“I will try to hold my tongue;” or What Everyone Should Do in Emma

First off, my sincerest apologies for it taking this long for me to finish Emma. I have no excuses because I have absolutely no idea why it did. That’s never happened before. I’ve scolded myself quite enough that no one else needs to do it.

Towards the end of the book, Emma jokes to Miss Bates that she speaks too much. Miss Bates replies, distracted and a bit confused, “I will try to hold my tongue.” That maxim should be applied to every single character in Emma, except for John Knightley. And Mr. Woodhouse because everything he says amuses me. But everyone else really should hold their tongue because when they don’t mistakes arise that inevitably hurt someone.

Emma is the biggest culprit, or at least the one most scolded, however, no one is off the hook. Emma is unlike any other heroine of Austen’s—she’s wealthy. In fact, many times she declares on never marrying anyone because “never, never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man’s eyes as I am in my father’s” (my emphasis). Does Austen’s use of “right” imply that Emma knows she makes mistakes? What do you think? She knows she has a good situation as it is, which is why the narrator points out at the very beginning that “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.” She’s not a heroine many like because she’s arrogant and so obviously has flaws, but because of that, she’s the most realistic heroine in her novels.

Emma’s biggest errors occur in her friendship with Harriet Smith. “Harriet Smith was the natural daughter of somebody,” and in Mr. Knightley’s view, not the best companion for Emma because neither will benefit from the friendship; Harriet will flatter so Emma will never improve, and Emma will make Harriet conceited. He was right, which Emma learns by the end of the novel.

Emma will pursue her project, anyway, because “it would be an interesting, and certainly a very kind undertaking; highly becoming her own situation in life, her leisure, and powers.” You could argue that she begins Project Harriet as a means of flattering herself. Everyone will see her as kind and compassionate in taking Harriet under her wing, and what better way to put her wealth and station to use? So in her misguided attempts to make Harriet a mini version of her, she convinces her not to marry the nice, gentleman farmer, Mr. Martin. And in doing so, angers Mr. Knightley. Why stop there? She also informs Harriet that she should love Mr. Elton, not in so many words, of course. Even though she informs Harriet to “not imagine that [she] want[s] to influence [her],” we all know she does. Since Harriet is quite the malleable person, she succeeds in getting her to transfer her affections from one man to the other.

And so ensues the misinterpretations that drive the plot. To make a long story short, Emma believes that everything Mr. Elton does is in admiration of Harriet. He writes a riddle for Harriet’s book, pushing it in front of Emma when he hands it over, but that only means that he had too much feeling to actually hand it to Harriet. So on and so forth it goes until Harriet is head over heels in love with Mr. Elton and is only waiting for the day that he works up the courage to propose. Mr. Knightley warns Emma that Mr. Elton can fend for himself and will not make an imprudent match in marrying Harriet. He’s right. Again. Harriet’s heart is broken when Mr. Elton proposes to Emma. Then she falls in love with Mr. Knightley, but Emma thinks she loves Frank Churchill. Under that assumption, she encourages her in that pursuit as well, until she learns the real object of her affection is Mr. Knightley, not Frank. However, Mr. Knightley loves Emma. Harriet’s heart is broken. Again.

All of this points to Emma’s inability to actually know a person’s true feelings. In the end, she’s regretful for every time she influenced and encouraged Harriet in the wrong path. While the novel does a splendid job of teaching Emma a lesson to not think so highly of her powers of matchmaking and maybe even observation, she’s not the only one who creates such blunders. Mr. Knightley, who we are to believe is a person of high character and the very best of men, usually interprets accurately. As long as it doesn’t pertain to Emma’s feelings. Frank Churchill flirts with her for half the novel, albeit as a disguise to mask his true feelings for Jane Fairfax, but it’s enough to make Mr. Knightley jealous. Mr. Knightley reckons that Emma loves Frank Churchill, but he’s wrong.

You know who else is wrong? Frank Churchill. He only flirts with Emma because “she never gave [him] the idea of a young woman likely to be attached.” Emma, however, is as likely to be attached as any woman. She even once thought herself in love with him but only briefly. Needless to say, this novel is chock full of instances when one person believes one thing when reality is the complete opposite. Emma might deserve more punishment because her mistakes are so obviously injurious to others, especially Harriet, but no one else should get off scot free either. No one completely understands another person, except for, perhaps, John Knightley, whose quiet and detached enough to accurately scrutinize everyone’s actions. He gives Emma the hint that if she doesn’t mean to marry Mr. Elton, she should stop giving him obvious encouragement: “You had better look about you, and ascertain what you do, and what you mean to do.” No one else suspects Mr. Elton’s true intentions. Unfortunately for Emma, she brushes off his warning and then, well, you know what happens.

When all is said and done, while Miss Bates is the most talkative, often letting gossip slip, the other characters misjudge and create their own disasters from misinformation, misinterpretation, and every other mis-word. Like I said in the beginning, everyone really should hold their tongue because they only cause more issues for the other characters, or themselves.

In my oh-so-humble opinion, Emma is Jane Austen’s most complete novel in the sense that it doesn’t end abruptly when we reach the point where the heroine and hero fall in love. We are given a few more chapters to wrap up the loose ends. Not only that, but the characters are in a world that seems more realistic than the other novels. It’s a slice-of-life novel, in a way. In the only novel of Austen’s, including Sanditon, where the heroine does not leave her home, we’re given a glimpse into simple, country life, which is just as exciting and thrilling as any removal to Bath or London could be.


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