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Literature: Jane Austen

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Jane Austen’s Emma and the Romantic Imagination "To see a world in a
grain of sand And a heaven in a wild flower Hold infinity in the palm of your
hand And eternity in an hour." –William Blake, ‘Auguries of
Innocence’ Imagination, to the people of the eighteenth century of whom
William Blake and Jane Austen are but two, involves the twisting of the
relationship between fantasy and reality to arrive at a fantastical point at
which a world can be extrapolated from a single grain of sand, and all the time
that has been and ever will be can be compressed into the space of an hour. What
is proposed by Blake is clearly ludicrous–it runs against the very tide of
reason and sense–and yet the picture that the imagination paints of his verse
inspires awe. The human imagination supplies the emotional undercurrents that
allows us to see the next wild flower we pass on the side of the road in an
entirely different and amazing light. In Austen’s Emma, the imagination is
less strenuously taxed because her story of sensibility is more easily enhanced
by the imagination, more easily given life than Blake’s abstract vision of the
great in the small because Emma is more aesthetically realistic. However, both
rely on the fact that "[t]he correspondence of world and subject is at the
center of any sensibility story, yet that correspondence is often twisted in
unusual and terrifying shapes," (Edward Young, 1741). The heroine of
Austen’s novel, Emma Woodhouse, a girl of immense imagination, maintains it by
keeping up with her reading and art because, as Young contends, these are the
mediums through which imagination is chiefly expressed by manipulating the
relationships between the world and the subject at hand. However, even in this,
Emma’s imagination falls short. "The soul might have the capacity to take
in the ‘world’ or the ‘atom’ if it weren’t for the body’s
limitations getting in the way," (Joseph Addison, 1712). As Addison
supposes, the limitations of Emma’s body keeps her from seeing the truths that
her soul, if let free, would show her. One of these is that Frank Churchill, a
handsome and well-bred man, is insincere and fake, while Mr. Knightley truly
loves her like no other. In Emma’s love theme, Austen shows us how emotions
and imagination can augment each other. "[I]t was...sensibility which
originally aroused imagination;...on the other hand...imagination increases and
prolongs...sensibility," (Dugald Stewart, 1792). Due to Emma’s
endorsement of Mr. Elton, Harriet imagines feelings for him which become so real
for her that she can’t get him out of her mind. Although the situation is a
tragic one, it shouldn’t be believed that a fantasy-generated reality is
always bad. "Sympathy, the fellow-feeling with the passions of others,
operates through a logic of mirroring, in which a spectator imaginatively
reconstructs the experience of the person he watches," (Adam Smith, 1759).
Emma is miserably inept at this; she completely fails to use her imagination to
construct a reality for herself as might be seen through Miss Bates’s eyes and
thus generate some sympathy for the poor woman’s situation. Emotions can also
be enhanced by imagined details. "I saw the iron enter into his soul–I
burst into tears–I could not sustain the picture of confinement which my fancy
had drawn," (Laurence Sterne, 1768). Through details, Emma stokes the fires
of Harriet’s imagination and turns her emotions for Mr. Martin against him.
Smith’s idea of sympathy and Sterne’s idea of details come together to form
"that extensive influence which language hath over the heart,...strengthens
the bond of society, and attracts individuals...to perform acts of generosity
and benevolence," (Henry Home, Lord Kames, 1762). Language holds power
through the impression from memory that it conjures, that which Kames calls
"ideal presence". Individuals in society employ details in their
imagination to form a common "ideal presence" in language. The word
"love," for example, conjures up the same group of images with most
people; the word has power because it is greater than the sum of its four
letters. This sympathy of meaning between one person and the next is what allows
people to identify with one another and galvanizes society. It is this that
allows Emma to "read between the lines" of Mr. Elton’s charade and
understand its underlying meaning. Because imagination enhances emotion, but
emotion often contradicts reason, imagination was also seen to oppose reason and
principle. "Particular incidents and situations occur, which either throw a
false light on the objects, or hinder the true from conveying to the imagination
the proper sentiment and perception," (David Hume, 1757). Hume suggests
that, in order to imagine truly and effectively, the mind must be as clear as
possible. Mr. Woodhouse’s inability to clear his head leads him to imagine
problems with the food and health of other people. Or worse, "[t]his
separation of conscience from feeling is a depravity of the most pernicious
sort;...when the ties of the first bind the sentiment and not the will, and the
rewards of the latter crown not the heart but the imagination," individuals
will take leave of reason (Henry Mackenzie, 1785). Mackenzie’s concern is that
the limitless freedom of imagination will seduce people out of the more
disciplined act of thinking and reasoning, just as Emma is fueled by the thought
of all the potential matches that she can make and ignores reason and principle
which would have suggested for her to stop meddling. "Reason" can also
be interpreted as the willingness to function socially, that is, to work.
"Reasonable" people preoccupied with physical labor lose their ability
to imagine because there is no need for it and they remain in the best of
health. In contrast, "in the decline of life, [imaginers] pay dearly for
the youthful days of their vanity," (George Cheyne, 1725). Jane Fairfax
does just this. She gets so carried away with the idea of Frank and Emma being
together that she imagines herself into a serious illness. To people of the
eighteenth century, imagination can serve as a source of aesthetic pleasure, or
it can stimulate emotional responses that enhance visual images in opposition to
reason. It has the capability to wrangle the body and make it sick, to falsify
emotions, and charge a language with meaning. To imagine is to blend fantasy and
reality in abstract but beautiful ways, to have a mind open to ideas, and to
have a hand large enough to hold in its palm all of infinity and more.
Bibliography
Addison, Joseph. The Spectator, 26 September, 1712. Austen, Jane. Emma. W.W.
Norton & Company, New York, 1993 (1816). Blake, William. "Auguries of
Innocence". W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1993 (c.1803). Cheyne,
George. Retrospection. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1989 (1725). Home,
Henry, Lord Kames. Letter to Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. Wm. C. Brown Publishers,
Oxford, 1978 (1762). Hume, David. "On the Standard of Taste". W.W.
Norton & Company, New York, 1990 (1757). Mackenzie, Henry. Emotions of the
Mind. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1984 (1785). Smith, Adam. The Spectator,
27 April, 1759. Sterne, Laurence. Tristram Shandy. Wm. C. Brown Publishers,
Oxford, 1990 (1768). Stewart, Dugald. The Process of Thought. W.W. Norton &
Company, New York, 1995 (1792). Young, Edward, "Night Thoughts".
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1990 (1741).
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