(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, December 26, 2014

Jane Austen's Deliberate Equivocation about Emma Woodhouse's Clueless Equivocation

In Chapter 54 of Emma, we read the following narration when Emma observes with amazement how Harriet and Robert Martin suddenly get engaged:

"Serious she was, very serious in her thankfulness, and in her resolutions; and yet there was no preventing a laugh, sometimes in the very midst of them. She must laugh at such a close! Such an end of the doleful disappointment of five weeks back! Such a heart -- such a Harriet! 
 Now there would be pleasure in her returning. Every thing would be a pleasure. It would be a great pleasure to know Robert Martin.  
High in the rank of her most serious and heartfelt felicities, was the reflection that all necessity of concealment from Mr. Knightley would soon be over. The disguise, equivocation, mystery, so hateful to her to practise, might soon be over. She could now look forward to giving him that full and perfect confidence which her disposition was most ready to welcome as a duty. " END QUOTE

The most plausible reading of the above passage, I think, is that Emma has resolved to tell Knightley the truth (or, rather, what Emma understood to be the truth)  about Emma having inadvertently encouraged Harriet to aspire to marry Knightley. And, if we are talking about "full and perfect confidence", that ought also to include telling Knightley about Elton's having nearly sexually assaulted Emma in the carriage ride on Christmas Eve.

It's interesting first to note Emma's  unconscious hypocrisy, in her deciding that this was the right moment for her to feel a duty to come completely clean with Knightley about Harriet. It's hypocrisy, because right before Emma heard the news about Harriet and Robert Martin, Emma was taking NO chances on Knightley hearing that Harriet wanted him to propose to her---for fear, apparently, that Knightley might change his mind about marrying Emma!! -- especially given that as of Chapter 54, Emma believes that Mr. Woodhouse still constitutes a roadblock to Emma and Knightley getting married. So much for Emma feeling virtuous at that moment about being honest with her future husband. She's only ready to be honest when it no longer matters.

And that reminds me of something else--I can't remember exactly what-- we were very recently discussing about Emma, where exactly the same process of rationalization has occurred--she's only willing to be honest when it doesn't matter any more--i.e., the honesty won't cost her. It is truly Emma's way.

But let's put aside that hypocrisy for a moment, because it might still be an encouraging sign, that Emma plans on coming clean with Knightley. Better late than never, in other words.  

But what happens? You will search in vain, as I did, for any indication that Emma actually does ever come clean with Knightley --and it's not that the narrator drops the subject of Harriet entirely, which might suggest Emma might have told Knightley, but we simply don't hear what Emma does say to Knightley.

No, that is clearly not the case, in fact it's the opposite. In the first half of Chapter 55, we hear ALL about Harriet, about nothing BUT Harriet!---about her father the tradesman, and about her future life in the cozy bosom of the Martin family. It's Harriets all the way down, as Stephen Hawking might have put it.

But clearly Emma has (as with the poor cottager family) simply forgotten all about her very short-lived,. "sincere" resolution to do her wifely duty and be  forthcoming with Knightley about Harriet in a way that does not reflect well on Emma! Or, to be more psychologically accurate, it goes right out of her mind for the same reason Mr. Bennet predicts he will very quickly forget about feeling culpable for negligent parenting---it's something she doesn't really want to do, so she just "forgets" about it! At least Mr. Bennet knows his own foible--Emma has no self-awareness, so she is doing exactly the same rationalizing, self-congratulation, forgetting, and avoiding that she was doing in Chapter 1. So as the novel ends, Emma seems, despite the commonly held belief among Janeites that Emma has grown, she changed, she has learned to be a better person, to be continuing to equivocate, with herself and with Knightley-- with everyone. What a muddle!

And, in this and a dozen other ways, Jane Austen equivocates with her readers in Emma to the very end--leaving a dozen major points just like this one ambiguous and uncertain as the novel ends, and even having a laugh in Chapter 49 telling her readers about it:

"Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken; but where, as in this case, though the conduct is mistaken, the feelings are not, it may not be very material."

If that is not authorial equivocation, I don't know what is!

But unlike her fictional creature Emma, I don't believe JA's equivocation is the result of her kidding herself about herself, either as a person or as an author. It's not a mistake, a rationalization, or a confusion on JA's part. Unlike Emma, JA is equivocating in order to better educate her readers, by forcing them, sooner or later, to stop reading passively and instead to struggle to figure out what might be going on in the shadows.

And I find it very significant that this is the one and only place in all six of her novels where Jane Austen explicitly uses the word "equivocation", even though she practices it on pretty much every page of all of her novels. Given that she clearly knew that this word had a very specific theological connotation (e.g., how Catholics persecuted during Elizabeth's reign would equivocate about their beliefs when forced to take Protestant oaths), I think that it is a giant clue that she left at that particular spot on purpose. Like those who equivocated in order to remain true to their beliefs while pretending to those who might punish you for expressing those beliefs openly, Jane Austen could only express her true views about all sorts of things that were wrong in her world via equivocation.

So she hid the truth behind one of Mrs. Elton's lace veils!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

No comments: