Emma by Jane Austen lacks much of the humor of Pride and Prejudice mostly because the titular character is, in Austen’s own words, unlikable. It’s interesting that Austen would choose to write a novel about a young woman only she herself could like. Perhaps it’s most remarkable that Austen had the patience to sit with this story for the weeks and possibly months it took to finish the novel. I found myself eager for it to end already by the end of part two. And it has three parts.
It isn’t that I disliked the novel, really. I mean, the story was good, as predictable as one would expect. Emma is meddling in the relationships of others after one successful bit of matchmaking. But all of her following endeavors are failures and her foolishness, her vanity, become increasingly evident with each turn of the page. There are many interesting characters and most are given enough time in the story to let each one stand out on his or her own.
Unfortunately, it really boils down to my not liking Emma Woodhouse herself. I certainly didn’t enjoy this book anywhere nearly as much as I did Pride and Prejudice.
And this is where I am going to shift from writing a book review to sharing personal stuff. I have a novel I’ve managed to get roughed out but have never revised because I disliked the characters so completely. How does a writer live with characters for whom they have little respect? I don’t know. It’s not to say that I’ve loved every character I’ve created, but I’ve understood them. I’ve managed to think of them as wounded rather than villainous. If I can find a reason behind why people act the way they do then even when I find their actions distasteful, I can put it all in a perspective of compassion.
These poor characters never inspired anything even close to compassion in me. And yet the story still has its teeth in me and I catch myself trying to find some way to create one character or the other into someone I don’t want to write off the edge of a cliff and murder.
So when I read a novel like Emma, knowing that Austen went into the writing to create a character that would not evoke sympathy, I am baffled at how it can be so effective. Gone with the Wind is another example because almost everyone dislikes Scarlett O’Hara.
What keeps the reader reading when the protagonist is unlikable?
I know that some people eagerly await Scarlett’s come-uppance and, since we know an Austen romance must end in marriage, implying a “happily ever after,” Emma will manage to stop complicating everyone’s life, especially her own.
I continue to ignore the story with teeth. Either one day something will click, my talent will meet the novel’s intention and hit the ground running, or I’ll eventually forget it altogether.
In the meantime, I’ll keep reading and try to better understand how other writers do it. Even if I never do settle down with that story, there are so many other characters with stories to tell that I’m sure something better will find its way on to the page. If not better, at least peopled with more likable characters.