniscient voice overpowers the entirety of the fourth paragraph, and we begin to directly see Austen’s opinion. She begins emphatically by writing ‘The real evils of Emma’s situation…’ and then Emma’s over-indulgence is suggested again by the phrase ‘the power of having rather too much her own way’. This is, in many ways, particularly ironic: Emma’s only problems are that she is over-indulged, rather than, for example, being too poor or particularly ugly. Our opinion of Emma as being self-obsessed is also then supported and backed up by Austen’s phrase ‘a disposition to think a little too well of herself’. This entire paragraph highlights everything that was suggested earlier on, and Austen then goes on to tell us of Emma’s ignorance to her flaws. The fact that ‘the danger’ remains ‘unperceived’ again suggests Emma’s self-obsession: she cannot come to grips or even acknowledge her flaws, which Austen, very obviously to the reader, has endowed her with. This is rather telling, and Austen’s use of the words ‘at present’ suggest that all of this will become rather significant later on in the book. It is also noteworthy simply because on the first page we already know more about the protagonist than she knows about herself. Again, the phrase ‘they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her’ supports Emma’s ignorance and vanity, and presents her as rather care-free.
The next paragraph begins emphatically with the cautioning words ‘Sorrow came’ and these make the reader suddenly feel particularly interested. We then discover that this is Austen speaking from Emma’s point of view – the fact that Miss Taylor has married is, selfishly, seen as a ‘grief’ to Emma, and is a ‘sorrow’. Emma is also described as ‘mournful’, and Austen’s employment of the word ‘lost’ is clearly significant, particularly as the last word of the paragraph: she is presenting Emma as completely egocentric. The marriage of her friend, which should be considered a joyful and happy event, is seen as a loss, and again the reader sees Emma as self-obsessed and greedy. When we read on, we see that Emma is being even more selfish – even though this ‘event had every promise of happiness for her friend’ Emma still feels hard done by and forlorn. Emma is unable to face her life without her governess, and is left in ‘want of Miss Taylor’. Despite appreciating her isolation, we see that she is also unable to be happy for other people, emphasizing her selfishness.
In the next few paragraphs we see a slightly different view of Emma – still arrogant, but perhaps more intelligent, and also particularly isolated. Emma is ‘in great danger of suffering from intellectual solitude’. Although presenting Emma as arrogant (as she acknowledges her superior intelligence), we also see Emma as rather intelligent, particularly in contrast with her father, Mr Woodhouse. Two paragraphs on, Austen writes that Highbury ‘afforded her no equals’. This is clearly from Emma’s perspective, and she is thus presented as arrogant once again.
The following paragraphs see the introduction of Mr Knightley, a ‘sensible man’, and this phrase immediately makes the reader respect his opinion. Austen then explains that he is ‘one of the few people who could see faults in Emma’. This implies that, although Emma is highly respected, she has a number of flaws that are only apparent to those of good sense and who regard her objectively, such as Mr Knightley. This is particularly significant because it immediately follows a very trivial conversation between Mr Woodhouse and Emma, showing his triviality and weakness of intellect – he is constantly besotted by petty concerns. This contrast of intelligence is accentuated by Mr Woodhouse’s constant praise of Emma, and his inability to see faults in her – unlike Mr Knightley. Mr Knightley is the only character capable of lowering Emma’s self esteem, and of getting Emma to doubt her assumptions.
To summarise, Austen takes a lot of time to paint a picture of Emma and her qualities, but then uses several devices, such as irony, to undermine the impression that Emma is the perfect heroine. Austen’s use of certain words such as ‘seemed’ or ‘lost’ indirectly suggests a huge amount about Emma’s personality. The reader thinks Emma to be quite a typical heroine: smart, pretty and rich, but also rather self-obsessed, arrogant and perhaps over-indulged. Austen is very intent on exhibiting her protagonist thus in the first few pages of her book.