Signet Essay Contest 2012

Margaret Cregan

Margaret Cregan

Jane Austen opens her novel Emma; with an ironic description of her heroine—ironic, given that many parts of the statement will become false at some point during the book: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence, and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” At various points in the story Emma does indeed become vexed, unhappy, and humble in regards to her own cleverness. The most notable of these events humiliate and distress Emma because they force her to acknowledge her deficiencies in points on which she had previously been complacent6 her penetration, her behavior, and her control of her own heart. Her unpleasant insight into Mr. Elton’s character, her recognition of her neglect of others, and her realization of her love for Mr. Knightley all humble and mature Emma. While these events for a time falsify Jane Austen’s opening statement about her heroine, the end of the novel sees Emma restored to a happiness even more meaningful than at first, and it is the journey to that conclusion that drives the story and develops its heroine.

The denouement of the complicated comedy of errors involving Mr. Elton, Harriet, and herself first truly humbles Emma Woodhouse. The revelation of Elton’s true affections and character forces Emma to admit herself neither so omniscient nor so quick–sighted as she had previously imagined. However, thanks to this blunder, she develops a higher value for character and is less blinded by social station. Prior to this event she ignored Elton’s vanity and pompousness because she saw only the social standing which would elevate her friend. Afterward, though she still falls into many missteps and misconceptions, she is less blinded to people’s characters by their importance in the world. She does not fall in love with Frank Churchill, despite his very desirable station among her acquaintance, and concedes Robert Martin’s respectability and goodness, though he is only a farmer. Emma’s humiliation over her mistake in Mr. Elton not only humbles her but permanently increases her value for true character.

Though her error as to Mr. Elton truly hurts and humbles Emma, she is yet more affected by the realization that she has been unkind and neglectful to those to whom she owes kindness and compassion. Other than the occasional pang on the score of Jane Fairfax, Emma largely ignores these defects in her own behavior until her eyes are opened when Mr. Knightley strongly reproves her unkind witticism at Miss Bates’s expense. Emma’s subsequent unprompted kind concern for, and higher estimation of, Jane Fairfax clearly show that her conscience, and not merely her pride, has been deeply touched. When all is said and done, Emma holds herself to a higher, more rigorous standard of conduct because of the incident on Box Hill. Previously, whenever she felt she had acted wrongly, she comforted herself with the knowledge that her dutiful attentions to her father served as one irreproachable virtue. However, this instance shows her that kindness and compassion must extend beyond her close family circle for the words to have any meaning. Emma is infinitely more affected by this example of her failed duty than by any example of her thwarted cleverness, revealing her to be well principled and well meaning at heart.

When Emma is faced with the sudden realization of her love for Mr. Knightley, she must undergo one final self–reevaluation. This new and surprising piece of information not only humiliates her with how little she previously understood her own feelings, but forces her to reconcile with being much less independent than she had previously fancied. In the beginning of the novel Emma observes to her friend Harriet that “I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry₀Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want,” adding that to fall in love is “not my way or my nature.” However, this insight reveals to her the extent of her own needs, humbling her and making her better acquainted with herself. Her love for Mr. Knightley introduces Emma to two feelings she has never experienced so strongly before: a deep need for the affection of one person, and a painful fear of that need not being met. Emma’s realization of how deeply her happiness depends on others completes her revolution, and she becomes not only humbler but more conscious of her own human needs and limitations.

One of the many reason’s for Emma’s continuing popularity is the universality of its heroine’s journey. Through many blunders, farces, flirtations and misunderstandings, Emma must basically confront her own hubris as well as her own shortcomings. Ultimately, however, it is her conquest of her own weaker qualities—her acquisition of wisdom and happiness — that secure the work’s popularity and constitute its theme. In short, Jane Austen’s fourth novel is the story of one young woman’s progress through many humbling self–revelations and her transition into humility, maturity and compassion, all while retaining “that very dear part of Emma”— her fancy.


For information on the 2012-2013 Signet Classics Essay Contest, click here.