Friday, April 6, 2007

Reader Centred Response

Being someone who often judges a book by its cover I was very dispirited when informed that I was required to read a Jane Austen novel for Extension English. The second I glanced at Emma, I groaned “It looks bboorrrinngg!” However, a few days later, I mentally slapped myself for being so na├»ve and judgemental. After slowly making my way through the first introductory paragraphs and failing at first to immerse myself due to the form of writing and suggested aspects, I found myself engaging in the narrative more than I could have anticipated. Although, it bore no resemblance to anything I have ever read before I was determined to gain some form of opinion, whether it was positive or negative. This required a serious amount of concentration. Once I examined the criteria for the task, I began to search the novel for useful discussions in regards to class, ideologies, attitudes and character similarities from those in the novel to the characters in the film Clueless. This film adaptation is loosely based on the 1815 publication. Now observing my reading practices I started to develop more feelings and understanding for the characters, their situations and the discourses in the story.

The story’s main protagonist Emma can be seen as an extremely vicarious sphincter; however her vanity and attempts to intervene in peoples lives caused me to perceive her as a spoilt brat. Her attitude occasionally suggests that she believes she has the power to play God, especially over the vulnerable Harriet. Emma’s strong and persuasive disapproval of Mr. Martin’s marriage proposal to Harriet clearly highlights the discourse of class. Whilst, expressing the difference in class hierarchy between the two girls. Emma highly values class and reputation in a marriage or acquaintance. “I should be surprised if, after seeing them, you could be in company with Mr. Martin again without perceiving him to be a very inferior creature” (Emma referring to Mr. Martin in comparison to other gentlemen acquaintances pg. 32). This also helps demonstrate Emma’s (too high) expectations of the people she likes to meddle with. Such events also manage to depict the attitudes towards marriage that are employed by the 19th century. This was where all similarity to anything I have ever read, ceased to exist. The way Austen portrays romance, courtship and marriage during her era shows no similarity to today. Courtship in Austen’s time was a sure sign of future marriage. Courtship or ‘dating’ as we 21st century girls like to call it is just like a recreational sport. It’s for fun and more importantly love, not status or reputation (except on rare occasions).

Before making my way through half of the typical 'romance' novel, I began to employ typical romantic reading practices. And they were soon proven correct. We all know how romance goes. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, and calamity occurs, tension builds within the relationship, the disaster is resolved and they live happily ever after. Emma is someone who experiences pleasure from igniting such romantic events in other peoples lives until she realises she is in love herself. I was joyed yet slightly unfulfilled when the majority of the characters were awarded their “happily ever afters”, with the exception of some. Mr. Elton for example, satisfied my evil desire to see someone unhappy at the end of the tale. Emma realises she wants to marry Mr. Knightly and she has confronted her mistakes admitting to herself that he was right all along. Harriet and Mr. Martin get engaged and Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax’s relationship is unveiled. All the matches that concluded the story were truly heartfelt and romantically adorable but failed to satisfy my want of a conflicting ending.

All forms of confrontation that arise throughout the novel are restored promptly with delicacy and politeness in order to avoid any exceedingly dramatic climax. The formation of any conflict provided me with motivation to continue on. However, I was constantly disappointed by the lack of tension between characters. This is where my enjoyment is stronger in contemporary text. Clueless accommodates for all of the catastrophic events within the story but focuses it all in one section as to create the illusion that all disaster has aroused. This interpretation is most likely due to my knowledge and understanding of a story structure. They are built with a beginning, middle and ending. Where was Austen’s middle? All the guts and juicy parts of the romance were just missing. Was this the formula for successful romance in 1815?

When I finally finished the novel I was able to establish my overall relationship with the aspects of the story. I can easily relate to Emma’s vicariousness and Harriet’s vulnerability towards love. I understand Emma’s desire to improve the lives of the people around her (as well as herself through the process). By bettering other people’s lives she is able to feel as if she has accomplished something important. In regards to Harriet, I have come to the conclusion that I connect with her character the most. This is because her misunderstanding of social structure allows her to fall in love due to her true inner emotions. She doesn’t seclude eligible bachelors because of the amount of money they earn or the status they have obtained. A major feature of the novel I was unable to see eye to eye with was the portrayal of marriage and the concept of it being the only opportunity to gain happiness. Drawing on my own personal experiences, I can accurately express that happiness can be found between two people without marriage. Austen’s belief’s and morals drift too far into ‘love follows marriage’ and ‘marriage is a title not a relationship’ in order for me to enjoy it as much as I could have otherwise.

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