Emma, Chapter 1: We meet the lady in question.
(Yes, I've read 1-5, but I realized I had a lot to say, so I'm writing a few more manageable posts rather than one huge one.)
"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."
Austen's most memorable opening line is undoubtedly that of Pride and Prejudice
("It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."), but I'd say this one from Emma
runs a close second. It is amazing in its combination of utter normality and audacity. It doesn't say anything particularly startling, and this is, perhaps, what is most surprising. If Emma's life is so perfect, why are we reading about her? This isn't how novels are supposed to start. What's going on here? And so, clearly, we must keep reading in order to find out just what this author is trying to do.
This opening line also suggests that Emma is one of those
people. You know, pretty, rich, smart, socially adept, seemingly perfect in every way. One of those people we all hate, or at least wish we could hate, because it seems that they have everything without even trying. We usually don't like to read about those
people, at least not as sympathetic main characters. But this is Austen, and she knows this, so we have to wonder - is she deliberately setting up a heroine, a title character, even, for her readers to dislike, at least at the beginning? This is a risky move; some readers may simply stop reading before they get far enough to find out whether this is the case. But, if it works, it frees the novel from many of the constraints of the typical novel format of its time. Many of Austen's predecessors wrote novels (generally considered to be for women) featuring paragons of virtue who often came across as annoying and insipid in their perfection. At the beginning of Emma
, Austen takes this traditional set-up and pushes it over the top, so we know that she's in on the joke - we aren't
supposed to like Emma right now, and it is this that allows for much of the humor that is to come.