I wonder if a variation on the Unreliable Narrator is permissible here? Jane Austen's Emma, while narrated solely by the author herself, is told exclusively from the title character's point of view (chime in and correct me if there are scenes in which she doesn't take part, however minor) so that Austen becomes Emma's interpreter, and our interlocutor. It's a very deliberate choice, because Austen then goes on deftly but in plain sight to give you every reason to question Emma's headlong conclusions, while knowing full well that you'll simply go right along with Emma anyway. Surprisingly, none of this feels tricksy or opportunistic, though of course it might had Austen not had this particular objective unwaveringly in her sights: The Unreliable Reader. If we look at the story from within Emma's world, she's a classic unreliable narrator, primarily to poor Harriet Smith. Emma's wishful and willful narratives consistently mislead Harriet, who depends entirely on Emma's versions of things. To make matters more complex, Emma really should have known better, as she admits (to her credit) when her eyes are opened. Nor is Emma the only unreliable narrator. She is misled in her turn by Frank Churchill's camouflaging accounts of his relationship to Jane Fairfax. Again, the reliability angle is enriched when Frank thinks at one point that Emma does perceive his attachment to Jane.
In fact, there is one scene in which Emma doesn't appear, one that fits into my interpretation. It's the conversation between Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley about whether Emma's friendship with Harriet is desirable or not. Mrs. Weston sees the matter fondly through Emma's eyes, while Mr. Knightley's cooler assessment sees the situation accurately. Mr. Knightley and Mr. John Knightley could be called reliable narrators of the story. Again significantly for my thesis, each attempts to alert Emma to her mistaken narratives. Mr. Knightley tells her realistically about Harriet's prospects and Robert Martin's virtues, and shares his suspicions about an attachment between Frank and Jane. Mr. John Knightley gives her a hint about Mr. Elton's real intentions. Of course, they don't make a dent.
Now I've got myself really thinking, and I realise . . . I forgot Miss Bates, the most persistent narrator of them all! I'd call her a reliable narrator because her stream-of-consciousness approach ends up letting us know her entire (and exhaustive) fact-base. She also tells us her certainty values.
I've read Emma countless times, but I still laugh out loud at the pork-and-Mr.-Elton scene:
“Full of thanks, and full of news, Miss Bates knew not which to give quickest. Mr. Knightley soon saw that he had lost his moment, and that not another syllable of communication could rest with him.
‘Oh! my dear sir, how are you this morning? My dear Miss Woodhouse---I come quite overpowered. Such a beautiful hind-quarter of pork! You are too bountiful! Have you heard the news? Mr. Elton is going to be married.’"
This scene goes exactly to the narrator issue, when Miss Bates nearly backs herself into the corner of naming Highbury's corporate speculation that Mr. Elton would propose to Emma:
"A Miss Hawkins.---Well, I had always rather fancied it would be some young lady hereabouts; not that I ever-----Mrs. Cole once whispered to me---but I immediately said, 'No, Mr. Elton is a most worthy young man---but'-----In short, I do not think I am particularly quick at those sort of discoveries. I do not pretend to it. What is before me, I see. At the same time, nobody could wonder if Mr. Elton should have aspired-----Miss Woodhouse let me chatter on, so good-humouredly. She knows I would not offend for the world. How does Miss Smith do?"
How different from the Mr. Knightleys, and yet Miss Bates's native honesty and good will keep her on the straight and narrow. She knows (and as importantly, reports) when she's drawing a conclusion, when her memory might be at fault, etc.
What a masterly triumph for Jane Austen, to have Miss Bates, of all people, win the Reliable Narrator Sweepstakes! LOL, indeed!
The famous Irony that Austen deployed (and refined to its utmost in Emma) is, rather than being crudely and obviously signposted, actually embedded in the means of the narrative. We are constantly seduced into Emma's solipsism because it flatters our own - we even fail to pull up the drawbridge during that famous opening sentence because we so wish to believe that a pretty, rich, single, and indulged young woman could have 'anything to vex her'. Or us. The reason the Box Hill episode is so painful - to Miss Bates, as much as to the reader (and, eventually, Emma) - is that Miss Bates is wholly without guile. It's the book's first real gathering-of-clouds warning that we are not reading this story as it needs to be read: that we are in danger of wafting away on the brio of Emma's self-satisfaction, and using it to fluff the duvet of our own. After all, Emma is gravely wrong three times over (towards Harriet, Jane Fairfax, and Miss Bates), and because of her position of influence it's in her hands to materially affect their lives. Potentially, she can ruin Harriet's prospects, cast malicious shade on Jane's reputation, and fatally disturb Miss Bates's peace. She's lucky that the damage was limited in the first two cases and that Miss Bates was capable of recovering in the third.
I see Emma as a miracle novel---a perfect comedy of manners taking place in the perfect confessional world of Highbury, and yet as serious in its moral content as Mansfield Park. I think Emma becomes a sympathetic moral character when we allow her to be a mirror for ourselves.
The book is a brilliant and unique accomplishment in literature, and is the reason it's still one of my favourite novels, even though I'm more temperamentally drawn to some others.