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Point of View
The Narrator
The Narrator's Irony
Other Perspectives
Discussion of Emma


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 omniscient author.


Chapter 1 (Pages 27-34)

Paragraphs 1-4:
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 own judgment).

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?

Emma's Perspective:
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 from Harriet's

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 intellectually:

  • 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 morality?

  • 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 marriage?

  • 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?


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 supports it.

Pages 36-136

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 hatred":

  • 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 social relationships.

  • 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?


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