Sharing a little food for thought here before our Emma discussion this Thursday. The last question is enlightening, as I heard from many that you had trouble getting into the book this month.
- About Emma, Jane Austen famously said, “I’m going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” Do you like Emma? Why or why not?
- Austen makes an unusual choice by selecting as her main character the most privileged woman in the book, the woman with “little to distress or vex her.” The Jane Fairfax story line (which W.J. Harvey has called the “shadow novel-within-the-novel”) has more traditional elements of tension and drama than Emma’s story. How did you feel about this novels want of incident and romance? Would you have rather read about Jane?
- Early in the book, Emma tells Harriet she doesn’t plan to marry. But the other women all embody, in one way or another, the serious economic consequences of staying single. The book is filled with women at risk. Discuss with reference to: Miss Bates, Jane Fairfax, Mrs. Elton, Harriet Smith, Miss Taylor.
- Class issues run through every plot line in Emma. How would you describe Mr. Knightley’s views on class and privilege? Harriet Smith is “the natural daughter of nobody knows whom.” Which fact—her illegitimacy or her undetermined class standing—is more important in effecting her marital prospects? How do you feel about Emma’s hopes to see Harriet married above her expectations? How does Emma’s relationship to Harriet change over the course of the book?
- Two characters, Mrs. Elton and Frank Churchill, come into Highbury from the outside and threaten the little community with change. Mr. Knightley likes neither of them. How do you feel about them?
- One effect of the hidden (Jane Fairfax/Frank Churchill) story is to undermine the omniscience of the narrator. Some critics have suggested that the narrator controls the reader less in Emma than in most Austen books. Because of this, Reginald Ferrar has suggested the book improves on rereading. “Only when the story has been thoroughly assimilated can the infinite delights and subtleties of its workmanship begin to be appreciated.” He suggests that rereading Pride and Prejudice allows you to repeat the pleasure you had at the first reading, while rereading Emma always provides new pleasures. (He also says that “until you know the story, you are apt to find the movement dense and slow and obscure, difficult to follow, and not very obviously worth the following.”) Do you agree with any of this? Do you like a book in which the writer’s intentions are not always clear and there is space for the reader to take charge or do you like to know what the writer wants you to be feeling and noticing? How do you feel about the idea of a book that has to be reread in order to be enjoyed? Is Emma such a book?
Questions from Penguin Group
Photo from BBC 2009 Emma production