Emma and the Importance of Being Yourself…Even in the Face of Advice

As part of the ongoing Flashback Friday series, here is a post based an original from June 2014

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).

Courtesy of Gratisography

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 letting other people be themselves and 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, though, no serious harm has been done, because Harriet Smith, despite being an obliging character, does not change who she is or what she thinks in the long run. She’s 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 she 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 words.)

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.

Which brings me to writing. We authors are pummeled with advice on what to write, how to write, when to write…and what genre to write in. Yet, despite the pressures to follow market trends and the successes of others, we have to still possess our own voice, our own characters, and our own story to tell. Taking a little bit of someone else’s story might ruin your own.

But 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. We might produce a story with great characters that no one can understand or relate to but us. Or a riveting plot that is muddied by narration that jumps around to where only the author can follow it. Breaking some rules can produce a masterpiece, but breaking them all will only create a jumble, rife with confusion or full of borrowed phrases and concepts to where the whole thing feels borrowed. We have to find out what sort of writer we are meant to be, and then be it, to the best of our abilities, even in the face of advice and opinion to the contrary.

Copyright 2017 Andrea Lundgren

Photo by Gratisography

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