As has often been done, one can — and with truth — say that Emma, like Jane Austen's other novels, deals with the subject of young ladies finding proper husbands. On the surface this is what the story line of Emma is about, but the total subject matter of the book concerns much more than that. Within the chosen limits of upper-middle-class society and within the even more limited strict feminine point of view for telling the story (all the events are presented from within a domestic or social context, though not, as has
been claimed, merely from within a drawing room), Miss Austen is fervently preoccupied with the way people behave. And this is the broad area of the moralist. If the moralist chooses, as Miss Austen does, to focus on the common rather than the exceptional behavior of people, he is more likely to write comedy than tragedy. If he is furthermore, a serious moralist, perceptive and understanding enough to keep a part, but only a part, of himself disengaged from the contradictory entanglements of his subject matter, his comedy has a good chance of being realized in terms of ironic satire.
The purpose of satire is to point a humorous finger at what is wrong, thereby indicating by implication what is right. Irony, as a method of achieving satire, makes use of contradictory, and sometimes ambiguous, opposites. Throughout Emma a deeper theme than that of woman finding the appropriate man for herself pervades the action: Emma Woodhouse's story is a progression in self-deception. Having since childhood been obliged to manage her father, she still likes to manage things and, particularly, people. In fact, among her associates she feels confident to manage everyone except Mr. Knightley. In her long-term attempt to preside over the marriage-ability of Harriet Smith, the natural daughter of hitherto unknown persons, Emma pits herself against something in which she fundamentally believes, the eighteenth century belief in class status whereby one simply should stay in the class into which he is born. (She is also incidentally pitting herself against the process of natural selection of a mate.) She deludes herself that Harriet's parents may have been of importance and hence tries to marry her off to people above her station in life. With absolutely no foundation in fact, this delusion stems solely from Emma's willful imagination.
Mr. George Knightley, on the other hand, in his sedate and kindly way accepts the social status quo and governs himself accordingly, even cautioning Emma about what she is doing. On this major thematic point, then, Emma represents imagination and Mr. Knightley stands for realistic reasoning (some would say merely realistic acceptance), two human characteristics that are so often in opposition that a contrasting pairing of them leads to irony. The story, of course, belongs primarily to Emma, for her willfulness most readily lends itself to satire and it is the feminine point of view that Jane Austen knows best. Still, for contrast, Mr. Knightley is often enough on the scene to keep us reminded of the other side of the coin, and Mr. Woodhouse, Emma's father, is constantly before us as an extreme example of one who wants to keep things the way they are. Of the two men, it is Mr. Woodhouse, so fearful of the least change that he bemoans the very thought of marriage and urges reason of health for not leaving his fireside even in good weather, who is the main object of satire on this side of the opposition.
What Miss Austen has done is to take two human traits and put them in different characters in order to make her contrast highly effective. They of course belong to human nature in general and represent those ironical mixed qualities of humanity and human relationships. Throughout the story a reader feels that somehow these extremes ideally should be able to meet on common ground and be resolved into something right. From her realistic point of departure as a storyteller, however, Miss Austen knows that relationships are tangential: hence the irony in the fact that the willfully imaginative Emma is the closest of blood relatives to the sedentary and senilely reasoning Mr. Woodhouse. There is doubtless significance far beyond the surface plotting of a love story in the fact that Miss Austen finally marries Emma and Mr. Knightley — that is, marries imagination and reason. Having realized her self-deception to some degree, Emma, with Mr. Knightley beside her, may now develop a proper balance within herself. Mr. Knightley, with Emma beside him, now seems to stand a good chance of never ending up on that dead-end street of static, senile reasoning at which Mr. Woodhouse has arrived. It is a common-ground marriage of reason and imagination, of head and heart, of common sense and goodness.
The ending of the story is, then, what we call a happy one. Or is it? In consideration of the bulk of the story about human foibles, Miss Austen gives us reason only for hope. She concludes the book with a final sentence about "the perfect happiness of the union." But this is said with at least a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek. Emma will not marry without her father's consent, and that comes only after the robbery of a nearby turkey house one night convinces Mr. Woodhouse that Mr. Knightley's living with them will be a needed protection. The close juxtaposition of this small causative event and the closing statement of the book connects the ridiculous with the more sublime and should at least make a reader wonder. Based on a moralistic realism as Miss Austen's satiric comedy is, it is not untypical of her in one twinkling to see both a robbed turkey house that will doubtless be replenished and a human household which, while it encloses a "perfect happiness of . . . union," also includes Mr. Woodhouse and the displacement of Mr. Knightley, who will now forego the ease and security of his own finer home, Donwell Abbey, in order to placate Emma and Mr. Woodhouse. Miss Austen's satire ends with an indication of what might be right; but she only points, for her moralistic realism will not let her be certain. She has seen too much of life for that. After all, who can say that Emma will never again try to manage things and people? In spite of robbers (and bridegrooms) this world is still full of turkeys, and Miss Austen knows that.
A brief word remains to be said about the ambiguity of opposites as Miss Austen sees them, and perhaps the best example is Emma's willful imagination, which stands in contrast to the reason of someone like Mr. Knightley. The ambiguity lies in a further contrast which embodies a contradiction. A lively imagination, in its purity, is an admirable and interesting quality. Perhaps willfulness, too, has its good points. But imagination can be too unfounded upon reality, and willfulness is perhaps too often misdirected because of its tendency to become presumptuous if not arrogant. Thus, on any one side of Miss Austen's oppositions there is ambiguity in that that side contains both good and bad inextricably fused. For this reason we can like and even admire Emma for the lively energy of her imagination, for her readiness to make amends, her benevolence, her affirmative sense of direction, while we are also critical of what she is doing.
Similarly we may feel that Mr. Knightley's reasoning does not make allowance for an adequate degree of imagination. Miss Bates' interminable talkativeness, which so comically places the petty and the significant on the same level, never includes a merciful consideration for the listener in spite of the fact that she is one of the kindest and best intentioned people who ever lived on or off a page. In Miss Austen's world (and who can prove that her world is not ours?) no good quality seems to be without some negative alloy. For this reason her satire not only probes the contradictory nature of opposite human qualities (contradictory because they are of one world and one humanity), but also considers the ambiguous mixture of good and bad in any one of these opposites.
Just as she never presents an actual emotional love scene (the one exception is found in Emma when Mr. Knightley declares the passion of his love to Emma) because her interest is in discovering the effects of emotion, she seems never to question why contradictions and ambiguities exist because she is basically a realist rather than a theorist. Rather than write of man and his relation to God or politics or abstract ideas, she wrote of human relationships. This may be why, in a letter to her nephew, she once referred to her fiction as "the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour." Such a statement may, of course, be merely tongue-in-cheek modesty; but it is indicative of the fact that she deliberately limited her writing efforts not only to the provincial society which she knew and to the feminine point of view that was naturally hers but also to the mundane level of human behavior. Nonetheless, most readers of Emma find there the rich opacity, the delicacy, and the true polish of fine ivory, but few would agree that it is only two inches wide.