Pleasures of Idleness: Emma

er-emmaI read Jane Austen in summer because bright summer days and her stories of rural matrimonial schemes go together perfectly. This year I reread Emma, which I’d read once in high school. Emma would always have the face of Gwyneth Paltrow for me: I love this adaptation, which was also my first encounter with Austen, and I think I even prefer it to the book. However, the book has charms of its own and, most of all, it surprises a modern, seasoned reader (that would be me) on many levels.

The first, and to me majorly important, surprise comes with the lack of suffering. I love reading and couldn’t give it up but sometimes it depresses the hell out of me. As a rule, characters have to suffer grief, loss, all sorts of misfortunes grand and small and sometimes, sometimes this knowledge makes me hesitate before opening a new book. Now, in Emma suffering is minor. Sure, it sucks when the man you discover yourself attracted to is, to your best knowledge, considering marrying another. But it’s hardly life-shattering, we’ve all been there and survived. Throughout the novel Emma remains rich, healthy and relatively carefree. I actually find it refreshing.

Another surprise is how this is a story of tediousness but while it verges on being boring, it’s actually not. (Well, to me. I can certainly imagine people, and especially men, crying hot tears of boredom over the endless dinner parties and local gossip.) Austen ingeniously builds idleness into the very structure of the novel. When a character is supposed to be tiresome in her constant blabbering, the reader labors through word-for-word citations so that they can experience the boredom. Many times we need to learn exactly what Mr. Woodhouse finds detrimental to his health, without the option of tuning him out and admiring wallpaper patters, which always helps in real life (and, by the way, I find him the most infuriating character in the whole book). Most Emma’s troubles come from the fact that she has nothing to do and this lifestyle does not agree with her: devoid of inner interests, she entertains herself with the most skill-less matchmaking in history. However, while Emma might benefit from working in a call center, I envy her the glorious freedom of unemployment without financial troubles. Must be soothing.

Emma herself, though claimed by Austen to be a heroine no one save herself would like, is not nearly as unsympathetic as this disclaimer promises. Admittedly, a likeable brat is easier to write than a likeable saint, but considering how self-absorbed, unobservant and callous Emma proves herself through most of the story, it surprises me that I find her so enjoyable (enjoyable as a character; I wouldn’t spend two hours with her). While many of these features bring her close to Scarlett O’Hara, Scarlett’s rebellion endears her to us while Emma remains prissily conservative. Of course, Emma changes or hers wouldn’t be a story at all, but the change is not as substantial as today’s reader might expect. For instance, she is glad to be rid of Harriet in the dénouement. In the end she’s just as much a narcissistic snob who has everything coming her way, and we have no choice but to accept it. In fact, it’s consistent how little drama in her life results in little change.

Finally, for the romantic interest. I know Austen’s romantic heroes feature in many an erotic dream, but frankly I never found them all that exciting. They always hover in the background, snide and self-pleased (or else idealistic and irritating) while the more lively heroines do their growing. Mr. Knightley is perhaps the most interesting (but that might be the movie fan speaking) but still he’s barely sketched out. We only get a vague image of masculinity and independence (married to perfect manners; her male characters always lack slightly rough edges) and can practically put any face we want on him. Personally, I prefer my romantic interests more developed. Of course, there’s the whole psychoanalytic ickiness of him being a father figure to Emma, what with the age difference and the constant moral preaching, but, speaking from my oh-so-vast real life experience, there seem to be immature girls who need precisely that: an older, decisive guy to keep them in check and curb their drama.

Altogether, I find Emma one of more pleasant Austen reads: everyone ends up with who you want them to end up with (I’m speaking of you, Elinor and Edward) and you get to relax in the world of balls, dinners and strawberry picking. However, for anyone who likes their action, even of the Pride and Prejudice kind, it must be quite disappointing.


4 thoughts on “Pleasures of Idleness: Emma

  1. Emma is a masterpiece. Austen seems to understand the ordinary dilemma; it may not be earth shattering but when you are faced with similar situations it is self absorbing. She seems to get the modern voice despite having written 200 years ago.

    • Well, if I haven’t put it clearly enough, I enjoy how she writes about small events of everyday without being insufferably pretentious, like some modernist writers from the beginning of the 20th century. It’s refreshing and optimistic.

  2. I am also refreshing my Austen this summer. I started with a bad experience with this very book that you are writing about, and it kind of scarred me for a long time. However, I am sucking it up and now I am determined to read all seven of her novels. Three down now, and four more to go! I enjoyed your interpretation of Emma; especially what you said about Austen incorporating idleness into her story so much that it almost IS the story. I never thought about it that way. Interesting…

    • Thanks for reading and commenting! Yes, when you go through another of Miss Bates’ pointless speeches, the comic effect is long gone and you start viewing it as a device for a different purpose. Good luck with the rest of your Austen! I haven’t actually read all of her, but I think I preferred Pride and Prejudice to Emma and definitely Emma to Mansfield Park.


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