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In Highbury, Austen creates a whole, if small world. Repeatedly, the reader gets the sense of an active community, with its members watching one another and exchanging opinions over such matters as Frank's London haircut, Jane's piano, and Mr. Elton's courtship of Emma. Characters like William Larkin, Mr. Perry, and Mrs. Hodges never appear; but their feelings, attitudes, activities, and even their characters are known to us. Ford's store, one of the centers of Highbury, appears several times; from its doors Emma watched the main street and the passersby, whereby Austen described everyday life in Highbury. The description serves a second purpose; it characterizes Emma and her ability to be contented with what life offered, "A mind lively and at ease can do with seeing nothing and can see nothing that does not answer" (p. 211).

The narrator further characterizes Highbury by describing the activities, pleasures, and drawbacks from her own perspective and through the eyes of the characters.

  • Of the ball at which "Everybody seemed happy," the narrator comments, "Of very important, very recordable events, it was not more productive than such meetings usually are" (p. 284).

  • For Emma and Mrs. Weston, talking about "all those little matters on which the daily happiness of private life depends was one of the first gratifications of each" (p. 118).

  • Mr. John Knightley anticipated that the evening at the Westons would be "five dull hours in another man's house, with nothing to say or to hear that was not said and heard yesterday and may not be heard and heard again to-morrow" (p. 115).
Are Austen's comments and her portrayal of Highbury pleasures meant to recreate the actuality of the lives most people lead? Does she agree with Samuel Johnson that "The happiest conversation is that of which nothing is distinctly remembered but a general effect of pleasing impression"? Is she, rather, being ironic and showing up the superficiality and emptiness of ordinary or everyday life? Or is the truth merely that Austen is herself trivial and her worldview narrow?

Austen's portrayal of life in Highbury has often been criticized as narrow and trivial, and the subject and presentation have been judged too limited for Emma to be a great novel. Is this an accurate assessment, or do such comments miss the point? Is a major theme in this novel limitation or constraint, which she perceives as a condition of life?  And is it?


Day 1
Austen, Emma, pp. 7-102
  Austen Overview
  Point of View and The Narrator
Day 2
Emma, pp. 103-209
  Emma, Harriet, and Mr. Elton
Day 3
Emma, pp. 209-317
Day 4         
Emma, pp. 317-412
  Mr. Knightley
  Women's Lot
  The Ending
  Other Issues
Web paper due (1-2 pages)


February 14, 2011