Some of Austen’s novels identify their educational intention in the title. Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion each tell the reader from the start that these are the concepts to be aware of, the terms that are interrogated and resolved by the novel’s end. Other titles name the site of the action; Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey represent the novels’ tensions through their domestic spaces. And then there is Emma, a single name title without qualification, presenting an enigma. It seems we cannot apply the same interpretive schema to this novel’s title. What is it that Emma learns? Where is the site of her learning? The answers to these riddles, it turns out, are found in the questions we ask about our readings. More than in Austen’s other works, Emma is about the problems of reading and interpretation. The novel’s matchmaking plot pairs poor interpretation with harmful social repercussions. Furthermore, Austen includes detailed descriptions of Emma’s reading habits and scenes of wordplay to emphasize this problem. Emma must learn to read her relations with others more carefully by considering interpretations that contradict her immediate intuitions, and Austen extends this education to her readers, insisting through her slippery language and free indirect style that readers remain self-reflexive about their own textual interpretations.
Austen’s (in)famous protagonist is “handsome, clever, and rich” (Austen 23), intelligent and gregarious, and despite her high rank and access to education, she is a rather poor reader. As Mr. Knightley tells Mrs. Weston:
Emma has been meaning to read more ever since she was twelve years old. I have seen a great many lists of her drawing up at various times of books that she meant to read regularly through—and very good lists they were—very well chosen, and very neatly arranged—sometimes alphabetically, and sometimes by some other rule. The list she drew up when only fourteen—I remember thinking it did her judgment so much credit, that I preserved it some time; and I dare say she may have made out a very good list now. But I have done with expecting any course of steady reading from Emma. She will never submit to any thing requiring industry and patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding. (47)
Emma’s reading tastes are clearly well-formed and suitable for her status and gender, as Mr. Knightley confers upon Emma a commensurateness between her rank and literary taste. Her lists contrast Robert Martin’s, the neighborly farmer who has little reason to read literary works. Emma draws clear lines of demarcation between her education and the farmer’s, remarking, “He was a great deal too full of the market to think of anything else—which is just as it should be, for a thriving man. What has he to do with books? And I have no doubt that he will thrive and be a very rich man in time—and his being illiterate and coarse need not disturb us” (45). Yet, Mr. Knightley also notices that Emma’s appearance of literary taste does not necessarily deliver quality and depth of thought. Her reading habits signify a flighty and unserious temperament, one given to caprice rather than “industry.” Similarly, Emma’s matchmaking skills lack nuance and sophistication, and this tendency is linked textually with her educational approach. As the reader discovers throughout the narrative, Emma quickly constructs superficial narratives to link the observations she makes about others. She develops meanings which unequivocally signify, to her, the man-of-the-moment’s affections for Harriet. What she lacks, though, is the calm, persistent attention required by reading to see these interactions in any way other than that which suits her “fancy.”
It is this tendency in Emma’s thinking that Mr. Knightley wishes to eradicate. He finds fault with Emma’s insistence on instructing Harriet because he assumes that she will exhaust all of her intellectual energies on external projects rather than participating in quiet reflection. This worries him, in part because he wants Emma to consider him more seriously as a suitor. He wonders, “How can Emma imagine she has any thing to learn herself, while Harriet is presenting such a delightful inferiority?” (49). Much of Mr. Knightley’s concern is quickly corroborated, though, as the narration also indicates that Emma’s learning involves little application:
Her views of improving her little friend’s mind, by a great deal of useful reading and conversation, had never yet led to more than a few first chapters, and the intention of going on to-morrow. It was much easier to chat than to study; much pleasanter to let her imagination range and work at Harriet’s fortune, than to be labouring to enlarge her comprehension or exercise it on sober facts . . . (72)
Austen details Emma’s reading habits carefully, proving Emma’s easily-distracted and indulgent nature. While she recognizes the importance of “useful reading” to education, and she even attempts to follow through by reading the “few first chapters” of the selections from her well-structured reading lists, she more readily follows her “fancy” and chooses pleasurable activities. Reading, which involves sustained thinking and logic, does not hold Emma’s attention the way that gossiping and riddles do. Complex material also involves holding several meanings in mind at once, a practice that does not transfer readily into Emma’s approach to matchmaking.
Her education, though, proves to be useful in other contexts, and Austen is careful to prove that this learning style does not make her heroines unintelligent. Austen continues, “the only literary pursuit which engaged Harriet at present, the only mental provision she was making for the evening of life, was the collecting and transcribing all the riddles of every sort that she could meet with . . . ornamented with cyphers and trophies” (72). While both Emma and Harriet miss out on opportunities for quiet reflection and deep contemplation in their education, which might influence the social interactions they partake in later, they progress in the areas of “imagination,” constructing narratives, “transcribing all the riddles,” and decoration. These are important intellectual skills indicating artistry and creativity. They are also, of course, the practices necessary to good writing.
Emma’s partial education and poor reading produces the dizzying social misrecognitions which make the novel so delightful and complex two hundred years later. While the matchmaking plot provides the ideal context for examining issues of reading and misunderstanding, Austen also integrates word games that further exemplify the problems of language. The charade scene between Mr. Elton, Emma, and Harriet depicts the slipperiness of language, or the ways in which words can be read and misread simultaneously. At first, Mr. Elton seems timid about creating a charade for the women: “‘he had never written, hardly ever, any thing of the kind in his life. The stupidest fellow! He was afraid not even Miss Woodhouse’—he stopt a moment—‘or Miss Smith could inspire him’” (73). Austen’s free indirect style of narration infuses ambiguity into Mr. Elton’s sentiment. She writes in the third person, using “he” and “him,” yet places the text in quotation marks as though it were Mr. Elton’s report. The authority of the language is destabilized, setting the reader up for the unclear pause in the dialogue. When “he stopt a moment,” the pause might indicate Mr. Elton’s intention to stress “Miss Smith,” meaning that he holds Harriet in high esteem. This is how Emma interprets it, and a first time reader might also choose to read this moment as Emma does. When read retroactively, though, it is evident that Mr. Elton considers Harriet an afterthought. He reminds himself to be more coy when he “stopt,” and mentions Harriet as a way of de-emphasizing his attraction to Emma.
Misreading happens repeatedly at the level of plot, but Austen extends this possibility to her readers here, too. An individual duped into believing Harriet is the intended recipient of such affections means that the reader aligns herself intellectually with Emma. This leads to the uncomfortable recognition that, perhaps, she also superficially reads Emma. As Linda Bree explains, the “process of reinterpretation of events is central to the reader’s experience of engagement with Emma, since it gradually becomes apparent that all the time the narrator is describing the routines of village life something quite other is going on beneath the surface” (Bree 137). Austen coaches her readers through these ambiguous slips and word games to be attentive and careful in their reading to prevent making the same interpretative errors her characters do.
Finally, Mr. Elton produces his charade, the answer to which is “Courtship” (Austen 74). Because Emma already assumes Mr. Elton has fallen for Harriet—for no other reason than it is her wish that he does—Emma reads into every line as though it is intended for her friend. Emma tells Harriet, “There can be no doubt of its being written for you and to you . . . There is so pointed, and so particular a meaning in this compliment . . . that I cannot have a moment’s doubt as to Mr. Elton’s intentions. You are his object” (76). Because she enters into the scene of interpretation with already-formed expectations, Emma is blinded to other possible meanings. The same might be true for her novel’s readers. This initial scene of poor reading sets the stage for Emma’s unknowing flirtations, the uncomfortable carriage proposal, and Harriet’s repeated embarrassment and heartbreak throughout the novel.
While Austen lightly condemns her heroine for her habits, culminating in the infamous Box Hill scene, she does not let her other characters off the hook. The word game played by Emma, Frank Churchill, Harriet, and Jane Fairfax (with Mr. Knightley nervously watching) shows readers that Emma cannot solely be blamed for the misreadings that take place in the novel. As Frank Churchill plays the word “Dixon” (279), he simultaneously provokes multiple interpretations from Emma, Mr. Knightley, and Jane Fairfax, all of which are misleading. Likewise, the free indirect discourse used by Austen’s narrator allows the reader to momentarily occupy multiple characters’ minds, psychologically merging with diverse interpretations and misdirections. While the narrator indicates that the word game shows how “[t]hese letters were but the vehicle for gallantry and trick” (279), Austen also calls attention to the slippages between language and meaning, truth and appearance that her readers must also be wary of.
The complexity of approaches to reading and language gets us to the root of the novel’s educational motive. The moral and sentimental learning found in Austen’s other novels is less evident in Emma. It is unclear whether our protagonist, or any other character, really learns anything or reforms by the novel’s end. Additionally, claiming that Emma is the only character that seriously misunderstands social and romantic signs, and is therefore the character in need of an education, is to partake in the same superficial reading Austen warns us about. Mr. Elton misreads Emma; Mr. Knightley misreads Frank Churchill, Jane Fairfax, Harriet, and Emma; Harriet misreads all of the men except, we assume, Robert Martin. Emma is certainly a poor reader, and Austen takes great pains to detail her indulgence and educational caprice by emphasizing her minimal engagement with her reading lists and her self-centered interpretations. As the narrative continues, though, Austen extends this characteristic to others, and even tricks her readers into falling for the same habits at times. She subtly demands through wordplay, ambiguous narrative authority, and scenes of misrecognition that her readers remain open to possibilities on the page that are not the most readily apparent, and perhaps are not even the meanings we want to read. Emma is an education, certainly, but not for the characters alone.