As I read through Emma for what is probably the fourth or fifth time, I’m struck by how much the story revolves around the giving and taking of advice. Each character responds to advice differently, depending on how firmly they feel about the superiority and strength of their own opinion, and the responses vary throughout the book, most notably in the case of Emma herself.
Emma is placed in the very middle, starting out on one side of the spectrum and slowly changing to a more balanced position. On one side of her is Harriet Smith, who she turns into an Eliza Doolittle of sorts (My Fair Lady), deciding to make her a close friend and by such action transform her until, as Mr. Knightley puts it, “She’ll grow just refined enough to be uncomfortable with those among whom birth and circumstances have placed her home” (a problem that Eliza has as well of now being fit for no place at all).
At the other end of the spectrum are Emma’s father and Mrs. Elton, both of whom are constantly giving advice without taking anyone else’s. Even Perry, the town physician, tempers his advice to suit his client’s expectations (his children supposedly all had some of Mrs. Weston’s wedding cake, even though he verbally agreed with his client that cake “might certainly disagree with many—perhaps with most people, unless taken moderately”). Mr. Woodhouse does not change his opinions on things and cannot see that other people would see things any differently than he does, which is why, at the end of the book, Mr. Knightley must live at Hartfield with his bride rather than the usual, other way around of her living at his house.
At the beginning of the book, Emma is much like her father or Mrs. Elton, giving advice without recognizing the importance of other people to be themselves, to have their own opinions and ideas which may differ from her own and may be correct in so differing. While she has been the recipient of advice for years from Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston, she has been determined to take her own course in everything, and she thus sets herself up for the series of blunders which are so central to the book.
In the end, no serious harm has been done, though, because unlike Eliza Doolittle, Harriet Smith does not change so much through Emma’s influence. She is still the open-hearted woman that she was, despite the pain Emma caused her, and she ends up marrying the man she loved at the beginning of the book. She took Emma’s advice and was nearly ruined by it, but in the end seems to return to herself and her own opinions. Emma herself was also nearly ruined by taking her own advice, but the book is not a proponent of never changing or of being inflexibly yourself despite all advice. Mr. Knightley’s advice, while not always heeded, proves to have been wise and sound, and Emma comes to deeply regret not heeding his advice.
Rather, the book encourages one to strike a balance between stubborn individuality, with its subsequent pride in one’s own infallible opinion, and being so persuadable that one can be easily talked out of one’s own beliefs, feelings, and opinions. Strength of character, tempered by humility, is the goal.
This is applicable to us all, but in a special way applies to writers. Despite the pressures to follow market trends and the successes of others, we have to still have our own voice, our own characters, our own story to tell. Taking a little bit of someone else’s story will just ruin your own. At the same time, we have to be open to advice—even criticism—from those we respect and trust, or we are in danger of turning into Mrs. Elton or Mr. Woodhouse, demanding that all other tastes and opinions bow to our own.
Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren