Emma has often been praised for being “ the most intricate, stylish and elegant of Jane Austen’s novels.” (1) The novel is also noted for having less ‘plot’ than other Austen novels. It’s a book that is especially interesting for students of written and spoken English in terms of its use of free indirect discourse which is a kind of narration in which the character’s own voice and view replace the ‘objective’ and all-knowing viewpoint of the book’s narrator. It has been observed that when we write letters (or, now, perhaps, emails) we use free indirect discourse as we are our own narrator and yet often write about an event that has happened to us. It’s as though the narrator is stepping in and out of a character’s thoughts. Useful examples of free indirect discourse are to be found in chapter 16 of the novel when Emma Woodhouse reflects on the actions of Mr John Knightley and in chapter 15, for example, in which Mr Elton and Emma share a carriage ride.
In terms of the novel’s themes, Emma, like all of Jane Austen’s novels, explores what is involved in our thinking and feeling in terms of the pursuit of happiness and the connections and conflicts between emotion and reason.
The novel really is a character study of Emma and how her own emotional guardedness plays out in her relationships with men and women. Emma’s relationship with Harriet is very close and we might imagine if, to some degree, it echoes the relationship between Jane and her sister Cassandra.
Emma is a novel about how we perceive ourselves and each other and Jane Austen uses metaphor to explore this subject. For example, she uses the metaphor of the weather as a way of showing readers how different characters regard the same subject in different ways. The novel also plays with the opportunity to show how spoken and written language is used to manipulate people in terms of their perceptions, judgements and choices. In this novel, particular importance is placed on the importance of letter-writing and the obvious and the hidden meanings of what letters communicate. Thinking about our contemporary culture, is there something similar to be considered in how we communicate with each via email and messaging and social media ? Is this yet another way in which Jane Austen’s work remain resonant in our 21st century ?
1. The Cambridge Introduction to Jane Austen