Close Reading Emma
“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” (The first sentence of Jane Austen’s Emma.)
What does come along to distress and vex Emma, Jane Austen’s famously headstrong heroine, is a severe young man of honor and discretion. Their clashes and misunderstandings also instruct her in the sometimes oblique ways of the social world she (as well as we) inhabit. This master class will consider how Austen’s brilliant and delightful novel illuminates the ways that political and social upheaval are rewritten as matters of taste and manners. We will consider how big-ticket anxieties about class and war are rewritten as anxieties about who does and doesn’t get invited to a party. We will consider how the gravest fears and hopes of a society in transition are translated into the seemingly slight intrigues of ballrooms, marriage proposals, and the size of one’s coach.
Jeff Nunokawa has been a professor of English at Princeton University for nearly thirty years. He’s written and taught widely, on topics ranging from Victorian literature to the history of the essay to the intellectual uses of social media. At present he’s at work on a book that may be called something like Mid-Century Middle Class, about being brought up middle class, middlebrow, mid-century by old-school New Deal, mixed-race, mixed-feelings-about-the-melting-pot parents. He is also writing a book about first sentences in literature, from Homer to the present. Nunokawa began his career teaching middle and high school, and he has been honored and happy to be in contact with middle and high school teachers at the Bread Loaf School of English, where he has taught since 1999.