Printer Friendly

A black morning: Kristevan melancholia in Jane Austen's 'Emma.'

[L]anguage starts with a negation (Verneinung) of loss.... "I have lost an essential object that happens to be, in the final analysis, my mother," is what the speaking being seems to be saying .... Depressed persons ... disavow the negation: they cancel it out, suspend it, and nostalgically fall back on the real object (the Thing) of their loss, which is just what they do not manage to lose, to which they remain painfully riveted.

--Black Sun, Julia Kristeva

Where the wound had been given, there must the cure be found, if anywhere.

"What two letters!--express perfection!...M. and A.-- Em--ma.--Do you understand?"

--Emma, Jane Austen

In Narrative and Its Discontents, D. A. Miller perceives a clash in Austen's Emma (1816) between the narratable--"various incitements to narrative, as well as the dynamic ensuing from such incitements"--and the nonnarratable--the "state of quiescence assumed by a novel before the beginning and supposedly recovered by it at the end" (Miller 1981, ix). Miller's Austen unleashes drifting signs and wandering desire on which her official values in the end clamp down, so that it might be said (and here I extrapolate) that her writing is in sadomasochistic conflict with itself. To Miller, Austen's writing arises out of "disequilibrium, suspense, and general insufficiency" only to be whipped into a "state of absolute propriety"--that is, only to be suppressed, beaten into social shape (Miller 1981, ix-x). At times it seems that the abuse--of the novel's production by the ideology of representation (requiring closure), or of the polyvalent by the univocal--is a purely technical matter, as if narrative exigencies alone were at war. Yet Miller gestures too in the direction of the author: Austen suffered from "ideological ambivalence toward narrative itself" (Miller 1981, 50). He contends that Austen finally repudiates the sinful frivolity of narrating--for the sake of being exculpated of an act she enjoyed, as she had "fascinated delight [in] unsettled states of deferral and ambiguity" (Miller 1981, 66).

Austen's fascination with deferral, to Miller, is manifested in Emma through her heroine's indecisiveness in finding a satisfying erotic object/husband. "Until her reformation, Emma is unable to 'fix' her 'affections' on 'the proper object,' much as, mutatis mutandis, a Freudian narcissist cannot 'cathect' his 'libido' onto an external 'object choice'" (Miller 1981, 13). Emma's narcissism generates what Miller calls a "structure of narratability" (Miller 1981, 14): the "enterprise of relocating a blocked narcissim in the outside world ... threatens to produce an interminable narrative"; "[i]f uncorrected, the narrative of Emma's desire would turn the text into what might be called a radical picaresque: an endless flirtation with a potentially infinite parade of possibilities" (Miller 1981, 15). Thus Emma, the narrative she engenders, and that naughty part of Austen that secretly takes illicit pleasure in sinful narrative frivolity--all do battle with, but finally submit to being crushed by, a proper moral ending that contains the transgressing. All must be "cured." Emma cathects her libido onto Mr. Knightley, just as the narratable is "cathected onto the final configuration of event and meaning" (Miller 1981, 19). Austen's "rigorous ideal of a wholly and properly intelligent world" (Miller 1981, 53) is preserved, although of course the closural system to which Austen resorts fails to accommodate fully the signifiers set in motion by the text. The narratable is subsumed, or at least that is the illusion: "Closure can never include ... the narratable in its essential dimension: all suspense and indecision" (Miller 1981, 98). Still, Miller's idea of the narrative dynamic in Emma accords with what Eve Sedgwick, in "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl," describes as "the punishing, girl-centered moral pedagogy and erotics of Austen's novels" in general. Endorsing the psychologically sensational terms with which I may have seemed to begin, Sedgwick characterizes Austen criticism in terms of its "unresting exaction of the spectacle of a Girl Being Taught a Lesson" and "the vengefulness it vents on the heroines whom it purports to love, and whom, perhaps, it does" (Sedgwick 1991, 17:833).

Miller defines the nonnarratable as elements of a text, such as Emma's marriage, that are simply incapable of spawning a narrative, but instead correct an insufficiency or fill a void. This would not include mere omissions, such as the Napoleonic Wars, characters' sex lives, or labor issues. Nor, writes Miller, is the nonnarratable synonymous with "the unspeakable" (Miller 1981, 5): it is not (again, as Miller states it) that the text fails ultimately to plumb certain depths.

However, Emma seems to me to be grappling throughout with an unspeakable loss--simultaneously resisting engulfment by it and trying to hang onto it--to which some of Miller's own remarks attest. It is striking that Miller should invoke the "unspeakable" at all; one would not be tempted to confuse the "nonnarratable," as Miller defines it, with whatever the "unspeakable" might mean, since the nonnaratable cannot generate an action precisely because it is so easy (in ordinary, boring, conventional life) to speak it. In imitation of Miller's assessment that Austen's hatred of "perversely aimless narrative" cloaks an affinity for it (Miller 1981, 64), his sense of her "strategy of negation," one might therefore be apt to infer, from Miller's emphasis, that the nonnarratable in Austen is not an effort to speak the unspeakable, that that is just what it is. (It is appropriate to the unspeakable that this would be how Miller chooses to speak it.) Perhaps he even unveils the identity of the unspeakable in Emma in using the following patient-analyst exchange, from Beyond the Pleasure Principle, to substantiate his point that, although she denies it, Austen is aware of the mutual dependency of the narratable and her ideology of closure: "'It was not my mother,' says the patient, from which the analyst infers, 'So it was his mother'" (Miller 1981, 65). A second analogy may clinch the point: Miller compares the child's game of fort/da, which "takes place in the context of an original loss of [the] mother," to Austen's "symbolic staging of the disappearance and retrieval of 'the reality of reason and truth'" that occurs "within a certain anxiety about whether the full meanings of her ideology can ever be established once for all" (Miller 1981, 65--66). It begins to sound as if the nonnarratable is the unspeakable (mother) after all.

Invoking the mother again through the analysand, Miller shifts her status to the unmentionable negatively inscribed: "Negation allows the patient at least to thematize his mother in the analytical discourse. Similarly, Jane Austen's moral negation permits her to bring into language what otherwise, according to a strict construction of her ideology, could never properly be mentioned" (Miller 1981, 66). Whether or not the mother's positions within these analogues can be reconciled (she stands for Austen's repressed awareness of the mutual dependency of the narratable and her ideology of closure; for "the reality of reason and truth"; and for the illicit that negation allows her to insert into language), Miller's parallels between Austen and psychoanalysis persistently suggest that Austen's preoccupation, as well as his conception of Austen's preoccupation, is buried and is maternal. Do we not have more than analogies here? After characterizing Miss Bates's language as "An ill-sorted clutter of names and half-sentences" (Miller 1981, 37) that never rise to a point (a semiotic discourse?), Miller reminds us that Roland Barthes calls the "undetermined language of chatter" "'an unweaned language' ... whose motions are those of 'an objectless sucking' and 'an undifferentiated orality'" (Miller 1981, 39). Miller further identifies Miss Bates's language with maternity in proposing that Austen can acknowledge kinship with Miss Bates "only when the traces of family resemblance have been practically effaced. The daughter's language needn't fear the mother tongue" (Miller 1981, 40).

Later in Miller's work, the mother tongue expands to include not only Miss Bates's chatter but Austen's entire corpus, or just about. In a Raritan essay, "The Late Jane Austen," Miller shamelessly describes himself (in bed with a cold or flu) being nursed on Jane Austen novels (just as "Miss Taylor nursed little Emma") "as effectively as [his] own mother--who first invited [him] to read them and who of course was no longer appropriate to expect in attendance on [his] sickbed--might have done" (Miller 1990, 10:55). Miller associates a guarantee of health with Austen. Her novels (except Sandition) offer maternal assurances--Miller's "Janeism" boils down to "the notion that while you may sometimes fall sick, you can always get better"--for which, he explains, he is now in mourning. Not for an "historical period (the so-called quiet England about to disappear in the noisy business of the Industrial Revolution) or a cultural ideal (a community whose leisure bore fruit in an ethics of civility and an esthetics of elegance)," but for "an even more patently utopian fantasy about the body in a morbid state" (Miller 1990, 10:55--56). Miller's mounring curiously seems a reflection of the incomplete mourning (which he overlooks) that Emma embodies. Undermining the exuberance that Miller attributes to the novel's heroine (a sign of the mania that alternates, Kristeva states, "more often than not" with melancholia [Kristeva 1989, 9]), Emma is at the end of the book, although poised to marry her knight, silenced, deflated, effaced in a sense because (I will argue) of "the perfect happiness of the union" (Austen 1972, 335). Emma's marriage to Knightley is acceptable insofar as it fails to offer a cure. Whereas Miller sees a text full of wandering (narratable) desire that battles it out with, but ultimately submits to, official (nonnarratable) values that cleanse that desire, the novel's wandering desire seems to me symptomatic of an unremedied melancholic/masochistic clinging to the mother whom Miller himself, in his analysis of Emma, invokes periodically as its unspeakable or nearly unspeakable theme.

Emma can be read, on the model of Kristeva's theory in Black Sun, as a melancholic/masochistic text, whose addiction to the "maternal Thing" operates both at the level of the story (the fabula) and the level of the functioning of the narrative itself (the sjuzet). Kristeva presents the all-consuming mother as the figure with whom everything must be negotiated. With the work of Kristeva, the psychic core of masochism shifts from castration anxiety (the assumed etiology in Freud, Deutsch, Deleuze, and Kaja Silverman) to disturbance within especially mother-daughter cathexes. To Kristeva, matricide is the first step toward autonomy; one must "kill" the mother to become individuated. And daughters are especially prone to dodge this murderous act by enclosing within themselves, by consuming, "the lost object" (or, in Kristeva's lexicon, "the mother-Thing," the "maternal Thing"), which is then "not so fully lost" (Kristeva 1989, 30).

In a way it is remarkable that Emma exists at all, since the novel seems so predicated on loss and so potentially implosive. Kristeva writes that she can "discover antecedents to [her] current breakdown in a loss, death, or grief over someone or something that [she] once loved" (Kristeva 1989, 5); the erasure of that essential being is lived as a wound that new separations or losses cause to fester. Austen's novel struggles to hoist itself up out of despondency over a series of losses, almost every one involving a mother. Needless to say, these are barely speakable losses--references to which fill the interstices of a seemingly lighthearted, dainty world, as the first line indicates. Emma Woodhouse is famously presented as living "twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her" (Austen 1972, 1). Yet her mother has died (we are invited to calculate that it was when she was five); and her substitute mother governess, and friend, of sixteen years, Miss Taylor, has just been married. "It was Miss Taylor's loss which first brought grief"; Emma sits in "mournful thought"; she meditates on "what she had lost" (Austen 1972, 1). The novel registers its laborious effort in getting started by continuing to refer to Mrs. Weston as Miss Taylor, as if doing its utmost to keep Emma's substitute mother available to her, as if not wishing to progress but longing to lapse back. But by page one, "Miss Taylor" is merely a liguistic chimera, itself substituting for the real thing. The novel commences with a double maternal loss--the latter so traumatic, effecting "a melancholy change" (Austen 1972, 3), because founded on the former. Emma begins by offering a glimpse of the abyss--sustained throughout the novel by the accumulation of lost, dead, and dying mothers--for which it attempts to provide compensation.

Their bodies pile up (or evaporate) as the novel unfolds. Frank Churchill's mother, the first Mrs. Weston, dies when he is only two of an illness that eventually ceased to linger. Miss Hawkins is an orphan, raised by an uncle. Jane Fairfax is also an orphan, her mother having died (when Jane was three) of consumption and grief over her husband's dying in action, their dazzling marriage now a "melancholy remembrance" (Austen 1972, 108). Harriet's illegitimate parentage is unveiled: she proves to be "the daughter of a tradesman" (Austen 1972, 333), as though no mother's body ever bore her. And, toward the end of the novel, as if to allow for a general expression of resentment and revenge over maternal death (Kristeva writes that her "grief is but the deferment of the hatred or desire for ascendency that [she] nurture[s] with respect to the one who betrayed or abandoned [her]" [Kristeva 1989, 5]), Mrs. Churchill--clearly an evil, manipulating hypochondriacal (substitute) mother--dies a death that mainly inspires relief and quiet rejoicing. (Even the narrator interjects a surprising snide reference against her: "Goldsmith tells us, that when lovely woman stoops to folly, she has nothing to do but to die; and when she stoops to be disagreeable, it is equally to be recommended as a clearer of ill-fame" [Austen 1972, 226].) Still, before Jane and Frank can marry, there "must be three months, at least, of deep mourning" (Austen 1972, 317). Despite its apparently ebullient beginning and the hale body of its primary figure, Emma is bloated with mourning and the incomplete mourning known as melancholia. Kristeva's black sun shines from the day of Miss Taylor's wedding, which brings "a black morning's work for [Emma]" (Austen 1972, 2).

Emma's "work" is of course the active-passive job of matchmaking, which enables her vicariously to pursue an "other" who can liquefy the mother inhabiting her or in other words vicariously to experience Kristeva's "other jouissance." Thus access to symbolic life is gained: this "other" or "vaginal jouissance" depends on "a relation to the Other" that ensures the "outward displacement" of the introjected mother. The "language of the female body," through other jouissance, wins a victory over depression, to which anyone "abandoned, neglected, or misunderstood by the mother" is especially prone (Kristeva 1989, 79). But Emma's matchmaking also conveniently exempts her from participating in desiring bonds that would threaten her primary allegiance: "Depressive persons cannot endure Eros" (Kristeva 1989, 20). Kristeva emphasizes the effort required for a woman to be attracted erotically to the opposite sex: the process of "shifting to the symbolic order at the same time as to a sexual object of a sex other than that of the primary maternal object represents a gigantic elaboration in which a woman cathexes a psychic potential greater than what is demanded of the male sex" (Kristeva 1989, 30). In her role as matchmaker, Emma (an "imaginist") puts her imagination in the service of recruiting others for others in love, and in each case her scheme fails to materialize, so that she is doubly removed from, even as she toys with, actual lovematches. She keeps up a metonymy of desire to fend off the indefatigably metaphorical maternal Thing threatening to engulf her, erecting (like Kristeva's manic person who sheathes depression) "variegated arrays of substitutive erotic objects" (Kristeva 1989, 50). Yet that desire is distant enough to pose no ultimate threat to the mother whose loss she refuses to negate. Emma tells her father of her compulsion to make matches, promising not to make one for herself. In D. A. Miller's words, she is "an equivocal mediatrix. With so little sense of her own desires, she points Harriet's in unproductive, potentially disastrous directions, almost as though by unwittingly frustrating Harriet's love life she meant to mirror the intrinsically blocked nature of her own" (Miller 1981, 9--10).

Emma fails to release herself from the mother's clutches through either of the two dominant methods Kristeva prescribes, being unable to gain liberation from her loss by means of an other or by means of art. Addressing the topic of the "Death-Bearing Woman," Kristeva claims that "the loss of the mother is a biological and psychic necessity .... Matricide is our vital necessity, the sine qua non condition of our individuation, provided that it takes place under optimal circumstances and can be eroticized--whether the lost object is ... transposed by means of an unbelievable symbolic effrot ... which eroticizes the other ... or transforms cultural constructs into a 'sublime' erotic object (one thinks of the cathexes, by men and women, in social bonds, intellectual and aesthetic productions, etc.)" (Kristeva 1989, 27--28). Emma's matchmaking is displaced desire as well as a failure at displacing desire, just as in the role of artist she fails to complete her portraits. Steadiness in her reading, playing music, and singing is also deficient. Yet, testifying to Kristeva's sense of the challenge for women of psychically detaching from the primary maternal object in an effort to attach to a heterosexual partner, Emma seems more than content in her state of ostensible incompletion. She confides in Harriet that were she to marry she would probably regret it, developing a self-protective theory that "old maids" are contemptible chiefly for economic reasons.

The novel itself inherits its morphology from the masochism of Emma's matchmaking, as it is built on the painful pattern of her errors of imagination. The book divides into three phases, all dedicated to Emma's foolish plans that inevitably founder. She pumps up Harriet's expectations about Mr. Elton, missing his about herself, and (after everything is disentangled) experiences pain, humiliation, and self-blame. She resolves subsequently to repress her imagination; yet again it inflates, beginning volume two, this time over Jane and Mr. Dixon. She misses Jane's romance with Frank and believes erroneously that Frank loves her and that she loves him in return. By volume three, however, she imagines Harriet marrying Frank, oblivious to Harriet's blossoming love for Mr. Knightley. Emma (on the story level) invites a real pounding, which culminates (after Box Hill) in her breakdown into tears, self-reproach, and depression: "She had never been so depressed" (Austen 1972, 258). The narrative is equally self-thwarting: after each of Emma's matchmaking fiascos, as well as after her misbehavior on Box Hill, Emma deflates, needing a new narrative push--away from mortification and shame that could easily serve as channels back to the silence of the all-absorbing mother surrounding the text. Barely resisting symbolic abdication--through narrative movement, however delayed--Emma simultaneously preserves death (in particular maternal loss) through flirtation with its own collapse. Just as depressed persons disavow the negation of their loss, falling back on the object of their loss, Austen's text, I am arguing, remains riveted to the "maternal Thing."

Even more threatening to narrative progress than its carefully calibrated delays is the novel's wanderlust. D. A. Miller stresses the resistance of the narratable to containment at the end of Emma on theoretical grounds: the narratable necessarily bursts beyond closural attempts to bind it, since it "inherently lacks finality," whether "in its erotic or semiotic dimension" (Miller, 1981, xi). But I would underscore in Miller's analysis of narrative exorbitancy the interminable quality of desires and discourses in Emma in particular, especially Harriet's and Emma's desires and Miss Bates's and Mrs. Elton's discourses. At certain ostensibly interminable moments in the text, narrative collapse ironically seems imminent: students at these points--where there is, as Miss Bates herself sputters, "Nothing to signify" (Austen 1972, 218)--are often at risk of a boredom that jeopardizes their ability to continue. The novel meanders to the extent of producing the lurking danger of Peter Brooks's narrative short-circuiting. Emma is determinedly reluctant to marry, a significant threat to the marriage plot's necessity of putting in place an ultimate object of desire toward whom the narrative is driven, and through whom it can consummate itself. The novel can simultaneously seem endlessly self-perpetuating (evading an end) and therefore, paradoxically, on the verge of premature breakdown.

But while the narrative--insofar as it repeatedly hesitates to make progress--is the formal correlative of Emma's desire for proximity to the mother, it simultaneously serves--insofar as it manages to fend off caving in--as the sort of therapy Kristeva locates in "aesthetic and particularly literary creation, and also religious discourse in its imaginary, fictional essence." Kristeva has discovered that literary representation "set[s] forth a device whose prosodic economy, interaction of characters, and implicit symbolism constitute a very faithful semiological representation of the subject's battle with symbolic collapse" (Kristeva 1989, 24) and thus can aid the subject in coming closer to catharsis. (She urges psychoanalysts to employ such "sublimatory solutions" as counterdepressants [Kristeva 1989, 25].) Emma refuses to commit matricide even as it refuses to accede to matriarchal cannibalism, and instead tells a tale of resilient mourning, a tale of beauty, "the depressive's other realm." Considering the power of beauty to enthrall us, Kristeva wonders whether "the beautiful object" might not "appear as the absolute and indestructible restorer of the deserting object" (Kristeva 1989, 98--99).

It goes without saying that Emma is an aesthetic creation that puts the highest premium on elegance, as do its central characters: "Jane Fairfax was very elegant, remarkably elegant; and [Emma] had herself the highest value for elegance" (Austen 1972, 111). The renowed elegance of Emma (R. W. Chapman articulates the consensus in praising "the matchless symmetry of its design" [Austen 1972, vii]), like "feminine finery concealing stubborn depressions, ... emerges as the admirable face of loss, transforming it in order to make it live" (Kristeva 1989, 99). As a signifying system, a particularly satisfying one aesthetically, Emma inscribes--and thus holds--the loss it is founded on, preventing total immersion as well as emergence. Not only does Austen's playing out of a marriage phobia (Mr. Woodhouse's obsession), then, serve the interest of the novel's elegant dilatory, symmetrical structure as well as the interest of the melancholy subject seeking to remain true to, without being swallowed up by, the lost object, but these also turn out to be complementary.

The cultivation of elegance and, through elegance, melancholy relies too on a more concealed phobia. Emma seems obsessed (not only through Mr. Woodhouse) with the stamping out of "contamination," which would spoil the design of the text as well as disturb the maintenance of intimacy with the melancholy object. Although one hardly thinks of any section of Austen's "'little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory'" as befouled by crime, the distance between Randalls and Hartfield is described as if such a threat exists. It is said to be an "easy" distance, "so convenient for even solitary female walking" (Austen 1972, 10), ironically as if (since solitude would seem to have little relevance to convenience) a female strolling alone might be at risk. Females accompanied in carriages are, at any rate, in jeopardy. Although toward the end of the Christmas party at Randalls alarm is raised over innocuous snowfall, in retrospect the weather worries seem like displaced anxiety over the "violent love" that Mr. Elton makes to Emma in their carriage (Austen 1972, 88). She feels compelled to "restrain him" (Austen 1972, 88); he accuses her of "encouragement" (Austen 1972, 90). Modern discourse of date rape infects the scene, contributing to the novel's expression of fear of insemination. Sustaining it, Mrs. Elton comments to Mr. Weston that she had adopted her sister Selina's "nicety" of bringing her own sheets to sleep on when she stays at inns, "an excellent precaution" (Austen 1972, 209). Nancy Armstrong, in Desire and Domestic Fiction, misses at least some of the novel's phobias, if not the threats they are based on, in asserting that, unlike Pamela, Austen's novels "bring to culmination a tradition of ladies fiction that concentrated on the finer points of conduct necessary to secure a good marriage ... rather than on the will and cunning it took to preserve one's chastity from impending rape" (Armstrong 1987, 134).

Most dramatically, the well-known gypsy scene focuses this fear. Miss Smith and Miss Bickerton take the "apparently public enough for safety" Richmond road (Austen 1972, 226). A child approaching to beg provokes "a great scream" from Miss Bickerton who, "excessively frightened," flees. Harriet is in turn "assailed by half a dozen children, headed by a stout woman and a great boy"; offers them a shilling' and is surrounded by "the whole gang, demanding more" (Austen 1972, 226--27). Harriet is terrified, which may also seem excessive unless one realizes that at some level she, and the text, are worried about the "great boy" turning her into "a stout woman." This event--which captures the text's anxiety over children and everything pertaining to their production (sex, pregnancy)--is then tied to Mr. Woodhouse's nervousness, by Emma's resolution to keep him ignorant of what occurred. It has a special fascination for Emma ("in her imagination it maintained its ground" [Austen 1972, 229]): as if to gain mastery over the event through repetition, she recites the story repeatedly to her nephews. Emma's compulsion is to master the threat to the bond with her mother rather than, more typically (as in the fort/da game), to master (the loss of) her mother.

By means of these phobias, Emma expresses resistance to Kristeva's "other jouissance." The marriage phobia sabotages the possibility of union with a partner capable of dissolving the incarcerated mother, who himself would preclude the trials and errors of the narrative, and therefore the narrative. The contamination/insemination phobia sabotages the possibility of the outward displacement of the maternal object by, what that partner might have offered--"the major gift [the mother] was never able to offer: a new life" (Kristeva 1989, 78)--which likewise would put a halt to the text's melancholic waywardness. Contentedly imagining herself as a "old maid," Emma tells Harriet that "as for objects of interest, objects for the affections, ... I shall be very well off, with all the children of a sister I love so much, to care about. There will be enough of them ... to supply every sort of sensation that declining life can need. There will be enough for every hope and every fear; and though my attachment to none can equal that of a parent, it suits my ideas of comfort better than what is warmer and blinder" (Austen 1972, 58--59). Emma resists consummation and its contaminants, as does the novel, for the sake not merely of elegance but endurance.

So it might seem likely, given the novel's fear of consummation/contamination, that marriage would be avoided at all costs. yet Mr. Woodhouse condones Emma's marriage to Mr. Knightley on the grounds that it is a prophylactic. The robbery of Mrs. Weston's poultry-house, "of all her turkies--evidently by the ingenuity of man," as well as other poultry-houses in the neighborhood, provokes Mr. Woodhouse to consent, even cheerfully. "Pilfering was house-breaking to Mr. Woodhouse's fears" (Austen 1972, 334); and the metonymy invites us to ask, what is house-breaking? Contrary to general expectation, Mr. Woodhouse in the end does not regard Mr. Knightley as possessing his daughter. (In Margaret Drabble's The Waterfall, Jane has a compatible reaction to their union: "What can it have been like, in bed with Mr. Knightley? Sorrow awaited that woman" [Drabble 1969, 66; my emphasis]). Knightley is not whisking her away geographically either, since this menage a trois will live happily ever after at Hartfield. Emma refuses to leave home; so Knightley--of "true gentility, untainted in blood and understanding" (Austen 1972, 245; my emphasis)--devises the unconventional plan of moving in. Obviously, marriage to Mr. Knightley ends the plot; but the nuptial arrangement is presented in ways that indicate preservation of the central ailment, precluding the therapeutic closure that Miller takes for granted.

That Mr. Knightley, Emma's senior by sixteen years, of an age that would allow him to be her parent and fond of using epithets ("a spoiled child," "little Emma" [Austen 1972, 67]) that italicize his attraction to the idea of being her parent, will live at Hartfield in a protective role (with Emma and her father, and thus in a position to complete the family triangle) is suggestive but insufficient proof that he becomes Emma's new, and presumably last, mother surrogate. The nature of his appeal must be taken into account. The prospect of marrying Mr. Knightley does not fully occur to Emma until Harriet seems on the verge of securing him; only then does Emma become "acquainted with her own heart." Her epiphany is put in terms of a masochistic metaphor: "It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!" (Austen 1972, 380). Just as the loss of Miss Taylor revives Emma's sadness over the loss of her mother, the potential loss of Mr. Knightley seems instantaneously to trigger panic that is a function of Emma's history of loss. As if speaking for Emma at this juncture, Kristeva laments, "My depression points to my not knowing how to lose--I have perhaps been unable to find a valid compensation for the loss? It follows that any loss entails the loss of my being--and of Being itself" (Kristeva 1989, 5). Not only would it be devastating for Emma to incur another loss by not bonding with Mr. Knightley, but such a bond has a great deal to recommend it as a mode of fending off loss in the abstract. Because of his critical resemblance to Emma's mother--in whose death Emma "lost the only person [until Knightley] able to cope with her" (Austen 1972, 23)--marrying Mr. Knightley turns out not to be a threat to Emma's melancholic state (wedding her to her mother), but rather a guarantee of it. Preparing to inform her father of Mr. Knightley's proposal, Emma advises herself that she must not use "a melancholy tone" (Austen 1972, 321)--which one would not expect even to be a temptation.

On Mrs. Woodhouse (an uncanny name that fails to surface in the text) and Mr. Knightley, Armstrong and I tend to agree (although she takes the point in an entirely different direction): "Emma's problem, as the narrator notes in the second statement of the novel, originates in her absent mother. ... it is the self-regulatory function missing along with the mother that is significant [Emma's mother, we must keep in mind, herself played a fatherly role in Emma's young life!, and it is this which Emma acquires in learning that she loves Mr. Knightley" (Armstrong 1987, 154). A disciplinarian from the outset--"Mr. Knightley, in fact, was one of the few people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever told her of them" (Austen 1972, 5)--Knightley walks into the vacuum of Emma's double maternal loss and immediately criticizes her. He challenges Emma's sense of success in matching up the Westons, while accusing her of "interference" (Austen 1972, 7); he labels Emma's intimacy with Harriet "a bad thing" (Austen 1972, 22); he denigrates Emma before Mrs. Weston, asserting that she "will never submit to any thing requiring industry and patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding" (Austen 1972, 23). He comprehends all too well, since it accords him an advantage over other suitors, that Emma "must have been under subjection" to her mother (Austen 1972, 23). When Knightley's insights are coupled with his conception of marriage (he jokes with Mrs. Weston that her work as Emma's governess was excellent training for marriage, since it required submitting to another's will and "doing as [Mrs. Weston was] bid" [Austen 1972, 24]), not to mention his unyielding attempts at correction of Emma's behavior, it seems as if he envisions himself as a substitute for Mrs. Woodhouse, his objective being to put Emma, and her fancy, under subjection to him, and his famous understanding.

A feisty Emma in fact capitulates eventually to Knightley's seductive discipline and punishment. After a strenuous argument with him (over Mr. Martin's proposal to Harriet), in which Emma shrewdly exposes male objectification of women (and he blasts her with "Nonsense, errant nonsense, as ever was talked"), Emma does not regret her influence over Harriet, finding herself "a better judge of such a point of female right and refinement than he could be." Yet, terribly split, she cannot overcome her "habitual respect for his judgment in general" (Austen 1972, 43). At the Crown ball, Emma yields to a dance with Knightley only after admitting to her error regarding Mr. Elton; Knightley agrees not to "scold" her. (Their banter over not being "so much brother and sister as to make [dancing] improper" [Austen 1972, 225] intimates the incestuous nature of their mutual attraction.) Mr. Knightley melts Emma further through his condemnation of her obnoxious behavior on Box Hill: afterwards she wants to run into him to display her "penitence, so justly and truly hers" (Austen 1972, 259).

Emma's disciplinary schooling culminates in the threat of the loss of Mr. Knightley. The idea of Knightley's "confidence towards Harriet" gives Emma "severe pain" (Austen 1972, 282): "Till now that she was threatened with its loss, Emma had never known how much of her happiness depended on being first with Mr. Knightley[;] ... only in the dread of being supplanted" does she discover "how inexpressibly important it had been" (Austen 1972, 285). Emma of course has no interest in relieving herself of the pain of losing Knightley, for her desire is not to more on. And pain draws her. Yet, desperately craving her disciplinarian, she does not seek the pain of loss either but rather the pain of retention. Given what Mr. Knightley (who at the Crown ball looks "grave," and later leaving for London looks, "graver than usual") represents, given his disciplinarian bent, marrying him (it is easy for Emma to apprehend) is a way of preserving desirable pain. Emma had taken for granted his loving and watching "over her from a girl, with an endeavour to improve her, and an anxiety for her doing right" (Austen 1972, 285); she had even thought that such solicitude earned him a claim on her. Now she will secure this "care." The novel ends as a result of union with a mother surrogate who is (this time) extremely powerful. Hence the narrative that has been keeping such a surrender in abeyance can now relax, or in other words implode, self-destruct. This introjection of the mother in Emma ("M" "A") prohibits narrative progress. There is finally a triple melancholic/masochistic "gain": the negation of the losses of Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Woodhouse as well as of the abyss all signs are based on is unequivocally disavowed. All three, that is, are embraced.

It might be tempting to ignore Knightley's linkage with Emma's mother and to conceive of him (despite the paternal redundancy this would produce, although Mr. Woodhouse might be shifted to the mother's place) as Emma's access to the symbolic arena (the "third party--father, form, schema" that Kristeva points to as "what makes...triumph over sadness possible" [Kristeva 1989, 23]), the narrative correlative of which would be the victorious close of the novel--all threads tied, everyone neatly and happily coupled, all traces of the mother wiped out, her loss negated, the implosion I described elided. A major stumbling block, however, is that Emma's signifying ability is in steady decline. The diagnosis comes from Kristeva: "The denial (Verleugnung) of negation would thus be the exercise of an impossible mourning, the setting up of ... an artificial, unbelievable language, cut out of the painful background that is not accessible to any signifier" (Kristeva 1989, 44). In the last chapters, we find Emma parroting Mr. Knightley's views (especially on Harriet) and failing to speak, as if in rehearsal for what promises to be a silencing marriage celebrated at the very end. The Emma we knew, sparkling with wit, is reduced to insipid remarks of gratitude to Knightley: "But I had the assistance of all your endeavours to counteract the indulgence of other people. I doubt whether my own sense would have corrected me without it" (Austen 1972, 318). Kristeva writes that "Our gift of speech, of situating ourselves in time for an other, could exist nowhere except beyond an abyss. Speaking beings, from their ability to endure in time up to their enthusiastic, learned, or simply amusing constructions, demand a break, a renunciation, an unease at their foundations" (Kristeva 1989, 42). Renouncing nothing (except her self--"the maternal object having been introjected, the depressive or melancholic putting to death of the self is what follows, instead of matricide" [Kristeva 1989, 28]), no longer split, as she is during the exfoliation of the story, and sounding like a precursor of Pauline Reage's O, Emma makes selfhood into a form of echolalia: "I can hardly imagine that any thing which pleases or amuses you," she says to Knightley, "should not please and amuse me too" (Austen 1972, 324). On the verge of marriage, Emma fits Kristeva's description of melancholy persons for whom "meaning ... seems secondary, frozen, somewhat removed from the head and body of the person who is speaking...'one' speaks without believing in it" (Kristeva 1989, 43).

Rather than sanctioning social prescriptions by rendering them romantically appealing, as Miller argues in his essay, Austen introduces "malfunction" (Miller's term) in the marriage plot, "withdraws affect," well before Sandition (Miller 1990, 10:78). "[I]nstead of bonding the affect caused by loss," writes Kristeva, "the depressed sign disowns the affect as well as the signifier, thus admitting that the depressed subject has remained prisoner of the nonlost object (the Thing)" (Kristeva 1989, 47). The text too enacts this dispossession of affect as well as signifier in two distinct wasys, whose conjunction is itself bizarre. Like Emma, Emma begins to sound pious, preachy, hollow: "What had she to wish for? Nothing, but to grow more worthy of him, whose intentions and judgment had been ever so superior to her own. Nothing, but that the lessons of her past folly might teach her humility and circumspection in future" (Austen 1972, 328). We are informed flatly, didactically, that Emma has been tamed: "She could now look forward to giving him that full and perfect confidence which her disposition was most ready to welcome as a duty" (Austen 1972, 328). The other discordant note on which the book closes is Mrs. Elton's irritating flummery. Her fatuous comments on the wedding ("Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business]--Selina would stare when she heard of it" [Austen 1972, 335]) support Kristeva's assertion that melancholia (and here I am again referring to a melancholia of the text), rather than relinquishing signs, generates signs that are "absurd" (Kristeva 1989, 47). What earlier threatened to bring the narrative to a standstill (Mrs. Elton's babble) shares the space of the last paragraph with the cliched (dead) happily-ever-after conclusion, a strangely vapid (and incongruously mixed) plenitude.

Like Peter Brooks in "Freud's Masterplot," I have been examining the motions of "plot and its motor force in human desire, its particular relation to beginnings and ends, its apparent claim to rescue meaning," although not from "temporal flux," as he proposes, but from an abyss/the Thing. I have relied on Kristeva (who in turn relies on Freud) for her "inquiry into the dynamics of the psychic life" (Brooks 1985, 90), and (following "Freud's Masterplot") I have tried to extend that inquiry into the dynamics of a text. Brooks describes textual energy as being bound in "usable 'bundles,'" which delay or postpone "the discharge of energy," and which therefore are "painful." He writes that "The most effective or, at the least, the most challenging texts may be those that are most delayed, most highly bound, most painful" (Brooks 1985, 101--102). So there is a degree of masochism intrinsic to Brooks's own model, which should not surprise us given the model's roots in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. This severely delayed, painful text seems akin to the sort of melancholic/masochistic narrative I have been tracing in Emma. But the pain of lengthy delay is eventually purged in Brooks's main paradigm; I am arguing that melancholy/masochism neither waxes nor wanes in Emma but is Emma. So I call attention to a secondary possibility in Brooks, an incestuous narrative that yields to the temptation of oversameness, that barely "circuits" at all, and that cuts off a therapeutic prolongation of narrative that would eventuate in purgation. What Brooks calls incest is the source of what Kristeva calls melancholy: the mother is not the origin of the melancholic daughter's life story; she is her life story.

Not only via moments of seeming interminability (the course of Miller's Austen's wandering desire) but via the more structured (Brooksian) binding of textual energy through the prospect of one inappropriate match after another, Emma delays self-punitively the ideal end of a lovematch of Emma's own that would offer her autonomy from maternal bonds, access to language, and some sort of agency. Not only the novel's dilatoriness (in both senses above), which threatens to sink the narrative, but finally also an incestuous "mistaken erotic object choice," a too perfect annihilatory husband (Brooks speaks of the "too perfect and hence annihilatory bride," for example, "of the 'Belle Dame sans merci' variety" [Brooks 1985, 109]) blocks Emma's and the narrative's curative process. What the narrative had been straining to do--dance on the border between fusion and separation--fails. Despite the appearance of stability, the ending also fails to offer (at least Emma, or women; it is a different story for Mr. Knightley) "a solid implication in the symbolic and imaginary code" (Kristeva 1989, 36), a "proper" close. Instead, there is "a downfall...into the invisible and unnameable" (Kristeva 1989, 15), a "sinking into the blankness of asymbolia" (Kristeva 1989, 33), as the heroine is sucked back into the masochistic jouissance of surrogate maternal subjection. A text that seemed to have devoured the mother is finally devoured by her--although, since the melancholiac wishes to remain in maternal bondage, such massive collapse is an ambivalent "end."

The current version of the standard reading of Emma regards Mr. Knightley as the "proper" erotic object choice that supplies the "proper" ending: Knightley, officer of the law, brings promiscuous desire into line. Even Armstrong, who purports to locate feminist politics in Emma, sees Emma's desire for Knightley manifested (needless to say, peculiarly) in Emma's (Foucauldian) transformation into "her own she subjects herself to Mr. Knightley's standards of conduct" (Armstrong 1987, 153). But it is dangerous to promote the idea of Mr. Knightley as a "proper" erotic object choice, given the sadomasochistic terms of his relationship with Emma. In spite of his irony, Miller's stress on Austen's triumphant "official values"--"settlement, moral insight, and judgment" (Miller 1981, xiv), "knowledge," "serious revelations" (44), "meaning and truth" (46)--allows the sadistic nature of the ending, as well as the conventionally gendered sadomasochistic dynamic constituting both the novel's story and narrative structure, to slip by. As Sedgwick again sensationally observes, most Austen critics (reflecting the s/m dynamic in the text, no doubt unbeknownst to them) brandish the birch rod of "leering school-prospectuses or Victorian sadomasochistic pornography" (Sedgwick 1991, 17:833). Something more horrific than the imposition of humanist values brings Emma to a close. The choice Miller offers the reader between univocality and plurivocality, between stability and instability is simple enough: and surely not every interpretive community will find it obvious that settlement, moral insight, and knowledge are regrettable eventualities. But the end of Emma is not the termination of a freefloating, genderless desire; it is the subjection--the containment through an insidious disciplinary process--of a woman, whose desire remains inchoate.

Miller glosses over the subjucating nature of the values that close Emma, as he assigns them names that in other times and places would carry considerable prestige. Although a sadomasochistic tension can be inferred from his account of narrative plurivocality being forced into univocal narrative submission, Miller accepts that tension, insufficiently bringing out the police work that is operating or its underlying misogyny. (The "promise of health" in Austen that bedridden D.A. Miller relies on in order to recover depends upon his sense of her novels' redemption of the social necessity of marriage.) I am trying to pathologize it. Knightley's discipline, punishment, and final control of Emma are as sadistic as Emma's and the text's "wandering desire" is melancholic/masochistic; insofar as that desire is regressive, seeking absorption in a prelinguistic maternal realm. Miller overlooks whose desire--a woman's--is wandering and whither it wanders--back to her mother. Emma does not make a suitable erotic object choice but enters an "incestuous" union facilitated by: her compliance with Mr. Knightley's values and wishes; his turning her to property ("She was his own Emma, by hand and word" [Austen 1972, 298!); and the cultural construction of ladyhood (to Knightley's proposal, she says "Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does" [Austen 1972, 297]).

Knightley's final capture of Emma brings us to the moral of the tale. The way the novel goes awry, or eventually implodes, signals a significant risk for women: Austen's novel of manners reveals itself as a recipe for woman abuse. Kristeva recommends that a melancholic woman locate a partner who can lead her to cathect "her autoeroticism in a jouissance of the other (separate, symbolic, phallic)" (Kristeva 1989, 78). While she underscores "the tremendous psychic, intellectual, and affective effort a woman must make in order to find the other sex as erotic object" (Kristeva 1989, 30), she defends this therapeutic attachment. (Ostensibly Emma joins with such a partner.) Kristeva believes that "verbal or desiring bonds with others" are necessary to keep the melancholy woman from being "abandoned within herself," [m]odest, silent," from wasting "away by striking moral and physic [sic] blows against herself, not give her sufficient pleasures. Until the fatal blow--the definitive nuptials of the Dead Woman with the Same, whom she did not kill" (Kristeva 1989, 30). Yet it is by virtue of following Kristeva's therapeutic program that Emma manages to receive "the fatal blow": she is ensnared by disciplinary bonds with an other so that her nuptials end up being in effect with the Dead Woman "whom she did not kill."

Knightley's double empowerment is finally achieved by the ease with which, for Emma, he fills her mother's shoes. What Austen, in Emma, contributes proleptically to Kristeva's analysis is the caveat that a woman abandoned by her mother, especially if that mother neglected or subjected her (making her subjectivity a function of her attachment to the mother), may be vulnerable to cathecting her libido onto an abusive erotic object choice: having encrypted her mother, the daughter thus plays out the usual matricide against herself. (A surprising number of works by contemporary women writers--for instance, Anita Brookner, Marguerite Duras, Clarice Lispector, Margaret Drabble, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, even Tina Turner--extend Austen's sense of this grave liability, within patriarchy, of being addicted to the easily coopted maternal Thing.) It turns out that a chief danger and source of seductiveness of a patriarchy is that it is founded on the matriarchy with which all life begins. The allure of the power of a man is apt to be that of the power of a mother in disguise: attraction to the lost, subjugating mother becomes an attraction to the distant, punishing husband.


Armstrong, Nancy. 1987. Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel. New York: Oxford UP.

Austen, Jane. 1972. Emma. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Brooks, Peter. 1985. "Freud's Masterplot: A Model for Narrative." Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. New York: Random House.

Drabble, Margaret. 1969. The Waterfall. New York: Penguin.

Kristeva, Julia. 1989. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP.

Miller, D. A. 1990. "The Late Jane Austen." Raritan, 10.1 (Summer), 55--79.

_____. 1981. Narrative and Its Discontents. Princeton: Princeton UP.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1991. "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl." Critical Inquiry, 17.4 (Summer), 818--37.

Special thanks to Rosemarie Bodenheimer, John Limon, Rael Meyerowitz, and Jean Wyatt.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Johns Hopkins University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Restuccia, Frances L.
Publication:American Imago
Date:Dec 22, 1994
Previous Article:"Looking for that dead girl:" incest, pornography and the capitalist family; romance in 'Nightwood,' 'The Years,' and 'Tar Baby.'
Next Article:Female castration anxiety.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters