Jane Austen: ‘Persuasion’ vs ‘Emma’

In view of CC202′s intellectual dabbling in Jane Austen’s works, the Core presents an article that argues Emma is in certain ways better than Persuasion. Here is an extract:

Published posthumously, it [Persuasion] has an almost skeletal feel, like an outline in which only the most salient points about each character are noted, as if Austen didn’t have time to “cover them with flesh.”

I have a theory: I suspect that some readers prize Persuasion because it is superficially more “serious” than Austen’s other novels.

Perhaps these readers hold up Persuasion, with its older, sadder protagonist, as a counterargument to the charge of frivolity. But Persuasion lacks not only the comic sparkle of Austen’s other novels. It also lacks, relatively speaking, the fineness of observation and the psychological nuance that is enough to make any book—even the fairy-tale-like love story of a teenage girl and a wealthy man—a great one.

Admirers make much of Austen’s deadpan tone, her wit, and her irony, and rightly so. But hers isn’t irony for irony’s sake: Austen’s portraits of people and their milieus are animated not by satirical malice or mere eagerness to entertain but by a sense of moral urgency. With a philosophical eye, she sees through fuss and finery and self-justification. She gives us a cast of characters and then zeroes in, showing us who and what is admirable, who is flawed but forgivable, who is risible and who is truly vile. Delivered economically, her judgments are not only clever but perspicacious, humane, and, for the most part, convincing. Her real subject is not the love lives of barely post-adolescent girls, but human nature and society. Austen wrote stories that show us how we think.

Take Emma, in which Austen is at the height of her powers as both an artist and analyst of human beings. The novel has very few obvious signifiers of “seriousness”.

Emma is the most perfect of Austen’s novels in part because the engine of its plot doesn’t run on a single moral lesson—the twin evils of pride and prejudice, the desirability of being sometimes persuadable rather than invariably headstrong, the advantageousness of sense over sensibility. It preaches humility, but it does so humbly.

For the full article, visit slate.me/YkV89S

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