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The Narrative Structure of Jane Austen's Novel Emma

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As readers, the form of novels can be presented in different ways, authors like Jane Austen explore ideas in novels like Emma through its Narrative structure. The term “narrative” can be defined as “A spoken or written account of connected events; a story.” Thus, the credibility and accuracy of the events can be questioned depending on how reliable the narrator is. It can be difficult to grasp a novel in its entirety and the events that take place within a novel when “the flow is interrupted, and we are led off in unexpected directions” which can be seen through Emma woodhouse, the protagonist of the novel, interestingly the narrator too. The narrative in Emma takes place in third person. Acknowledging the novel being written in third person is crucial in attempting to understand the novel in its entirety. The characters voices become the centre of implications and meanings that are conveyed in the novel. Austen allows readers to be part of the character’s thought processes and have authority in gaining their own judgement on the text. Moreover, readers are immediately introduced to an omniscient narrator when Emma recounts information on her family and background. “Emma woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition.” The narrator communicates purposefully to the reader whilst taking readers on a journey with her through her own experiences and narration. This establishes the growing relationship between the narrator and readers. Indeed, the narrative can be seen to be heterodiegetic as Emma does not involve herself much in the plot but does recount the events that take place within the novel, she often misses crucial parts of information which may be a reason why readers do not find the story as credible and must fill in gaps left by the text themselves.

Jane Austen successfully adopts a technique known as free indirect discourse which wasn’t a common literary technique used often in the early nineteenth century, when Emma had been written. John Mullan discovers the narrative style and purpose Austen adopts in Emma through understanding Austen’s Novel Sense and sensibility. He asserts in his analysis of Sense and sensibility “The narrative when it’s being most judicious and judgemental is not reflecting Jane Austen’s point of view so much as reflecting Elinor’s point of view of what’s going on.” This can be resonated with Emma and give readers a deeper understanding of the text. Whilst Austen’s views are obscured throughout her novel, she allows readers to “establish connections” and fill in the gaps through the characters and judgements made by them throughout the novel. However, since the reader’s experience is predominately based off the narrator’s, it results in readers sharing the misconceptions and misunderstandings of the narrator’s misjudgements. Whist Emma holds an authoritative position in being narrator, her recount of events is immensely flawed. F.K Stanzel highlights the problems with perspective in A Theory on Narrative when Stanzel depicts interpretation can be difficult when an internal perspective (the characters in Emma) and external perspective (Emma’s narration) are prevalent in the same works. It makes it difficult for readers to decide whether “a certain passage exhibits the internal perspective of a fictional character or the external perspective of an authorial narrator” Though there is some substance here, Stanzel dismisses the narrative technique Austen employs perhaps intentionally, to allows readers to gain judgements based on the novel itself individually. Whilst other authors of novels implore readers to gain their view through their respected novels, Austen’s views are obscured, and she almost liberates her readers whilst giving them complete freedom to gain a judgement from her novel themselves. Now relating back to the Iser’s view that “it is only through inevitable omissions that a story will gain its dynamism” when we consider its meaning to be: through (unintentional) excluded events or excluded parts of the narration, the novel can gain characterisation through the continuous change and progress the novel makes. Iser’s view contrasts Stanzel’s of that which he asserts the exclusion and unclear perspective is what makes the novel interesting which is a far greater analysis on Austen’s narrative technique. Austen subtly employs an interactive approach with readers through the exclusion of events which allows readers to fill in the gaps themselves, which does ultimately add to the novel’s dynamism.

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At a time, in the nineteenth century when epistolary form was incredibly popular and rendered multiple narrative perspectives, it still had limitations which Austen’s free indirect discourse didn’t. She was able to explore her narrative technique and venture out of what was viewed as the typical structure of a novel in the early nineteenth century. Stephanie Chen assesses the extent of how powerful Austen’s narrative technique was in Austen’s Narrative Perspective when she claims Austen’s novel Emma “allows readers to reassess their own process of judgement, and experience a more complex, conflicted world without straightforward answers – a fictional experience with further applications in reality.” Ironically, for a fictional tale it seems as though there is aspects of the novel that can resonate with reality, whilst it can fantasise hugely on certain aspects like romance, social status and imagination, it does teach readers through the narrative structure to not to always rely on straightforward answers in novels, but rather use their own judgement intuitively to gather a more holistic and accurate depiction of something. Certainly, this can be applied to real life experiences in the same manner. Free indirect discourse can be seen in the novel through Emma’s perspective when introduced to new characters. The narrator first describes Harriet in chapter 3 when Emma describes Harriet as “a pretty girl, and her beauty happened to be of a sort which Emma particularly admired” giving readers a first-hand experience into Emma’s opinion of Harriet, enclosed through the narrative she adopts. Emma follows on to state “she was short, plump and fair, with a fine bloom, blue eyes, light hair, regular features, and a look of great sweetness” the descriptive language Emma implements gives readers an insight into Emma’s initial opinion on characters. Helen Dry asserts whilst Austen may hint at literary subtleties in Emma’s description “it stays conventional in syntax [and is] reportorial in tone” thus fulfilling her narrative role. Chen explains “Emma demonstrates how narrated perception can offer both subjective and objective perspectives” which can be gathered when Emma meets Jane Fairfax for the first time. Emma again uses syntax when she describes Jane as “the worst of all, so cold, so cautious!” Whilst the narrator attempts to objectively present Miss Fairfax as a reserved person the syntax presents Emma’s subjective perspective on her view of Jane. Austen explores the same effect when Emma described Harriet for the first time through a use of a list and syntax. Through Emma’s narration, it is evident she likes to make judgements about people on her own accord and can disregard the views of others. Later in the novel, Emma defends miss Fairfax’s complexion when it is criticised by someone else for looking “ill” and so “pale”. She soon comes to her defence “It was certainly never brilliant but… there was a softness and delicacy in her skin which gave peculiar elegance to the character of the face” The response raises questions on the accuracy of Emma’s perception as someone else contradicts it. As readers we are unable to truly know which view the closest account of the truth is as we mainly experience events and judgements from Emma’s perspective. This may be an instance where readers are “lead off in unexpected directions” and eventually make the conclusions for themselves to judge the most accurate narration. Through a contradicting viewpoint from another character in the novel, readers may be able to bring themselves back to their own “faculty [to] establish connections” in the novel.

When relating to bigger themes revealed in the novel, readers can be limited to Emma’s perspective as a narrator which can hinder reader’s perceptions of social reality. The understanding of marriage, social hierarchy, money and many other themes as well as institutions in society is restricted to one person’s viewpoint, which happens to be Emma’s. Indeed, one person’s perspective does not give a holistic depiction of society. Readers may doubt Emma as a narrator due to her irresponsible nature Austen presents throughout the whole novel, one instance for example, when she meddles in relationships that does not concern her. Emma becomes obsessed with the idea of matchmaking which ultimately gets her into trouble. However, through the theme of marriage explored in the novel, readers can try and acquire an understanding of Austen’s life and her experience of marriage. Although her views on marriage were not made explicit in the novel, Emma’s view on marriage can be resonated with Austen’s. Emma did not perceive Harriet and Mr Martin as equals from their status of wealth and social hierarchy but understood marriage can promote many financial benefits for a woman, A view Austen exercised mutually. Researching into Austen’s personal life, it became prevalent Austen was reluctant to marry a person who was not financially stable to wed. Perhaps she was not interested in marriage if a man couldn’t benefit her financially. Readers then, can mirror Emma’s view on marriage with Austen’s when Emma asses the financial benefits Harriet may gain from marrying Mr Martin. Although this is merely readers attempting to “fill in the gaps” contextually, and could be inaccurate, it still adds to the characterisation of the novel as well as its dynamism. As a narrator, Emma’s morality can be questioned through her meddling between character’s relationships. To readers, it seems Emma is simply looking out for her friend Harriet but readers soon discover Emma’s own self-interest in meddling between the pair, Emma wishes a marriage to take place between Mr Martin and Harriet for the reason that Harriet’s social status would be elevated through the marriage and in turn would become a more “Suitable companion for Emma.” This omits the Biblical view of marriage, where the purpose of it was to procreate and to love, a view that was affirmed by society at the time. When considering this, readers can understand the flaws in Emma’s narration. She presents a naïve and biased perception of society, whilst misrepresenting society to her own views exclusively. A prime example of why no tale, at least for Emma, “can be told in its entirety”.

The biggest flaw in Emma’s narration which has been argued, is her constant misinterpreting and misperceptions of situations which ultimately make her an unreliable narrator. Her misunderstanding is evident when she entertains Frank flirting with her but has no plan in committing herself in a relationship with him. In chapter 13 Emma exclaims “They say everybody is in love once in their lives” relating to her thoughts on Frank, However, she’s unaware of how strongly he feels for her and does not hold any real mutual feelings towards him to return the deep love he has for her. She is merely being naïve and barely knows what love is. In addition, she misinterprets Harriet when she says he loves a man who is of a higher social rank than her, assuming it’s Frank, when it was Mr knightly Harriet refers to, she then enters herself into a cycle of chaos with misinterpretations. Even when characters attempt to clear the confusion for her she remains in denial. After Franks aunt dies, Jane and Frank confess their love for each other, Emma continues to believe Harriet loves frank until Harriet unfolds her true feelings to Mr Knightley. Austen restores much of the chaos at the end when character’s true feelings surface and the secrets have been cleared. Austen allows readers to depict the extent, and perhaps consequences of chaos that is caused from misinterpretation and secrets feasibly to hint at what the readers perception should be of Emma as a narrator. In contrary, whilst the novel has been criticised to be filled with inaccurate events and misleading ideas about society through Emma’s narration, it has been stated “it is thus a brave reader who ignores the persistent depiction of characters misreading situations, conversations, and even themselves, in order to arrive at a ‘correct’ interpretation of the novel” thus, suggesting the misreading’s are insignificant in understanding the novel in it’s entirety. The famous saying “beauty lies in the eyes of its beholder” can be used to understand Emma. Various aspects of the novel can be appreciated differently by readers. “Whilst some readers might enjoy the riddles and word games, others will be more interested in the comedy of manners, the psychological insights or the romantic plot.” Austen does not present one singular “correct” interpretation of the novel, she encourages readers to make their own judgements and fill in the gaps of the novel independently. Laurence Sterne remarks in Tristram Shandy, If the reader was given the whole story, it would evoke boredom in readers as everything is essentially “laid out cut and dried before” readers. Sterne argues that a literary text must be presented in a way which will “engage readers imagination in the task of working things out” to which Virginia wolf supports in her analysis of Jane Austen “She stimulates [readers] to supply what is not there” Austen ultimately uses the narration to present something that “expands in the readers mind” Both Woolf and Sterne credit Austen for her narrative technique in engaging readers to establish connections in the novel and fill in the gaps left in the text itself. Therefore, Iser’s view in a phenomenological approach assessing “a novel will gain its dynamism through inevitable omissions” can be perceived as a superior analysis of the narrative technique Austen employs in Emma. Austen’s “faults” in her narrative are merely intentional, thus it is the brave readers who look beyond the surfaced faults and misunderstandings of Emma as a narrator to discover a deeper and more superior understanding of the novel, and the narrative technique employed in Emma. These are the readers who, instead of being lazy readers that want the answers written out for them, fill in the “gaps left by the text itself”, as Iser assesses.


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