“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her,” reads the opening line of one of Jane Austen’s most profound works “Emma,“ published in 1815. After reading this sentence for the first time, I immediately became intrigued by the comings and goings of the novel’s titular character, Emma. Who wouldn't be intrigued by an individual full of intelligence and beauty?
Apparently, a lot of people aren’t. Several reviews of “Emma” are quick to dismiss Emma as an unlikeable character who is whiny, annoying, privileged, enjoys meddling in other people’s affairs, and is so unlike Elizabeth Bennett, the headstrong and charismatic protagonist of Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.”
Although all of this is true to some extent, Emma Woodhouse, in my opinion, is much more than her negative characteristics and is much more three-dimensional. To me, Emma, through her rich and iconic dialogue, reigns supreme as the queen of understanding one’s self-worth, an attribute she gains after a novel-length struggle with coming to terms with her own.
At the beginning of the novel, Emma, having just lost her beloved governess and feeling bored with the mundaneness of her life, finds herself obsessed with the idea of transformation and change. However, instead of focusing on her own change, she aims to change the world and the relationships around her. She meddles in the love life of the young and impressionable Harriet Smith, who Emma believes should marry up in class instead of down. Emma makes an incredibly curt remark to the kind and innocent Ms. Bates, as a result of Emma’s deluded sense of self-importance and envy for Ms. Bates’s charming and beautiful niece, Jane Fairfax.
Although these incidents would cause any reasonable reader to develop a distaste for Emma, what’s most noble about her character is her change and redemption. From a state of extreme privilege and wealth, Emma can practically get away with whatever she wants socially. However, after acknowledging the pain and consequences elicited by her actions, with the help of a swift reprimand from Mr. Knightly, the man whom Emma realizes she is in love with, she becomes aware of her influence and makes a notable change. She relents in her matchmaking, makes a sincere apology to Ms. Bates, and comes to the realization that she, too, can be the object of genuine admiration and love.
Emma helped me to acknowledge my own self-worth and the importance of self-care. Her character helped me come to the realization that conventional “niceness” and decorum are not the only ways to express care for yourself or for those around you. I hope to enlighten you all with words of wisdom from Emma Woodhouse herself.
1. “I always deserve the best treatment because I never put up with any other.”
This quote really reminds the reader of how they should regard themselves in everyday life. Ultimately, we are all worthy of the best and should never let anyone convince us that we should ever settle in life. Like Emma, it is up to us to be our own best friend and advocate, and to realize that we are not and should not be obligated to put up with anyone's tomfoolery if we don't see fit.
2. “You must be the best judge of your own happiness.”
Again, Emma alludes to the unassailable truth that we are the only ones who can possibly know what is truly best for us.
3. “Never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right…”
This quote is one that has always stood out to me. It marks the critical point in the novel where Emma acknowledges her own self-worth and how she, too, is worthy of genuine love and admiration. These words can act as a personal reminder to all readers to never be led astray from the idea that we are worthy of affection.
In true Austen fashion, by the end of the novel, Emma marries the man who dares to treat her as an intellectual equal. Although the love and romance of the closing chapters are heartwarming to say the least, Emma’s journey of self-reflection, growth, and constant realization is why I found myself so intrigued by her character. Although she makes mistakes, she learns from them and recognizes that it was she who needed to do some introspection.
As Women’s History Month comes to a close, I’d like to raise a glass, or perhaps a cup of tea (in true Regency fashion), to Emma Woodhouse, a literary queen who beautifully and ironically inspires me to focus on my own betterment.
Anthony Nathan is a contributing writer for The Prospect, from San Francisco, California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @anthony_nate_ on Instagram.