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February 02, 2006

The Four Readings of Emma

It was Ellen Moody, I believe, who told me about the Four Readings of Emma. The first time that you read this novel - especially if you're young - you identify with Emma; you share her complacency and then her disappointment and shame. When you read the novel a second time, knowing how full-of-it Emma can be, you laugh at her. The third time, you draw back a bit further, and see Emma as the people in her world might see her - if they were not so determined to admire her. You imagine, especially, how hurt Miss Bates must have been at Box Hill. This is the critical reading, in more ways than one; for it opens the way to the fourth reading, which compounds all of the above on a foundation of forgiving recognition. This is when you understand why Mr Knightley's love for Emma is almost as new as Emma's for him; until she was capable of adult contrition, she was only a child, and of no romantic interest. 

Reading Emma for the sixth time, I'm astonished by the contrapuntal richness of approaching the novel on all these lines simultaneously. Few novels - few comedies, even - are so devoid of Important Event, but no novel illustrates more delicately the development of essential humility.

Posted by pourover at February 2, 2006 02:50 PM

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