“Emma” by Jane Austen

Of all the novels of Austen, the plot of Emma is perhaps the most difficult to summarise. This is not because it doesn’t have a plot, but because the principal events that shape the plot are internal rather than external. Here, a character perceiving reality in a certain way is a major plot development, a character beginning to perceive things in a new way a dramatic climax. This is not to say that there aren’t external events: there are accepted proposals, declined proposals, people falling in and out of love, people thinking they’re in love – all those various events that populate all Austen novels. But what gives these external events significance here, to a greater extent, I think, than in Austen’s other works, are the internal events: that is where the drama of the novel principally lies. As a consequence, the scale of the drama is here reduced: we are certainly in a very different fictional world from the sombre and dramatic Mansfield Park, which seems at times to stray even towards the oppressive world of Richardson’s Clarissa. But just as Austen had seemed determined to remove Mansfield Park as far as possible from its bright and sunny predecessor, Pride and Prejudice, so she seems here equally determined to remove Emma into a fictional world as far removed as possible from Mansfield Park. It’s not that there is no plot here; it’s not even that there’s no drama. But to find either, to see this novel as more than a mere pleasant sunlit idyll in which everything rambles on agreeably and nothing much really happens, we have to look closely at the nuances and at the fine detail. For in Emma, it’s the smallest points, the tiniest gestures, that contain the drama.

Take for instance the point that may, I think, be considered the turning point of the entire novel – the picnic at Box Hill: Emma can’t resist cracking a rather mild joke at the expense of the tiresome Miss Bates, and Miss Bates is hurt. The joke itself is not particularly malicious, and the hurt is not so grievous that Miss Bates cannot quite happily welcome Emma to her house the very next day. A minor event, one might have thought, in the unremarkable lives of a set of unremarkable characters. And yet, Austen, with the most delicate and understated of artistry, makes this seemingly trivial event the turning point of a novel of over 400 pages.

The scene is worth examining in some detail. On the surface, nothing much happens. Miss Bates has not been involved in the “plot”, insofar as there has been a plot at all: she has not been involved in any way in any of Emma’s matchmaking schemes, and nor has Emma ever speculated on her feelings or thoughts, as she has on the feelings and thoughts of others. Miss Bates is simply a tiresome chatterbox, who natters on and on endlessly without ever even in error communicating anything of the slightest interest. Emma finds her absurd and tiresome, and she is not the only one: we, the reader, can hardly fail to find her absurd and tiresome also. So when Miss Bates says that she is sure to say three dull things as soon as she opens her mouth, Emma can’t resist a rejoinder:

“Ah! ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me – but you will be limited in number – only three at once.”

It takes the slow-witted Miss Bates some time to realise that the joke is at her expense, but once she does, her reaction, far from being angry, is sad and humble: she recognises how disagreeable she must be to others. There is something curiously dignified in her realisation, and also, even in a matter so slight as this, something almost infinitely sad. The matter is so slight indeed that Emma doesn’t even notice; but Mr Knightley notices, as Miss Bates confides to him her perception of her own disagreeableness; and we, the readers, notice. And since we, the readers, have so often regarded Miss Bates as Emma has done, as tedious and disagreeable, this sudden realisation of her humanity, of the vulnerability of her feelings, comes to us as a sort of admonishment. The scale of the drama may be reduced in this novel, but, once one has adjusted one’s receptivity to that small scale, even so apparently slight an incident as this takes on a tremendous dramatic weight.

Later, Mr Knightley remonstrates with Emma on her thoughtlessness, and she is as admonished as we, the readers, have been. The next day, Emma makes a point of visiting Miss Bates, possibly with a half-formed intent of apologising. In most other novels, we would have had here a scene of overt acknowledgement of guilt, and of redemption, but here, with the scale of the drama reduced, such a scene would be out of place. Miss Bates seems unaware that Emma has anything to apologise for, and the conversation never even touches on the previous day’s excursion to Box Hill. But the slightest gestures are important here: that Emma has made the gesture at all of visiting Miss Bates is sufficiently significant to restore her into Mr Knightley’s good opinion.

And from this point on, the plot unravels. Not so much, perhaps, in terms of external events – although the death of Frank Churchill’s aunt does open the door for various matters to be happily resolved – but, more importantly in a novel in which the principal focus of interest is internal rather than external, the plot unravels in terms of what goes on in Emma’s mind: the understanding that she has been needlessly cruel to a harmless old lady who had not deserved such cruelty is the first step towards the unravelling of various internal matters – of various misperceptions and delusions that Emma had harboured in her own mind, both about others and about herself. Emma begins for the first time to understand her own self. The novel may seem superficially to be a gently rambling idyll, but this is what it has all been leading towards. In Austen’s previous novel, Mansfield Park, the protagonist Fanny Price is rewarded because, throughout, she, and only she, has perceived clearly; here, in contrast, Emma has misperceived everything all along; but, since this novel is, unlike its predecessor, a comedy, the clouds of her misperceptions lift by the end one by one, leaving only the clearest of blue skies. Austen doesn’t often use the weather as anything other than plot devices, but when, as we approach the end of this novel, we are presented with a rain that plays no part at all in furthering the plot, we should sense its wider significance:

The weather continued much the same all the following morning; and the same loneliness, and the same melancholy, seemed to reign at Hartfield–but in the afternoon it cleared; the wind changed into a softer quarter; the clouds were carried off; the sun appeared; it was summer again.

– from Chapter 49

Not, it must be conceded, that the clouds in Emma had ever been darkly threatening. If Austen had indeed set out to write a novel as far removed from its predecessor as possible, she must remove even the possibility of tragedy. In Mansfield Park, the clouds had been threatening indeed, and a happy ending for the protagonist Fanny could only be achieved by the unhappiness of others around her: the final pages there depict a very uncertain heaven. But from the very first lines of Emma, we know that we are in an idyll, a delightful comedy of manners; and comedies of manners, we know, do not end in tragedy, or even in uncertain heavens. The interest lies in seeing not if the clouds will lift, but in how they lift. And we know that as and when they do lift, they will lift for all, and that not even the deplorable Eltons will be excluded from universal happiness; for, deplorable though they both are, they do seem rather to like each other. There is no Malvolio or Jaques by the end who cannot or will not be reconciled.

With this assurance offered, the dramatic immediacy that had informed Mansfield Park is conspicuous here by its absence: even when things go disastrously wrong – even when, thanks to Emma’s meddling, a possible happy marriage for Harriet Smith is turned down – we don’t worry: we rest contented in the assurance that it’ll all and end up right by the end, and that the very worthy Mr Martin, who had proposed to Harriet and on whom Emma had so snobbishly looked down, will not languish too long under the pain of rejection. Indeed, whatever pain of rejection he suffers is not even depicted, as that would have broken up the happy and genial surface of the work.

But this happy and genial surface should not blind us to the dangers of Emma’s misperceptions, nor, indeed, to their unpleasantness. Mr Martin appears only as an incidental character, but even from what we discern of him incidentally, we perceive a genuinely worthy man, a man possessing nobility of nature if not of social status. For Emma to look down upon such a person cannot be seen as anything other than unpleasant. And her persuading Harriet to turn down Mr Martin’s proposal on the ground that he, given his social status, ranks far below her in terms of human worth, is as absurd as it is reprehensible. Not only does this rejection cause the worthy Mr Martin pain (a pain we may easily infer even though it is not depicted), it jeopardises also the future of Harriet, a sweet but empty-headed young lady whose future is indeed most uncertain.  Emma is, as all readers acknowledge, a flawed character, but I am not sure it is often acknowledged just how deeply flawed she is: Austen has, indeed, to use all the considerable art at her disposal not to alienate the reader from her heroine.

Indeed, she goes further: she ensures that Emma charms us. Before writing the novel, Austen had referred to Emma as “a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like”, a remark that inclines me to think that Austen employed irony as liberally outside her novels as she did in them. For she lavished on Emma as much natural charm as she could, making all her flaws appear as consequence not of an ill nature, but of a certain lack of understanding; and we are convinced that once that understanding does come, these flaws will vanish. Quite how Austen manages to persuade the reader of this, it is hard to say. Perhaps it is in the presentation of Emma’s refined manners; or of her patient forbearance of her hypochondriac father; or, perhaps, of the obvious affection that the knightly Mr Knightley has for her. More importantly than any of these, I think, Emma is capable of introspection: it is this quality, above all, that sets her apart from the odious Mrs Elton, who, mean-spirited and objectionable though she is, is a sort of image of Emma as seen in a grotesquely distorting mirror. Emma takes a strong dislike to Mrs Elton, and with good reason: Mrs Elton is snobbish, self-centred, patronising, and self-aggrandising. She takes Jane Fairfax under her wing purely for the purpose of self-aggrandisement, to demonstrate both to herself and to everyone else her own superiority over her protégé. And Emma herself is guilty of every one of these faults that she can see so clearly in Mrs Elton: for Emma too is snobbish, and self-centred; and Emma, too, takes another person –  Harriet Smith – under her wing purely for the purposes of self-aggrandisement. What raises Emma above Mrs Elton is partly Emma’s refinement of manners, and partly a certain personal charm – a quality that eludes analysis, but which Austen depicts unerringly; but mainly, I think, Emma is raised above Mrs Elton by her ability to look into herself, and to examine what she finds. Until the final section of the novel, this ability is, admittedly, but partly used, but we are left in no doubt that it is present; and so, when she does come to look into herself fully, and acknowledge her many errors, the reader is not taken by surprise. Indeed, if anything, the reader warms to her even more.

For this is among the sunniest and warmest of novels. The small-town life that Austen so often depicted – those few families living close together, and, despite incidental absurdities which are mainly to be laughed away rather than grieved over, bound together by ties of mutual acquaintance and of friendship – is here celebrated. The pace is leisurely: Austen seems to relish depicting the measured pace at which everyday life proceeds. There is a genuine affection in her depiction of the small town of Highbury:

 …while she was still hanging over muslins and changing her mind, Emma went to the door for amusement. Much could not be hoped from the traffic of even the busiest part of Highbury; — Mr. Perry walking hastily by, Mr. William Cox letting himself in at the office door, Mr. Cole’s carriage horses returning from exercise, or a stray letter-boy on an obstinate mule, were the liveliest objects she could presume to expect; and when her eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker’s little bow-window eyeing the gingerbread, she knew she had no reason to complain, and was amused enough; quite enough still to stand at the door. A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer.

– from Chapter 27

Here, it seems to me, is Austen’s rationale for lack of overt drama: a “mind lively and at ease” does not require overt drama, as it can see “nothing that does not answer”.  What overt drama is inherent in the story Austen actually suppresses: we do not witness Robert Martin’s pain of rejection, and neither do we know of the extent or the reason of Jane Fairfax’ sufferings until it is all over. The setting is idyllic, and whatever clouds are present we know will lift.

The tale set in this most idyllic of settings is a tale of transgression and redemption – of crime and punishment, if one wishes to be fanciful about it: except there is no real punishment here. Emma transgresses, recognises the nature of her transgression, and redeems herself; there is no punishment involved, for her transgression is a common one, one that we are all guilty of, and not really worth punishing. This transgression of Emma’s is a favourite theme of Austen’s – that of perceiving wrongly: Catherine Morland, Marianne Dashwood, Elizabeth and Darcy, just about everyone in Mansfield Park except Fanny – they all perceive wrongly. But Austen proves far from censorious about this: not understanding fully, or understanding imperfectly, this world we live in, is a common affliction, and while not understanding adequately one’s self or the world one inhabits has tragic potential, Austen, unlike Hardy, preferred to see it as comedy: the remedy for misperceiving the world is to learn to perceive it better. And that it is possible to do so is cause for rejoicing.

This is a very different vision of life from that presented in Mansfield Park, or, from what I remember from my previous reading some years ago, that presented in her last completed novel, Persuasion. But in each new novel, Austen seems intent on not repeating herself: although the themes may be similar, she is determined to see these themes from as many different perspectives as possible. Here, her perspective is forbearing, optimistic, and, despite her naturally waspish wit, gentle. While, by temperament, I find myself drawn more towards the sombre drama and passion of Mansfield Park, it’s easy to see why Emma has so many devoted admirers: it is a work of optimism and of geniality, while in terms of artistry, it ranks with her finest work.


17 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Carolyn on November 23, 2014 at 6:44 am

    Great analysis, Himadri. I would just disagree with one statement (and perhaps quite an important one). I think Emma’s joke to Miss Bates was very hurtful and strong, not a minor thing at all. Probably it shouldn’t be, but one of the worse things people can say about you is that you are boring. And that was said to sting, and to ensure everyone laughed – laughed at someone who had never harmed Emma, and who she had no reason to hurt. Superiority in jokes is not mild. I was thinking about this, and I wonder if it is something women feel more strongly about than men. I would be so hurt if someone said that about me in a public place. I’d also be angry in a way Miss Bates couldn’t be.

    (I could wish that Jane Austen had been a more condemnatory about Emma’s father, who I find one of the most painful people in literature. Dreadful selfish man. And although he is made out to be old – and presumably therefore to be tolerate – he can’t be very old; Emma is only about 20.)

    Cheers, Caro.


    • Hello Caro, yes, you’re right – Emma’s joke is indeed cruel, and not any the less cruel because Emma did not intend it to be so. I was perhaps wrong in having described is as “mild”. However, no-one atthe time picks up on it; no-one present thinks it worth commenting on. Only Mr Knightley does, and that is possibly becase miss Bates confides to him her hurt.

      The drama is scaled down here: in other novels of transgression and redemption, the transgression is often very great – e.g. in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, it’s a double axe murder. here, it is an unthinking joke that no-one even picks up on at the time. “Mild” is perhaps the wrong way to describe it, as it clearly is very hurtful; but it is, in the greater scheme of things, a very small incident; and that Austen can use an incident even as small as this as the turning point of so long a novel is an extraordinary feat of literary skill.

      As for Mr Woodhouse, Austen does not need to be condemnatory at all: all she has to do – and she does – is to present the character, and allow the readers to judge for themselves, without having to lead the reader’s judgement. Yes,he is a tirsome character, but he is pretty harmless. nd he is not entirely selfish, I think: certainly, in the case of Miss Taylor’s marriage, he is; but in his concern for the health of others, he isn’t. These were teh days before antibiotics or any of teh other things we take for granted nowadays, and premature death from “chill” or influenza were quite common (as the history of the Bronte sisters testifies). Austen, quite rightly, I think, allows the reader to use their own judgement on Mr Woodhouse.

      Cheers, Himadri


      • Posted by alan on November 30, 2014 at 5:25 am

        “Men are born for the sake of each other; So teach or tolerate.” -Marcus Aurelius.

        I think that perhaps one has to have the attitude of a Roman emperor, or be a very good friend before one can presume to teach, so perhaps to tell a joke is in some ways a complement. One is implicitly acknowledging, if not social equality, that one is on the same playing field. An artist in the field of conversation can also use fake humility as a put down in response to humour – not, I hasten to add, that I think that is going on here.
        Of course, if your opponent is clearly out of their depth then continuing to use humour is cruelty and possibly bullying. But not to try to influence, just for the sake of social peace, does not suit my temperament.

      • …so perhaps to tell a joke is in some ways a complement.

        Doesn’t that rather depend on the nature of the joke, how it’s delivered, and teh relationship one has with the person to whom one tells the joke?

        In the incident in the novel, Emma doesn’t mean to hurt: she’s too “nice” for that. But yes, she does think herself superior to Miss Bates. We don’t blame her for that, as I think just about every reader also feels superior to Miss Bates, who is none too intelligent, and is utterly tiresome. What i find so affecting about the passage is Miss Bates’ reaction when she understands the nature of the joke: it is not anger, and neither is it reproach – it is a sad and sorrowful awareness of her own shortcoming.

        Tiresome though the Miss Bates of this world are, perhaps it’s kindest to tolerate them. They do no harm, after all! But it’s not easy – I’ll grant you that! This is why it is so easy to sympathise with Emma her, even though her thoughtlessness is cruel and hurtful.

        I think Shakespeare pulls off a similar trick in Twelfth Night: we are invited to find Malvolio insufferable, and to laugh at him; but then, we are pulled up short, and even made to feel guilty, once Malvolio’s humanity is revealed.

  2. Brilliant review of a novel I adore. I enjoyed reading your thoughts about Emma’s character and the construction of the novel. You’re right, there’s not much drama in Emma but her inner transformation is fascinating to witness. Don’t forget that her raising awareness of her flaws parallels Mr Knightley’s awareness that he doesn’t view her as a sister. Both characters have soul searching to do.

    Emma’s father is a terrible character. He’s weak and even more tiresome than Miss Bates. Like in Pride and Prejudice, he’s not up to the task of fatherhood. While Mr Bennett is neglectful, Mr Woodhouse is whiny and selfish. He behaves like a self-centred toddler. He’s not happy that Miss Taylor married well, he only thinks about how disagreeable changes in his routine are.

    I agree with Carolyn above, Emma’s joke on Miss Bates is cruel even if it’s saying aloud what everybody else’s thinking. I think it’s cruel because Miss Bates is not socially the equal of the other participants to the picnic. The only positive reasons to be admitted in a higher social circle are your wits (think of Proust) or, for women, beauty. Miss Bates has neither of them. Emma’s joke points out that Miss Bates is a charity case and that’s even more humiliating than hearing you’re boring. (Although I’d feel extremely strongly if I heard this about me too)


    • Hello Emma, and thank you for that.

      Yes, you’re quite right: Emma is not the only character whose perception develops over the course of the novel. Mr Knightley’s does as well, and, although he is, for much of the novel, but a peripheral character, the artistry with which the development of his own perceptions is depicted is remarkable: Austen was, after all, at the height of her considerable powers when writing this.

      Emma’s joke is, i agree, cruel, but does she actually point outthat Miss Bates is a “charity case”? I may have got this wrong, but I’m under the impression that Miss Bates, although not well off, does not depend on parochial charity. And Emma’s jibe is:

      “Ah! ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me – but you will be limited in number – only three at once.”

      This seems to me purely a reference to her dullness, rather than to her financial state.

      But either way, it is cruel. However, in mitigation, it may be said, I think, that it is a cruelty that’s a consequence of toughtlessness rather than of deliberate nastiness: Emma herself is mortified when the cruelty of her joke is made clear to her.

      I am enjoying my re-reading of the Austen’s novels, and am looking forward to Persuasion some time next year. so far, ,em>Mansfield Park is the one I’ve liked best: Iit is clearly a great masterpiece, and one I think I’m likely to return to. Emma, in contrast, i must admit I personally found hard going, even though it is clearly a work of comparable artistry.

      Cheers, Himadri


  3. As you know I recently read this for the first time myself.

    The incident with Miss Bates struck me as very important also. What I love about your analysis here is that you have described my reaction to text better then I have would before reading this post. I experienced the thoughts and feelings you described concerning Miss Bates, and I remember feeling some of the “admonishment”, for the slight, that was directed at Emma . At the time, if asked to describe my own thoughts on this aspect of the text, I might have made a false assumption that my reaction was unique to myself. Instead, this embedded in the text for the reader to experience.


    • Hello Brian,
      I don’t know if it came over in my write-up, but i did find Emma very hard work. (This is intended as a criticism of myself rather than of the work.) The drama is scaled down to such an extent, that I could find little in the way of forward momentum or of narrative tension, and, speaking purely subjectively (this is not an objective criticism at all), I found that difficult. However, I tried to keep that out of my post: my intention is to try to understand the nature of Austen’s artistry, irrespective of my own foibles and failings as a reader. And it is this level of artistry that I tried to focus on.

      In the case of Miss Bates, I think Austen does lead us into seeing Miss Bates much as Emma does, only to pull the rug from under our feet. The result is that we don’t feel alienated from Emma, even when she is at her worst: we don’t alienated from her because we are as guilty as she is. Austen uses all her considerable artistry and craftsmanship to ensure throughout that no matter how badly Emma behaves, the reader is not alienated.

      Cheers, Himadri


  4. Posted by regina on November 23, 2014 at 6:10 pm

    Thank you for a fine discussion. In the passage you cite, Emma has no difficulty bonding with boring little Hartsfield, which she affects to revere. In ts ordinariness lies (she tells herself) an opportunity to appreciate life in all its mundane detail. So doesn’t it strike the reader as dissonant when she fails to extend the same breadth of appreciation to the equally provincial, harmless Miss Bates?

    To my thinking, Miss Bates personifies the village social scene and stands as a trope for all the provinciality that Emma has, in her life til now, meekly choked down. For instance, in the cited passage, perhaps Austen doesn’t find charm in the sight of a dogfight–which may be the best thing that happens in Emma’s day. If so maybe Emma’s overreaction to Miss Bates is a kind of a primal scream–momentary rebellion against the stultifying and false worldview she has sold to herself because, well… Basically, it is Emma’s lot in life to graciously accept both village life and its society, and only harm can come from admitting the truth…. An interpretation which lends the book a slightly more acid tone than some might agree with.


    • Hello Regina, and thank you for that. (And apologies for the late reply … I’m afraid I don’t have as much time to spend on this blog with an untired mind as I would like!)

      I must admit that throughout my reading, I got the impression of a pleasant idyll, in which the clouds are not threatening storm clouds, but, rather, specks that we know will clear. So it is taking me some time to come to terms with your interpretation. (That’s not to say your interpretation is wrong – just that it is so alien to my own perspective, that I am having difficulty with it. I don’t, by the way, insist on my own perspective!)

      If your interpretation is correct, and Emma really is suppressing an inner rage at the mundane nature of provincial small town life, it must follow that the ending is nothappy – that Emma is merely fooling herself on that point. (Or that, once again, she is suppressing her true feelings.) I cannot think of any passage that hints at or implies this, let alone one that says so explicitly.

      f your interpretation is correct, then, in short, it is a very different novel from the one I had thought I had read. I think I need a bit more time to think about this!

      All the best, Himadri


  5. Posted by Carolyn on November 28, 2014 at 6:52 am

    I’m a little surprised that a lack of narrative action would bother you, Himadri – how did you manage to enjoy Clarissa so much if that is the case?

    It’s interesting how such different interpretations exist over the same texts. I am reading David Lodge’s Nice Work and his academic woman protagonist sees everything in terms of feminist academic theory, and sees contradictions in the 19th century novelists’ support (often) of the working class in the industrial novels. (The visitor in the end comes to the rescue and marries the boss in North and South, for instance.) However some of the discussion she has borders on the satirical to me, though it’s not really obvious. But I think I have read that Lodge disapproves of the very esoteric academic chat. One passage has her saying, “Doesn’t it bother you at all that the things we care so passionately about – for instance, whether Derrida’s critique of metaphysics lets idealism in by the back door, or whether Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory is phallogocentric, or whether Foucault’s theory of the spistreme is reconciable with daliectical materialism – things like that, which we argue about and read about and write about endlessly – doesn’t it worry you that ninety-nine point nine per cent of the population couldn’t give a monkey’s?”

    I don’t know about giving a monkey’s but I certainly have no real idea what she is talking about. I gather this book is a sort of new take on North and South.

    Sorry, off the subject of Emma. I like Emma, but I think I would like Mansfield Park better, though the drama part irritates me a little, even though it is there to show the characters in their true colours. I don’t like Persuasion – have read it twice now, and it didn’t grow on me. I’m sure you will see a lot more depth and structure in it than I did. It seemed a bit nothingy and to have only one theme (that of good/bad character). It was all rather black and white, no shades of grey.


    • It doesn’t bother me, but it does make it difficult for me (given my temperament) to read. And it’s not the lack of dramatic action, but the lack of narrative tension. But that I find this difficult is a comment on me, not on the novel. This is why I didn’t mention it in my post.(Clarissa is slow, but dramatically very tense.)

      I haven’t read David Lodge’s novel, but no, it really doesn’t concern me in the slightest that so many things that interest me passionately are minority interests. If I were to restrict my interest only to majority interests – pop music, celebrity culture, the latest blockbuster movies, Kim Kardashian’s arse, etc. – all those things that Yahoo and Facebook et al reckon I ought to be interested in – I’d be bored to death.

      The last time I read through Austen’s novels, Persuasion is actually the one I liked best. It is, as I remember, a novel about the persistence of human love, and of passion, over time, and I remember finding it rather affecting. I’ll read it early next year to complete my latest Austen cycle, and I must admit I’m looking forward to it.

      Mansfield Park I thought was a great masterpiece, by the way, and a novel I’m sure I’ll return to. Emma is a great masterpiece also, but less, I think, to my personal taste.

      All the best, Himadri


  6. I thought that a tremendously perceptive and interesting analysis. It does I think show mastery to turn a drama on a cruel throwaway joke, a slight. It’s easy to make the stakes large in fiction, serial killers who must be stopped before they kill again, aliens who must be foiled lest they end the world, but how much harder to capture the ordinary and the everyday and yet show why it matters? Patrick Hamilton sometimes had that knack too, but it’s rarer than it should be.

    Regarding charity case by the way, I think Emma meant that in a social sense rather than financial.

    Out of interest, have you seen the film Clueless? Possibly one of the finest and most faithful literary adaptations out there in my view, despite transposing the whole thing to 1990s California…


    • Thanks for that, Max. You’re absolutely right: to turn so long and so intricate a novel on a seemingly minor point is extraordinary both in terms of craftsmanship, and also in terms of artistry. The “event”, as such, is not what happens externally (what happens externally are but the mechanics of the plot), but what happens internally – the opening of doors in Emma’s mind to a more truthful perception.

      I h’m afraid that due to varius circumstances (that I won’t bore you with), my nights out to the cinema have been curtailed over several years, and I have as a consequence losttouch and lost interest. But now that the children have both left home, I have a bit more time on my hands than I used to, and I really should take up cinema-going again. I haven’t seen Clueless, although I have, of course, heard of it: I’ll catch up on it.

      Cheers, Himadri


  7. Very interesting analysis of ‘Emma’ in particular, and some of the broad differences between comedy and tragedy in general. I’ve been thinking for some time now about the concept of the flaw in literature, and how in good comedies this is either minor and/or recognised in time to bring about the hero/ine’s redemption; whereas in tragedies the realisation either doesn’t come, or (in more powerful stories – think Othello) comes too late. I find that many narratives that leave me cold or dissatisfied fail to engage precisely with this aspect of character – or to muddy it, such as Hardy (since he’s come up) did with Jude. That last comment is very subjective, I realise!


    • Hello faye, and thank you very muhch both for your comment, and for the re-blog.

      I find particularly fascinating the borderline between comedy and tragedy: this is an area that Shakespeare explotred to some depth, creating characters in comedythat may be termed tragic (e.g. Shylock), or who, at least, have tragic potential (malvolio); and, conversely, creating characters in tragedy who can easily be seen from a comic perspective (Antony and Cleopatra, say). Or take something such as Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punihment: we can agree that it’s not a comedy (although there are comic elements in it); however, Raskolnikov does achieve redemption – atr, at the very least, take a first step towards redemption.

      I find myself having very ambivalent feelings about Hardy. His plotting often let him down, I think: normally, I don’t find the plot a particularly interesting r even important aspect of qa novel, but it’s important in Hardy’s novels because he makes it important: he puts a great emphasis on the mechanics of the plot. But once one looks beyond the plot, he is clearly a writer of great vision, and there are a great many things in Hardy’s work that really do haunt the imagination – whatever reservation i mayhave about his plotting. I actually like Jude the Obscure the best amongst his novels, for the very reason that the actual mechanics of the plot are not placed in the forefront of the work. It is still a flawed work in many respects, but it leaves behind so powerful an aftertaste that I don’t know there’s much point in dwelling on the flaws. After all, only the artist who doesn’t aim high enough creates works completely without flaw! And, whatever one may think about Hardy, he aimed high artistically, and I have a great respect for his novels..

      However, i haven’t read Hardy recently, so I really shouldn’t comment.

      All the best, Himadri


  8. Reblogged this on fayedavies.


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