My aim in writing and posting my draft of Emma: Transactions, Translations and Transgressions was to attempt to situate my reflections on Emma into a dynamic ‘discussion starter’ and engage the class in a conversation about Marxist and Moralist readings of the novel.
The strengths of my piece are that it attempts to contrast two often opposing strains of literary criticism in Emma, a very bourgeois novel which is in some ways surprisingly progressive and in some ways predictably conservative.I was able to start a conversation online and continue it in person in class on Emma’s motivations with Josh and Holly, and Irene had some fascinating ideas about her motivations and uses for social power.The limits of my piece are that it lacks direct quotes or much paraphrase which could have strengthened my arguments and are necessary evidence for a longer paper. I also don’t think I fully dived into or understood the Marxist criticisms, sticking mostly to the idea of economic exchange and not the social implications of said exchange.
In considering the social implications of exchange in Emma, the Critical History points out what readers derive from the work- sentimental nostalgia for a “simpler time” where romantic advances took place in parlors and poems instead of brusque texts at 2 a.m, and women were innocent and intricate creatures looking to align themselves and others with love and social standing,not just Gold Diggers looking for Sugar Daddies and Ballers. (408) Of course, life is not quite as bilateral and never was, but people have a weird tendency to take a past they had no experience of and simplify it in order to put it on a pedestal and call it better than today. As for exchange inside the novel, there is not only the exchange of gossip and information, but the exchange or romantic interest and moral instruction. In 1870, Richard Simpson reviewed the works of Austen and wrote they are full of “the platonic idea that the giving and receiving of knowledge, the active formation of another’s character, or the more passive growth under another’s guidance, is the truest and strongest foundation of love.” (qtd. 409) However, these examples of exchange beyond what I had previously written about are troubling, because they are an exchange which happens primarily for a white, middle class, female readership, often with a college degree. Emma offers little to poor women, both in a novel that might speak to or interest them and in the novel’s treatment of Harriet. Emma tries repeatedly to give Harriet a fish and never lets her try to fish for herself, a strategy which would have situated her much earlier in a beneficial marriage to a man she had feelings for, Robert Martin. This misplaced belief that she is doing a charitable service for Harriet by trying to raise her prospects in life while really limiting them can be seen as a critique of the white, wealthy woman’s meddling in poor people’s lives in the name of charity and somehow making those lives worse- for example through legislation and advocacy gone wrong, such as temperance movements and prohibitions. These movements and laws did not prevent any woman’s husband from the melancholy drama of spending his family’s grocery money at the bar, and made alcohol more expensive and still reasonably easy to procure due to how unenforceable bans are, taking more food out of the mouths of poor women’s babes to satisfy their father’s thirst. The Temperance Unions failed to understand the drinking culture many immigrants came from and maintained in the New World, and instead condescended to pass WASP moral judgement and decision making on people whom they knew little about, and therefore could help little. These examples of the exclusion and misuse of poor women in Emma are just a few that could be cited as part of a Marxist review of the novel.