The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, and Great Expectations have all been crowned as classic bildungsroman novels. They each include the theme of a young individual who goes out into the world, discovers hardship, and ultimately matures through the circumstances he or she has experienced. But what about Jane Austen’s Emma? Austen has an inverted, satirical style of writing, meaning that she warps or misrepresents the general characteristics for some of the genres in which she writes, and thus humorously critiques the world around her. For example, the bildungsroman genre usually has the developing individual leave the initial setting of the story and travel to find a sense of individualism. The individual associated with development in Emma, however, stays within a familiar setting for the duration of the story, thus tweaking the idea of a physical journey associated with one’s developmental journey. Austen’s novel rebels against the typical bildungsroman stereotype of a tragic individual’s taxing journey to find identity.
Austen writes about the stage of life between youth and adulthood of Emma, an upper class young lady of twenty-one growing up in Highbury, England. Since the main character in a typical bildungsroman novel is the character to go through the maturation, one might assume that Emma is the bildungsroman figure. However, Austen plays her audience by making a secondary character, Harriet Smith, the individual on whom she focuses the theme of personal development.
As mentioned, a bildungsroman usually has some unfortunate event or catastrophe, such as a death, abuse, or rejection, which causes an individual to mature (Hader). The trials Austen puts Harriet Smith through do not cause physical harm to anyone, but do somewhat bruise Harriet emotionally. She is denied love twice by the gentlemen Emma has compelled her to like, and she denies love to a man in whom she finds great joy. As the reader can see, Harriet is kept in her unhappy state due to her dependence on Emma’s guidance.
Mr. Elton is the first man to reject Harriet. She is heartbroken when she finds that not only is Mr. Elton disinterested in her, but that he is deeply infatuated with her dear friend and advisor, Emma. As the reader knows, Emma has encouraged Harriet’s affection towards Mr. Elton, which has resulted in a major blunder. Harriet learns from her mistakes and matures by not listening so closely to the advice given by her slightly misguided friend, Emma. Learning from mistakes would fit a typical bildungsroman; however, since this is a novel by Austen, readers can expect some elements to stray from the norm. Austen writes, “Harriet bore the intelligence very well – blaming nobody – and in everything testifying such an ingenuousness of disposition and lowly opinion of herself, as must appear with particular advantage at that moment to her friend” (Austen 129). In essence, Harriet does not learn from her mistake and instead continues to look towards the knowledge and counsel of Emma, which delays her independence a little longer.
Emma also encourages Harriet’s post-Elton love interest, but only until she realizes that it is Mr, Knightly. This precipitates Emma’s discovery of her own infatuation with Mr. Knightley. Emma sends Harriet away after informing her of Mr. Knightley’s true attachment. Surely this time Harriet realizes Emma’s faults and has matured to the point where she is no longer dependent on Emma’s advice. Yet again, Austen twists the stereotypical bildungsroman when she writes, “Harriet was a little distressed--did look a little foolish at first: but having once owned that she had been presumptuous and silly, and self-deceived, before, her pain and confusion seemed to die away with the words, and leave her without a care for the past, and with the fullest exultation in the present and future” (Austen, 439). As the text shows, Harriet still relies on the approval of Emma in the area of love. Furthermore, Austen has Harriet dismiss any wrongdoings on Emma’s part when Harriet blames herself for being “presumptuous and silly.” It is only by separating from Emma due to their mutual interest in Mr. Knightly that Harriet is able shed Emma’s influence and return to the clear sense of purpose with which she entered the story.
In the end, Harriet rekindles her love of Mr. Martin, a match Emma discouraged early in the novel. Austen has thus caused Harriet’s circumstantial life to come full circle. As Austen explains in the passage, “The fact was, as Emma could now acknowledge, that Harriet had always liked Robert Martin; and that his continuing to love her had been irresistible” (Austen, 439), Harriet has matured since her first proposal, which is revealed in the fact that she realizes her desire for Robert Martin supersedes the attractions Emma imposed, and Harriet independently decides to marry him. Thus, the pattern of heartache is broken, and Harriet is able to change the direction of her life, thanks in part to her new found maturity and self-dependence.
One final correlation Austen makes with the bildungsroman novel is the identity Harriet finds at the end of the book. Whereas the usual bildungsroman has the protagonist find independence and identity through the circumstances throughout the novel, Austen plays with the meaning of “identity” by having Harriet discover her biological identity, which had been unknown until the closing chapter. The bildungsroman definition of identity might be the personal sense of worth or value, regardless of the circumstances, in which one finds one’s self, Harriet’s social identity is dependent on the status of her lost father, and this is most definitely related to the circumstances in which she finds herself. Thus, Austen has yet again subverted a bildungsroman trait.
With all this information, one might ask how Austen’s novel could be considered a bildungsroman at all. Yet the elements of a bildungsroman are present in Emma. Harriet is a young lady. She is exposed to the harshness of the world. She matures by gaining independence in her decision-making process. She finds her identity. Considering that bildungsroman novels debuted in the late eighteenth century, Austen does a remarkable job of not only writing a bildungsroman novel but also twisting elements to play with the reader’s mind. Even though Jane Austen may not have intended to parody a coming of-age novel, Emma has turned out to be a brilliant twist in the bildungsroman genre.
Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. David Widger. iBooks. 26 September 2013.
Hader, Suzanne. “The Bildungsroman Genre: Great Expectations, Aurora Leigh, and Waterland. The Victorian Web. 21 February 2005. Web. 26 Sept. 2013.
Herrera, Spencer. “Bildungsroman.” The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Latino Literature. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2008. Credo Reference. Web. 26 September 2013.