Harriet Smith as An Uncertain Character

>> Friday, July 11, 2008

Harriet Smith is an unpredictable character in a Jane Austen novel because she has a role in the plot that no other character would be able to do. The social network of Highbury places Harriet in an irregular position and makes her the wild card for many reasons. She has not known Emma for her entire life, and is so beneath Miss Emma Woodhouse that she is in no danger of making Emma feel inferior to her. Her own inferiority in contrast to Emma’s is what enables her to be befriended so completely. Harriet Smith's confession of liking Mr. Knightley has the unpredictable result of making Emma realize that she loves him; if Harriet, rather than Jane Fairfax, had not confessed such feelings, then Emma would have never realized that she was so completely in love with Mr. Knightley.
In Jane Austen's “Emma” we are given Miss Emma Woodhouse who befriends Miss Harriet Smith and decides that she, Emma, would be happiest to make Harriet happy by matching her with a man of the higher society of Highbury. Emma continues to lead Harriet into mischief and does not really help her friend find someone to marry. There are several elements of miscommunication that allow the story to weave a love triangle. As the story unweaves we are able to see the superior role Harriet has in the text. Harriet plays an important role in the story as she is the only person who can make Emma realize that she is in love with Mr. Knightely.
Harriet is fixed on by Emma as she is not more accomplished than her and is a different kind of pretty. Both of these attributes make Harriet the ideal companion for Emma as Emma may improve Harriet as she is introduced into Highbury's higher society. Harriet's inferiority in situation as well as upbringing make her an ideal friend for Emma as Emma is in no way worried of Miss Smith making her feel inferior in society because of her illegitimacy and so she will never be a threat like Miss Fairfax.
Emma has known Miss Fairfax and has been in competition with her for her entire life. Emma is not as accomplished as Jane, and Emma feels her inferiority in her own piano playing. Emma treats Jane unkindly because of her feeling of inferiority. Jane Fairfax is in an unpleasant situation as she is being trained to become a governess, despite this situation Emma continues to treat Jane with indifference.
Mrs. Weston believes Mr. Knightley takes too many pains on account of Miss Fairfax, and that he only does this because he is in love with her. She voices this claim further in the passage where she says: “My dear Emma, I have told you what led me to think of it. I do not want the match-I do not want to injure dear little Henry-but the idea has been given me by circumstances; and if Mr. Knightley really wished to marry you would not have him refrain on Henry's account, a boy of six years old, who knows nothing of the matter?”(176). She guesses that he must be attached from all of his attention that she has noticed as of late. Further she refutes Emma by telling her that Mr. Knightley should not hold himself from marriage because of a little boy.
Emma is upset by Mrs. Weston's match in a way entirely different from how she reacts to how Harriet's infatuation. The difference is specifically in her competition with Miss Fairfax, as opposed to her strong friendship with Miss Smith. When affronted by the idea of Mr. Knightley loving Miss Fairfax she has a claim on the time Mr. Knightley should spend away from Hartfield we can see this in the passage:
Her objections to Mr. Knightley's marrying did not in the least subside. She could see nothing but evil in it. It would be a great disappointment to Mr. John Knightley; consequently to Isabella...-a most mortifying change, and material loss to them all;-a very great deduction from her father's daily comfort-and, as to herself, she could not at all endure the idea of Jane Fairfax at Donwell Abbey. A Mrs. Knightley for them all to give way to!-No-Mr. Knightley must never marry. Little Henry must remain the heir to Donwell.
Emma is threatened by the claim a Mrs. Knightley should have on his time. She wishes Mr. Knightley to be able to come visit her father and herself when he wishes. Futhermore, Emma is threatened that her nephew Henry may be in danger of not inheriting Donwell Abbey. Her reactions show that she thinks Mr. Knightley belongs to her and Hartfield as his marrying would affect her family, she cannot wish it.
When Harriet voices her infatuation for Mr. Knightley this is when she becomes a threat to Emma. Emma is taken aback as we see in the passage during the confession from Miss Smith where she the narrator tells us: “She could not speak another word.-Her voice was lost; and she sat down, waiting in great terror till Harriet should answer”(318). This is unusual for Emma as she always has something to say to her dear friend. Her schemes for Miss Smith are completely blown away by this new realization. Not much later, Emma realizes why this is so much worse than Mr. Knightley loving Miss Fairfax. Emma comes to this conclusion as she ponders: “Why was it so much worse that Harriet should be in love with Mr. Knightley, than with Frank Churchill? Why was the evil so dreadfully increased by Harriet's having some hope of a return? It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!”(320). The hope of Mr. Knightley’s returning her affection is a blow deeper to Emma than a mere infatuation. Emma has always had Mr. Knightley upon an altar, she thinks he is superior to Frank Churchill. She comes to the conclusion quickly and is very upset by the new threat presented by Harriet. Emma now realizes why she has never compared another man to Mr. Knightley and feels the full force of the new danger at hand of his returning Harriet’s affection.
Emma uses the confession of Harriet to find out how deep Harriet’s infatuation is. Menacingly she uses this to find out if Harriet’s hopes are perhaps returned by Mr. Knightley. In the following passage we see how Emma uses her friend’s confession to fortify her own concerns: “-For her own advantage indeed, it was fit that the utmost extent of Harriet's hopes should be enquired into; and Harriet had done nothing to forfeit the regard and interest which had been so voluntarily formed and maintained-or deserve to be slighted by the person, whose counsels had never led her right”(321). Harriet’s confession is used by Emma to show how sincere a threat Harriet is to her. She cannot justify hurting her friend and hindering her now, rather she hopes Mr. Knightley might not choose to marry at all. Emma does not ever expose Harriet’s infatuation which shows how deep a friendship they truly had.
She reacts differently because of how different her relationships are with both of the threats. As Harriet is her good friend she knows it is no simple matter of jealousy, as it would be if Jane were the threat. It is because of the differences in relationships that it takes Emma so long to realize she loves Mr. Knightley. If Harriet had never liked Mr. Knightley, Emma should have continued on without realizing she loves him.
It is the feminine competitive nature that allows Harriet to play so important a role. Jane Fairfax would have only antogonized Emma in her threat, but Emma would not have realized that her indifference was due to more than just the competition she has had with Miss Fairfax in feeling inferior to her accomplishments. Rather, Harriet was such a close friend that it was so odd that Emma should wish her to not have the returned affections of Mr. Knightley.
Harriet is successful as bringing about an unpredictable twist in the story. She is the only character equipped to control the result of Emma's love life. Had she never confessed of her infatuation Emma never would have had the threat of a good friend, who she particularly likes, falling in love with her own cherished love. The realization for emma takes place in the passage: “She saw that there never had been a time when she did not consider Mr. Knightley as infinitely superior, or when his regard for her had not been infinitely the most dear. She saw, that in persuading herself, in fancying, in acting to the contrary, she had been entirely under a delusion, totally ignorant of her own heart-”(324). Emma realizes she has always loved Mr. Knightley and that his importance to her as she once reasoned was an unconscious fa├žade. This abrupt realization allows the reader to see the role of Harriet in a new light. Harriet is able to make Emma realize something that no other character would be capable of doing.
Harriet is chosen as the character to make Emma realize she is in love with Mr. Knightley from the beginning. This is evident in the contrasts between Jane Fairfax and herself and how Emma responds to them. Had Jane confessed a confession of liking Mr. Knightley, Emma would have been outraged, but she would not have thought that it was because she, Emma, was in love with Mr. Knightley. The unpredictable use of social networking through Harriet is effectively use to bring about an effect that no other character would be able to undertake. Through this use Harriet becomes an essential character to the plot.


Brad & Mary,  July 14, 2008 at 8:01 AM  

Wow Angie, very fascinating and good writing. I never took Harriet as such a vital character

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