Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Non Feminist Reading Of Emma


Emma and a vindicating feminist reading of it--i.e., there ain't any.

I write the odd note, very odd likely, on what I've read principally as a way later to remind myself of what I thought, which without which note I'd likely forget it.

So as I say 0 much happens in Emma. It's a story about the things going on in her small world. The novel seems like precursor chick-lit of a type, "womanly writing" in a certain sense of that. What sense? Staying away from bold themes, bold doings, the proliferation of "domestic" detail, the preoccupation of "women's concerns" seen from a woman's perspective, given the times, earlyish turn of the 19th century, 1815 to be sure. For one big thing, marriage is given by Austen as the chief way of women by and large securing their place in the world. Failing getting married or otherwise being provided for, they face bad fates like Ms Bates and her mother--impending poverty, or like what threatens Jane Fairfax if Churchill, Frank not Winston, doesn't come through, work, that is to say, heaven help her.

It may be thought that in Emma's young woman's resolve not ever to get married, to reject marriage, and not to pine or plan for it, mark her unique and radical. I can't see it. She at the beginning and through a long way through doesn't know herself, doesn't know she loves Mr. Knightley, runs away from herself while thinking she's asserting herself in her busybody matchmaking so chock full of errors and misjudgments. 

Her resolve not ever to wed is an aspect of her unself-knowing immaturity. In that sense, her resolute devotion to care for her father is both genuine and loving, an assumption of righteous duty, and, too, the rationalization of her running away from things. For when she blanches at suggestions of Mr. Knightley's attachment to Jane Fairfax or even to "poor" Harriet, the Platonic truth of herself is manifest: she must marry; and Mr. Knightley must only marry her. Mr. Woodhouse is the satirized extreme of Emma's inclination to run away, shrinkingly to avoid life under a facade of vivacity. Hence, for example, her early indefatigable matchmaking and attempting to direct the lives of others. And hence her easy friendship with "poor" Harriet," clearly her inferior, and her jealousy of Jane Fairfax, in some ways her superior. 

It may be thought that there is something singular and radical in Emma only wanting to marry--not for station, not for security, not to escape loneliness, not to escape the need to work, and other less than the-marriage-of-true-minds motives that Austen presents--for deep and reciprocal love. 

But that would be a misguided thought. 

She has many of those other motives totally in hand: she is by Highbury standards of the wealthiest; she faces no prospect of poverty; she is, absent her father, still surrounded by family and friends, including nieces and nephews. The motives for marriage that might impel others are an easy and assumed part of her life. She is, however flawed she is, of superior character, sensibility, intellectual and emotional intelligence and discernment. So in her growth, and in the concomitant flowering of these superiorities, she and her Platonic intended inevitably find each other, (no big surprise.) So there is 0 socially radical or unconventional in how Emma comes finally to wed. That is simply the working out of her personal superiority. It's personal, not contrarian or unconventional. The inevitability of her marriage to Mr. Knightley explodes any thought that there is anything radical in Emma's attitude to marriage. She finds and fulfills herself in it.

So I'm arguing there is no "feminist" reading to be made of Emma, or at least not one that vindicates feminist ideals.

So it might be thought that as opposed to Mrs. Elton who recurrently refers to Mr. Elton as "my Lord and Master," Emma's marriage to Mr. Knightley shows an equality among the sexes that strikes a blow for that as such. But that is a vulnerable thought for a few reasons including: 

the odious Mrs. Elton humble brags in that reference, makes a play of self deprecation that is really pretext for her show of her own superiority. She always tries to assert her own presumed superiority whether by claiming it outright, whether by criticizing others in comparison to herself, whether by humbly bragging as she often does, whether by disrespecting certain understood formalities as when she calls Mr. Knightley, "Mr. K," whether by simply ignoring entreaties of others that she not do what she wants to do that affect them, and in other ways too; and 

again, Emma finding personal parity with Mr. Knightley is more than anything the natural emergence of her noted superiorities in conjoining with a man who both deserves their benefit, understands and promotes them, and wants them. So, again, this parity is singularly personal and not socially exceptional. In Austen women can dominate men as much men can dominate.

It might be thought that in Emma's utter impudence, high spirits, refusal to heed men's advice if she doesn't agree with them, her spirited willingness to argue on any point with anyone if she feels she is right, lays a model for women's independence and equality. But she is most evidently flawed in these displays. When she comes to know herself and the Platonic truth of herself, her high spirits moderate themselves; she becomes quieter, more reflective; less thinly sure of herself, more modest, less error and misjudgment prone, in a word more mature, all in a way that cuts entirely against this thought.

If any of my billions of readers want to make a different case, I'd be happy to read it.

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