“Though Emma’s faults are comic, they constantly threaten to produce serious harm” – Wayne Boothe
“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. ” Emma, the main character of the book, is the most important woman in Highbury, and so the consequences of her actions are greater. This makes it difficult for Austen to retain the comic mood, because whenever Emma makes a mistake, a dire outcome is always the result.
Critic Mark Schorer described Emma as “a heroine who must be educated out of a condition of self-deception brought on by the shutters of pride into a condition of perception when that pride had been humbled through the exposures of the errors of judgement into which it has led her. ” This is a good description of the character of Emma, because in order to retain a prevailing comic mood, Austen has to mature Emma in order for her to have a happy ending. When we first meet Emma, there is no possible way that Emma is marriage material, nor is she worthy of Mr Knightley or vice versa.
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However although Emma makes many mistakes, she also does good deeds and so Austen constantly keeps Emma’s good parts in the back of our minds. Austen described Emma as a heroine “whom no one but myself will much like” because traditionally, heroines don’t have faults. Emma however has many faults, but also tends to try and redeem herself after making mistakes. Also, because Emma tends to manage to redeem herself, it seems inevitable that the novel will have a happy ending because she always seems to make things right again.
This is important because the whole notion of the comic genre is that there will be a happy ending, and the whole novel is subtly pointing towards a happy ending, even though some prospects look bleak at some points. “Though Emma’s faults are comic, they constantly threaten to produce serious harm. ” Throughout the novel, Emma’s mistakes can be seen to threaten to create serious harm. However she does try to redeem herself. One major incident of Emma’s faults is her treatment of Harriet.
Although Harriet is of a much lower social class, Emma befriends her and fresh from the success of matching her governess Miss Taylor, Emma decides to play matchmaker with Harriet. She convinces Harriet that she is too good for Mr Martin, to turn down Mr Martin’s proposal of marriage and set her sights on what Emma thinks to be an eligible bachelor, Mr Elton. Austen uses the Knightley brothers to create tension and warn us that things will not end happily for Harriet because they are seen to be trustworthy and honest.
Their warning that Mr Elton will not marry Harriet creates a subtle caution that remains in the reader’s mind throughout the rest of the novel. Knightley thinks that Emma and Harriet’s friendship is precarious for both parties, because Emma’s arrogance will only be increased by Harriet’s constant flattery. Also, he suspects that Harriet’s happiness could be put at stake because Harriet “will grow just refined enough to be uncomfortable with those among whom birth and circumstance have placed her home. ” At first we suspect that Emma doesn’t think of Harriet as her equal, and more of a project.
We know this because Austen describes Harriet as Emma’s “prime object of interest” which makes Emma look like a bad person, however we soon learn that Emma does indeed think of Harriet of a friend, and even if she doesn’t consider her to be equal to her, she thinks Harriet to be of a higher social class than she actually is. Emma’s refusal to admit that she is wrong is another fault of hers. When Mr Elton declares his love for Emma and not Harriet, Emma believes that he transferred his affections; she doesn’t think that she could possibly be wrong or that he never loved Harriet in the first place.
The real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself: these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortune with her. ” The above quotation, which is found at the beginning of the novel, helps to foreshadow the possible problems that could occur. It recognises that Emma’s reluctance to admit that she is wrong is a major fault which threatens to upset the happiness of others later on and eventually Emma learns this too.
Austen however manages to keep the comic mood by putting hope into the quote. She doesn’t say that Emma can’t change, and by not saying that her actions will definitely cause problems, only that there is a danger, gives hope to the reader that Emma can see the error of her ways and become a better person. Also, later on Mrs Elton becomes almost an exact replica of Emma’s previous mistakes but much more exaggerated. Emma resents Mrs Elton’s presumptuous attempts at matchmaking, despite Mrs Elton’s actions towards Jane being very similar to Emma’s behaviour towards Harriet
Another major fault of Emma’s is her treatment of Miss Bates whilst at Box Hill. Although Austen generally depicts cleverness as a quality in characters, the Box Hill scene shows how cleverness can be used in a hurtful way. Emma’s remark to Miss Bates shows us a cruel, almost taunting side of Emma which Austen hasn’t showed before. It’s the most deliberate example of how qualities can be harmful, and also shows that Frank is a bad influence on Emma. However Austen also shows Emma’s kind side after this, and displays Emma’s guilt and regret over upsetting Miss Bates.
Emma only really realises what she’s done to Miss Bates after Mr Knightley tells her which shows us her great need for approval from Mr Knightley. Austen uses this to retain a prevailing comic mood because it subtly hints at a match between Emma and Mr Knightley, although at this point the two still don’t deserve each other; they both need to grow and mature. Vivien Jones suggested that “in the earlier passage, Emma’s moral language was strikingly mild, such that when she did describe herself as ‘wrong’ it was doubtful that she fully understood the implications of the word. This is a good point, and is important because in order for Emma to become deserving of Mr Knightley and retain the comic mood, Emma needs to change and become more mature. We see that she’s only fully aware of the consequences of her actions after Mr Knightley reprimands her. Another of Emma’s major faults is her love for gossip. Austen displays this by using Frank’s influence over Emma to gossip about Jane Fairfax and Mr Dixon, and who Jane’s piano came from.
Emma bases her suspicions of Jane Fairfax and Mr Dixon on little evidence and lets her imagination get the better of her. Austen shows here how the imagination, if used carelessly, can be dangerous because Emma’s gossiping has negative consequences later on in the book. Edgar F. Shannon Jr says that “She has taken a dislike to Jane Fairfax, who should have been her natural friend and companion and, believing Jane to be the objects of a married man’s attentions, has repeated to Frank the slander she has concocted. This is true, but doesn’t really show Emma’s good side, and that Emma didn’t know the connection between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, and is full of regret for her actions afterwards. Also, Emma changes her mind easily. Austen uses free association to tell us what Emma is thinking. “She saw it all with a clearness which had never blessed her before. How improperly had she been acting by Harriet! How inconsiderate, how indelicate, how irrational, how unfeeling, had been her conduct! ” However Emma recognised her mistakes earlier on after trying to match Mr Elton with Harriet.
She also puts herself before Harriet, because Austen makes it clear that Emma thinks she has done wrong not for hurting Harriet, but for hurting herself and possibly Mr Knightley by matching him with someone of such a lower social class than him. However although Emma has many faults, she also has good qualities. One of her qualities is the patience she has for her father. Her father is a boring hypochondriac yet Emma never loses her temper with her. She’s even willing to postpone her wedding to make him happy.
Throughout the novel she makes special arrangements for his comforts and puts up with his endless conversations about gruel, yet never once does she complain. In conclusion there are three main ways in which Austen retains a prevailing comic mood. The first way in which she does this is showing Emma’s growth of maturity. After each of her main mistakes, Emma realises what she has done wrong and tries to redeem herself. By doing this, Austen is showing that Emma isn’t all bad, and in fact is trying to make herself a better person. Emma’s maturing earns her the right to marry Knightley.
At the beginning of the novel, she didn’t really realise what she was doing wrong and ignored some of Knightley’s criticisms, but by the end she has grown into a better person. Jane Austen believed in properly matched marriages which came from both parties growing towards deserving one another which is clearly shown in her disapproval of Mr and Mrs Elton’s hasty marriage. Also, if Emma and Mr Knightley deserved each other at the beginning of the novel and Harriet married Mr Martin, then there would be no plot to the novel. Austen ends the book with a comic mood with the marriage of Emma and Mr Knightley