Jane Austen’s Emma and the Rise of Formal Realism

by Anastasia Foley

In The Rise of the Novel, Ian Watt proposes a model for understanding the novel form: formal realism. Formal realism is a set of formal elements used by novelists to give their fiction a sense of reality, features found necessarily within novels but infrequently in other genres. Watt claims that the novel’s “primary criterion [is] truth to individual experience” (13). In order for this to be achieved, primary characters in the novel must exhibit a particular level of individualism. In the novel, unlike previous forms, “the plot [is] acted out by particular people in particular circumstances, rather than…general human types” (15). Consequently, the “novelist’s primary task” on the whole is “to convey the impression of fidelity to human experience” of these individuals (13). He praises Defoe and Richardson for “the immediacy and closeness of the text to what is being described” (29) as a part of the project of the genre to “ascertain and report the truth” (31). Therefore, Watt’s model of formal realism is built on the notion that the novel desires to appear close to human experience, and therefore must focus on characters grounded specifically within  the novel’s unique world rather than general archetypes. 

Many of these claims regarding formal realism are difficult to apply to later examples of the novel because Watt’s critical study considers early novelists.  Since then, the novel has evolved to become less concerned with differentiating itself from early fiction genres and instead has taken on a life of its own. Even still, Watt’s argument about formal realism can be seen as a working model for evaluating specific formal elements of an exemplary novel. For instance, Jane Austen’s Emma provides a useful case study for how Watt’s formal realism accurately describes certain elements of later novels, but might not model a work in its entirety. While Ian Watt’s formal realism is useful for understanding the function of Jane Austen’s Emma on the level of character, his assessment of the novel genre is complicated by Austen’s explicit artificiality in narration and use of class and gender as plot imposed on characters.

Emma as a character is in accordance with Ian Watt’s understanding of an individual under formal realism because she is rooted in a particular time and place as well as within the minds of other characters. As Watt claims, “the characters of the novel can only be individualized if they are set in a background of a particularized time and space” (21). This is especially true of Emma with regard for Highbury as the necessary setting of the novel. In the early stages of Emma, it is made explicit that “the Woodhouses were first in consequence [in Highbury]. All looked up to them. [Emma] had many acquaintance in the place” (7). This roots our understanding of Emma’s literary significance not in her status as a character type, but in her influence within the specific location of this novel. Emma is nothing if not a product of her social positioning and physical location, thereby grounding her characterization in the particularities of setting as Watt suggests. In addition, Watt proposes that for a character to be read as an individual, she must have a “degree of continuity based on the relationships” she has with other figures in the book (105). When Emma explores her initial interest in Frank Churchill, she muses that “he seemed by this connection between the families, quite to belong to her” and that she might find pleasure in “the idea of their being coupled in their friends’ imaginations” (94). In this way, Emma exists in the minds of other characters because her world is composed of what other people deem appropriate for her and she takes action based on “connection.” Additionally, Emma’s situation in the book is developed through the way that other characters act outwardly towards her, such as when Mr. Knightley is “so much displeased…[that] when they did meet, his grave looks shewed that she was not forgiven” (55). Thus, the narrative’s third person discourse provides the reader with the knowledge of how other characters place and respond to Emma, and  how the readers can understand her as a formal realistic character. Her fully-fledged particularity, grounded in the formal elements of setting and secondary characters, allows  her to take on a lasting identity in the narrative.

The character of Emma also exemplifies Watt’s notion that novelists are concerned with developing their characters through the lens of “psychological understanding” (108). One of the ways in which this can be achieved is through the “specific analysis of the character’s various states of mind” and a “narrative structure designed to embody the character’s development” (108). Emma is presented as a uniquely psychological subject: the novel’s narrative is not only textured by, but almost exclusively unfolds in the contours of her interiority. After introducing Jane Fairfax in a seemingly normal encounter between her and Emma, Austen writes that “Emma could not forgive her” (133). The next chapter then begins again with “Emma could not forgive her;—but as neither provocation nor resentment were discerned by Mr. Knightley…he was expressing…his approbation of the whole” (133). The repetition of “Emma could not forgive her” emphasizes the importance of Emma’s internal mindset for understanding what follows in the narrative. It is not only that one understands Emma’s relationship to Miss. Fairfax by what she thinks, the second “Emma could not forgive her” in relation to Mr. Knightley would suggest that the plot of the novel overall can only be understood if one knows how Emma feels. Thus, because the reader comes to know Emma through her thoughts, and because the plot follows how these thoughts influence the narrative world, Emma can be accurately understood through formal realism, necessarily concerned with the psychology of its primary subject.

However, Austen departs from Watt’s model of formal realism because the project of Emma is not, as Watt describes, to resemble the actuality of human experience. One of Watt’s most fundamental claims about the novel is that the aim of the genre is the “production of what purports to be an authentic account of the actual experience of individuals” (27). The narrative of Emma does not present itself as having “closeness to the texture of daily experience” because of Austen’s stylized narration (Watt 22). If a reader wants “a close correspondence between life and art,” then this need is not satisfied in Emma, an object which repeatedly presents itself as an abstraction of what might possibly be true. This is presented most clearly when the novel’s narrator introduces characters outside of the narrative action of the story. Austen writes of Mr. Elton’s new wife Augusta Hawkins that “the charming Augusta Hawkins, in addition to all the advantages of perfect beauty and merit, was in possession of an independent fortune” (142). Austen’s narrator thus provides a straightforward description of Augusta’s character that stands outside the narrative of the story and makes explicit her function as a character rather than her nature as a person. Emma’s narration thus establishes characterization not only through feeling and action, but with objective narration. Miss Hawkins is also not described with the specificity of an actual person, but instead in terms of her relative importance to the story. We do not know anything about the specifics of her character or appearance, just that she is beautiful and has a sum of money. This contributes to a reading experience of Emma which consistently refers to its own status as an aesthetic object rather than having the appearance of real life. Emma, on a formal level, presents itself as a contrived object, so that while the plot might be similar to something that could happen in real life, the reader never forgets its characteristic artificiality.

In addition to the fact that the texture of Emma’s narration does not achieve a sense of the real, Emma does not completely subscribe to the model of formal realism because social roles act as a kind of fate within this narrative. In Watt’s formal realism, the establishment of a main character as an individual is important on the level of plot. If it can be claimed that a character is an individual with particularity rather than an archetype, then the plot of the novel must be “determined only by the sequence of actual events” in her life (Watt 106). While one does get the sense that Emma’s plot is her own, her marriage could be read as the imposition of a predetermined narrative onto a young woman in society. As readers, we know that Emma will end the novel with a husband because her relationship status is what makes her interesting as the subject of the book. In the words of Miss Bates, “it is always such a happiness when good people get together—and they always do” (137). This, on a basic level, is the plot of Emma: interesting and worthy individuals must always be married. Emma originally claims that she has “none of the usual inducements of women to marry” (68), but when Mr. Knightley reveals his feelings to her, she acts as “a lady always does” and encourages his proposal to the point of acceptance (339). It is easy for Emma to refuse a husband when she has no respectable prospects, but when a worthy one in class and wealth made himself available to her, it is only natural that she accept him. In this way, Emma experience is fated in the sense that she has no choice but to accept the best marriage that she can because if she did not, it would mean she is not a worthy woman. As D. A. Miller claims, the sentence of Emma as a heroine is to “become a Woman at last, compelled both to accept the state of lack that makes her a well-functioning subject, and to represent this lack to men” (46). Therefore, Emma assumes something of an archetypal role and plot within the novel because she ultimately assumes the role of a married woman. Though Emma’s plot is in accordance with Watt in that it does not come from mythology and the “incidents [of the novel] happen to the same person,” there are gendered social constructs which influence her narrative (106). Formal realism thus does not adequately address the ways in which social station and gender eventually destroy Emma’s autonomous consciousness.

While Ian Watt’s critical model of formal realism is helpful in how we can understand the function of Emma’s character in the narrative, Emma simultaneously challenges Watt’s understanding of what the novel form can be on the levels of narration and plot. The novelistic heroine to which Watt refers in his chapters is built very much like Emma Woodhouse: she is grounded in an established literary world, exists in the minds of other characters, and is characterized by her thoughts and feelings as much as her actions. At the same time, Emma fails to satisfy Watt’s criterion that the novel be an account of human experience in that the narration constantly reminds the reader that this book is a contrived object. In addition, Emma’s unique individuality is ultimately broken down by the imposition of her marriage plot at the novel’s end. Thus, while we might use Watt to understand Emma’s character, he fails to be useful in understanding Emma as an entire project.

Works Cited –

Austen, Jane. Emma. 1816. Ed. James Kinsley, Oxford University Press, 2008.

Miller, D. A. “No One is Alone.” Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style, Princeton University Press, 
pp. 31-56, 2005.

Watt, Ian. “Realism and the Novel Form” and “Defoe as Novelist: ‘Moll Flanders.”  The Rise of 
the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding, University of California Press, 
pp. 9-34 and 99-134, 1956.