Character of Emma Woodhouse
Emma Woodhouse is the heroine of the novel, Emma. She is central to the action of the novel, because every other character is related to her. W. A. Craik says that all the characters in Emma “are primarily there for their relevance to Emma herself.” She is the axis on which the plot of the novel turns. It is significant that the novel bears her name.
She is twenty one, the younger daughter of Mr. Woodhouse. She is clever, witty, and magnanimous. She is considerate to her father, kind to the poor, and attached to her governess, Miss Taylor. But she is spoilt, snobbish and conceited. Let us now examine her faults and merits.
Emma is rich and class-conscious. She wanted to decline the invitation of the Coles because they were inferior to her. By declining their invitation she wanted to teach them that it was not for them to dictate the terms on which the superior families would visit them. When Harriet asks Emma why she did not marry, Emma replies:
“I must see somebody very superior to any one I have seen yet to be tempted.”
Emma separates Harriet from Mr. Martin because, she thinks, his social status is inferior, and tries, because of this class snobbery, to hand her over to the wretched Elton.
She is not ordinarily selfish. But there is one glaring instance of her selfishness. She thought that Mr. Knightley should not marry because this would injure the inheritance rights of his nephew, Henry. But she does not care for this right of Henry when she herself marries Knightley. She “was never struck with any sense of injury to her nephew Henry, whose rights as heir expectant had formerly been so tenaciously regarded.”
Emma suffers from jealousy. She cannot accept any man or woman to be her superior. If there is one who is superior to her in any respect, she feels jealous of him or her. She cannot like Mrs. Elton being marked by the people. She cannot forgive Jane for her superiority in beauty, elegance and excellence.
Though Emma is generous and kind, she can be at times cruel. It is really very cruel of her to snub and mock the poor harmless Miss Bates to her face in the Box Hill Picnic.
The worst fault of Emma is that she is the victim of her own delusion. She suffers from a disposition to think a little too well of herself, and has rather too much her own way. She takes the credit for the marriage of Miss Taylor to Mr. Weston. She boasts of making the match herself. She does not intend to marry, and therefore, like Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, she becomes a match-maker, though, unlike Mrs. Bennet, she is not foolish. Though she is always embarrassingly wrong in her judgment of other characters, she is, unlike Mrs. Bennet, never an object of ridicule.
Emma now intends to make one more match, that of Mr. Elton, the Vicar of Highbury. So she selects a lonely, illegitimate girl, Harriet Smith to fulfill her plan. She treats her as a puppet. She sets about destroying her relations with Mr. Martin, and throws her at Mr. Elton’s head. And herein lies the irony. She discovers that Mr. Elton does not have any interest in Harriet, and supposes that Emma has been throwing herself at his head. She-still wants to find a match for Harriet though she decides not to be active.
And while Emma is in search for a suitable match for Harriet, she herself falls in life with Frank Churchill. The fascination for Frank grows gradually but surely. She seems to have some intuition that she would like Frank in the manner in which Miranda in The Tempest has some intuition of Ferdinand who is to win her love: “a brave vessel” (Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her) (Act One, Scene Two lines 7-8). Soon after in chapter 23, the arrival of Frank to Hartfield infuses new blood in the heart of Emma.
She felt immediately that “she should like him”. She seems to be falling in love with Frank In the next chapter we read that she wants to see him again in the company of Mrs. Weston because her opinion of him depends upon his behaviour to Mrs. Weston. She feels herself so well acquainted with him that she hardly believes it to be only their second meeting. In the next chapter Jane Austen writes that if she is not really in love with him, she is at least very near it. In chapter 26 we read “Emma divined what everybody present must be thinking. She was his object, and everybody must perceive it.” This clearly shows that Frank is the first love of Emma.
This gives birth to second match for Harriet. Emma had begun to like Knightley more when at the Crown Ball “his tall, firm, upright figure, among the bulky forms and stooping shoulders of the elderly men, was such as Emma felt must draw everybody’s eyes.” But she certainly falls in love with him at the disclosure of Harriet’s love for Knightley which is the climax of the story. She now wants to marry him : “It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself.”
Though Emma has always been wrong about her judgment, she has always been morally right. She has always erred in judgment. She has been wrong about Harriet, Mr. Elton, Mr. Frank and even about herself. She has always been wrong about Jane’s relation with Mr. Dixon and thinks that she receives letters from him. But what is noble and great about her character is that she repents for her wrongs to others. She bears the blame patiently, without any ill-will. Knightley says to her :
“I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.”
She snubs Miss Bates more in playfulness rather than in bad spirit. Her snubbing of Miss Bates expresses her vitality and a sense of wit and fun rather than callousness. Yet she repents when Mr. Knightly turns on her like an outraged god. She weeps the tears of repentance, and her remorse is touching. When Emma sees the unfortunate effect of her ill judged efforts on Harriet, she makes necessary amends, and sends her to live with her sister Isabella. Bradley praises her magnanimity and generous nature. Margaret Kennedy writes: “Miss Woodhouse has an excellent heart.” Ronald Blythe has a great admiration for her when he writes that “she is never emotionally or intellectually static.”
Emma’s greatest quality, however, which makes her a dynamic character, is that she learns by experience. Her learning, though slow, is perfect. In chapter 47 she feels sympathetic for Harriet, accepts the blunders and the blindness of her head and heart, and acknowledges that she has acted most weakly. She learns that “if Harriet, from being humble, were grown vain, it was her doing too.” Her self-awareness is complete when she acknowledges to Knightley : “for at that time I was a fool.”
Emma, no doubt, feels humiliated at discovering her wrong judgments. But out of this humiliation comes happiness. She discovers the truth about her heart. At the end of the novel Emma emerges as a humbler and wiser girl.
Emma’s learning process lies at the centre of the novel. Emma is the masterpiece of Jane Austen on account of the learning process and the comic self-discovery in Emma Robert Garis Writes in this respect:
“Emma can be looked at ironically exactly because her mistakes are tou and totally self-induced. But Emma’s ‘simple’ comic self-discovery is paradoxically one of the most complex, most convincingly inevitable, most vividly rendered things in art.”