26 February 2007

Emma, by Jane Austen

Man, Jane Austen is absolutely fascinating. This book is no exception. Her novels may seem like fluffy feel-good romances, but the prose is so tightly controlled, it's mesmerizing.

Wayne Booth has an amazing chapter on Emma in his book, The Rhetoric of Fiction, where he points out that the entire novel is a precarious balancing act, teetering between omniscient narrative and Emma's perspective. On the one hand, we need to see things through Emma's eyes in order to have sympathy for her - if we didn't have access to her thoughts, we wouldn't like her much, and wouldn't really care about her. On the other hand, we need to know more than Emma does in order to appreciate the comedy of the situation, which generally stems from Emma's being completely wrong in her opinions of the things going on around her. But at the same time, we can't know too much, because that would spoil the suspense, and the pleasure of the unfolding romances. It's really kind of incredible, when you think about it, I mean, these three forces are basically in contradiction with each other, and it's really hard to imagine how they could be combined. And yet it works.

Emma is basically a conversion narrative, and a particularly interesting one, to me, because it's a conversion that depends upon her gaining self-knowledge, or rather, upon a correction of her staggering tendency for self-deception. In other words, it's not that Emma was previously a thoughtless jerk who never considered her actions, and then she suddenly looked within herself and realized she needed to be more considerate - Emma is a hyperconscious character throughout the novel. She's constantly checking herself, analyzing and evaluating her own behavior and actions. The things is, though, is that she's usually wrong. Self-deception is a really fascinating philosophical problem, and this is probably one of the best depictions of it that I've ever seen. Think about it - the author is setting up a situations where a character makes pronouncements about herself that the reader knows are wrong, even though she doesn't. How do you do that? And how do you then show her learning to be right about herself? So cool.

Another kind of notable thing about the book, for me, is that it has a terrific depiction of genuine platonic friendship between a man and a woman, which you wouldn't really expect in a Jane Austen novel. The relationship between Frank Churchill and Emma is a remarkable portrayal of a man and woman who meet, go through a period of romantic tension, and end up being really good friends. Crazy plot twists aside, they both realize that they're very similar in many ways, and like each other a lot, but wouldn't make a good couple. What's interesting about this, to me, is that they're similar because they share the same faults. And that is an excellent basis for a very close friendship, and a terrible basis for a relationship. And this is actually a really valuable bit of advice that the novel conveys in a very subtle way. Thanks for the life lesson Jane!

Still though, at times, the careful structure gets to be a bit much - you feel like you can see the scaffolding at times. Like the totally whacked out scene where Harriet gets attacked by a horde of gypsy children - wtf? I mean, seriously. Did Jane Austen drink too much tea that day or what? The plot works out a bit too nicely - and it sort of has to. It's a very tidy text, but it's so neat that it gives off a vaguely irritating squeak when you rub it.

Reading the book, I couldn't help but think back to Clueless - I gained a whole new appreciation for that movie. I mean, I already loved it on its own merits, but I hadn't sufficiently appreciated what a phenomenal adaptation of the novel it is. It's a very skillfully compressed and modernized version of the story - I'm really looking forward to watching it again now.

Critics writing about Austen often reiterate what a narrow subset of the world she's describing. It's true - it's a book about upper middle class English country folk. And even with that constraint, the text is strikingly stark. There's no history, very little awareness of the outside world, and practically no physical description. Yet one has the sense of meticulous detail. Everything is in extremely sharp focus - but what is the focus on? It's really hard to say.

Fascinating stuff.

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