Connecting to Emma

by David Katzman

Jane Austen’s narration in Emma prompts the reader to feel the same emotions and feelings that Emma experiences throughout her encounter with Mr. Knightley at the end of the Box Hill picnic scene. In this passage, Mr. Knightley blindsides Emma with scathing criticism regarding her unnecessarily cruel actions towards Miss Bates. Here, Emma realizes that her actions do have consequences, and that Mr. Knightley’s opinion is the most important thing to her. Austen employs imagery and precise diction, contrasts dialogue with narration, and uses free indirect discourse to create an interactive text in which the reader engages with Emma. Leading up to this scene, Emma is seeking a pleasant and reflective walk to end her day and to escape from the drama of the previous social scene. As such, Austen uses pleasant imagery and diction to subdue the reader into believing that the chapter is coming to a  conclusion. Then, as Mr. Knightley approaches Emma, the narrative style switches to dialogue with small asides to clue the reader into Emma’s thoughts, and place the reader into Emma’s perspective. Finally as the chapter concludes and the narrator isolates Emma in the carriage, Austen employs a third person narration that draws the reader into Emma’s thoughts and allows he or she to be alone with Emma as she ponders the criticism of Mr. Knightley and the full impact of his words. The use of pleasant imagery, the interaction between narration and dialogue, and the use of free indirect discourse in the aftermath following the Box Hill picnic places the reader into Emma’s perspective so that both Emma and the reader are able to realize Mr. Knightley’s effect on Emma and ultimately bring the reader closer to Emma.

Leading up to Mr. Knightley’s confrontation with Emma, Austen speaks about Emma’s desire to be alone and reflect on the beauty before her to subdue the reader into thinking that the scene has ended: “Emma grew tired at last of flattery and merriment, and wished herself rather walking quietly about with any of the others, or sitting almost alone and quite unattended to, in tranquil observation of the beautiful views beneath her” (Austen, 294). Austen shows Emma’s desire to end the day and the scene, and places these thoughts towards the end of the chapter to lull the reader into believing that the chapter will end as such. The word “wished” expresses Emma’s desire for a calm and “tranquil observation of the beautiful views beneath her”. Moreover, the word “wished” places the whole scene in Emma’s mind and detaches her from what is going on before her. The reader is similarly placed in this imaginary scene as Austen then uses the imagery of these beautiful views on top of a hill to paint a picture of a pastoral scene in which Emma can restore from the previous “flattery and merriment” that she has grown weary from. The words “tranquil” and “beautiful” bring this image to mind. Further, the word “observation” also detaches Emma from reality as she is observing a fictitious scene in her mind. This allows for Emma to ponder on the events that occured beforehand, but in a pleasant manner. She would be able to forget her aggressions towards Miss Bates and minimize her negative actions. However, when Mr. Knightley approaches Emma he disrupts her daydream and the narrative style. 

Austen uses a small paragraph to interject the interaction between Mr. Knightley and Emma as a vehicle to highlight the disruption between Emma’s initial peaceful mindset prior to their conversation and her subsequent mental agitation created by Mr. Knightley’s accusatory words. This paragraph consists of two sentences and acts as a violent break in the page: “While waiting for the carriage, she found Mr. Knightley by her side. He looked around, as if to see that no one were near, and then said” (Austen, 294).  Prior to this small paragraph, Austen employs long sentences in which Emma muses about a peaceful walk and beautiful scenery. This small paragraph interrupts Emma’s peaceful state of mind as Mr. Knightley abruptly joins Emma and begins his lecture. The language changes here as well; Mr. Knightley’s actions are directed and bluntly narrated in direct contrast to Emma’s former descriptive tone. There are more actions in this small sentence than in the last paragraph in which Emma was thinking. This wave of actions comes as an affront to the reader on the page as it is said so plainly and in its own paragraph. Here, the reader’s surprise to encounter such a paragraph on the page interrupting the former pleasant imagery parallels Emma’s shock. The word “found” connotes that Mr. Knightley blindsides Emma and she is not aware of what was about to happen. Mr. Knightley takes Emma aside to confront her, just as Austen takes aside the reader in her narrative technique.

As Mr. Knightley’s attack begins, Austen employs harsher diction as well as contrasts narration with dialogue. Mr. Knightley begins his attack with rhetorical questions: “‘How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?’…Emma recollected, blushed, was sorry, but tried to laugh it off” (294). Mr. Knightley uses these questions to draw Emma into the conversation and have her contemplate her actions. His comment is scathing, and can be most represented by the word “insolent” which Mr. Knightley uses to describe Emma’s wit. Mr. Knightley is telling her that she is arrogant and does not respect those that deserve her respect as well as showing her that her actions have consequences. Furthermore, posing this as a question allows for Mr. Knightley to garner a response from Emma and also forces her to think. However, as Emma tries to “laugh it off” and minimize her attack on Miss Bates, Mr. Knightley refuses to allow her to do such. Austen’s narrative technique mirrors Mr. Knightley’s actions and forces the reader to examine Emma’s attitude. Instead of continuing the dialogue and having the characters interact, Austen inserts the aside of Emma trying to “laugh off” Mr. Knightley’s commentary. This is significant as it allows the reader to become more than an observer, but rather a part of the story that knows what Emma is thinking at all times.

Emma’s thoughts however, might not be the reality of the situation. Mr. Knightley is acting in Emma’s best interests and trying to better her character. Even though Austen presents this conversation as an attack on Emma, Mr. Knightley’s actions do show that he is trying to help Emma and offer her constructive criticism. Mr. Knightley escorts Emma off to the side and isolates her so that she will not feel embarrassed as evidenced by his concern for the others that surrounded them: “He looked around, as if to see that no one were near, and then said”. Further, Mr. Knightley reminds Emma that he is acting in her best interest, “I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do… I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance” (294). These words show that Mr. Knightley does care about Emma and her development as a person, in fact he takes responsibility by offering  Emma constructive criticism and helping her grow as a person. However, since this story is told from Emma’s point of view, these small asides demonstrate that Emma does not fully appreciate Mr. Knightley’s true intentions and rather feels attacked. This brings the reader closer to Emma’s perspective. 

Austen then switches the dialogue to narration, further involving the reader in Emma’s thoughts after the incident. The following scene involving Emma’s contemplation in the carriage portrays her inability to act or speak, directly following her receiving of Mr. Knightley’s critique: “before she could speak again, he had handed her in… the feelings which had kept her face averted, and her tongue motionless… were combined only of anger against herself, mortification, and deep concern” (295). Austen’s switch from dialogue to narration brings the reader back into Emma’s mind and focuses on her reaction to previous events. Emma feels hurt, she keeps her face away and feels “anger against herself, mortification and deep concern”. The words “anger”, “mortification”, and “concern” highlight Mr. Knightley’s affect on Emma and her inwards reflection on her previous conversation. Moreover, these feelings are internalized and are written in long and descriptive sentences that mirror the same structure that Austen used to describe Emma’s earlier musings prior to her conversation with Mr. Knightley. In contrast to the airy and light feeling of the previous narration, the diction regarding Emma’s thoughts in the carriage is much darker as it focuses on Emma’s negative reflection. Despite this difference in subject matter, Austen still uses the same type of narration to describe Emma’s thoughts. In both passages, Austen uses lengthy descriptive narration for Emma’s thoughts and feelings on the varied subject matter. She uses adverbs such as “greatly” and “so” frequently to show Emma’s use of hyperbolic thinking; “anger against herself, mortification, and deep concern”. The strength of the selected words emphasizes the vast emotions that Emma feels at the time of their utterance and the importance of her self-reflection.  

The sudden switch from dialogue to narration is a vehicle Austen uses to signal the reader to a change in the novel from outward action to Emma’s thoughts. The entire next passage of the chapter focuses on Emma’s subsequent inward contemplation; “she looked out with voice and hand eager to show a difference; but it was just too late. He had turned away, and the horses were in motion. She continued to look back, but in vain” (295). In this scene, Emma is trying to show Mr. Knightley that she is eager to make a change in her personality and accept his advice, however he already left and Emma must reflect on her actions. As the text moves deeper into a description of Emma’s thoughts, Austen uses words that describe Emma’s enlightenment. She is “eager to show a difference” to Mr. Knightley, however the word “eager” displays Emma’s desire to get Mr. Knightley’s attention. This demonstrates his importance to her, as well as her need to show Mr. Knightley that she is sincere. However, Austen uses the verb “show” to describe her change. The word “show” displays that Emma wants to appear changed, but that does not mean that she has actually changed as for Emma everything lies in appearance. Austen’s narrative technique and ability to write in the immediate past allows for her to employ words that have deeper connotations and that shape the reader’s perception of events that occur in the novel. As the narrator is retelling the story, he or she is able to give words greater connotation and add retrospective meaning to the text. Therefore, when Austen uses the word “eager” it reveals Emma’s feelings towards Mr. Knightley. The focus of this scene is on Emma’s realization of her actions, but more so the realization of Mr. Knightley’s impact on Emma. She is the one who is eager to show her emotions to him, and does wish to change for herself, but for his approval. This particular scene is the scene in which Emma finally feels remorse for her actions toward Miss Bates, and as such Austen is able to place words in the text that signify her change. 

Austen foreshadows the future relationship between Emma and Mr. Knightley during this carriage ride as Emma begins to ruminate about Mr. Knightley: “Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life…. And how suffer him to leave her without saving one word of gratitude” (296). In this scene, Austen hints at Mr. Knightley’s affect on Emma and her feelings toward him. Mr. Knightley is the focus of this passage, as he left her feeling “agitated, mortified, grieved”. Emma further states that she is upset with him because she was made to “suffer… to leave her without saving one word of gratitude”. Emma is shifting the focus of her thoughts from inward to Mr. Knightley and expresses anger toward him. Moreover, Austen’s use of free indirect discourse allows for the reader to be clued into Emma’s thoughts and emotions while also distancing the reader from Emma herself. The narrator is not Emma and the use of a narrator further removes the reader from Emma’s feelings as it creates another layer of narration. Therefore it invokes a feeling of the reader peering into Emma’s life from an outsider’s perspective as they are reading Emma’s thoughts and emotions from an outside narrator’s words. This creates a duality for the reader that emits both sympathy for Emma from an insider’s perspective as well as from the perspective of an outsider watching a scene unfold.  This is exhibited here, where the reader feels the same emotions that Emma does while she is  contemplating her thoughts in the carriage, but also is watching her from afar. This is accomplished with the Austen’s words,“she felt”. The word “she” distances the reader from Emma as it creates another gap of knowledge between the reader and the character as a third person is retelling how she felt. This is different from a first person narration as the speaker is the protagonist and would have a greater insight into their own feelings. However, Austen’s use of free indirect discourse affords the narrator greater insight into Emma’s conscious and therefore allows the reader to truly know how Emma “felt”. This duality serves to give the reader a greater insight into Emma. Jane Austen invites the reader to experience Emma’s thoughts along with the character in Emma by contrasting narration with dialogue in order to separate action from thought. This passage is important within the novel as it is a turning point in Emma’s character development. The reader is invited to grow alongside Emma in this passage and Austen highlights this growth using her narrative. The separation of action from thought is highlighted clearly within this passage and the reader views Emma’s epiphany moment from both a first hand perspective and an outside viewpoint. Austen’s use of imagery and diction, the interplay between dialogue and narration, and the use of free indirect discourse serve to create an immersive experience for the reader that reveals Emma’s true character and allows the reader to experience her growth firsthand.

Work Cited –

Austen, Jane. Emma. Oxford University Press, 2008.