Jane Austen’s Emma: The Reconstrual of Imagination and Romance

In Eva Dadlez (ed.), Jane Austen's Emma: Philosophical Perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. Ch. 6 (2018)

Peter Knox-Shaw
University of Cape Town
Emma has often convincingly been assigned to the “quixotic” novel, a genre much favored by the long eighteenth century and admired on occasion by Jane Austen herself. But whereas novels of this type invariably end with a joint renunciation of imagination and romance in deference to a greater realism, Emma shows imagination to be integral to an apprehension of the real world, and to require, for its fidelity, a principle long enshrined by romance. Austen’s understanding of imagination as both necessary and all-pervasive—held in common with a number of contemporary philosophers who built on David Hume’s analysis of the “productive” and “magical” faculty that underlay all perception—in no way lessened her sense of its ambivalence, and Emma shows how its work of construction is constantly undermined by received stereotypes as well as by insidious subterfuges of the self. The novel celebrates an empirical habit of mind, fortified by the virtue of benevolence. Keywords: imagination, romance, realism, empiricism, Hume, Austen, Emma, benevolence
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