Wit and Wisdom by Emma Woodhouse

Emma might be my favorite (well actually, third favorite) Jane Austen novel. I think this novel goes farthest in criticizing its main character, much farther than Northanger Abbey ever went. Emma Woodhouse is undeniably a good person, but man, is she ridiculous sometimes. I love Emma because unlike Elizabeth, she doesn’t pride herself on her intelligence or her discernment; rather, she throws herself wholly into the shallow world of High Society and owns it. Or, at least, she’d like to think she does.

So much of this novel’s narrative voice is sarcastic toward Emma. It seems like Austen is criticizing her secretly from the very first line, and it’s almost impossible for me to read this book without chuckling once every minute. I would argue that Emma is Austen’s only female anti-heroine, Catherine Morland being too naive to count. I feel like with Emma, Austen is exploring the possibility of a nicer version of Lydia Bennet, and almost apologizing for her scathing portrayal of young, flighty women of High Society. They’re not all terrible, she seems to say. Emma means well. She’s spoiled, arrogant and sort of a pretender/social climber, but she’s kind. At least she tries to be.

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She’s Cher Horowitz, literally. I just can’t help but love her. So here are my favorite spoken-by Emma quotes from Austen’s much-loved novel:

These quotes more than anything exhibit Emma’s belief that she is always right and that her insight and advice is indispensable to those “less fortunate” than herself:

“You will be an old maid! and that’s so dreadful!”  [Harriet]

“Never mind, Harriet, I shall not be a poor old maid; and it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls, but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as any body else.”

On the man who loves Harriet, the not-so-wealthy Robert Martin:

“I have no doubt that he will thrive and be a very rich man in time–and his being illiterate and coarse need not disturb us.”

Sometimes she accidentally stumbles upon profound truth, as in the case where she defends Frank Churchill:

“It is very unfair to judge of any body’s conduct, without an intimate knowledge of their situation. Nobody, who has not been in the interior of a family, can say what the difficulties of any individual of that family may be.”

And in the case of men always expecting to be well-received after proposing marriage (Elizabeth Bennet would sympathize):

“Oh! to be sure,” cried Emma, “it is always incomprehensible to a man that a woman should ever refuse an offer of marriage. A man always imagines a woman to be ready for anybody who asks her.”

But the best Emma quotes are the narrator’s descriptions of her! These are the ones that truly elucidate how deluded Emma can be, however good her intentions are:

“She had always wanted to do everything, and had made more progress, both in drawing and music, than many might have done with so little labour as she would ever submit to. She played and sang — and drew in almost every style; but steadiness had always been wanting; and in nothing had she approached the degree of excellence which she would have been glad to command and ought not to have failed of. She was not much deceived as to her own skill either as an artist or a musician, but she was not unwilling to have others deceived, or sorry to know her reputation for accomplishment often higher than it deserved.”

This quote in particular shows such sympathy for Emma’s failures and shortcomings, and allows her much room to be flawed and human. Which one of us has not wanted to appear smarter or more talented than we are? All praise Emma Woodhouse! (Or better yet, Jane Austen herself!)

So what do you think of Emma? Who’s your favorite Austen girl (or boy!)?


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