Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Emma, Volume I, Chapter 9 (part 2)



I hope you all enjoyed yesterday's post about the dirty joke in Chapter 9. If I get extra time, I'll catch us up by moving on to Chapter 10 before the end of the day, but it might not happen. (A girl has to guard her retreat time, yo.)

Mr Knightley

Mr Knightley is still unhappy with Emma, but she refuses to repent. To quote Lady Catherine from Pride and Prejudice, "Obstinate, headstrong girl!" Instead, she continues on with her current project - matchmaking between Harriet Smith and Mr Elton.


Games and Riddles

The riddles that are included in this Chapter are the first sort of parlor games we see in Emma, but they will not be the last - we shall see parlor games played both in and out of the parlor as the book proceeds, and the idea of game-playing is integral to this novel. More to the point, the parlor games here (and later) are word games, in which words are terribly important. Using the right words is key, and teasing out the meaning of the clues requires skill. Metaphorically, it's what this novel is about. Emma has to learn to apply her considerable intelligence properly in order to sort out what's actually going on around her. And as we are soon to see, she is frequently blind to the meaning of people's actions and words, at least early on - she is, in fact, no better at sorting out what people mean by their actions than Harriet is at solving Mr Elton's puzzle. But I am getting a bit ahead of myself.

As we've seen thus far, Emma Woodhouse is busy trying to create her own (fictional) world. She refuses to acknowledge the reality of the world around her: one in which Mr Elton is capable of choosing his own bride and means to choose a woman with substantial means, and one in which an illegitimate daughter of indistinct birth is lucky to attract the interest of a gentleman farmer like Robert Martin. And it's not that she isn't aware of these points - after all, Mr Knightley has spoken to her quite bluntly about it; it's that she refuses to accept this reality, and is determined to write her own version of the story. Part of that involves her creation of a new version of Harriet Smith, who is pliable enough to allow Emma to mould her. (We shall see whether Emma will be able to control her once Harriet's transformation is complete.)

Emma distinguishes Mr Elton by asking him for a riddle for Harriet's collection, thereby distinguishing him as the only person in town who she specifically asked for a contribution. He offers a popular charade (then a verbal puzzle in which clues were given as to the syllables of a word), the solution to which was "Woman" (1st=woe, 2nd=man, whole=woman).

Readers notice that Mr Elton addresses himself to Emma, and that he seeks to please Emma, and that Harriet is a mere afterthought on his part. Emma, however, is oblivious, so certain is she that her plans for Elton and Harriet are working out well.

Mr Elton returns the next day to present a riddle, giving it to Emma and saying "I do not offer it for Miss Smith's collection." He offers a cockamamie story about it being written by his "friend" for a young lady whom he admires, and Emma sees through the "friend" story at once. She does not, however, listen to what Mr Elton has said - that this poem is not for Miss Smith. She explains away the fact that Elton meets her eyes as he speaks and addresses only her (although readers do not - after all, he's older and more experienced than Emma, and presumably not so shy as to be unable to speak to a woman in whom he's interested). Nor does she pay any attention to the fact that the paper is addressed "To Miss ___", deliberately omitting any surname.

Emma is surprised to see Mr Elton's reference to the young lady's "ready wit", concluding that he must be very much in love with Harriet if he's able to find her at all witty. She admits later that he pushed the paper toward her and not toward Harriet, but again discounts Elton's actions. Still, it never occurs to her that Mr Elton is acting in any way other than the way she wishes for him to act; she wants him to be in love with Harriet, and she blindly refuses to consider that she might be wrong.

"I cannot have a doubt as to Mr Elton's intentions. You are his object— and you will soon receive the completest proof of it. I thought it must be so. I thought I could not be so deceived; but now, it is clear; the state of his mind is as clear and decided, as my wishes on the subject have been ever since I knew you. Yes, Harriet, just so long have I been wanting the very circumstance to happen what has happened."
Emma manages to persuade Harriet that Mr Elton is in love with Harriet, and that she will soon be getting a marriage proposal from him. Harriet, willing to be led by Emma's superior knowledge, etc., has decided that not only must Emma be correct about Mr Elton and his attentions, but also that she - Harriet - must be very much in love with him.


Austen quotes Shakespeare

"The course of true love never did run smooth" is a reference to a line from the start of A Midsummer Night's Dream. It is wise to assume that any reference to other works is entirely deliberate on Austen's parts, and the invocation of a line spoken by one of the pairs of lovers that gets lost in the wood and has their head messed with by Puck is not only deliberate, but meaningful. The line is spoken in Act I of A Midsummer Night's Dream by Lysander, who is very deeply in love with Hermia. Puck erroneously puts a love potion in his eyes, believing him to be Demetrius, which causes Lysander to switch his affections to Hermia's cousin and friend, Helena.

Later in the same act, Hermia speaks a popular, well-known couplet - one of the best-known quotes from the play, and one that is associated with Lysander's line: "Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind;/ And therefore is wing'd Cupid painted blind." Invoking the Bard for theme and foreshadowing purposes is brilliant, no? Like Lysander, Harriet has been convinced that she no longer feels any affection for Robert Martin, but is in love with Mr Elton. And, on another level, Emma, who is acting the part of Cupid, has been painted blind - she is not seeing what is right in front of her. Clever, clever Austen. Also, how about this implied call-back to Cupid from earlier in the chapter, as part of that (actually naughty) Kitty poem, speaking of people who are "hoodwinked" (meaning a hood had been thrown over their heads so they couldn't see) and referring to Cupid?


Mr Elton's return

He shows up again later, nearly begging for an invitation to spend his evening at Hartfield. Emma (who acts an awful lot like Temperance Brennan here, not understanding the undercurrents and implications of his actions) tells him they've already got enough people for cards and sends him on his way. As she has met his eyes and smiled at him, however, he probably doesn't leave entirely discouraged - especially after he sees that Emma has written the first eight lines of his riddle into Harriet's book.

Things are getting good. (Or, well, perhaps bad, but in a good way.)

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