Austen once famously remarked that Emma is “a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like,” and her rationale for saying this is obvious: unlike Fanny Price or Anne Elliot, Emma is not a particularly admirable character. Indeed, many of the novel’s greatest disasters (Box Hill, for instance) or near-disasters (Harriet’s near damnation to the fate of being “an old maid at last, like Miss Bates”) are caused by Emma and her famous lack of judgement. Emma, despite being clever, is, in the words of Claire Tomalin, “consistently wrong”. Moreover, she is an arrogant heroine, particularly when it comes to her obsession with class and hierarchy. And yet, despite her flaws, there is a certain appeal and allure in Emma that is perhaps lacking in the somewhat bland Fanny Price. We are attracted to Emma’s desire for excitement and her undeniable charm, and thus, though Emma is not a particularly admirable character, she is certainly a likeable protagonist.
One of Emma’s least attractive traits is her obsession with class, which comes across on a number of occasions in the novel but particularly in her attitudes to Miss Bates and the Coles. Austen emphasises the extreme differences in Emma and Miss Bates’s situation: Emma is “handsome, clever, and rich with a comfortable home,” whilst Miss Bates is “neither young, handsome, rich,” with “no intellectual superiority” and living “in a very small way.” Indeed, it is worth noting that Austen herself was very much like Miss Bates: a relatively poor spinster living on the benevolence of her brother Edward Knight with her mother (as Miss Bates does) and sister Cassandra. Austen’s arguable similarity to Miss Bates perhaps explains Austen’s pity for Miss Bates in Emma’s arrogance (Emma “seldom went near them” because she was afraid of “falling in with the second rate and third rate of Highbury”) and lack of concern (she does not contribute “what she ought” to their comfort), despite the fact that, when Emma does visit, she is “most cordially and even gratefully welcomed.” Emma’s attitude to Miss Bates, the novel’s moral compass, determines our opinion of her, and can be contrasted to Mr Knightley’s benevolence and care towards the Bateses (giving the rest of his apples and lending his carriage). Emma’s attitude towards the Coles is similarly unattractive (and also rather comic): she at first refuses to go to their party because they are “only moderately genteel” (not a “superior family”), preferring to remain in “solitary grandeur”. Again, this is another unattractive perspective on Emma.
Emma also shows her arrogance when it comes to her confidence in her own flawed judgement, which leads her to persuade Harriet to reject Robert Martin and to fall in love with Elton, who “never thought of Miss Smith” in the whole course of his existence. Emma mistakes Elton’s false and excessive gallantry regarding the painting and his charade to be directed at Harriet, when really it was directed at her (despite John’s warning her that Elton has “a great deal of good will” towards her). Emma mocks Martin’s proposal of marriage, despite the fact that he “expressed good sense” and rented “a very large farm” (with espalier apple-trees, indicating wealth), because he is a farmer and “must be coarse and unpolished”. This generalisation is also seen in her attitude to the poor family she visits, who must have no “extraordinary virtue” because of their poverty. Again, we see here Emma’s obsession with class, in this instance exacerbated by her lack of judgement.
However, there are a number of reasons that the reader cannot help liking Emma. Firstly, Austen’s use of free indirect discourse forces us to see the happenings of the novel largely from Emma’s own perspective, encouraging us to sympathise with her. As Gard argues, it is free indirect discourse that makes us pity Emma after Box Hill when Austen writes: “How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates?” Thus, the reader forms a connection with Emma, making it almost impossible to dislike her, though we are still more than aware of her faults. Moreover, this free indirect discourse means that, on first reading the novel, very many readers suffer the same ignorance and lack of judgment that Emma does: we may not notice that Mr Elton’s gallantry is in fact directed towards Emma, and we may not realise that Jane and Frank are engaged, although Mr Knightley does suspect Frank of “some indication to trifle with Jane.” Thus, we cannot help pitying Emma and sympathising with her mistakes.
We also pity Emma because she does, in fact, change throughout the novel, and thus the novel can be read as a so-called Bildungsroman. With the help of Mr Knightley, Emma learns to treat others less as objects and generalizations (she begins wanting to befriend Harriet because she will find her “useful”) and more as people (at the end “She wanted to be of use” to Jane, offering her carriage). This development breaks down the reader’s moral distance from Emma, allowing us to warm to her and pity her in her lamentations: “I seem to have been doomed to blindness.” Indeed, she changes her bigoted opinion of Mr Martin completely, telling Knightley “at that time I was a fool” and the narrator says: “It would be a great pleasure to know Robert Martin.” And though it is possible to argue that Emma’s acceptance that her and Harriet’s “intimacy must sink” shows how she is still obsessed with hierarchy, this is perhaps more because Emma and Harriet never were good friends for one another: Knightley was right when he noted that Harriet’s “ignorance is hourly flattery.” Emma also makes amends with Miss Bates, and Austen uses the words “repentance” and “contrition” to emphasise Emma’s moral change. Thus, Emma’s change makes her a more likeable character.
Emma is also not, in fact, an ill-natured person: her mistakes are not caused by malice or cruelty, but by boredom. Her sense of the superiority of her own judgement can in a large sense be put down to the fact that she was, from a young age, “directed chiefly by her own” and was mistress of her house in a town that “afforded her no equals” (though this is not exactly true). Thus, Emma is not entirely to blame, just as Lydia is not entirely to blame for Mr and Mrs Bennett’s bad parenting that leads to her moral transgressions. It is the dullness of Emma’s society and life (she has never been to the sea or to Box Hill, despite its proximity, and her father “was unfit for any acquaintance”) that causes her greatest mistakes, particularly her venturing into match-making and her role as an imaginist.
Moreover, Emma is inherently a good person, as the narrator observes: “There were moments of self-examination in which her conscience could not quite acquit her.” For every section devoted to her mischief, Booth argues, “there is a section devoted to her self-reproach,” and it is this that makes Emma such a relatable figure. Despite her relapse (when she considers, after her resolve not to matchmake, whether Harriet could marry one of the Coxes or later Frank Churchill), she eventually learns the dangers of her meddling through her constant cycles of mistake and repentance. Thus, Emma’s unattractive qualities and actions, Box Hill for example, can be put down to her boredom rather than a purposeful cruelty. Unlike Mr and Mrs Elton at the ball, Emma does not purposefully harm anybody, and she always repents her mistakes.
Thus, it is clear that though Emma is a flawed heroine, she is still a likeable one. Austen is often seen as an anti-Jacobin, neo-Classical or Augustan writer, rejecting the obsession with the imagination and fancy that became prominent in the Romantic period. This is most evident in her two novels “Northanger Abbey” and “Sense and Sensibility”, and it is also evident in “Emma” as the heroine gradually realises she must submit to a “subjection of the fancy to the understanding.” Nonetheless, the reality is that Emma’s great attraction lies in her imagination and her “desire to make life vivid” (Morgan). As Gard argues, “she is the victim of her marvellous ideas,” marvellous because of their attempts to enliven a rather dull life. It is Emma’s emphasis on the imagination that, though it leads her astray, we so admire and love. Indeed, we applaud Knightley when he allows for “the momentary conquest of eagerness over judgment,” showing that Emma’s exciting attributes and charm have influenced Knightley (he remarks that he, too, has changed). This exciting charm and obsession with the imagination leads Knightley, and indeed the reader, to view Emma as “the sweetest and best of all creatures, faultless in spite of all her faults.” Emma’s sin is, as Lionel Trilling observes, the poet’s sin, and it is this that makes her such a likeable heroine.