Jane Austen’s “Emma” is a comedic interpretation of the social life and interactions between youth who lived in the 19th century. The main character of this novel, Emma, is an iconic character who charms the readers with her easy-going nature. However, she is also egoistical and lacks regard for the people who surround her. This paper will analyze Jane Austen’s novel “Emma” and the behavior of the main character to show the selfishness of Emma’s actions and the harm she caused to others.
Emma is described as a positive character, she is friendly and pleasant to people around her, and her behavior is consistent with the standards of conduct for the social elite of that time. Austen described her as “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition” (5). However, over the course of this novel, she has shown the dangerous nature of being egotistical. Such person is usually overly focused on themselves and has a difficulty accepting the opinions of others or admitting that they were wrong about something. In this novel, Emma decides that she is the perfect matchmaker for the people surrounding her and affects the opinions and actions of others to push people towards marriage. While this could be interpreted as a considerate act because Emma intends on helping others, she is never asked to participate in the matchmaking. Moreover, she never talks to Mr. Taylor or Harriet about their decisions and feelings because she assumes that she is right.
The first instance where Emma’s egotism is depicted is the beginning of the novel. There, Austen talks about the marriage between Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston, who were introduced to each other by Emma. While introducing two people is an ordinary event, Emma assumes that the fact that these two characters fell in love was due to her superb matchmaking skills. She is self-absorbed with the fascination of her capabilities and does not consider that this matchmaking was a coincidence. Austen herself points to this issue by writing: “the real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself” (12). Hence, Austin points out that Emma’s egotism was strengthened by her privilege, and no one daring to point out that she has made mistakes.
She believes in her superior judgment, which leads her to misinterpret the cues and interfere with the prospects of Harriet’s marriage. In the end, Emma herself suffered from her egoistic behavior because her sympathy might have been left unanswered since Mrs. Knightley misunderstood Emma’s intentions. However, there are many instances over the course of the novel when Emma misunderstands the hints and cues of other people and thinks there is mutual affection between individuals. For example, she thinks that Mr. Dixon is attracted to Jane, and Emma tries to set up the courting between these two characters. At the end, when Harriet admits that she has feelings for Mr. Knightley, Emma herself realizes that she has feelings for him (Austen 70). The latter was overly occupied with setting up marriages she thought were appropriate for others and failed to see heron affection.
One reason for Emma’s behavior is her social status and the importance of social strata during her era. Notably, there was a significant distinction between the aristocrats and other people at that time, and Emma grew up as a privileged child. Moreover, her father does not seem to pay a lot of attention to the upbringings of Emma, which might have caused her to behave as she pleases. However, the reader can notice Emma’s transformation over the course of this novel, which can be attributed to the influence of Mrs. Knightley. For example, when she talks negative things about Miss Bates, Mrs. Knightley scolds her. Despite Emma’s arrogance, she decides to apologize for her behavior to Miss Bates. When Emma admits that she has made many mistakes in her matchmaking endeavors, the Knightly proposes, which hints that Emma will be less self-centered in the future.
The fact that Emma decides to arrange an affair and marriage for her friend and considers it appropriate to interfere with other’s people’s lives and romance shows her selfish attitude. At one point, she describes her attitude towards others in the following manner: “I always deserve the best treatment because I never put up with any other” (Austen 20). This quote is a good characteristic of Emma’s character and her belief that she is superior to others.
Austin’s novel has a comedic element to it, and the author uses this literary device to over exemplify some features of society and the issue of egoism. For example, her characters are overly polite to each other, demonstrating their impeccable manners. Moreover, it sometimes appears that Emma is playing a game when she arranges to find a friend or sets the stage for Harriet’s marriage since she does not perceive these events seriously. None of the things she does over the course of the story appear to be severe or have meaning for Emma, which fits with the comedic nature of this novel. Hence, one explanation for Emma’s strong focus on herself and her selfish behavior is the approach that Austen took to writing this novel since Emma’s character should depict the problem of egocentrism.
At the end of the novel, Emma clearly conveys regret for trying to manipulate the lives of Harriet, Jane, Mr. Knightley, and others. In Chapter 16, she states: “it was foolish, it was wrong, to take so active a part in bringing any two people together” (Austen 80). Moreover, Emma is undoubtedly a strong and vivid female character. She is confident and not afraid to voice her opinions, and she is portrayed as an independent woman. Her self-involvement is an evident problem but considering that she expressed regret about her actions at the end of the novel and the latter’s happy ending, one can assume that the portrayed events helped Emma change for the better. Hence, this novel shows her remarkable transformation, since although she is interested in matchmaking, she also acknowledges that she was wrong about Mr. Eliot’s and Mr. Dixon’s intentions.
Overall, Jane Austen’s novel “Emma” is an interesting case that shows the dual nature of the protagonist. On the one hand, Emma is a cheerful and lively girl who enjoys a privileged life. On the other hand, she often manipulates the people around her, even the closest ones, to do the things she thinks are appropriate. Emma is sure that she cannot be wrong, which at the end threatens the happiness of her friend Harriet because Emma’s arrangements made the latter decline a marriage proposal from a man she loved.
Austen, Jane. 1817. Emma. Penguin Books.