Monday, July 20, 2009

Emma and Donna

I've been thinking about similarities between Jane Austen's Emma Woodhouse and Marcia Martin's Donna Parker. One first glance, the two characters don't seem to have much in common-except perhaps looks. Both are dark-haired and pretty.

Donna Parker is a 1950s teenager in Summerfield, N.J., oldest child in a family that includes her mother, father, herself and her younger brother Jimmy. Emma Woodhouse is a 21 year old from early 19th century England. Her mother died when she was very young, and she been raised by her doting hypochondriac father and equally doting governess, Miss Taylor. She has an older sister, who is married and lives in London. Emma is the first lady of her small village of Highbury.

The primary characteristic that jumps to mind about Emma is her snobbery. And indeed she is snobbish, but more profoundly, she misjudges people. The novel turns on the grand hinge that Emma always gets everything wrong. Her perceptions are comically--and potentially tragically--skewed. Yet hers are the main eyes through which we see the action of the novel. The other eyes are a sort of chorus that slides in and out Emma's consciousness and tends to reinforces her misjudgments--the almost equally blinkered set of commonplace attitudes, gossip, lies and half-baked opinions that Austen wickedly places out there as authority by blurring it with her own authorial voice. Beyond Emma and the chorus comes the input of people with agendas: Mrs. Weston, Mr. Knightley, Harriet Smith, Frank Churchill, the Bates, Jane Fairfax. Seldom, if ever, is the reader on safe ground, if by safe we mean "these are the facts, ma'am."

In "Donna Parker Takes a Giant Step," Donna, like Emma, displays a marked tendency to judge and misjudge people. In this book, the last in the Donna Parker series. Donna heads off to high school, which we are initially led to believe is her "giant step". In high school, which starts in the tenth grade, she's flattered to be befriended by senior Janie Ingersoll. Janie is pretty and wealthy and dates the high school football star Rudy Hinckle. Donna, taken in by Janie's status, believes the older girl's story that her parents don't really care about her and oppose her relationship with Rudy only because he's poor. As it happens, we learn that Janie is somewhat spoiled and unpredictable, and that Rudy is objectionable not because he's poor, but because he's irredeemably lazy, spoiled and irresponsible.

At the end of the book, Donna has what we might term a series of epiphanies. She starts coming to terms with ambiguity or shades of gray. On the subject of responsibility—this book’s theme—Donna learns that people, including herself, can be a mix of responsible and irresponsible, and that she can make mistakes in judgment"

“’If you’re too involved in something, I guess you just don’t see the obvious things,’ Donna thought to herself." (276)
Donna "giant step," thus, is actually the discovery of her own limitations: “I guess it’s very hard to know all about anyone, even yourself.” (278) She adds, “it’s hard to get to know what people are really like.” (278) She asks her boyfriend Paul: “Do you think we see only what we want to see?” (278)

Emma does not ask herself such broadly philosophical questions, although, she more than Donna, arguably ought to, but she does reflect on her own misperceptions as the book ends, and resolves, to become "more rational, more acquainted with herself." This being Emma, we can only hope-- this 21 year old doesn't reflect on, as almost-15 year-old Donna does, "that we only see what we want to see"--for some growth of self-awareness. Personally, however, I have little hope that Emma will become more self aware.

What most interests me, however, is the way a book like "Donna Parker Takes a Giant Step" prepares us for reading a much more complex and nuanced novel like Emma. By being taken in, at a young age, by a flawed and limited point of view, we're unconsciously prepared as readers to encounter unreliable narrators in adult books. What do you think?


  1. Hi Di,

    What an interesting post. Have you thought about these books in terms of purpose, or rather the authors' relationship to her audience? Both books are about self-discovery in a way. Donna Parker is more explicitly about educating young girls about growing up. Austen, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated. One of the things that makes Emma so difficult is that she is such a knucklehead -- not nearly as much someone we would want to be like as Donna Parker! So I guess what I would look at here is the relationship between unreliable narrators and literature that seeks to instruct. What exactly is being taught in Emma?

  2. Roger,

    I think its interesting that what' being taught in Emma is to fundamentally distrust the surface level of a novel--and in A Giant Step, you start learning a similar reading strategy--to question Donna's point of view as she's sucked into Janie's version of events!

  3. Of course, Emma is my favorite Austen novel (and I've just reread all of them) so I may be a bit prejudiced, but I believe Emma does learn and grow. Does she reflect on this growth in the novel? No, but that is because the realization of what she has been doing wrong comes to her in a flash when she thinks Knightly is going to marry Harriet! Then everything falls into place for her. I will take a sudden epiphany over adolescent philosophizing any time!