The Flawed Character of Emma Woodhouse in Jane Austen's Emma

In Emma Woodhouse, Jane Austen has created a wonderfully flawed heroine. Had Emma been perfect, her situation would have been of no interest to anyone; her flaws are what interest both reader and critic. Peter W. Graham is interested particularly with the first page of the novel where Emma is first introduced to the reader. He discusses how significant the beginning of the novel is to mapping out "Emma's personal development"(42). Walton A. Litz and Patricia Meyer Spacks are much more interested in what Emma's imagination shows about her development. Litz says that "[t]he basic movement of Emma is from delusion to self-recognition, from illusion to reality"(369). Spacks takes the opposite argument suggesting Emma doesn't grow but is simply alleviated of her boredom and her imagination disappears with it. I think Emma's growth throughout the novel is pronounced; she starts out loveable enough but with much to learn. She grows from self-delusion to self-awareness and learns to see truth and not just what she wants to see. She also grows in her social vision, although not as much as one may hope. All in all Emma makes significant developments and it is easy to imagine that with more time and Mr. Knightley's influence she will only continue learning and growing.

At the beginning of the novel we are made very aware of Emma's character, both her strengths and her flaws. She starts out, "seem[ing] to unite some of the best blessings in existence"(Austen, 1; Italics, Graham). Her flaws are "at present so unperceived that they d[o] not by any means rank as misfortunes with her" (1) but instead of seeming a fortunate thing Peter W. Graham states that "by naming what Emma has hitherto avoided, [Austen] reminds us of what she may (will) henceforth encounter" (Graham, 43). Emma's having "lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her"(Austen, 1) has left her untried. She has gained the love and respect of many, but whether or not she is truly in command of her "blessings" will only be seen with time and testing.

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Emma, we see, is a devoted daughter; she continuously goes out of her way for her father keeping his mind off vexing matters, changing the subject and knowing the best ways and times to give him news so as not to upset him. In this aspect Emma never flags in her devotion to him and is caring from start to finish. In the first chapter we are given an example of how deftly Emma changes the topic of conversation from a distressing topic to one easier on Mr. Woodhouse's mind. The two of them were discussing Miss Taylor, now Mrs. Weston's marriage and how they shall be going to visit her at her new home often. 

"My dear, how am I to get so far? Randells is such a distance. I could not walk half so far."
"No, papa, nobody thought of your walking. We must go in the carriage to be sure."
"The carriage! But James will not like to put the horses out for such a little way; – and where are the poor horses to be while we are paying our visit?"
"They are to be put into Mr. Weston's stable, papa. You know we have settled that already. We talked it over with Mr. Weston last night. And as for James, you may be very sure he will always like going to Randells, because of his daughter's being housemaid there. I only doubt whether he will ever take us anywhere else. That was your doing, papa. You got Hannah that good place. Nobody thought of Hannah till you mentioned her – James is so obliged to you"
"I am very glad I did think of her. It was very lucky, for I would not have had poor James think himself slighted upon any account; and I am sure she will make a good servant . . . "(3) 

At the end of the novel her concerns for her father are still first in her mind. She even goes as far as to tell Knightley just after their engagement that "while her dear father lived, any change of condition must be impossible for her. She could never quit him"(289). With her father Emma is not untried, she has had much practice and as we have seen she has not been found wanting.

The first of Emma's flaws which we are introduced to is her tendency "to think a little too well of herself"(1). She knows that Knightley finds fault with her but she doesn't see them as faults herself yet. She teases him about finding fault with her and explains to her father he does it "all in a joke."(5) It may be that she says it's a joke only to settle her father's nerves, but even if she sees that Knightley means what he says, she doesn't heed him. He argues that her matchmaking is foolish and she defiantly says she fully intends to continue. Not long afterwards the two get into quite a heated argument around Robert Martin's proposal to Harriet Smith. Knightley tells Emma that convincing Harriet to reject Robert Martin was utter foolishness. Even though she realizes "she ha[s] a sort of habitual respect for [Knightley's] judgement in general," (41) Emma "did not repent what she had done; she still thought herself a better judge of such a point of female right and refinement than he could be."(41) Although she is still dismissing the thought of being wrong she is starting to grow in that she realizes that Knightley's judgement is usually solid and she "dislike[d] having it so loudly against her"(41) 

Emma and Knightley are at odds on many other occasions, with Emma blindly refusing to see her errors, until the time of the box-hill party. When Knightley first starts to criticize Emma for the hurtful thing she has done, she tries to deter him saying that "[i]t was not so very bad."(241) and that Miss Bates likely didn't understand anyway. By the end of the exchange, however, she knows that she is in the wrong and feels "anger against herself, mortification, and deep concern."(242) Once Emma realizes that she is in fact in love with Knightley she no longer needs him to point out mistakes before she sees them herself. She finally realizes she has done Harriet little or no good and on occasion "had led her friend astray."(278)

The second of Emma's faults, and the one critics seem most interested in, is Emma's imagination; she has a tendency to see what she wants to see, whether or not it's actually the truth. As Litz writes, "Emma's ability to judge external reality is subtly distorted by her desire."(370-371) When she found out Harriet didn't know who her parents are she "was obliged to fancy what she liked"(Austen, 15) and to her, that fancy became truth. One glaring example of Emma's active imagination is when she and Harriet are deciphering Mr. Elton's charade. The last line of the charade, which is descriptive of the object of Mr. Elton's affection, reads "Thy ready wit the word will soon supply." Emma's sees the fact that it doesn't describe Harriet instantly, but, because the truth doesn't fit with her hopes, she warps it by thinking that Mr. Elton "must be very much in love indeed, to describe [Harriet] so."(46) Emma continues deceiving herself throughout most of the rest of the novel, although she seems to have learned something because, instead of outright invention, she sticks to filling in the blanks such as creating the story surrounding Miss Fairfax, or elaborating on what actually appears to exist, such as her relationship with Frank Churchill. She lands firmly in the real world only after she realizes her love for Mr. Knightley and starts to look at herself and the world through his eyes, thus seeing things more clearly. She is never entirely cured of her inventive mind, however, as she is unconsciously planning a match between little Miss Weston and one of Isabella's boys. Her imagination has at least been relegated to the subconscious and, with Mr. Knightley's help, she seems to have reached a point where she will no longer act on it. A. Walton Litz is a little more skeptical saying that "we must trust in Knightley's continuing power to control Emma's penchant for manipulating life."(370). But he does believe that Emma has "discover[ed] the limitations of her judgment and [has come] to recognize the distorting power of her egoistic imagination." (372-373)

Patricia Meyer Spacks writes in her article that Emma's active imagination stems from boredom and when her boredom is eliminated (when she becomes engaged to Knightley) she is cured of it. I disagree in that although boredom may be a cause it is not an excuse for what she's done. She has to grow to see the truth as well as be relieved of boredom before her fancy will cease to be a fault. It could very well be that Emma is bored. It is stated early in the novel that with Miss Taylor/Mrs. Weston's marriage Emma is "in great danger of suffering from intellectual solitude"(Austen, 2) and that, as a whole, "Highbury . . . afforded her no equals"(2). This alone is no excuse for the acts she undertakes because of her active imagination. Creating stories in ones mind and forcing them onto reality are two different things. She may imagine Harriet and Mr. Elton would be a good match but that doesn't mean she should be actively pursuing it, and she certainly shouldn't be putting it forward to Harriet as truth. With the relief of boredom her imagination may be curbed but it is personal development that will keep her from acting on any imaginings she may have in the future. Her tendency toward invention isn't fully gone with her engagement, as I've already mentioned, and had Emma not grown she would have acknowledged the thought of a match between Adelaide and one of her cousins and likely have begun making a plan. There is more to this situation than simply the removal of boredom.

Emma's third flaw is her social snobbery. In talking of the Martins at the beginning of the novel we see Emma thinks she understands those below her by their station. It is said that she "well knew [them] by character"(13) and that although they were a "very good sort of people, [they] must be doing [Harriet] harm"(13) because "they must be coarse and unpolished"(13). Emma listens to Harriet talk about them but only because she was "amused by such a picture of another set of beings"(15). To Emma the working class and the elite hardly qualify as the same species. She thinks she knows the truth and because she has not yet learned self-awareness this leads to her bending of the truth. When she reads Robert Martin's letter to Harriet she "was surprised. The style of the letter was much above her expectation."(31) Instead of revising her attitude toward his class or even simply toward him, she continues by suggesting that "one of his sisters must have helped him."(31) As both Emma's self-deception and tendency to warp the truth are worn away she becomes much less condescending toward the lower classes. When she finds out that Harriet and Robert Martin are engaged she thinks "[i]t would be a great pleasure to know Robert Martin."(307). In the beginning she had said to Harriet he was "a man [who she] could never admit as an acquaintance of [her] own!"(39).

Although this seems and is a wonderful improvement there are still a couple points on which Emma could improve. When Emma finds out Harriet's true parentage, she feels that "[t]he stain of illegitimacy, unbleached by nobility or wealth, would have been a stain indeed"(312) showing us that she still values nobility and wealth as important factors. They can, at very least, atone for some other flaw. Finally Emma and Harriet's relationship eventually falls off, and whether it's simply the addition of a husband into their lives or a class difference we are never told.

All in all Emma makes great strides in her development and there is no section of her life in which she doesn't improve in part. Having come this far already and with Knightley's continued guidance we can only imagine Emma continuing to learn and grow. As we have already seen in her role as daughter, she has been tested and not been found wanting. This definitely bodes well for any tests remaining in Emma's future. 

Works cited:

Austen, Jane. Emma. 1972. Norton Critical ed. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company,1993

Graham, Peter W. "Emma's Three Sisters" Arizona Quarterly vol 43 no.1 (1987): 39-52

Litz, A. Walton. "Limits of Freedom: Emma" Emma. 1972. Norton Critical ed. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993, 369-377

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. "Women & Boredom: The Two Emmas" Yale Journal of Criticism vol.2 no. 2 (1989): 191-205

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