Emma and Human Nature, by Katherine Reay

Emma and Human Nature, by Katherine Reay

Last month, I chatted about Emma as a “perfect novel” in terms of pacing, structure, point-of-view and character development. I’d love to revisit that again here with a slightly different focus.

Human nature. 

I don’t believe human nature (in aggregate, not our individual stories) doesn’t change over time. It’s this constant, our humanity, that allows us to see ourselves in well-drawn characters written 100, 200 or even 300 plus years ago. And that is why, after over 200 years after Austen created her, we still see ourselves in Emma – and we still adore her.

Although we might not want it widely known, I suspect we each have Emma’s capacity for self-delusion, arrogance, selfishness and manipulation. 

The real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself: these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her.

Yet we also have her capacity for understanding, empathy, sacrifice and selfless love – even if it takes a little loving correction to get there.  Remember Mr. Knightley’s, “Badly done, Emma!”

She was vexed beyond what could have been expressed—almost beyond what she could conceal. Never had she felt so agitated, so mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life. She was most forcibly struck. The truth of his representation there was no denying. She felt it at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates! How could she have exposed herself to such ill opinion in any one she valued! And how suffer him to leave her without saying one word of gratitude, of concurrence, of common kindness!

Another aspect of our natures is to understand one another above and beyond the words we speak. Words and conventions can lead to misunderstandings – and Emma as a novel is certainly full of them. But cut all that away and, Austen proposes, two hearts seeking each other, putting the other first, will finally reach an understanding.

Seldom, very seldom does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken; but where, as in this case, though the conduct is mistaken, the feelings are not, it may not be very material.

I doubt my life will be summed up as Knightley called Emma, “This sweetest and best of all creatures, faultless in spite of all her faults.” But I’m so glad Austen pegged human nature so well that I can enjoy and even relate to this wonderful woman’s journey. 

Happy Reading. 

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October 9, 2019 7:51 AM

I like Emma and know a few people who remind me of her although I have never related directly to her. Perhaps I’m just not seeing the similarities.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
October 2, 2019 11:41 AM

I agree. It took me awhile to appreciate those things too! Emma really is perfect.

October 3, 2019 8:20 AM
Reply to  cindie snyder

And so much fun too…. I love the tenor of the story.

October 2, 2019 10:30 AM

There was a time when I very much disliked Emma as a novel, mostly because I disliked Emma as a character. Reading the things she does was too difficult. Like watching someone wearing a blindfold run into a tree. You’re yelling, ‘Stop, there’s a tree!’ but they can’t hear you.

It wasn’t until years after I first encountered the novel (maybe 25 years) that I grew to appreciate the craftsmanship of Emma (the novel) and see that Emma (the character) is absolutely perfect 🙂

October 3, 2019 8:22 AM
Reply to  summerhanford

I can understand that… I still feel the same way. I want to say “You didn’t just do that… You can’t have….” But then again, I think that about myself too sometimes. 😉

October 4, 2019 3:39 PM
Reply to  kreaybooks

I have not been able to move past my dislike of Emma. Perhaps it’s simply because I see far too much of Emma’s foibles in myself.

Perhaps someday I will grow to appreciate her more…but for now, the only version of Emma that I can stomach is Clueless. 😉

Susanne 🙂

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