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Character Deep Dive: Emma Woodhouse

Romola Garai as Emma Woodhouse in BBC Emma 2009
©David Venni/BBC

Portrayed by: Romola Garai
Book | Film: Jane Austen’s Emma and BBC Emma 2009

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“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and 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.” Jane Austen’s opening lines remain unparalleled, and as a novel, Emma will forever reign as my personal favorite. And if we’re getting specific, Romola Garai’s embodiment of Emma Woodhouse will be a standard for the finest variety in an adaptation. 

I was fortunate enough to do some extensive research on the character in grad school, and some of my findings continue to cement precisely why she’s always been so complex to analyze. Emma is brilliantly written in such a way that her traits mirror many women, and the lengths they’re willing to go through to ensure that lives are better than what they can be. And yes, while a large part of Emma’s doings are to a degree selfish and out of boredom, it’s essential to take in the matter of how lonely she feels once Miss Taylor marries. It’s why she loves picking on Knightley when he comes over. It’s why she stays with her father and never wants to leave him because, from a very age, Emma Woodhouse has understood what missing someone is like.

Emma Woodhouse is a complex, multifaceted character who can be a tough pill to swallow for some, and while it may not be vital for her to be likable, the fact that Austen believed that she would not be is a detail that’s worth noting. Thus, while Emma might not be everyone’s favorite Jane Austen’s heroine, her complexity, intentions, and growth make her likable where perhaps definition is concerned.

Emma Woodhouse and Depression

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While some of these sources won’t be accessible to those outside of the academic space, I’ve added the actual quotes I used in my paper for reference.

First, an article by Marshall Brown titled “Emma’s Depression” alludes to mental health in Emma as a character and the village of Highbury. Brown begins by questioning readers on whether or not they would like to live in Highbury to suggest that the melancholy within the town is a prominent theme that runs throughout the entire novel. In taking apart various quotes where the word “depressed” is present, Brown implies that though the mental illness was relatively new in the 19th-century, Emma is one of the first characters it is examined through, allowing for readers to dig further into the character’s actions to understand what is below the surface. Brown states: “While her lows are often followed by highs, the highs, sometimes more self-conscious, are just as often followed by lows, almost to the very end” (10). This quote implies that Emma is often worried as a character, suggesting that the actions people often regard as careless are due to depression more than ill intent. 

Brown thus concludes the paper’s argument by indicating that within Highbury, most of the characters are people who have experienced profound loss in some way or another, and collectively they are all shadowed by a sense of depression. “Only in Emma does depression prevail; in all the others, society is livelier, at least in part, and so are the characters” (15), and thereby ultimately suggesting that this is a factor which differentiates Emma tremendously from Austen’s other novels.

Additionally, in “Loneliness and the Affective Imperative of the Marriage Plot in Jane Austen’s Emma,” author Barbara K. Seeber uses cognitive Literary Criticism to suggest that Emma experiences profound loneliness as a character. Seeber implies that though she was too young to remember, she was still old enough to experience the trauma of losing a mother and thus searches for such figures in her adult life (5). Seeber suggests that everything Emma does, including her fervency in rejecting marriage, is due to the idea that vulnerability in any form could deepen her feelings of loneliness. “Emma feels the pain of social disconnection, and in response pursues Harriet” (22).

Here the author suggests that every encounter Emma hasn’t isn’t due to some malicious need to control her surroundings, but rather a decision to combat her loneliness. Seeber also notes that her marriage to Mr. Knightly is not a submission to gender norms but a commitment to avoid lifelong loneliness with the closest person to her and her father. “Austen reimagines the traditional marriage plot; here, marriage leads to an intensification, rather than displacement, of existing bonds” (10). The argument focuses fundamentally on Emma’s decision to hold on to people she cares for due to the trauma both she and her father faced, thereby suggesting that the character’s most significant concern is mattering to someone (9). And well, surely we can all agree with the weight of those feelings.

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Emma Woodhouse is a character that grows drastically from the woman we meet at the beginning of the novel (and all adaptations). In uncovering yet another layer within the already multifaceted woman, it became that much more fascinating to understand why I have often seen her as the most nuanced Austen heroine. Emma Woodhouse can be unkind, brash, and incredibly selfish at times, but she is the type of woman who cares deeply for those around her, and she is the type of woman who was challenging gender norms of the time by choosing for herself.

A variation of this depression is also seen in Autumn de Wilde’s Emma when the display of overwhelming emotions visually showcases just how much she truly feels.

The Influence, The Growth

In “The Fools in Austen’s Emma,” author Maaja A. Stewart points out that her father and Miss Bates heavily influence Emma’s character development. Stewart notes that “With care and precision, she (Austen) modifies the context around them so that by the end of the novel, we do not respond to them as we did at the beginning. This modification centers, of course, in the changes in Emma’s enriching consciousness during the year in which she comes of age” (4). In an intrinsic sense, it’s almost as though foils of one another, what Miss Bates has in happiness, Emma lacks, and noting to the incident at Box Hill, Emma’s critical development happens when she really begins to understand Miss Bates after. 

Without these characters, Emma would not have recognized her reality and would not find the humility she does at the end of the novel. She needed to understand her own privilege, especially in contrast to Miss Bates’ lack.

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The Love

A form of mirror stage happens at Box Hill and when Emma is made aware of Harriet’s feelings for Mr. Knightley. In seeing herself through a different lens, then understanding her own profound feelings for Knightley, Emma finds the necessary growth from someone else’s feelings being more important than hers. But more importantly, the development comes after putting Knightley’s feelings above her own to ensure he doesn’t experience any kind of pain, which ultimately serves as an exhibition of her own innate selflessness. 

In short, Emma is one of the most relatable characters because she’s realistic. She wants companionship and wants to see people have better than what they believe they can, but simultaneously, she basks in the glory of people returning to her because she misses them. She’s curious, and she’s lively, but, she isn’t without her struggles, and she knows that vulnerability is terrifying because she seldom looks into her own heart outside of the occasion with Mr. Knightley and her father.

When Emma Woodhouse loves, she loves profoundly. She’ll stay with people until they beg her to leave, but more importantly, there’s nothing she wouldn’t do for those she cares for. And through everything, Emma Woodhouse will continue to learn and grow, especially when she’s made aware of her mistakes.

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