Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Jane Austen and the Pleasure-Principle. (Conference Papers)

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Jane Austen and the Pleasure-Principle. (Conference Papers)

Article excerpt

MY POINT OF DEPARTURE IS the scene near the start of Emma in which Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston discuss Emma's new intimacy with the orphan Harriet Smith. Mr. Knightley is strongly opposed to this relationship; he fears Harriet's ignorance, lowly status, and abject dependence on Emma is "'doing them both harm"' (89). However, Mrs. Weston points out that opposing Emma's new choice of a companion is futile:

"Pray excuse me; but supposing that any little inconvenience may be apprehended from the intimacy, it cannot be expected that Emma, accountable to nobody but her father, who perfectly approves the acquaintance, should put an end to it, so long as it is a source of pleasure to herself" (40)

In other words, Emma is accountable to no one but herself, and she will go on doing what she is doing as long as she enjoys it.

Emma certainly is presented as someone who is extraordinarily devoted to her own pleasure: we are reminded repeatedly that she is unwilling to work at her reading, her music, her drawing; in Mr. Knightley's words during this same conversation, "'She will never submit to any thing requiring industry and patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding"' (87). In fact, in the opening pages of the novel, we learn that she considers her governess Miss Taylor (now Mrs. Weston) to have been her friend because she allowed Emma to live pain-free, without inhibitions or guilt: Miss Taylor was "peculiarly interested in herself, in every pleasure, every scheme of her's;--one to whom she could speak every thought as it arose, and who had such an affection for her as could never find fault" (6). The Emma of the novel's opening pages has a mythical dimension; though she is almost 21 years old, she has yet to really suffer: "It was Miss Taylor's loss which first brought grief" (6). In fact, the narrator comments , "The real evils of Emma's situation" are her "power of having rather too much her own way" and her "disposition to think a little too well of herself'--but, naturally enough, "The danger . . . was at present so unperceived, that they [these "real evils"] did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her" (5-6).

We might think, then, that the plot of Emma is thus a dramatization of the process by which Emma learns not to live for pleasure, but subdues her will to a more mature awareness of her real social obligations. In Freudian language, she becomes socialized as a responsible adult when she learns to restrain her instinctive drive for pleasure and to acknowledge the reality-principle. Freud has had an immense influence on how we think today; one might substitute Freud in the sentence Edmund uses to describe Shakespeare's universality in Mansfield Park: "We all talk Freud, use his similies, and describe with his descriptions" (338), and one of the main emphases of Freud is the emotional and imaginative cost to the individual of adhering to the reality beyond oneself.

However, my argument here is that Jane Austen presents a much different--and distinctively eighteenth-century--conception of the relationship between pleasure and obligation. Austen considers that the greatest pleasure lies in following duty and obligation. She believes seriously what the boys in Tom Sawyer are tricked into thinking: that a heavy obligation (in Tom's case, whitewashing a fence) is actually a great pleasure. Emma Woodhouse discovers that her greatest pleasure lies in her love for and marriage to Mr. Knightley, even though he embodies all of those claims of conscience that she has found "very disagreeable,--a waste of time--tiresome ..." (155), and even though she considers love and marriage "'not my way, or my nature"' (84). She also discovers that her domination of Harriet causes her great pain: if it begins pleasurably, it ends by creating in Emma "terror ... consternation ... humiliation" (405, 407, 411). When Mr. Knightley proposes to Emma, she feels overwhelming joy: "The dread of being a wakened from the happiest dream, was perhaps the most prominent feeling" (430), and on the other hand Emma's renunciation of her relationship with Harriet is a "spontaneous burst of Emma's feelings: 'Oh God! …

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