Emma: Transactions, Translations and Transgressions in the Novel of Manners

Jane Austen’s  Emma details the (mis)adventures of Emma Woodhouse, a meddlesome young lady who’s firmly established social and financial position, narrow realm of experience and sense of entitlement leads her to attempt to manage the lives of her circle. She acts as a social banker, giving and receiving attention, visits, charity, instruction and gossip. She manages the emotional transactions of friendship and courtship; attempts to translate the actions of those around her to others and herself as power plays, romantic advances and submissions; and commits transgressions when these transactions go awry or she misunderstands the actions and words of her friends and acquaintances. However, bankers are the least beloved professionals in the world next to lawyers- Jesus thoroughly disapproved of them (Matthew 21:12-13), and similarly Emma’s mismanaging and cut throat rates for friendship provoke the reader into disliking her. She is demanding, calculating, selfish, and conceited, and her actions are often reproachable. She cannot rest and consider her own character and improving it’s flaws, but must always being trying to improve the character, appearance and situation of those around her. To compound her faults, her father is a milksop so concerned with the digestion of others he appears stingy, frail and entirely obnoxious in his whimpering. Its is shocking given their behavior and personalities that the Woodhouses have so many acquaintances and friends to call on, because they are generous in all the wrong ways (especially with their advice and opinions) and miserly where it least suits them to be.

Yet these tropes are markers of the novel of manners-take the entitled brats of money or aristocracy, set them up to meddle in their small town or social circuit, and either correct them through embarrassing accidents and folly that lead to some social stigma which can be overcome with good humor, loving correction, penance and moral growth; or allow them to make horrid decisions that benefit them materially and rots their souls while they connive and back-stab in a pit of luxury. In Emma, we see the former- she sins again and again with her matchmaking, but finally sees the light and comes to a happy ending with her Mr. Knightly (in shining armor,) and all the other players get the endings they deserve- Harriet marries Mr. Martin, money driven Elton is stuck with social climbing but seemingly coarse Augusta,  Frank and Jane are united as the popular outsiders of the Highgate circle, and Mrs. Weston finally gets to raise her own child with her husband after doing her duty by seeing Emma through her very late blooming into adulthood. However, Emma’s matchmaking only serves to delay everyone’s happy ending, which would have come about in a more natural and less forced way without her interference. She must pay the interests in lost time, mortification and the fluctuations of friendship for her own idiotic maneuvers.

In discussing Emma further with the class I’d like to delve into:

  • why has Austen made her characters in Emma so unlikable, especially throughout the first and second volumes when one should be grabbing the readers attention and trying to get them to care about the main characters. I really couldn’t find any sympathy or interest in my heart for any of their on goings, except pity and secondhand embarrassment for poor Harriet and the feeling that I was always rooting for Knightley to come and put Emma in her place.
  • Emma’s actions as social banker. This is not an action packed novel, and it is humorous in a very dry way, making for a very disinterested reader. Most events take place during walks on country roads and in the parlors of Highgate, Randalls and Donwell Abbey. There is not much to pay attention to or be interested in- it is entirely about social transactions and Emma’s place within them. So why is she afforded so much power as a social banker? It doesn’t add up when she has a weak and widowed father, is 21, unmarried and not very accomplished in comparison with other women of her circle, and her sister is the one more intimately acquainted with London and the British upper middle class.
  • What is the function of marriage in this story? To Emma, it is a cage only meant to enrich or provide social standing to one spouse in exchange for stability, heirs or other benefits until she realizes her love for Knightley. To Harriet, it is the hope for love, a decent name and a real home, that is marred by her richer friends meddling. To Elton, it’s all about the Benjamins. Whats up with all the versatility when it comes to marriage?
  • What is the moral we are supposed to take from Emma’s story? Are we supposed to avoid meddling, or use our embarrassments and moments of gracelessness as opportunities for inner growth? Should we avoid being unmarried young women in the leisure class, which can lead to obnoxiousness? Should we watch out for friends who claim to have our best interest at heart, but are only concerned about social standing and appearances and not our feelings? What is Austen’s point here about manners and people?
  • Why do people like Jane Austen’s novels so much?  I just…. I really don’t get the appeal.

4 thoughts on “Emma: Transactions, Translations and Transgressions in the Novel of Manners

  1. I really enjoyed reading your arguments here. I agreed with a lot of what you said especially about Emma and how she is always meddling and I would also like to talk about the functions of marriage in the story. One thing I did not think about that your response has brought to my attention is why Austen made the characters so unlike able. It may not have completely been her intention with some of the characters, but it certainly seems clear with Emma because I did not like her throughout the whole novel. I wonder if she does this to show something about society as a whole being unlike able or something along the lines of people in higher positions abusing their power as Emma does.
    Another thing that you question that goes along with this is the moral of the story which I speculate at as well. It does seem to have a little to do with everything you mentioned, the meddling and the getting married. Maybe also a little to do with social class and social circles. This would be a great question to delve a little deeper into in class.

  2. Shannon, I enjoyed your comments and the questions you posed. I too cannot give an answer to the origin of Emma’s effective affective power, but I find this question to be the most intriguing. Emma was not hired by any authority to fill this position as a social banker. It seems to be a space created by Highbury, by Emma. She may have the power solely because she created the power ex nihilo. I think the next question has to be “Why?”
    What was Emma’s motivation for her social hierarchical interventions? I do not know, but we might find substance in considering Austen’s social position at the time of writing. Why would Austen want to identify and explore such an expression of influence or power? What motivated THAT? That is my question.

    • OK, First of all, I love that you used the term “ex nihilo.” Thanks for forwarding the discussion Josh and Holly! You both have some great insight here! see you in class.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *