Would you do me the honor of reading a Jane Austen novel with me? I promise you will enjoy it. Emma is entertaining, simple to follow, and teaches lessons that you did not know you learned until the last page turns and you shut the book, feeling satisfied. Read Jane Austen’s Emma with me!
Though Pride and Prejudice is Austen’s most famous novel, let’s start with Emma. The novel is not overly wordy. As Peter Leithart writes in the chapter of his book Miniatures and Morals: The Christian Novels of Jane Austen , in the chapter titled “Real Men Read Austen” Jane Austen assumes intelligence in her reader and does not feel the need to spell out every little detail. Descriptions that are not germane to the plot are left to our imagination. There are no incredible plot twists and no “action”. But Austen’s ability to make you think while making you laugh – or cry – is nothing short of the predecessor of Seinfeld.
Like a Seinfeld episode “nothing happens” in an Austen novel. Which is a rather lame way of expressing that the world of the characters is small and they act according to their nature. This makes each new situation that comes their way full of both irony and entertainment. I am not the only person to think Seinfeld when I read Austen, by the way. I found an old article in The Guardian that states, “Just as Austen fixed her gaze firmly on English country life in the early 19th century, and depicted the foibles of that tiny corner of society with irony, so Seinfeld remains rooted in the enclosed world of four rich single people living in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Same obsession with manners, same ironic take on the gender divide.”
Seinfeld parallels aside though, Austen provides a refreshing definition of respect, love, happiness in marriage, and even entertainment. Character is revealed by what a person says and how they say it, even before their deeds are known. Every idle word and small action is important. Austen writes real life.
Emma, the protagonist, lives in a small town where she represents the upper class. As such, certain things are expected of her, proper manners, social obligations, even charitable obligations. Emma is bored and a little silly. She fancies herself an excellent matchmaker. Though kind-hearted, she allows her imagination to run away with her. More to the point of the novel, she sees what she wants to see in people. The farmer is unworthy because he is not of her social class. She misinterprets words and actions, reading into them what she hopes to see and hear, creating comical results.
In trying to find the perfect match for her new friend, or rather her pet project, Harriet, Emma bungles Harriet’s happiness, misleads her several times, and causes Harriet a great deal of disappointment and embarrassment. Emma’s father, older sister, and governess have doted upon Emma, leading her to an exaggerated sense of her own abilities and self.
Given these flaws, the right man for Emma is the one that can lovingly speak truth into her life. And isn’t this what we all need? To see ourselves as we really are and be loved anyway? Emma is surrounded by the usual collection of annoying people: people who talk too much, presume too much, and are too predictable. She handles it just like the rest of us, sometimes with grace, sometimes reproachably. Emma needs help seeing reality in relationships. But instead, Emma tries to help other people with their relationships. Emma and the grating Mrs. Elton have quite a bit in common in Book Two of the novel, in this regard.
Interestingly, the novel is divided into three books, and each has a different relationship focus: First, Harriet and Elton, Second, Jane and Churchill, Third Emma and Knightley. Look for each Book to begin and end with either a wedding or the end of a romance. Look also for the parallel or contrast of each major character in the book.
If you are thinking of jumping straight to the 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow movie version of Emma, it is a pretty good rendition, in my opinion. The characters can still be accurately sketched out. Both the Emma and Harriet characters are a little less likeable. That is probably because the novel is told from Emma’s perspective, giving the reader more of a feeling of her naivety, than a willful self-deception. Told from any other character’s perspective, Emma, with all of her flaws, would be far less charming and more of a controlling snob, which is not the point. Emma’s personal growth is the novel’s main storyline. My personal pet peeve was that the movie Harriet was too old. She is supposed to be young, making her more easily in awe of Emma.
The movie can stand on its own as food for discussion with questions like: Contrast Mr. Martin and Mr. Elton, their social positions and character. Harriet is both easily influenced and genuinely kind. Give evidence for both. These questions come from a terrific guide for having literary discussions based on movies:
|Movies as Literature|
(affiliate links, for your convenience). This guide discusses 16 other movies, besides Emma. I recommend it for middle and upper grades.
The movie won an Academy Award for Best Music. A two hour movie is never a replacement for a five hundred page novel, but it is a good, clean family time, discussion prompting activity. You can find other literary discussion questions that can be applied to any novel on this post: http://www.neveradollmoment.com/read-with-me-free-reading-guide/.
I hope you enjoy the book!
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