In my Modern European Literature, we always read a novel by a British author, usually Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. For the last few years, I taught Mansfield Park (1814), which remains my favorite novel that I have read from Austen, including Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride Prejudice (1813). Eager for a new challenge, this year I will undertake Emma (1815), arguably Austen’s masterpiece. Nothing has piqued my interest more than Austen’s remark, “I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.”
To prepare for this novel, I will assign my students the relevant chapter in William Deresiewicz’s excellent book, A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter. Here is the wisdom that he derived from Emma—wisdom that could apply to all of Austen’s fiction.
Emma’s cruelty, which I was so quick to criticize, was nothing, I saw, but the mirror image of my own. The boredom and contempt that the book aroused in me were not signs of Austen’s ineptitude; they were the exact responses she wanted me to have. She had incited them, in order to expose them. By creating a heroine who felt exactly as I did, and who behaved precisely as I would have in her situation, she was showing me my own ugly face. I couldn’t deplore Emma’s disdain for Miss Bates, or her boredom with the whole commonplace Highbury world, without simultaneously condemning my own.
Austen, I realized, had not been writing about everyday things because she couldn’t think of anything else to talk about. She had been writing about them because she wanted to show how important they really are. All that trivia hadn’t been marking time until she got to the point. It was the point. Austen wasn’t silly and superficial; she was much, much smarter—and much wiser—than I could have ever imagined.
I returned to the novel in a completely different frame of mind. Mr. Woodhouse’s banalities, Miss Bates’s monologues, all that gossip and small talk—Austen put them in as a sign that she respected her characters, not because she wanted us to look down on them. She was willing to listen to what they had to say, and she wanted me to listen, too. As long as I had treated such passages as filler and hurried through them, they had seemed impossibly dull. But once I started to slow down long enough to take them on their own terms, I found that they possessed their own gravity, their own dignity, their own sweetness.
Jane Fairfax’s letters and where they may have been hiding, little John and Henry’s cleverness and pretty ways—these things mattered, because they mattered to the characters themselves. They made up the texture of their lives, and gave their existence its savor. I got it now. By eliminating all the big, noisy events that usually absorb our interest when we read novels—the adventures and affairs, the romances and the crises, even, at times, the plot—Austen was asking us to pay attention to the things we usually miss or don’t accord enough esteem, in novels or in life. Those small, “trivial,” everything things, the things that happen hour by hour to the people in our lives: what your nephew said, what your friend heard, what your neighbor did. That, she was telling us, is what the fabric of our years really consists of. That is what life is really about. (12-13)
* * *
If I was having trouble seeing the importance of the world that Austen was putting in front of me, in other words, it wasn’t entirely my fault. Like all the great teachers, I now saw, she made us come to her. She had momentous truths to tell, but she concealed them in humble packages. Her “littleness” was really an optical illusion, a test. Jesus spoke in parables so his disciples would have to make an effort to understand him. The truth, he knew, cannot be grasped in any other way. Austen reminded me, I realized, of something that Plato said about his great mentor Socrates, who also taught by telling stories. “His words are ridiculous when you first hear them, for his talk is of pack-asses and smiths and cobblers . . . so that any ignorant or inexperienced person might feel disposed to laugh at him; but he who sees what is within will find that they are the only words which have a meaning in them, and likewise the most divine.” (15)
* * *
This, I now saw, was how all of Austen’s language worked. No strain, no display, no effort to awe or impress. Just everyday words in their natural order—a language that didn’t call attention to itself in any way, but just rolled along as easily as breathing. It wasn’t the words that Austen used to create her effects, it was the way she used them, the way she grouped and balanced them. And so it was, I saw, with her characters. A thousand authors could write novels about ordinary people, but only one of those books would be Emma. Austen’s characters came to seem so vivid, so meaningful, because she put them down on the page exactly the way she placed her words: without condescension, without apology, but with a masterful talent for arrangement. Emma was balanced by Jane Fairfax, and Miss Bates by Harriet Smith, and Mr. Martin by Mr. Elton, and all of them by one another, setting the whole story in motion and creating scenes that felt as natural as real life. It didn’t matter how small the frame was, because it contained a whole world. (16-17)
* * *
To pay attention to “minute particulars” is to notice your life as it passes, before it passes. But it is also, I realized, something more. By talking over their little daily affairs—and not just talking them over, but talking them over and over, again and again (the same story in brief, then in full, the same stories in one house, then another)—the characters of Emma were doing nothing less than attaching themselves to life. They were weaving the web of community, one strand of conversation at a time. They were creating the world, in the process of talking about it.
Yet again, it was Emma herself who had trouble with this. She loved to gossip with her special friend Mrs. Weston, of course, but when Miss Bates started in, she couldn’t get away fast enough, and Jane Fairfax’s letters were a fate worse than death. She was the cleverest and best-looking person around, and richer and more wellborn than just about everyone else, and she thought she deserved a more interesting life than the one that was on offer in Highbury. Like a bad reader, she was looking for intrigue and adventure, but all she ended up doing was cutting herself off from the people around her. And as a result, she cut herself off from herself. The fun of Emma was the way that heroine, with her supreme confidence in own judgment, was always screwing up, but the reason wasn’t that much fun at all. Like me, she was numb. She couldn’t feel what she felt, or know what she wanted.
But Emma finally learned that everyday life is not only more joyful—and more dramatic—than she could have imagined, it is also more joyful and dramatic than anything she did imagine, any of her plots or daydreams. With those, she just played at feeling. But dull old, trivial old everyday life—that is where feeling truly lies. Finding that out, she found out whom she should marry, and I found out that this was where the novel had been heading all along. It really had its heroine’s romantic future in mind, but its mind turned out to be very, very deep. In the end Emma didn’t lack a plot; its plot was so clever that it could keep itself hidden until the very last, when all of its disparate parts leaped into order in a single instant, like iron filings around a magnet. (31-32)
Before Deresiewicz encountered Austen, he favored modernist literature because of its complexity and grandiosity:
What I really wanted to study was modernism, the literature that had formed my identity as a reader and, in many ways, as a person. Joyce, Conrad, Faulkner, Nabokov: complex, difficult, sophisticated works. Like so many young men, I needed to think of myself as a rebel, and modernism, with its revolutionary intensity, confirmed my self-image. I’d pass my days in a cloud of angry sarcasm, making silent speeches, as I stalked down Broadway in my John Lennon coat, against everything conventional, respectable, and pious. I’d walk right up alongside the buildings, in the shadows—it makes you feel like a rat scuttling for cover—to aggravate my sense of alienation. If I was waiting for someone and had nowhere else to go, I’d sit right down on the sidewalk with my Kerouac or my Catch-22, just you try and stop me. I smoked weed, listened to the Clash, and snorted at the business monkeys who’d sold out to the Man. Like the modernists, I was hot to change the world, even if I wasn’t exactly sure how. At the very least, I knew I wasn’t going to let the world change me. I was Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, raging against the machine. I was Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, the rebel artist who runs rings around the grown-ups. I was Conrad’s Marlow, the world-weary truth teller who punches through hypocrisy and lies. (2)
After reading Emma as a college student, Deresiewicz says Austen’s attention to “all those little matters on which the daily happiness of private life depends” punctured his self-importance, and helped him to take life seriously—life as it is actually lived and not how it is contrived in modernist literature:
What I hadn’t taken seriously were the little events, the little moments of feeling, that my life actually consisted of. I wasn’t Stephen Dedalus or Conrad’s Marlow. I was Emma. I was Jane Fairfax. I was Miss Bates. I wasn’t a rebel. I was a fool. I wasn’t floating in splendid isolation a million miles above the herd. I was part of the herd. I was a regular person, after all. Which means, I was a person. (33)
* * *
My ideas about literature were no more able to survive these revelations than were my ideas about anything else. Having worshipped at the altar of modernism, with its arrogant postures and lofty notions of philosophical significance, I believed that great literature had to be forbidding and esoteric: full of allusions that flaunted their own learning, dense with images and symbols that had to be pieced together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. A book, to be really valuable, had to offer truths that seemed as recondite as metaphysics and as final as Scripture—had to promise to reveal the nature of language, or the self, or time. Modernism was superior art for superior people, or so that snobbiest of literary movements believed. No wonder I disdained the herd; I’d learned that pose from T. S. Eliot and Vladimir Nabokov, every line of whose work strutted its contempt for ordinary people. Emma refuted the notion that great literature must be difficult, and it also rebuked the human attitudes that that idea was designed to justify. I still loved modernism, I just no longer believed it was the only way to make art, and I certainly didn’t think that it was the way to live. (34)
When Deresiewicz compares Joyce’s Ulysses, “the modernist novel par excellence”, with Austen’s Emma, he sides with Emma because its style does not get in the way of its substance:
As any English major can tell you, Ulysses also celebrate the everyday. With it, Joyce sought to create a work that was comparable in artistic majesty and cosmic scope to the great epics of Homer, Virgil, and Dante, the summit of Western literature, but at its center he placed, not a heroic figure like Achilles or Odysseus, but the most unremarkable man he could think of, a Jewish advertising agent named Leopold Bloom—a sad sack, a cuckold, a loner, a loser. The novel’s epic grandeur comes instead form the symbolic structures that Joyce builds around him, starting with the title. Unbeknownst to the man himself, Bloom becomes a modern-day Ulysses, his single day’s journey around Dublin a contemporary equivalent, in miniature, of his predecessor’s ten years of wandering among gods and monsters.
The gesture is exhilarating, even ennobling. Like Austen, Joyce was saying that every life, including yours, is heroic in its own way. But the reason Ulysses had never brought me to the recognitions that Emma did was precisely the means by which Joyce had chosen to say it. So obtrusive were those symbolic structures, so ostentatious were Joyce’s artistic effects, that you finally got the sense that Bloom’s importance had nothing whatsoever to do with Bloom and everything to do with his creator. Bloom’s robes were borrowed; it was not his life that was worthy of notice after all, but the artistic treatment to which that life had been subject. The figure Bloom’s story ultimately magnifies is Joyce himself—the one incomparable artist, not the everyman. From this perspective, the message of Ulysses was the very opposite of Austen’s. Ordinary life is important only because of what a James Joyce can do with it. Aside from that, your life isn’t very important at all.
As it happens, someone once tried to tell me about a theory she had heard that Emma itself—by critical consensus Austen’s greatest work—was designed to be a kind of epic, too, Austen’s subtler contribution to the same high tradition that Joyce would so loudly seek to enter a century later. The picnic episode, where Emma hit bottom, morally speaking, was supposed to be the novel’s version of the hero’s descent to the underworld, the central convention of Western epic, and so on and so forth. This, keep in mind, was a fan of Austen who was making me this argument; to her, it exalted her favorite author to the status of the big boys. But to me, it utterly missed the point of what Austen was trying to do—even, in a sense, disparaged it. We don’t need to pretend that Austen’s novels are really epics in disguise in order to value them as highly as they deserve. She didn’t need to play the same game as the big boys. Her small, feminine game was every bit as good, and every bit as grand. Austen glorified the everyday on its own terms—without the glamour of Joyce, and modernism, and epic archetypes, and the whole repertoire of epic conventions. What she offered us, if we’re willing to see it, is just the everyday, without amplification. Just the novel, without excuses. Just the personal, just the private, just the little, without apologies. (35-36)