POINT OF VIEW
Emma is told from the point of view of an omniscient narrator, who expresses
Austen's views and values. One mark of the narrator's omniscience is
her having nothing to learn; her understanding is not changed or
enlarged by anything that happens in the course of the narrative. Her
values and her insight into the characters and things are the same at
the end of the novel as at the beginning.
Wayne C. Booth characterizes Austen's narrator as the
embodiment of everything we admire most—wise, gracious, penetrating in
judgment, subtle, witty, tender, and properly valuing wealth and rank A
sharp-eyed observer, the narrator/Austen presents the follies,
pretenses, and cruelties of people and of society, often with
understated and unsparing irony.
She is also capable of being understanding of and showing compassion
for characters who, however flawed or foolish, are not mean-spirited or
malicious. A reader who sees Austen's novels as only lighthearted,
comfortable comedy will miss her subtlety and much of her meaning.
The point of view in this novel is more complex than the
use of an omniscient narrator might suggest because for most of Emma,
the narrator presents events and characters from Emma's perspective; in
other words, generally she is presenting Emma's thoughts, feelings, and
judgments. Thus the reader must distinguish between Emma's values and
judgments and the narrator's. Sometimes the reader must infer the
narrator's view from the use of language--perhaps an ironic word or
phrase appears in the flow of Emma's thoughts to distance the narrator
from Emma and thereby imply the narrator's views. Or the narrative
unobtrusively shifts from Emma's perspective to the narrator's for a
sentence or two or in the choice of a phrase or even one word.
To further complicate this discussion of point of view
in Emma, I am going to pose some questions which open alternate
possibilities: Is the narrator really omniscient? Is the narrator
really Austen? Or is the narrator a persona, just one more
character in the novel? Even if she is a persona and not Austen, she
may still be omniscient and represent Austen's values and judgments.
But does she, or is she merely an apparently omniscient author and
possibly fallible? Frankly, I believe that the narrator is omniscient
and speaks with Austen's voice, as you know from our inclass
discussion; however, I raise these possibilities—and they are
possibilities—to stimulate your thinking and to suggest the
complexities of the point of view, even one apparently as simple as the
Chapter 1 (Pages 27-34)
The opening paragraphs of Emma suggest the
serious defects in Emma's character and situation, which on the surface
seem ideal. What more could we want than to be like Emma—young,
good-looking, healthy, rich and free to do as we like? Austen, however,
sounds a warning note in the first sentence of the novel, when she
comments that Emma seemed to have "some of the best blessings
of existence." Having and seeming to have are obviously
not the same thing. The next two paragraphs suggest drawbacks in her
situation and character: a lack of parental control, egotism, and
wilfulness (though Emma values Miss Taylor's judgment, she acts on her
With the fourth paragraph, the narrator ironically
calls Emma's situation "evils" and "disadvantages"; these adjectives
are of course ironic because her situation would ordinarily be regarded
as highly desirable and enviable. The narrator adds that their "danger"
was "at present so unperceived" that she did not see them as
"misfortunes." This language prepares for the serious problems that the
rest of the novel will detail.
Miss Taylor's Marriage:
Emma feels the loss of Miss Taylor, who was "particularly interested in
herself, in every pleasure, every scheme of hers–one to whom she could
speak every thought as it arose, and who had such an affection for her
as could never find fault" (p. 27). In this ironic detail of Emma as a
spoiled egotist, what is the point of view? Is the narrator speaking?
Or has the narrator entered Emma's mind to present Emma's views and
feelings, to reveal how Emma perceives herself and her relationship
with Miss Taylor?
An unwary reader might easily mistake Emma's opinions, feelings, and
judgments for the narrator's. Take, for example, the passage describing
Emma's feelings after spending an evening with Harriet. Emma's vanity
is gratified by Harriet's admiration of her and of Hartfield, with the
implicit acknowledgement of Emma's superiority and Harriet's
inferiority. Unaware of her own egotism or comic illogicality, Emma
draws the conclusion that Harriet's being impressed by her
superiority is an obvious sign of Harriet's sensibleness. Emma reasons
deference, seeming so pleasantly grateful for
being admitted to Hartfield, and so artlessly impressed by the
appearance of everything in so superior a style to what she had been
used to, that she must have good sense and deserve encouragement.
Encouragement should be given... She would notice her; she
would improve her; she would detach her from her bad acquaintance and
introduce her into good society; she would form her opinions and her
manners. It would be an interesting and certainly a very kind
undertaking, highly becoming her own situation in life, her leisure,
and power. (p. 42)
The judgment that manipulating Harriet and determining
the course of her life would be an "interesting" and "certainly a very
kind undertaking" is Emma's, not the narrator's. Ironically, in
reproducing Emma's thoughts, Austen reveals how self-centered, how
self-deluded, and how presumptuous and arrogant Emma is being.
CHAPTERS 1-3 (Pages 27-43)
In chapters 1, 2, and 3, the narrator
introduces and "places" several major characters socially, morally, and
- Emma. What do the introductory
pargraphs indicate about her socially, morally, and intellectually?
- Mr. Knightley. He is described as "sensible" (p. 31).
Do his conversation and behavior in the rest of the chapter support
this description? What does his treatment of Mr. Woodhouse indicate
about him morally?
- Mr. Weston. What is his social position? what does
the narrator imply about his social status and his
- Miss Churchill. How is Mr. Weston's first wife
characterized socially and morally (pages 35-6)?
- Miss Taylor. Does her social position change with her
- Harriet Smith. What is Harriet's social position as
the "natural daughter of somebody" (p. 41)? And what does her response
to Emma indicate about her intellectual powers (p. 43)?
- Miss Bates and Mrs. Bates. The social position and
character of Miss Bates and the feelings of other
people toward her will be important later in the novel.
- Highbury (not a character in the usual sense, but
certainly a strong presence in the novel and arguably a "character").
How is the town of Highbury characterized, through Highbury's response
to Frank Churchill, "one of the boasts of Highbury," and his letter (p.
37)? Is it, for example, a tightly-knit community or a fragmented
society? a community where people gosisp or where they mind their own
business or even ignore one another? Is Highbury a community of spies,
as some readers claim?
THE NARRATOR'S IRONY
According to A.C. Bradley, for whom the narrator and
Austen are the same, "Jane Austen regards the characters, good and bad
alike, with ironical amusement, because they never see the situation as
it really is and as she sees it.... We constantly share her point of
view, and are aware of the amusing difference between the fact and its
appearance to the actors." As you read the novel, think about whether
the text supports his interpretation or to what extent the text
Much of the irony in this novel derives from the
narrator's comments and tone. The narrator wields irony incisively to
expose the egotism and the cruelties of individuals and society, to
establish values, and to make judgments. Consider the following
examples (I have italicized text to emphasize the irony), and think
about whether any of them exemplify what Harding might call "regulated
- Mr. Weston, in letting the
wealthy Churchills raise his son, "may be supposed to have felt"
some doubt and reluctance; because Austen does not say he did feel
them, the reader infers that he most likely did not feel them or did
not feel them very deeply. The narrator continues that he gave up Frank
"to the care and the wealth of the Churchills, and he had only
his own comfort to seek and his own situation to improve as he
could" (p. 36).
- Despite not having beauty, youth,
or wealth, Miss Bates "enjoyed a remarkable degree of popularity"
(p. 40). The implication is that externals are valued in society, not
merit or other intrinsic qualities. The narrator identifies another
lack that ordinarily decreases the likelihood of popular respect, she
had no intellectual superiority to "frighten those who might hate
her into outward respect," a brief glimpse at the ugliness of
- Austen contrasts Mrs. Goddard's homely school with
fashionable seminaries, which advertised "in long sentences of refined
nonsense" and "where young ladies for enormous pay might be
screwed out of health and into vanity" (p. 40).
- Happily married though John Knightley may be, his
marriage is nonetheless detrimental to him as an individual; having a
wife who worships him and acquiesces to everything he says provides no
check to his temper: "it was hardly possible that any natural
defect in it should not be increased" (p. 99). Thus, the conditions
which contribute to his contentment in his marriage—his wife's
acquiesence and uncritical admiration—contentment, also contribute to
his deterioration as a person.
- The visit of Isabella's sister, husband, and child to
Hartfield is a success–"perfect in being much too short" (p.
110). The (ironic) discrepancy between the usual view of a perfect
visit and the actuality of a perfect visit needs no comment.
- "Human nature is so well disposed towards
those who are in interesting situations that a young person who either
marries or dies is sure of being kindly spoken of" (p. 169). Social
hypocrisy is concisely exposed; the truth is irrelevant.
It would be erroneous to think that only
the narrator assesses the action and makes valid judgments of the
characters, the action, and society. Sometimes the characters also
provide insight into Emma and into the other characters by assessing
their behavior and thereby making clear the way society functions. In
Chapter 5 (the only chapter in which Emma is the subject, rather than a
participant), Mr. Knightley expresses his concern about Emma's
friendship with Harriet; his concern is justified both by the faulty
basis on which Emma establishes the relationship and by subsequent
events. Mrs. Weston disagrees out of her partiality for Emma. In the
course of their conversation, Mr. Knightley adds to our understanding
of Emma with his details about her childhood, e.g., not applying
herself to develop her abilities. This scene helps to characterize Emma
in another way, by the implicit contrast of her inability to take
advice with Mr. Knightley's accepting Mrs. Weston's advice about the
futility of making an issue of the friendship.
Questions to consider: Is it only
characters whose judgment is fundamentally sound and trustworthy that
can fulfill these functions ( provide insight, etc.)? Or can
mean-spirited, foolish, or otherwise untrustworthy characters also
fulfill these functions upon occasion?
DISCUSSION OF EMMA