Emma and the Inept Reader

  • Tara Ghoshal Wallace


Emma is a story about reading and misreading, about textual manipulations and readers’ resistance, about false information and puzzling event.1 In the twentieth century, critical agreement about the riddling nature of the novel has allowed, even demanded, ongoing reinterpretations, responding, perhaps, to Virginia Woolf’s famous formulation that ‘while twelve readings of “Pride and Prejudice” give you twelve periods of pleasure repeated, as many reading of “Emma” give you that pleasure, not repeated only, but squared and squared again with each perusal, till at every fresh reading you feel anew that you never understood anything like the widening sum of its delights’.2 It is perhaps not possible, in the 1990s, to recapture Woolf’s sense of progressive understanding any more than it is possible. for a critic to recover the experience of first reading Emma. In fact, the ‘widening... delights’ are apt to turn into increasing perplexities, until we begin to feel very much like inept readers.


Secret Message Double Vision Ideal Reader Narrative Voice Mental Frame 
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  1. 2.
    Virginia Woolf in Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, 1870–1940, ed. B.C. Southam, 2 vols. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987) 2.266.Google Scholar
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    Laura G. Mooneyham, Romance, Language and Education in Jane Austens Novels (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988) 119. Donna Landry conflates character and author and accuses both of class snobbery: ‘Emma patronizes Harriet without understanding her, interprets Harriet’s needs and desires to suit her own. Neither Emma nor Austen credits the socially inferior Harriet with much intelligence’ (The Muses of Resistance: Labouring-Class Womens Poetry in Britain, 1739–1796 [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990] 10).Google Scholar
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    Rambler 4, Samuel Johnson, Essays from the Rambler, Adventurer, and Idler, ed. W.J. Bate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968) 11. Distinguishing mimetic fiction from earlier romances, Johnson says ‘when an adventurer is levelled with the rest of the world, and acts in such scenes of the universal drama, as may be the lot of any other man; young spectators fix their eyes upon him with closer attention, and hope by observing his behaviour and success to regulate their own practices …’ (11–12).Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Tara Ghoshal Wallace 1995

Authors and Affiliations

  • Tara Ghoshal Wallace
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of EnglishGeorge Washington UniversityUSA

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