Victoria Jelinek

Emma by Jane Austen

emma_jane_austen_book_coverOn a long list of my favorite authors and beloved books, Jane Austen is always prominently featured. I think she’s hilarious and subversive. I’d even argue she’s a feminist. Other readers have obviously found Emma irresistible because the book has continuously been in print since 1816 (it helps, however, that it’s mandatory reading for most secondary schools in the English-speaking world).

My favorite Austen book is without-a-doubt Persuasion, even as I truly appreciate Northanger Abby. Nonetheless, this is a brief review of Emma, which I have just re-read, so while it’s fresh I thought to write a note encouraging readers to read this novel if they haven’t already.

Emma is a special work. Along with Pride and Prejudice it’s frequently adapted for film and television. Austen wrote this book shortly before she would die and by this time, she was at the height of her authorial skills. While the deceptively simple plot of Emma is similar to Austen’s other novels – a cycle of wrong-headedness, misunderstandings, remorse, penitence, and, finally, self-realization (inclusive of a romantic pairing of ‘equals’) – this work is richer in its twists-and-turns even as it maintains narrative control. Moreover, the themes of status and marriage are still relevant. As is the ‘moral’ of the book, which is that self-knowledge is elusive, and vanity a source of pain. What appeals to me most about Austen’s work in general is that they are all acute studies of humanity: “the happiest delineation of its varieties,” prompted by “the most thorough knowledge of human nature.” Her ability to create compelling and universal characters is awe-inspiring. Sly and subtle observations, humorous quips and asides, and we’re chuckling at the foibles and frustrations of humankind. Moreover, the omniscient narrator, which Austen had perfected by the time she wrote Emma, means the reader is privy to the innermost thoughts of our heroine as she finds her way through the narrative. And this heroine is complex and difficult. Austen famously wrote to a friend that in Emma she had created “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” It’s true. There are times when I find Emma’s character repugnant – snobbish, rude, obstinate, foolish and thoughtless – but then I find patience and kindness for her. She is young after all, and she doesn’t mean to be hurtful. In the end, I find my own best nature in my judgement of Emma, which parallels the heroine’s own journey, and makes for a richer literary experience.



Gulliver’s Travels

Gullivers Travel book coverAuthor Jonathan Swift wrote that the purpose of his writing, “is to vex the world rather than divert it.” Throughout Gulliver’s Travels, Swift satirizes scientists, academics, snobs, politicians, lawyers, doctors, and – unfairly – women. Swift further parodies travel writers’ preoccupation with appearing to be “experts” in everything they write.

Lemuel Gulliver, a sea-loving surgeon and “everyman” travels to four lands and has numerous adventures. The imaginary worlds, fantastic characters, and exaggerated stories of Gulliver’s strange and exotic adventures, draw the reader into the narrative (and inspire film adaptations). Gulliver begins the journey larger than life in the land of the tiny Lilliputians, and after observing mankind’s tendency toward greed and selfishness, he finds himself most contented in a land of horses governed by reason. The moral of the novel suggests that the only ideal world is one in which humans do not rule.

“Satire,” Swift wrote, “is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.” The staying power of Gulliver’s Travels lies in the fact that the more things seem to change, they really don’t: mankind has been, and continues to be, motivated by avarice and folly. The practice of economically exploiting other countries was the policy of English and French colonial governments during Swift’s time, just as modern world powers go into underdeveloped cultures and consume their resources. Conflicts of religious ideology, as observed in the battle of the “Big Endians” and the “Small Endians,” are still apparent, as evidenced by the discord throughout the Middle East. Even the feuds between the “High Heels” and the “Low Heels” in the novel continue between and among current political parties.

Despite Swift’s critique of humanity and its institutions, however, he seems to have felt passionately enough about mankind to hope that those who read the book would reconsider themselves and the world around them in order to help make it a better place – “vex” readers into thinking, rather than “diverting” them into switching their thoughtfulness off.