Critical Essays Characters in Emma


With the exception of Emma, the characters are generally static ones. They do not change. Rather, they are likely to be simply confirmed in their views, for they live in and accept a stable if static society. Nonetheless, the type of characters portrayed is varied and so is the degree of their realistic development.

Among the lesser developed but important ones, we may note Mr. Woodhouse, John Knightley, and Augusta Elton. They appear to be one-dimensional because they consistently show their one dominant coloring, and so far as treatment of them in the novel is concerned, they are one-dimensional. Mr. Woodhouse, in his gentle selfishness, is the petty arch-conservative, wanting absolutely nothing to change and constantly being apprehensive about matters of health. John is similar but in domestic terms; he is rather nonsocial because he wants to rest content with his family in his domestic comforts. Augusta is always seen as the talkative busybody who preens herself on her supposed social importance. They serve their purposes in the novel best by being one-sided, and they come very close to being caricatures.

Miss Bates deserves a bit of special attention. She is like an archetype of the boring non-stop talker. But she takes on added dimension by the very fact that her gush of words encompasses everything around her — so much so, in fact, that the small and the important apparently have equal significance for her. A thwarted woman (though she would never recognize herself as such), she has a driving need to express herself, though her expression is never egocentric. She is, indeed, one of the most kindhearted and thankful persons imaginable; but she is also capable of being hurt and of forgiving. She undergoes no observable change in the novel, but hers is possibly the most fully rounded characterization among the minor ones.

Though one of the more important characters, Harriet Smith is mostly a counter to be moved about by Emma and the plot of the novel. She is a simple but pretty girl who, once in love, will always be in love and who evinces one very interesting though momentary development when she decides that she is after all perhaps worthy of George Knightley.

Jane Fairfax is a skillfully employed foil for Emma, but we do not get to know her in dramatic detail because she is involved in a mystery and much about her must remain unknown until it is revealed in summary. On the other hand, Frank Churchill, though he too is involved in the mystery, comes through with better delineation. He has admirable abilities but is too frivolous to be truly admirable; his mainstay is social charm and wit. He is important partly because in many respects he is the male counterpart of Emma: Both get a certain enjoyment out of seeing others labor under misapprehensions, and it is significant that Emma recognizes this lively similarity near the end of the story.

George Knightley is one of the most important figures in the book, though during much of the time he is rather in the background of events. He is a man of benevolence. He is the only one strong enough to impress Emma with critical good sense, and he is thus the only logical one that she can marry. He is particularly significant to the novel, however, because he is the raisonneur, the spokesman character for Miss Austen. His reasoning and comment upon events are pretty much those of the author, and he constitutes a rational thread of cohesiveness running through the novel.

Emma Woodhouse is the main character and hers is the most fully rounded, three-dimensional characterization. Her dominant trait is willful imagination, but she also has the elements of goodwill, rationality, and proportion when her willfulness does not lead her into self-deception. She is the fundamental changing character in the book, for she goes through a slow and bumpy growth from self-deception to self-knowledge. She is the book's aberration from the static social norm, and at the end she has developed to the point of fitting properly into her social milieu. Her characterization has been so well done that one cannot be absolutely sure that she will never scheme again, but one can feel that she has a good chance of remaining on terms with herself and her environment because of her growth and because she now has George Knightley beside her.

In considering the characters of the book, one should remind himself that, no matter how well they are developed for their individuality, they also serve for purposes of satirical contrast and comparison. The distancing that Austen achieves through point of view (see above) effects a kind of balance between the individual as such and his place in a satirically social context.