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There are many kinds of challenges when it comes to writing a story, and Jane Austen liked to push it to the limit. According to James Edward Austin Lee, Jane Austen’s nephew, in his memoir of Jane dated from 1870, he says that on commencing her novel Emma, Jane announced that she was going to write an unlikable heroine. How can this be possible? Is it not that the main characteristic of a protagonist is that he or she must be likable, otherwise, why would the public even bother to donate their time to read it?
Emma may not be likable by herself, but she is reliable.
In order for a character to be reliable, the recipe that Jane created states that he or she must either have a strong virtue, a fault or weakness, and, most importantly, a held belief that is changed throughout the story.
And that is what Emma Woodhouse does preciously.
We are told that she is a rich and spoiled girl with everyone around her affirming that belief. Uninterested in matrimony for herself, she has had a recent achievement serving as a matchmaker to her old nanny and, as a result of this, introduced her to higher society. Emma wants to repeat this experiment and so she makes Harriet, a young orphan girl, her protegee, to see what superior prospect she can find for her. In doing so, Emma manipulates Harriet to never conform herself with little, to disregard her first love interest, and to look at men beneath her to the point of not seeing what is good for her situation. In the Regency Era and up to recent times, natural children were a high burn, for they had little chance of ever succeeding in finding true long-term relationships because of prejudice embedded in society. Now, the way Emma encourages Harriet is reliable because many of us had experimented with this ourselves, especially in high school.
Influence, whether good or bad, is a very common theme in friendships.
When a friend thinks she knows best than the other and takes the guidance role, it shapes the choices that friend makes along the way… until sometimes is too late to reverse it, creating a lack of identity that ends up hurting the person.
Pride is the most terrible thing because it prevents one from seeing.
Emma wants to be the model of her times, meaning perfectly good, and that is what becomes her weakness. She is perfectly good with much tenderness and sentiment and not the least wit. She pretends to be very highly accomplished in the understanding of modern languages, excelling in the pursuit of arts and the pianoforte. Yet this is where her friend-nemesis, and later love interest, comes into play: Mr. Knightly. Quote: “Emma knows I never flatter her.”
Unlike everyone else in Highbury who sees little or no fault in Emma, Mr. Knightley recognizes a sense of superiority that leads her to believe she can read people’s desires and urge them to act according to her will. They are both interested in seeing for Harriet´s good but they have different opinions on the path she must take. One thinks she should marry a well-known society person. The other one thinks that this is impossible due to her circumstances and that she should look according to her social status, meaning the farmer. Both plan to match Harriet and both are Cupids (this scene is actually shown in Emma’s 2009 movie) I love the dynamic of contraries because men are women are meant to complement each other and therefore have different opinions until they find a middle ground where they can move on together. We know for a fact that in nature, women represent chaos and men represent order (these driving forces and representations are rooted in ancient psychology). Emma sees what she wants to see according to her fantasy, while George has his foot on the ground.
But another important detail that I find so dear is the fact that while everyone may lie to you to your face, the loved one will present you with a mirror. It reminds me of Proverbs in the Bible which states that friends are important because they will tell you what you lack, while the enemy will not, the enemy benefits from your ignorance. We enrich ourselves when the people that we love see us for who we are, with our limitations and virtues, and let us know where we can ameliorate.
The dynamic between the two is often a theme recurred in realism romances, meaning those who are contrary, end up together.
Jane Austen challenged the contemporary accepted norm that heroines should be conformed to society’s ideals, putting on the shoulders of many women a big cross to bear. At that time, heroines were supposed to be duly, submissive, humble, unsure of their own judgment whilst and of course possessing several female accomplishments along with an innate elegance of taste. Something of this sort of ideal happened in the early 2000s, though with different values. Models and actresses had to be super thin, with Caucasian beauty, and a double standard qualified any misbehavior of a woman to be a scandal, not to men. While now, two decades after, vulnerability, along with a reborn romanticism, is a high theme these days. We see more and more public figures being more honest, and open.
That is one of the reasons why Jane Austen remains so actual.
Unlike many of her characters that are flawed yet likable (like Elizabeth Bennet for instance), Jane managed to create a character that is not affable. Many readers find her vain conceited spoiled petty, small-minded controlling snobby, and arrogant. These are some characteristics leveled at her and these of course are far removed from the ideal feminine heroine. If it had been radical enough to create a flawed heroine like Elizabeth Bennet, Jane goes much further with Emma Woodhouse. Women are supposed to be appealing to other people and what does this really do if you are intent on being likable to others it means that you are subjugated to other people’s opinions. It means that you have an external rather than an internal locus of value. If you are looking to be likable to other people, then your value comes from the way that other people feel about you rather than from your own sense necessarily of self-worth. So, in creating and heroine who is unlikable then Jane Austen is not only not creating a picture of perfection, by a provocative antithesis of a female.
Emma breaks a cardinal rule of well-expected femininity.
Many novels of the period were a tool for conditioning young female readers, but Jane was tired of this constraint. Many novels were fictionized conduct, while realism depicts real people. We are not operating in the kind of polarity where a woman is either an angel or a monster. Emma may be unlikeable, but she has redeeming qualities, she cares deeply for her father, and she is not immoral or evil. In trying to see for Harriet’s being, she does not do it out of malice. Emma admits that has been wrong, and therefore, grows in maturity.
To readers, to some extent, wouldn’t you rather as a reader encounter a complex, difficult nuanced character who reflects the pettiness of self-delusions in real life rather than someone who gets everything right? Jane Austen’s challenge is to make the readers reflect on this issue.
If you find Emma unbearable, then what does that say about you?