Zoe Coralnik Kaplan has her Ph.D. from the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City, and she teaches literature at Mary-mount Manhattan College. She has often lectured as a breakout session speaker and panelist on various aspects of Jane Austen's novels at local and regional JASNA meetings and at AGMs.
AT A TIME WHEN EVERY WELL-CURLED HAIR on Jane Austen's head has been thoroughly combed through and analyzed and her characters dissected from all angles under microscopes, new interpretations from the religious to the Freudian keep arriving in print and on film. Perhaps a look at Austen's influence on a few English and American literary heroines in terms of self-deception and inner growth may be of interest.
We all struggle with ourselves, make mistakes, think we are in the right, find out we are often wrong (and have done harm or injustice by being wrong), reflect and learn not to repeat such patterns, and, thereby, change outcomes or--at least--our courses of action. In literature, we find characters who act and think as we do, and it is from their misconceptions, misunderstandings, and strained relationships that plots are woven. We take this so for granted that we may forget how recent a development such an approach is, especially in regard to literary heroines. In English and, by extension, American literature, it only goes back to the early 19th century; in fact, it only goes back to Jane Austen.
Austen's heroines are legendary--if varying--models of charm, independence of spirit (if not mistresses of their own lives in the modern sense of the term), degrees of moral consciousness, self-involvement, and self-dramatization. Emma personifies an elegance (the term is used inclusively) that other Austen heroines lack. This stems partly from her own excessive self-esteem, bordering on narcissism, which is not a function of Austen's other heroines. Emma is the paradigm for (or at least a seminal influence on) the ways future literary heroines would be created, especially in terms of growth in self-knowledge--and some changes in attitudes brought about by inner growth and understanding. I submit that Jane Austen was the first author writing in English to apply--in James Wood's term--"inwardness" to her heroines, to see their psychological workings which influenced their lesser or greater self-knowledge and, therefore, their inner growth. Sometimes this growth was, in small measure, an epiphany that just seem ed a hiccup in the direction of change; sometimes it was a real turn in the psyche, showing the truth of her inner self and thereby paving the way for real change. For example, when Emma (after a few jolts along the way) has her final epiphany in realizing the true nature of her love for Mr. Knightley, and understands that, because of her own actions, she may have spoiled any chance of a future with him, good fortune smiles (as it always does) on Emma: he appears with his declaration of a parallel realization of being in love with her as well. Now the change is signaled in Emma's comprehension of her own flaws and motivations, and her smug self-satisfaction melts in her desire to be different, something that will be made appreciably easier in the warmth of Mr. Knightley's love.
Austen is, of course, too great a writer, and her famed sense of irony is too much in play to make us think that the "perfect happiness of the union" (484), will be perfect, that Emma's characteristic sense of self-importance will be totally reformed. Austen knew very well that life is not like that; as a pioneer in the realistic novel she knew very well that people do not completely change. This understanding is one of the major reasons that her "happy ending" novels are great literature and not pure romance. As Rachel Brownstein says in Becoming a Heroine, "self-awareness [is what] distinguishes the literary heroine from the heroine of romance" (255). Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind also looks into herself and her motives, but she never looks deeply enough to make a real difference, and, consequently, she remains a superficial heroine. …