Sunday, 15 November 2009

Meaning of a Jane Austen Quotation

"Silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way." Emma

I was looking at this quotation yesterday, wondering what it means, and thought I'd put in up for people to share their thoughts about it. I rather think of it as a tongue twister but for the brain -- a brain twister. You have to slow down and think about it for your mind to be able to follow its twists and turns.

So what do you think it means? Is Jane Austen supporting impudence, and saying that if you're impudent you can carry off anything, and she admires impudent people for it? Or is it the opposite? That silly things are still silly, even if it's sensible people do them? Or is she condemning the fact that sensible people can get away with silly things because of people's perceptions that they are sensible? Or is she laughing at us and talking about herself?

Let me know what you think Jane Austen is saying here.

7 comments:

  1. I think this is Jane Austen's way of showing us just how much of a "ditz" Emma is. Emma believes that a sensible person can say anything silly without appearing to be silly, as long as it is said with an impudent style. This attitude allows her to disparage Miss Bates in so public a way. As Emma is soon after brought down a peg or two by the truly sensible Mr. Knihtley, we see that Austen does not agree with Emma's statement.

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  2. I can't agree that Emma is a ditz but I will admit that this quote is 100% Emma Woodhouse: no one else would ever say such a thing. This is her philosophy at its best, striving to rationalize Frank Chruchill's actions, though she knows that there is something not quite right about his London haircut. Emma is insistent that everyone be viewed in the manner in which she has already cast them (this is why she so mistakes the people around her). She doesn't easily alter her opinions of others, instead interpreting their behavior so that it fits her preconceptions of them, regardless of whether she is correct or not. This requires quite a great deal of mental gymnastics, as demonstrated in this quote. I don't think Austen is advocating impudence, silliness, or the sensible; she is just giving us insight into the workings of her heroine's mind.

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  3. On consideration, ditz was a poor choice, but Emma for all of her advantages certainly does not come across as a deep thinker. She sees things the way she wants them to be and it takes a lot of mistakes for her to finally learn how wrong her way of thinking has been. I don't think that Emma is mean-spirited, just immature and a bit pampered, perhaps.

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  4. Wow - Jeannette and Alexa have already said everything that I wanted to say. I listened to the audiobook version of Emma a few months ago. It was fun listening to the dialogue being spoken rather than reading it. I also thought that Emma was trying to rationalize Frank Churchill's behavior with this quote.

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  5. Echoing what was said in earlier comments, this isn't Jane Austen saying anything, it's Emma rationalizing to Mr. Knightley why she should excuse Frank Churchill for doing a silly thing. There's certainly a defensive tone to it, and it's so silly a thing to say that I have to believe Emma knew she was being ridiculous but firmly kept her blinders on and forged ahead. I imagine Mr. Knightley to be smirking all the while :)

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  6. Thanks for the feedback. I love the way you all contextualize the quote so clearly. And I especially like the idea of Mr Knightly smirking ;)

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  7. I am reading Emma currently and this quote truly is a brain twister. I had this as my status message in WhatsApp and my friends were stumped and curious to know it's meaning, though it looked obvious to me at first glance. But on second thoughts I was not so assured in my comprehension and while googling I stumbled across your blog. Really useful insights have I found here;thanks for that. But in my opinion, even though Emma is trying to defend Frank with this supposedly absurd statement, there is also a ring of truth in the midst of this absurdity. Impudence, though generally considered as a negative trait in many, is considered as an endearing trait in some. And Frank does seem to be one of the best suited characters to carry off silly things in an endearingly impudent manner.

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