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Emma, Volume III, Chapter 11 (Chapter 47)

Whereas the Box Hill chapter is the most publicly mortifying in the book, this one gets the nod for me on personal misery, mortification, and angst. Emma is rightfully considered Austen's masterpiece of character development, and a large part of that comes from chapters like this one. We had earlier instances of Emma figuring out that she's been mistaken about things (such as Chapter 17), and resolving to stop interfering, which she managed to do (mostly), but it's not until this one that she arrives at quite a lot of realizations about herself.

She begins the chapter abusing herself because she believes that Harriet has a crush on Frank Churchill based on a rather veiled conversation back in Chapter 40, and now that Frank is engaged to Jane . . . well, Emma is really and truly angry with herself for having encouraged Harriet to even think about a match with Frank. We are treated to two lengthy paragraphs in which Emma is berating herself for her conduct and for not having listened to Mr Knightley in the first place, and she is twisted nearly into knots by the time Harriet comes in (and drawing a parallel between how she feels now and how Mrs Weston must have felt last chapter).

Only it turns out that Harriet isn't upset about the Churchill/Fairfax news; she's just amused by it, leaving Emma entirely befuddled. Emma is left to wonder how on earth Harriet can be so unaffected, when she (Emma) had encouraged Harriet to aspire to a match with Frank . . . and thus it is that we find out that the two characters were talking at complete cross-purposes back in Chapter 40, that Harriet has been fancying a match with Mr Knightley, and that Austen has been making sport by having Emma, like Hamlet's engineer, be "hoist with [her] own petard".

Things that are noteworthy about this chapter include Emma's forced composure when dealing with Harriet, even as she arrives rapidly at the conclusion that she herself is in love with Mr Knightley and would very much like to marry him. She is never rude to Harriet, because she realizes that she is responsible for the whole mess - for elevating Harriet into society, introducing her to Mr Knightley, discouraging her from marry Robert Martin, encouraging her to think she might land a match with a superior gentleman. In short, the whole mess is largely of her own making, and she resolves not to take that out on Harriet.

In the midst of their conversation, we are treated to quite a lot of what Emma is thinking as well. (Besides, of course, "oh sh*t!") Emma rapidly realizes that her negative response to Harriet's information is largely rooted in her own jealousy and in her own love for Mr Knightley, which she didn't see clearly until it was forced into relief by Harriet's remarks. In the film versions of the story, Emma's thoughts are usually restricted to her wanting Mr Knightley for herself, but there's a lot more going on here. To wit:

Emma's eyes were instantly withdrawn; and she sat silently meditating, in a fixed attitude, for a few minutes. A few minutes were sufficient for making her acquainted with her own heart. A mind like hers, once opening to suspicion, made rapid progress. She touched--she admitted--she acknowledged the whole truth. Why was it so much worse that Harriet should be in love with Mr Knightley, than with Frank Churchill? Why was the evil so dreadfully increased by Harriet's having some hope of a return? It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr Knightley must marry no one but herself!

Her own conduct, as well as her own heart, was before her in the same few minutes. She saw it all with a clearness which had never blessed her before. How improperly had she been acting by Harriet! How inconsiderate, how indelicate, how irrational, how unfeeling had been her conduct! What blindness, what madness, had led her on! It struck her with dreadful force, and she was ready to give it every bad name in the world. Some portion of respect for herself, however, in spite of all these demerits--some concern for her own appearance, and a strong sense of justice by Harriet--(there would be no need of compassion to the girl who believed herself loved by Mr Knightley--but justice required that she should not be made unhappy by any coldness now,) gave Emma the resolution to sit and endure farther with calmness, with even apparent kindness.--For her own advantage indeed, it was fit that the utmost extent of Harriet's hopes should be enquired into; and Harriet had done nothing to forfeit the regard and interest which had been so voluntarily formed and maintained--or to deserve to be slighted by the person, whose counsels had never led her right.--Rousing from reflection, therefore, and subduing her emotion, she turned to Harriet again, and, in a more inviting accent, renewed the conversation; for as to the subject which had first introduced it, the wonderful story of Jane Fairfax, that was quite sunk and lost.--Neither of them thought but of Mr Knightley and themselves.

Emma realizes that it would be wrong of her to be mean to Harriet in any way at present, and rallies herself to speak kindly and calmly to her friend, asking for details as to why Harriet thinks there might be something going on between herself and Mr Knightley, and inquiring whether Mr Knightley's conduct might not be him trying to help out his friend, Mr Robert Martin. Harriet is, of course, certain that it's all about her. After assuring Harriet that Mr Knightley is a good guy and would be the last man on earth to toy with someone's affections, Harriet leaves, happy as a clam, while Emma is left in torment.

It is noteworthy that her torment is not summarized or skipped over, as I'm about to do in this post. It is, instead, the subject of eight full paragraphs of Emma's thoughts, with occasional punctuation in the form of how her low spirits and agitation are affecting her actions. We are treated to Emma's inner machinations, so that we can see how she has evolved from the start of the book, and how she has come, at last, to know herself.

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( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 19th, 2013 08:38 pm (UTC)
Thank you.
Mar. 19th, 2013 02:01 pm (UTC)
In short, the whole mess is largely of her own making, and she resolves not to take that out on Harriet.

Austen captured that feeling of pure clarity of thought and realization of truth so magnificently in this scene. And the fact that Emma finally, truly thinks of Harriet's feelings, puts aside her own, and chooses first and foremost to be Harriet's friend is one of the most profound moments I've ever read. It's quite similar to Darcy's realization, though his moment happens off-page and we only see the results.
Mar. 19th, 2013 08:41 pm (UTC)
The movie versions always skip over that part - and it's understandable, because it would be hard to depict through action, and would require a voiceover, and most directors don't (I think) put as much credit in the need to show the other relationships within the text - they want to skip straight to the main love relationship and set this aside as unimportant. But in a lot of ways, it's a crucial point within the novel. I believe it's scenes like this one that make Austen to re-readable; there's always something new to focus on or discover.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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