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.
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?
- 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).
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?
DISCUSSION OF EMMA