This essay reads several “hidden” scenes in Jane Austen's Emma. Willfully drawing attention to stray details—an impulsive trip to London to get his hair cut, the mysterious gift of a piano, and a broken pair of spectacles—Frank Churchill uses these incidents to turn the narrator's attention, and the town's gossip, away from his secret engagement to the impoverished Jane Fairfax. In these oft-ignored and easily forgotten scenes, Frank performs an astonishing ontological trespass: flaunting his plot only to better conceal it, the literary character seems nearly possessed by a shadow of omniscience itself, wielding a sort of all-pervasive knowledge of the plot that is usually reserved for the narrator's exclusive access. Although critics have interpreted free indirect discourse as an authorial elision of individual consciousness, a ventriloquizing of characters' thoughts that dispossesses the subjects of such discourses, this essay suggests that Frank Churchill's fluency in the language of plotting captures the double bind of power and dispossession nestled within social performance. Plotting, I argue, emerges as a form of social know-how, both encouraged and curbed by the aesthetic requirements of novelistic emplotment writ large. In this light, literary characters who engage in plotting stand at a site of conversion, where an aspect of fiction seen as narrowly aesthetic becomes a technique for representing structures of social self-consciousness cultivated under conditions of precarity.

You do not currently have access to this content.