Emma, Merida, and the Female Bildungsroman

Emma, Merida, and the Female Bildungsroman July 28, 2012

I generally don’t like responding to other reviews or comments in my reviews because I think such exchanges, particularly in this Internet age, have huge flame potential and treat the critical discourse like it is more important than the art object. Occasionally, though, the critical commentary is instructive or revealing and worth looking at in its own right. I am particularly interested by films that get criticized (or praised) by opposing poles of some political or sociological spectrum for seemingly contradictory reasons.

A particular and interesting example of this happened this summer with the release of Pixar’s Brave, a flawed but entertaining animated fable about how a young woman’s conflicts with her mother lead to fear, heartbreak, and, eventually, reconciliation. I was among the critics who found their pleasure alloyed by the film’s problematic apportionment of blame for not merely the plot catalyst but the underlying conflicts that lead to it. Merida’s mom seemed to not only endorse a forced, arranged marriage for her daughter but also to spend the bulk of the first act of the film as a perfectionist scold who was more concerned about keeping up appearances than the genuine well being of her children. As such, the film’s rather conventional and traditional moral, tied to giving Merida her comeuppance, appeared to endorse not just Elinor but a complementarian (at best) and possibly misogynist system where women/girls had no right to complain or stand up for themselves regardless of the justness of the actions that would symbolize their obedience.

My friend and fellow critic, Steven D. Greydanus, who also liked (but didn’t “love”) the film, has noted in response to some of these objections that the film is being criticized by some of his readers for “essentially endorsing Merida’s resistance by giving her everything she wants.” The argument on this side is that Merida is assessed essentially no blame, that her very real flaws are excused because of the  perceived injustice of her situation, and that the absence of consequence or cost for her rebelliousness (though there is repentance) undercuts or subverts the eventual reestablishment of parent-child hierarchy. (It is worth emphasizing that Steven himself is not making this argument, though his own comments about the film seem sympathetic to it; when I asked him about for clarification about who, in his witness, was making such comments, he cited chatter and discussion around the film and pointed me to the comments section of his review at The National Catholic Register.)

I am less interested in re-pleading this case as I am in trying to look descriptively at the film and ask why some works of art engender such differing responses. In doing so, I found a comparison with Jane Austen’s Emma helpful for several reasons. (Now might be a good time to give the requisite spoiler warning and to stress that, picture aside, I’m thinking primarily of the novel and not the film incarnation of Emma). The first is that both narratives are female coming of age stories, and there are less of those than you might think. More specifically, though, both have female characters that commit errors in the narrative proper but are recipients of happy endings. Few, I imagine, would read Emma and claim that the happy ending is endorsing Emma’s actions in the book, that the awarding to her of everything she wants is the evidence of the author’s/narrator’s judgment that her conduct in the novel is worthy of such a reward. In his critical reception history for the novel in the Bedford edition, Alistair Duckworth notes that “feminist voices” were seldom heard championing Austen prior to the 1970s and he summarizes Marilyn Butler’s argument that “[Austen’s] conservatism is evident […] in her preference for rationality over intuition and in her respect for inherited moral or religious systems  over individual choice” and that her plots “either bring individualistic heroines to a recognition of their social duty (Elizabeth, Emma) or present them as principled from the beginning (Elinor, Fanny)” (417).

Austen’s political and/or social conservatism, whether real or only seeming, is hard for the liberal or egalitarian critic to simply dismiss. To the extent that Emma is about moral development, many critics have noted that Emma’s emotional maturity comes with and culminates in a subordination to male authority. In Chapter Ten she states to Harriet Smith, “I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s house, as I am of Hartfield.” Marriages or relationships that are led by women are shown as being unhappy or having socially problematic consequences (Mr. and Mrs. Elton, Mr. and Mrs. Churchill). While Jane Fairfax is regarded to be of higher character and judgment than Frank Churchill, it is still hoped that such a superiority will help him mature and it is still deemed appropriate that she subordinate herself and submit to him despite his own rather poor track record during the engagement. In an early exchange between Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston (Emma’s former governess), the former opines that Harriet Smith’s friendship will flatter Emma’s vanity and expose the weaknesses in her character that have come from the fact that she will “never submit to any thing requiring industry and patience.” When Mrs. Weston protests that Knightley must think she did not do well in training Emma as a governess he responds, “…but you were receiving a very good education from her, on the very material matrimonial point of submiting your own will, and doing as you were bid.”

That’s not to say that a proto-feminist reading of Emma is impossible and that its happy ending must be read as a matured acceptance of and capitulation to conservative social hierarchy. Emma comes to recognize Knightley’s superiority in judgment (indeed she acknowledges it mostly throughout though she does chafe under that realization). As I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t think complementarians or feminists need always see subordination or (self) discipline as a bad thing; it is when these qualities are gendered (good for women, unnecessary for  men; expected in women even when there is demonstrable superiority to men) that they become hallmarks of a patriarchal (rather than merely authoritarian) system that fosters rebelliousness. Also, the most staunchly socially and politically conservative characters in Emma would themselves be loath to see and accept the resolution of the novel as an affirmation of traditional systems. Knightley’s agreement to leave Donwell Abbey and move in at Highbury, relinquishing the rights to be “head” of the household (a place which will continue to be held by Emma’s father as long as he lives) seems positively progressive to some, even scandalous to others. One could easily imagine readers looking at Emma’s situation at the end of the novel, getting a husband (and the social cachet that comes with it) while not having to give up her unique role as de facto head of the household (since she can more easily manipulate and persuade her father) as essentially endorsing her actions by giving her “everything she wants.”

What is it about Austen’s work, then, that allows some readers to see a truly happy ending despite the novel’s steadfast refusal to unequivocally endorse one side of the social divide? Why does Emma seem to have at least the capacity to make both sides happy whereas Brave just ends up making both sides irritated? A partial answer may just be that at the current moment the poles of our social disagreements are farther apart and our rhetoric is more trained to be antagonistic from the get go. But I do think there are two qualities or themes in the narratives themselves that help engender this acceptance, two ways in which Emma is just a superior narrative in recognizing complexity and developing its themes.

 “It’s All My Fault” — The Assessment of Blame

Fewer trends are more irritating to me in the current iteration of the Disney princess than the seeming requirement or acceptance of all blame as manifested in the frequency of the line, “It’s all my fault.” Even when characters such as Belle (Beauty and the Beast) or Jasmine (Aladdin) are confronted with dire circumstances that are largely the product of moral or technical failures on the part of men, their default reaction is to take on blame, even when their responses seem defensible, appropriate, or even heroic given the limited knowledge of circumstances they are saddled with.

Read in the context of this trope, as already mentioned, Merida’s acceptance of blame seems not just limited to accepting responsibility for getting a magic potion that turned her mother into a bear (which, let’s be honest, is a pretty serious thing to do whatever the mitigating circumstances) but may appear to extend to the larger mother-daughter conflict in total. Must Merida apologize for resisting an arranged marriage? For being held up to a standard of “perfection” that at times appears to have more to do with Elinor’s emotional need to be thought a perfect mother than it does about the genuine welfare of the child? Elinor relents at the end of the film and she concedes that she, too, has “learned” something. But what that “something” is is left unarticulated. And it is “something” in comparison to Merida’s “all.”

Seldom, if ever, is a dire consequence directly and uniformly the fault of one person. In Emma’s case, there is ancillary blame to be assessed for various consequences. And, it is assessed. Frank Churchill is roundly chastised by his parents, Knightley, and Emma herself for his conduct which not only pained Jane Fairfax (his secret fiancee) but threatened Emma with great emotional injury. “Impropreity! Oh! Mrs. Weston–it is too calm a censure. Much, much beyond impropriety!–It has sunk him, I cannot say how it has sunk him in my opinion.” High moral standards are a lot easier to bear if one feels as though one is not the only one held to them, and, it bears repeating, when men are held to high standards it goes a long way to alleviating the argument that high standards for women are a form of oppression.

That said, most of the pain caused in Emma is caused by Emma, a byproduct of her pride and undisciplined exercise of power. “The real evils of Emma’s situation” the narrator tells us on the novel’s first page “were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to thing a little too well of herself…” These are, it bears emphasizing, character flaws (or, at least, perceived as such by the author), and not merely bad actions. As such, for happiness to be achieved there must be not merely a repudiation of a mistake or accident but a growth in character. Through most of Volume I, Emma believes herself in the right in terms of discernment, but when she is proven wrong (such as when Mr. Elton proposes to her rather than Harriet) she sees herself only as wrong, not in the wrong. When challenged by Knightley about the propriety of her manipulating Harriet Smith into refusing Robert Martin’s proposal the narrator says, “Mr. Knightley might quarrel with her, but Emma could not quarrel with herself” and insists later to him: “As far as good intentions went, we were both right, and I must say that no effects on my side of the argument have yet proved wrong.”

Emma, like Merida must be brought low, but how much more does she have to be brought low for? For one, she is older than Merida and ought to know better (see Knightley’s description of Frank in Chapter 18). For another, she must come to repent of a whole series of decisions and not merely one action done in haste or anger. There is not only her manipulation of Harriet which threatens to drastically alter the latter’s chances for a happy marriage but her spreading of vicious gossip/conjecture regarding Jane Fairfax and Mr. Dixon (the failure in the “duty of woman by woman), her insult of Miss Bates (for which Knightley chastises her) and encouragements to Frank to flatter her vanity even though in her own mind she has resolved that she is not in love with him. The pain that Harriet feels at being rejected by Elton and having her hopes for a connection with Knightley unrequited can be laid in large part at Emma’s doorstep. (Harriet herself is an autonomous moral agent but lacking the will to really oppose Emma, and Emma knows this. It is, in fact, the thing that makes Emma so desirous of the friendship.)

To sum up, Merida makes a mistake and that mistake is, perhaps, indicative of a character deficiency. But it can just as easily be parsed as a momentary lapse in judgment by an otherwise confused (or, perhaps, even good) kid. Emma makes a series of mistakes that are indicative, the author clearly sets out to illustrate, of character defects: pride and vanity.

Learning Your Lesson vs. Fixing Things

I would argue as a moral bildungsroman that the novel climaxes not in the declaration of love by Knightley but in the scene where Emma becomes aware of her feelings for him. It is here that Emma. unlike Merida, confronts not only the results of her actions but the feelings in her heart that prompted them:

This was the conclusion of the first series of reflection. This was the knowledge of herself, on the first question of inquiry, which she reached; and without being long in reaching it–She was most sorrowfully indignant; ashamed of every sensation but the one revealed to her–her affection for Mr. Knightley.–Every other part of her mind was disgusting.

With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of everybody’s feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange everybody’s destiny. She was proved to have been universally mistaken; and she had not quite done nothing–for she had done mischief. She had brought evil on Harriet, on herself, and she too much feared, on Mr. Knightley….

The language here is so strong, in fact, that barring a healthy sense of self-worth in other parts of the novel, one might be tempted to view it as a masochistic self-debasement of the sort that modern Christians witness in youth groups all the time–a sort of ritualistic, performative confession of sins that coopts the language of total depravity as a means of showing one’s spiritual alignment with the truth.

Keep in mind however that these are internal reflections. More importantly, for my purposes, note that however emotionally devastating they are, they do not prevent Emma from acting, and acting justly. Thus, there is not just repentance here, there is also growth. Emma not only repents of her previous manipulations of Harriet but she declines to exercise her still existent power and influence over her, even though doing so might, she thinks, spare herself from greater unhappiness. Neither is this a singular instance of self-discipline. When Knightley returns from visiting John and Isabella, fear prompts Emma to initially try to steer the conversation away from a subject she does not wish to hear, but she ultimately chooses to lay herself open to what she fears will be painful truth because she believes her duties to her friend and as a friend are more important than her personal happiness.

Merida, conversely, fixes things. Even at the very end she is on horseback, sewing the banner, convinced that escape (from consequences) lies in an act of skill (or bravery), in the accomplishment of a task rather than reformation of a character. When this fails to alter her mother back to human form, her final, effective cry is “you were always there for me,” a repentance that is at best indirect and which has no time to be genuinely tested to evidence sincerity before the harmony and happiness is restored.

When I teach Emma, one of the things that students often express surprise at is how long the book continues after Knightley’s declaration but before the climactic “happily ever after.” (It’s about 40 pages in the Norton Critical Edition, nearly a third of Volume III.) There is Emma’s father to be attended to and convinced of the suitability of the match, Harriet’s disappointment to be assuaged and nursed, relations with Jane Fairfax and Miss Bates to be restored or healed. In short, there is a recognition that consequences of past errors linger even after repentance and that a sign of maturity is the willingness to accept and bear with (no pun intended) those consequences and do one’s best to make amends. We don’t really get that in Brave,  which resolves almost immediately to a restoration of the happy family. In fact, as the three boys act up, one can reasonably ask how much of the family dynamic has actually changed. Elinor has been restored to human form and the family has been reunited, but are the conditions that created the breach to begin with ever dealt with? There is restoration, definitely, and healing, perhaps, at the end of Brave, but growth (moral or psychological) must be hoped for, or at best inferred. It cannot simply be witnessed to and cited as the foundation on which future happiness is assured and, thus, gladly assented to by the viewer as being worth celebrating.





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