Move over, Pride and Prejudice. Emma is my new favourite Jane Austen novel, and while Austen may be better known for Pride and Prejudice, this book is what has earned her acclaim in my eyes. At times plodding and predictable, Emma nonetheless won me over with a complex cast of characters, whose changing relationships are the key to the entire story. Austen's ironic hand makes this book a light but real commentary on the class divisions present in her contemporary England, particularly how those divisions influence whom, if anyone, a woman marries.
Austen puts a good deal of effort into making Emma a three-dimensional character who is patently unlikable. Witty, argumentative, manipulative, and proud, Emma wants for nothing—and as a result, her boredom gets her into trouble. The book tends to present scenes such that Emma does something to someone, rather than the other way around, but ultimately the person most affected by her scheming is Emma herself.
Watching Emma acknowledge her flaws and begin to change is a very satisfactory experience. Near the beginning, she almost comically refuses to recognize her own hypocrisy with regards to Harriet Smith's prospects. She looks down upon Mr. Martin, a worthy farmer, even though Harriet is an orphan and her only status comes from Emma's patronage. With each new target for Harriet's affections, Emma only complicates matters further. First she encourages Harriet to pursue Mr. Elton, who in the process falls for Emma; then she thinks Harriet has feelings for Frank Churchill, only to later learn it is Mr. Knightley who has caught Harriet's eye.
It sounds like a daytime soap opera, and the thought did cross my mind while watching these attractions wax and wane. Enough already, I thought, just marry someone! Such an interpretation is tempting but ultimately quite naive. The only relationship plot device that truly annoyed me was Frank Churchill's secret engagement. I predicted whom he was going to marry but did not foresee when they became engaged (prior to the beginning of the novel, even). This is an exception to the rule, however, and that is what saves Emma. Rather than rely on twists, Austen uses the conflict generated by her own characters to create a remarkable story.
Although certain characters (like Mrs. Elton) can be seen as antagonists, there are not so much antagonists in Emma as people acting on various motivations, working at cross-purposes. I read Mrs. Elton not as a malicious character but as a woman who, having married slightly upward in society, desperately seeks acceptance and validation from the other women in her new circle. Hence, after Emma spurns Mrs. Elton's attempts at friendship, Mrs. Elton becomes cold toward Emma. Likewise, her unwelcome exertions on Jane Fairfax's behalf stem from the same desire to be seen as useful, connected, powerful.
I love Mr. Woodhouse, who can also be quite an obstacle, in a harmless-old-man sort of way. It is no wonder that Emma is so bold and forthright in her planning when her father is disengaged with the world around him. I particularly love how he goes on about marriage as a bad thing, and the book implies that he has always held this view, even as a young man. So how exactly did he end up with not one but two daughters? Perhaps this paradox is the source of his lethargy and hypochondria!
The main conflict comes mostly from the love triangles in which Emma finds herself. First with Harriet and Mr. Elton, then with Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, then Harriet and Frank Churchill, and finally Harriet and Mr. Knightley. Not all of these triangles are genuine (and in almost every case, Emma denies her feelings for the main in question), which only makes the ensuing complications more comical.
Rather than merely keeping tone light, however, Austen harnesses this comedic energy to take Emma to the next level. After the "incident on Box Hill," as it becomes known, Emma takes a step back and seriously re-evaluates herself. Throughout the novel she talks to herself, her thoughts mingling with those of the third-person narrator. We learn from Emma about how clever Emma is, how kind Emma is, how lucky it is that Emma will never marry. And then, after she snaps and ruins the party for everyone, Emma stops to question exactly why she behaved that way on Box Hill. Was she truly upset with Mrs. Elton and annoyed with Miss. Bates?
The first half of Emma is sugary and sometimes soporific. The second half, however, is deep and full of introspection on Emma's part. Austen has created a character with genuine, interesting flaws and made a story out of the revelation of those flaws. By the end of the book, Emma is not perfect—no one is—but she is happier for having cast aside some of her pretensions and, on some level, changed.
The last chapter of the book felt like a hasty postscript. I suppose Austen felt it necessary to have a quick epilogue that assured us everyone lived happily-ever-after. It was just jarring, because it spanned almost as much time as the rest of the entire novel, if not more.
I began Emma with high expectations. Unlike Sense and Sensibility, Emma lived up to those expectations. This book continued to surprise me as I read further—not, mind you, in the plot, which is fairly predictable. No, this book's virtues lie in the hearts and minds of its characters. Austen does more than write romance in Emma; she creates an entire small village of people and the equivalent set of relationships to match. The result: thoughtful prose and an artful story.