It has been said about Jane Austen that she is basically trying to show her readers how they should live their lives. Do you agree with this statement?
Jane Austen is clearly showing us, her readers, how to live our lives and this happens mainly through her characters’ thoughts and behaviors. In a letter to one of her nieces, Austen wrote: “I am going to write about a heroine that no one but me will like”. And then she wrote Emma. Why is it that “no one” would like Emma? Is it maybe because Emma is indirectly manipulating also our lives as well as that of her characters? Or what if she is just simply trying to show us how to live to save us from mistakes and suffering?
Austen is indirectly telling us how we should live by highlighting the defects and negative sides of her characters in order for us to avoid the same mistakes into which they have fallen in her stories. In the case of the novel we read, she is using Emma as a symbolic character to show imperfection and humanity.
I had the feeling , more than once during my reading of the novel, that Jane Austen’s attempt to show us how to live our lives became a wish to manipulate our minds; but I felt that this was still meant with good intentions. Emma Woodhouse is, as the central figure, undoubtedly the novel’s most central manipulator, that expresses and embodies in a certain sense the will of Jane Austen. She wants us to reason and not to make same errors as Emma, to learn not to consider ourself too superior and wants us to grow into a process of maturation of our own mistakes and feelings. The aim of this manipulative behavior serves as an example of moral growth through suffering, as Emma does.
This sort of manipulation doesn’t happen only toward us reader but also within the story itself when Emma tries to place herself in the role of protector of Harriet Smith:
” She would notice [Harriet]; she would improve her; she would detach her from her bad acquaintance, and introduce her into good society; she would form her opinions and her manners”¹
Perhaps ignorant, Emma seeks to control the life of Harriet Smith, trying to improve her life by raising her social status to a higher, more luxurious one but without regard for her moral wellbeing. This is very insulting to Harriet, but the intentions, although ignorant, are not malicious.
Because the word manipulation is commonly linked to a negative concept I therefore “justify” Jane Austen’s manipulative way of writing because I think that there is a moral purpose behind it.
Emma journeys toward a deeper meaning for “value” make her develop a better picture of her place in the world and becomes simultaneously less self-centered and more self-understanding. In this way, she learns a very important lesson, which I think is the one that Austen is trying to transmit to us: that is, the best resistance to manipulation is in knowing and accepting the complex, intrinsic value of oneself!
¹ J. Austen, Emma, p.24.