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The Irony of Jane Austen’s Flawed and Lovable Character; Emma

By Liz Armstrong

Jane Austen is a world-renowned author, and although she only completed six works in her lifetime during the early 1800s, to this day, she has loyal and passionate followers who call themselves the “Janeites.” You may know her best for her most popular novel, Pride and Prejudice, and her idealistic character Elizabeth Bennet, but let’s discuss another beloved––but very different––character, Emma Woodhouse from in her novel Emma. 

Perhaps Austen’s work has stayed relevant and popular throughout the years because of her talent for creating timeless narratives. Or maybe it’s her knack for crafting captivating characters. No matter the reason, Austen has greatly influenced the world of literature and has left an indelible mark on society. 

The Utah Shakespeare Festival and Southern Utah University hosted a Community Reads discussion at the Cedar City Library revolving around the novel by Jane Austen and the Festival’s musical production of the work during the spring of 2023, preceding the season when Jane Austen’s Emma The Musical was produced.

The Festival’s Interim Artistic Director Derek Charles Livingston and SUU Assistant Professor of Musical Theatre Lisa Quoresimo facilitated the discussion, sharing their views on Austen’s work and the musical adaptation. In particular, Emma’s character was deeply discussed. 

Having read the book or seen the play, the irony spotted throughout the work is hard to miss, so let’s dive in.

Emma’s Disdain for Marriage Results in Her . . . Matchmaking?

After Emma’s dear friend and former governess, Miss Taylor, weds Mr. Weston, Emma finds herself grieving her absence and is quite bored. After crediting herself with the match, Emma decides she might as well spend her time as a matchmaker—after all, her first attempt was met with such success! 

“The irony is that what she finds to do has to do with marriage, when it was marriage that brought all this on [in the first place],” Quoresimo points out. 

It is also ironic that Emma really had very little to do with the matchmaking, but credits herself entirely for the wedding. Quite quickly, we see Emma’s character in broad daylight, as even at Miss Taylor’s wedding, Emma believes the focus should be on her. Ahh, Emma, that irony doesn’t escape us!

Austen is Right, No One Likes Emma . . . They Love Her!

Jane Austen’s creation of Emma’s character is also extremely ironic, which Interim Managing Director Michael Bahr brought up at the library discussion. He shared Austen’s affection for [Pride and Prejudice’s] Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, but when sending a copy of Emma to a friend, it is famously noted that she didn’t suppose the character would be a general favorite. 

“I’m going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,” Austen said in regard to Emma. 

Austen was right, no one really liked Emma. But, as Bahr pointed out, the opposite is true. Everyone loved her.

“It’s clear as we’ve talked tonight, that we love her, although she is also unlikable,” Bahr said. 

Perhaps it is her “unlikeability” that makes her so lovable, as we can see ourselves in her and resonate with the flaws she exhibits. As consumers of the story, we find ourselves connecting with Emma at the most basic of levels. After all, we are all human, and we all have our faults, but despite it all, we can still be loved. 

Emma Claims She Won’t Marry

Emma expresses disinterest in marrying, agreeing with her father that she will never marry at all. But still, she expresses such an interest in matchmaking everyone around her, especially her dear friend Harriet Smith. 

Isn’t it ironic that although Emma is so against marriage for herself, she insists that everyone around her end up in the perfect match?

But, what’s even more ironic is that during her matchmaking, her real feelings for a certain someone come to light . . . and while on a journey to find love for others, Emma ultimately finds love for herself.

Emma Falls in Love with . . . who? 

What makes the story so fun and humorous is the constant bickering between Emma and Mr. Knightley. Mr. Knightley seems to be the only one who can ultimately be honest with her, and time and time again, urges Emma to stop with the matchmaking. 

But perhaps it’s a good thing she never listened to him, as Emma’s desire to be so involved in everyone else’s affairs lands Mr. Knightley in the most ironic of positions.

Maybe Emma and Mr. Knightley weren’t constantly arguing because they hated each other, but because as intellectual equals, they saw themselves in each other. After all, someone once said, “Love me or hate me, both are in my favor. For if you love me I will always be in your heart; if you hate me I will always be on your mind.” 

The pair most certainly stayed in each other’s hearts and minds throughout the play, and their love story is sentimental and sweet. But how ironic is it that Emma falls in love with the one person who “never flatters her?" 

As Mr. Knightley ultimately expresses, “Perhaps it is our imperfections that make us so perfect for one another!”

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