Jane Austen’s “Emma”

Jane Austen’s Emma

Emma, published in 1816, like other novels of Jane Austen, deals with one major subject, that is, young lady’s attempts at finding proper husbands. Although superficially this seems to be the storyline of the novel, there is much more than only this at the deeper level. The novel is doubtlessly ranked as a “classic romantic comedy”, a piece of fiction full of irony and wit, a typical characteristic of Jane Austen’s Victorian pen. In the novel, the author very dexterously employs satire and romantic sensibilities that make the novel a masterpiece. The novel has a plot that is essentially character-driven. The twenty-one-year-old central character (Emma), in the self-assessment of herself as a skillful matchmaker, holds the center of interest in the novel. As her deceptive thinking about being a skillful matchmaker comes to unfold to be nothing but foiled ideas, her character moves toward dynamic development throughout the novel. In other female characters, also, we very well see the theme of marriage being the major plot runner. However, in the entire novel, this theme is given a light-hearted treatment. This embedded with comedy, dealing with domestic matters, irony, and satire makes the novel a well-rounded reading experience for the reader: With the upper-middle-class society as its limits, and encircling majorly the issues of women – and looking at things from the feministic viewpoint – the course of events of Emma are essentially presented within a social context or with domestic fervor. In this way, the author certainly makes use of humor, irony, morality, commonsense, and so on which all seem highly homely and benign to the reader. Emma is, as such, full of domestic underpinnings from a woman’s point of view: “On the whole, Emma is a magnificent attempt at exploring the self-contained lives of young women” (Dempsey, 2008).

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Satire in Emma

Emma is a classical piece of studying the economic use of satire by the novel. The purpose of satire, as it is held commonly, “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”. Henceforth, throughout the novel, it is seen that along with the explicit theme of the novel – women’s finding proper men – the progression of Emma Woodhouse’s character is shown through ironic satire as her self-deception comes to a realistic vision of life layer by layer. On the other side of the battle, certain characters fall victim to Jane Austen’s sharp sword of satire. The major character to quote here is that of Mr. Woodhouse, who has a number of different views about marriage, domestic and social way of life, and so on. The core purpose of satire employment by Austen is to indicate what might be seen by the reader as right in reality and that what difference lies between what is said and what is right. However, the way she makes use of satire is only subtle; critics point out that this is because Miss Austen followed the version of moralistic realism that did not let her be certain and explicitly forceful about her views. All in all, the objective of satire employed in the novel is to bring forward to the reader that “no good quality seems to be without some negative alloy”. The contradictory nature of human qualities that go opposite each other is probed by this application of satire and the resulting ambiguity from the mixture of good and bad is fairly manipulated by the author giving multifaceted implications of something being pointed out. Satire, then, is a subtly device that Miss Austen has fine-tuned in her novel Emma and reaches to mastery of use; this can be fair treatment to state that Emma is a very good example if one comes to study irony and satire in the context of Victorian England (Karenina, 2008).

Emma: the Source of Satire

Emma, the central character of the novel Emma, is very clearly the center of all the satire that emerges from the novel. The development of this character from seeing herself to be the best matchmaker to what she is gives us huge roars of subtle and grave satirical underpinnings throughout the novel. We see that Emma is a young girl “with her head too much in the clouds”. She is a self-proclaimed matchmaker; however, she does not realize that whatever efforts she puts forth in making the best matches are the only ones that turn out to be the bad ones. This has a threefold satirical offering to the reader, something that speaks of the mastery by which Austen weaves the fine fabric of the novel. One form of satire that comes out is that which is directly related to Emma’s actions and her ridiculing other characters explicitly. This at places becomes grave and meets some opposition by other characters in the novel; the other form of satire is the difference between what Emma thinks she is and what she is. This is the long continuum along which Emma seems to be traveling: a journey from self-deception to self-realization; the last form of satire is that which is hidden between the lines. It is the kind of subtle mockery that is carried by different characters, along with Emma, different situations, and estimations which the readers could readily understand and cannot resist enjoying simultaneously seeing the development of the novel. Henceforth, the character of Emma is a remarkable creation of Miss Austen that wins both sympathy and approval of the reader instead of being at the mercy of her self-deception. Her character is spared by some critics in stating that because she misses the guidance of her mother and that her father is ailing, she deserves the sympathy of the readers and that her self-deception can be the result of her being at the mercy of her intelligence by lonely self. Whatever it might be interpreted to be the case with Emma, this is true that no critical analysis of satire, irony, comedy, and humor is possible without the critical analysis of Emma, the heroine of the novel (Allreaders.com).

Gendering of Satire in Emma

The gendering of satire, that is, making use of satire by and for women, is something that is entitled to be one achievement by Jane Austen by her novel like Emma. This is pointed out after examining the context of her time as well as the time before her and the common practices of writers. Overall, satire was seen mainly as “a predominantly masculine preserve”. As such Jane Austen’s contribution in shaping up the literary culture of today is immense. It is important to note that Dryden, Pope, and Swift, like other authors of then England, viewed satire from their angle and Dryden even classified satire as being a “manly” undertaking. Austen, in achieving her goal of shaping the culture of gendering the use of satire is coined as an “outside” satirist, i.e., one who wrote against the well-established conventions of her day. Emma is notably a work by Jane Austen that has many instances of this kind of struggle that Miss Austen rigorously makes. In the novel, the author seems to be putting high efforts into maintaining literary balance between satire and sensibility. Emma is a masterpiece of literature in which we see “Austen grappling with a dialectic of satire and sensibility”. Emma leads us to the estimation as to when it is correct to use satire and ridicule as a proper device of pointing out something in society and when it is in violation of properly hinged sensibility, societal norms, and Christian boundaries. Miss Bates, a well-meaning though highly annoying character, Miss Austen brings forward what can be said as the appropriate employment of satire. As soon as Miss Bates first appears on the scene, she produces impulses that are conflicting not only in her associate characters but in the narrator as well as the readers. On the one side, the reader willingly wishes to mock her character, on the other, the reader feels that hers is not the character as “the typical satiric target”. As such, the satirist also knows that she is not guilty of any grave social or moral sin, though she is tiresome. This leads the satirist to spare her from attacking with her satire. Emma, the heroine of the novel, best portrays this by commenting on Miss Bates, her nonsense neighbor: “I know there is not a better creature in the world: but you must allow; that what is good and what is ridiculous are most unfortunately blended in her” (Mason, 2003).

 Satire and Morality

Moving along with our analysis of satire in Emma, we find that Austen is fairly conscious of ensuring the reader, perhaps herself too, of the fact that it is no possible to satirize every situation and person in society because it is immoral and against societal as well Christian norm. This fact is finely evident in the novel. Mrs. Watson is one character that voices these concerns both for the readers and for the author when she reacts to Emma’s satirical sketching by saying, “For shame, Emma! Do not mimic her. You divert me against my conscience” (p. 225). It is here that the readers become all the more aware of the guilty pleasure connected in personal satire. However, this kind of morality that Austen has been working on well continues in the rest of the novel. For instance, while at the Box Hill picnic, there is a clear reminder of how morally shaky it is to satirize someone. The entire picnic scene, viewed for this idea alone, has Jane Austen point out that she condemns such satire by targeting one person alone. There is a parallel development of moral satire and the balancing of this satire – former being primarily that of Emma, latter being that of the writer – in the Eltons and Miss Bates. The Eltons are there to take it, while Miss Bates is the one to stand against it. What are we told of? Simply it is this observation that although satire against the proud is exercised at length, it is not let cross the boundaries of the tenets of proper sensibility. The two layers of satire and morality find their way out as the novel ends and give the reader the impression that there is constant scrutiny on the part of the writer to voice her concern about what kind of satire (although it was being shaped to enlighten a different gender’s perspective as the same time) is healthy and should be allowed and what is not right because morality taboos it (Mason, 2003).

Emma: A Blueprint of New Satire

Looking at Emma from the perspective of Mason (2003), it is certainly fair to endorse that Austen did indulge in engendering of the new kind of satire. Emma portrays satire in a way in which it can call “the blueprint for a new satirical mode, one that offers less personal violence and more selectivity in its choice of targets, without any corresponding loss of wit or moral instruction”. This mockery of the situation and characters is balanced with insight into conscience. What is noteworthy to be the characteristically the quality of Jane Austen in employing this two-fold theme is that not only the writer and the characters of the novel feel it, but also the readers witness this balancing as justifying and compelling; the readers, as with the other two cornerstones, are well aware of this fact and do not unnecessarily practice their mockery over the situation and do not, also, ridicule the characters that should not be ridiculed. Mason is correct to state that by this way Austen is calling the reader to go through “the experience of error”, “to misjudge the characters and situations in the novel as [Emma] misjudges them and to recognize our misjudgments as she recognizes them”. The result is all the more striking and impressive. When the readers share such errors with Emma, they are prone to share with her the shame that she suffers because of the satirical actions that she committed. At this point, it is highly significant to state that to say it is satire with moral balancing is just one part of it. The other part is much more complex: the entire idea of satire can now be interpreted as the fabric of several strands what the main characters, the other characters of the novel, as well as the readers weave to knit a cohesive whole. This is where the true mastery of Jane Austen as a satirist can be seen and must be acknowledged (Mason, 2003).

Other Interpretation

Other critics see Austen’s employment of satire in a different manner. There is a great argument both in favor and opposition to this observation that Austen was a moralist. What is stated in opposition is that Jane Austen knew that some of the satire that she brings forth through Emma would be recognized by her readership. “Emma could not resist” immediately precedes the Box Hill scene where some insult is observed. Morefield (2003) points out that Emma is not up to satirize characters like Miss Bates throughout the play only. What Austen shows in her is that at times Emma could resist her temptations to satirize others and that she does in the novel. This resistance to satire and ridiculing of others by Emma is supported by the fact that Emma is a self-disciplined girl. The evidence of her self-discipline comes in Chapter XV of Volume Two. It is in this scene that Emma’s conduct is compared willingly with that of Mrs. Elton’s. The Eltons attitude and conduct to treat Harriet, as they speak of her “sneering and negligent” give us almost the same parallel in the conduct of Emma when she insults Miss Bates in Volume Three. The author brings forth a clear warning to the reader that such attitude is evident of the fact that Elton’s “grew worse”; whereas, Emma is somehow absolved since (even though she dislikes Mrs. Elton) she vividly resists the desire to follow her feelings, “Mrs. Elton’s praise passed from one mouth to another as if ought to do, unimpeded by Miss Woodhouse”. At this point, this can be argued that Emma does not seem to follow here what is called Austen’s moral code but that she is merely following the norm of position and respect carried with it. Though this is a valid point, “it does not nullify the fact that resisting giving rein to one’s feelings is a possibility for both for Emma and the reader”.

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Similarly, the idea of satire in Emma is seen from another different angle that springs from the fact that Jane Austen underscores Emma’s ability to make a significant moral judgment and the way she carries it – Jane clearly shows that Emma fails to carry them out. There is numerous instance that can be put here while Emma is indulged into self-examination and realization about her conduct to the different character but Jane does not build it to strong heights and thus the reader is left with subtle and sometimes grave satire, which, according to Morefield (2003) is something that must be pointed out because Emma could are a better character than she was and that satire does seem undesirable at times in the novel. Morefield goes on to comment rather bitterly about his, perhaps misuse of satire by Austen, in these words: “This certainly does not seem to me to be language that alternately invites the reader to participate in Emma’s negative behavior and then criticize her for it”. What can be seen to be the viewpoint of this author might be that there are more doors to the literary analysis of Jane Austen’s employment of satire in Emma than superficially seem to us and that the deeper one looks at different interpretations of themes like satire in the novel, the more complex it becomes.


Looking at satire from a number of perspectives as discussed above, it can be stated that Emma is a masterpiece by Jane Austen that has a number of implications of satire, comedy, and humor. It is a light commentary on Victorian ways of life and that Austen did contribute toward the gendering of satire by her mastery of the use of satire from the feministic perspective of being anti-Jacobean (Stove, 2005). It may be concluded that Emma will be ranked high in literature of all times.


  1. Allreaders.com – Emma: Jane Austen Book Review. Web.
  2. Dempsey, E. (2008). Emma. Web.
  3. Karenina, A. (2008). Emma: about the novel. Introduction.
  4. Mason, N. (2003). Austen’s Emma and the gendering of enlightenment satire. Contributors: Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal (25), pp. 213+. Jane Austen Society of North America.
  5. Morefield, K. R. (2003). Emma could not resist”: complicity and the Christian reader. Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal (25), pp. 197+. Jane Austen Society of North America.
  6. Stove, J. (2005). Jane Austen, Anti-Jacobin. New Criterion (23), 5, pp. 18+. Foundation for Cultural Review; COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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