By Jane Austen

Sample Questions

1) Emma has been dismissed as merely 'harmless amusement'. Would you agree with this assessment?

Consider Austen's lightness of touch. Her wit can mislead readers into her fiction has no serious intention. This is compounded by the fact that she only depicts a very limited social circle. It is easy to believe that 'serious' fiction is only that which is set on a national scale at least. Because of this, Austen has been accused of being unaware of the larger issues dominating eighteenth-century England. However, she does allude to events in the wider world: Jane Fairfax's father is said to have died in battle and Mrs Elton's father is suspected of being a slave trader. However, arguably Austen's fiction is a more realistic portrayal of everyday life because of these omissions - people not in wars do not suspend their lives while others are battling. The focus of Emma is on the new social mobility allowing Mr Weston to build Randalls and Mr Cole to buy a carriage.

The novel seems preoccupied solely with love and marriage, and this could be seen as easily inducing criticism in the bent of that above. Yet neither is treated superficially, and there is a surprising lack of romance in this 'romantic comedy'. Austen explores the practical side of marriage for women such as Jane and Harriet. She presents the difficulties rather than the joys of courtship with an unsentimental eye. Similarly, her concern to show the unappealing side of human nature makes it difficult to sustain the view above. Austen shows the effect of cruelty to others: Mr Elton's snobbery towards Harriet at the dance is a good example, as well as Emma's offhand remark to Miss Bates at the picnic on Box Hill. Her refusal to comment directly on this behaviour precipitates accusations of light-heartedness. However, Austen's fiction is not morally defunct - she simply uses other characters to set an example for readers to follow. We have no doubt that the democratic Mr Knightley is meant for us to admire and imitate.

2) Austen said Emma Woodhouse was a heroine "which no one but myself would like". Do you agree?

Liking Emma will obviously be a matter of personal taste. Her bossiness and manipulation of others is unpleasant, not to mention her snobbery and superiority towards those she considers friends. However, she always shows regret when she hurts feelings, so you could argue that these qualities make her more likeable, not less, because she is displays common human failings that are easy to identify with. It is worth comparing her with the snobbish Mrs Elton, who shows no remorse for her judgements. Would Mr Knightley, the most respectable character in the book, love her if she wasn't worthy of it?

However, aside from this rather emotive view of events, consider Austen's purpose throughout the novel. We are forced to reassess our view of Emma as the novel progresses because Austen deliberately manipulates our view of the heroine. Emma finds it difficult to judge others - the best way Austen can get us to empathize with her heroine is to force the reader to go through the same reassessment that Emma does. We go through the learning process with her.