By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
Emma derives power in part through her family. Her father, Mr. Woodhouse, is a widower. Emma “had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her”. Yet the readers are told next that her mother died when she was a little girl. It seems strange to imagine that a young girl who endured the death of a mother had ‘little to distress or vex her’.
Voices of Emma and the Narrator
These conflicting lines mentioned above point to something that’s apparent throughout the novel: There’s a slippage between the omniscient, or all-knowing, narrator’s third-person reporting of the story and the glimpses we get of events through the first-person perspective of Emma’s own flawed, wishful thoughts. These are sometimes very hard to separate out, too, which is surely by design.
Let’s look at an example of this in a series of lines. There’s a section in which Emma, on observing her young friend, Harriet Smith, was, we’re told, “not struck by any thing remarkably clever in Miss Smith’s conversation, but she found her altogether very engaging”. This is Emma’s thought, reported by the narrator.
But two sentences later we’re told, “The friends from whom [Harriet] had just parted, though very good sort of people, must be doing her harm.” Harriet’s friends “must be” doing her harm. Is this a thought that Emma is having, a declaration by the narrator, or both? It’s an opinion, and it’s a statement. It’s difficult to assess whether it’s a trustworthy piece of information.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Use of Free Indirect Discourse
This difficulty is a result of Austen’s brilliant use of what’s called free indirect discourse. In free indirect discourse, the omniscient narration also glides in and out of one character’s consciousness. The character of Emma isn’t the main narrator in the novel. This isn’t a first-person story, told from inside Emma’s head. It’s a third-person account, describing what she thought and what she said. It’s thanks to the narrator that we sometimes know more than Emma knows.
But often, the novel is not giving us a third-person narrator’s wide-angle view of events. Instead, it’s channeling Emma’s thoughts. The problem is that we can’t entirely trust Emma’s conclusions. Although she’s quick to think she has things all figured out, often she’s entirely wrong. In the example we just looked at, for instance, Emma comes to believe by the end of the novel that those old friends of Harriet’s are not doing her harm. Quite the opposite. It was Emma’s opinion, presented as a declaration, and it was wrong.
It can be tricky figuring out which information in the novel is coming from which perspective—the narrator’s all-knowing guidance or Emma’s partial conclusions. This conundrum of reading has led some to compare the novel to a puzzle, a riddle, or even a detective story.
Emma’s Maneuvering Skills
In the first chapter, Emma thinks she’s a good reader of people and situations, and an excellent matchmaker. She revels in pulling strings behind the scenes, to direct other people’s love lives. She does this to suit her own sense of what’s desirable but also with the genuine belief that she’s improving the community. Emma has experience in maneuvering others.
In her own home, she’s the benevolent puppet master of her loving, devoted, and ineffectual father. He’s an inveterate hypochondriac with a raft of peculiar anxieties. Emma’s mistake is in thinking that her success in managing that unusual parent-child relationship means she has the ability to manage others’ love lives.
Emma’s Belief in Her Cleverness
Emma begins the novel feeling a sense of loss and triumph. Her longtime live-in governess, Miss Taylor—who, is more like a sister to her than a teacher or a mother-figure—has just married. Having become Mrs. Weston, she’s moved to the nearby home of her husband, a land-owning widower. It’s an advantageous marriage. Penniless governesses didn’t often end up with prosperous landowners.
It was also a well-timed marriage. Her position with the Woodhouses at Hartfield was coming to an end. If Miss Taylor hadn’t become Mrs. Weston, she would have had to find a new position in another home, perhaps in a new city. Emma would have lost her close friend. But Miss Taylor would have lost her livelihood and nearly everyone she’d known across her adult life. Getting married definitely advanced Miss Taylor’s prospect at happiness, and it wasn’t inconvenient for Emma, either.
Emma credits herself with having brought about Miss Taylor’s marriage to Mr. Weston. Emma claims that she foresaw the couple’s suitability and had a hand in throwing them in each other’s way. She claims that she’d “planned” the marriage for four years—which would make Emma just 16 at the dawn of her plan. Emma believes that the marriage of the Westons is proof of her “success”, foresight, and cleverness.
Common Questions about Narrative Techniques in Jane Austen’s Emma
In the novel Emma, there’s a slippage between the omniscient, or all-knowing, narrator’s third-person reporting of the story and the glimpses we get of events through the first-person perspective of Emma’s own flawed, wishful thoughts.
In free indirect discourse, the omniscient narration glides in and out of one character’s consciousness. Jane Austen uses this technique brilliantly in her novel, Emma.
In her own home, Emma is the benevolent puppet master of her loving, devoted, and ineffectual father. He’s an inveterate hypochondriac with a raft of peculiar anxieties. Emma’s mistake is in thinking that her success in managing that unusual parent-child relationship means she has the ability to manage others’ love lives.