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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The "Compassion" of Emma Woodhouse: "Poor creatures! One can think of nothing else"

In Austen L and Janeites, Diane Reynolds wrote the following: 
"...Emma could have been simply a burlesque or caricature, but all through the novel there is the steady undercurrent of the woman who does send the entire back end of the pig to the Bates women and slices them large pieces of cake and does try to take care of her father and enjoys her nephews in a sensible, wise and good-hearted way and has learned enough of her place in patriarchy to indulge and placate the powerful males in a way that smooths the social intercourse. Are Emma's motives, like a real person's, often mixed--a mix of guilt and selfishness and the desire to look good to others, a lack of critical approach to patriarchy -- yes, but we do find a thread of kindness and generosity that runs through Emma's character in a consistent way. "

Nancy Mayer responded thusly: "But Emma is not a dolt, no matter how clueless she might be about matters of the heart. She is a competent woman in many fields. It is only on matters of marriages and sexual attraction that she errs and that is because she has not yet been awakened . The business of Elton &, Frank Churchill gives her an inkling. However, it is when she starts to imagine Mr. Knightley getting married that she starts to have adult thoughts about men and marriage. Emma is a competent manager of the house and her father. She takes care of the less fortunate as well as any lady of the manor. Clever doesn't mean that she has a high IQ necessarily, or that she is academic, or that she has ideas beyond her years but that she has a quick mind and is anything but a dolt."  END QUOTE

I have previously written about Emma's extreme cluelessness about her own economic privilege, her own fantasies about what a generous person she is, when actually her attentions to the poor are of the most extreme superficiality.

Exhibit "A is the following priceless bit of moral satire in Chapter 10, as Emma takes Harriet along to visit a poor, sick family:

"These are the sights, Harriet, to do one good. How trifling they make every thing else appear!—I feel now as if I could think of nothing but these poor creatures all the rest of the day; and yet, who can say how soon it may all vanish from my mind?"
"Very true," said Harriet. "Poor creatures! one can think of nothing else."
"And really, I do not think the impression will soon be over," said Emma, as she crossed the low hedge, and tottering footstep which ended the narrow, slippery path through the cottage garden, and brought them into the lane again. "I do not think it will," stopping to look once more at all the outward wretchedness of the place, and recall the still greater within.
"Oh! dear, no," said her companion.
They walked on. The lane made a slight bend; and when that bend was passed, Mr. Elton was immediately in sight....

And the minute Emma sees Mr. Elton, those "poor creatures" vanish from Emma's mind, not to return for the remainder of the novel.

But that is only a brief eruption of JA's satire into open view. What I only realized today was that JA has also inserted into the entire novel a perpetual _subliminal_ ironic subtext, in a wickedly clever way---_Emma_ is unique among all of JA's novels with its relentless, frequent drone of usages of the word "poor"----_not_ to refer to a lack of wealth, but instead to refer to a person's having to deal with some unlucky turn of events---Mr. Woodhouse's "poor Miss Taylor"'s and "poor Emma"'s are only the most memorable examples, but there is a flood of such usages referring to several other characters as well.

I counted them all up--there are 120 usages in Mr. Woodhouse's sense of the word (as opposed to 70 in MP, 65 in S&S, and 50 in P&P), and only _ten_ referring to an actual lack of wealth.

This drumbeat of usages portrays for us, subliminally, that Emma swims in an elitist ocean in which not only are the poor neglected, but even the word "poor" itself has even been robbed of its simple, hard meaning.

The endless, ticcish reference to very lucky people being "poor", by negative implication, reminds us that there is no real interest amon this elite set in _real_ poverty, beyond the occasional ritual of pretending to care which Emma's and Harriet's visit to the poor, sick family illustrates. I.e., there is something morally ugly in the way these privileged people toss that word around so freely, living in a world where the vast majority of people living in their community were _really_ poor, in a very desperate way.

Perhaps the coup de grace in this regard is the way JA sets up a subtle contrast between what Knightley says to Emma in Chapter 43 right after she insults Miss Bates at Box Hill, on the one hand….

“[Miss Bates] is POOR; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion.”

…and what Emma thinks in Chapter 53 not long afterwards, as she playfully teases Knightley with what her father’s reaction will be to her marrying Knightley:

“…I wish I may not SINK into 'POOR Emma' with him at once.—His tender compassion towards oppressed WORTH can go no farther."

The echoes of the earlier passage in the later one are completely intentional on JA's part. Sure, Emma sheds tears and gets very upset for a short while, after Knightley chastises her for her gross insensitivity to Miss Bates's financial straits. But somehow, within ten chapters, covering one short month, all that remains in Emma's mind from Knightley's lecture is a self-protective translation _back_ into the safe, comforting, totally insensitive usage of the words "sink" and "poor", as Emma jokingly refers to herself with words which Knightley used in the most serious way to describe Miss Bates.

Emma pats herself on the back for her moral growth after Knightley's lecture, but it's just one more self-delusion on Emma's part, aided and abetted by Knightley's very suspicious dropping of any pretense at providing moral instruction to Emma. Inside, she is still exactly the same exact insensitive member of the privileged class she was before, and Knightley knows it very well, and simply does not give a damn, because he is getting what he wants---Emma's thirty thousand a year.

And, if Knightley is marrying Emma for her money, as I say he is, it's a kind of of ironic poetic justice, since she has so little genuine compassion for the truly poor. He's robbing from the rich to pay....the rich. Nothing has changed.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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