How ‘Clueless’ Illuminates the Timeless Genius of Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’

Clueless turns 20 on July 19, and Flavorwire is celebrating all week with a series of tributes to Amy Heckerling’s era-defining teen film. Click here to follow our coverage.

A year after Clueless hit screens, which was also about a year after I started seventh grade, I embarked on my first read of Jane Austen’s Emma. Middle school had revealed me to be more hopeless, sartorially speaking, than Tai, and more naive than Cher Horowitz herself — although I’d never have admitted either of these things. Thus, my primary refuge became classic novels, which temporarily distracted me from thornier topics like cliques, loafers, and lip gloss. A few dozen pages into Emma, I was learning about a character called Mr. Elton, and a portrait session arranged on his behalf by Emma Woodhouse, and one of those bells went off in my hormone-addled head. “Elton? A picture? Hey, this reminds me of Clueless!”

As it turned out, this favorite film was also a Jane Austen adaptation, and it’s still one of the best examples of the form. One of the reasons why so many adaptations of Emma haven’t lived up to the source material is that when Emma is played either as too much of a bossy know-it-all (Kate Beckinsale) or too much of a spoiled ditz (Gwyneth Paltrow) the balance of Austen’s perfect narrative is thrown off. Cher Horowitz  illuminates Emma Woodhouse because they both exist in that precarious realm where lovable threatens to tip over into loathsome, but doesn’t. In the process of narrowly avoiding awfulness, both of these  princesses give us insight into ourselves, even if we don’t resemble them at all.

Besides exciting me with its Clueless connection,  Emma didn’t make as large an impression on my young reader’s eyes as Austen’s other big novels, with their more sweeping narratives and love stories. It was only when I reread Emma for the third time as a full-grown adult that I understood just how perfect Amy Heckerling’s understanding of the heart of Austen’s novel is. With distance from Emma’s life stage, I finally saw the deep humor and pathos in the character, who was stuck caring for an invalid father, and whose meddling in part arose from her being too clever for her limited life. To use the parlance of Clueless, the big reveal of the novel is that Emma Woodhouse is the1800s version of a teenage virgin who can’t drive. In fact, that pivotal Clueless line, delivered so witheringly by Tai, unlocks the mystery of Emma, too — re-inscribing inexperience and innocence on Emma Woodhouse, as bossy and sophisticated as the character seems.

emmaEmma may be  older than Cher — 21 to be precise —  but she is an adolescent  in most senses, a young woman who has never left her father’s side or her small neighborhood. She has free rein at home but is also confined by her caretaker role, which she performs — as Cher does with her lawyer dad — lovingly and without complaining. Yet Emma’s protected provincialism ensures she doesn’t fully understand the larger world, and her own role in it, particularly the potential of her power — over men, over women, over her neighbors. Just as Clueless‘ Tai actually has more real-world chops than her self-appointed life coach, Cher Horowitz, most everyone in Austen’s Highbury has seen more of existence than Emma has — but they defer to her because of this “handsome, clever and rich” woman’s social rank, charm, and beauty. The ensuing disconnect between Emma’s perception and the reality of her surroundings forms the crux of Austen’s novel. Just as Cher convinces herself that Elton loves Tai and Christian loves her, everything that Emma imagines is occurring in her small village turns out to be wrong, and she manipulates people and events with disastrous results.

But here is why we somewhat sympathize with Emma anyway. Sure, she’s the only person in the novel who actually decides to make over another character in her own image — but she’s not alone in being constrained by ego. In fact, others around her, even the wiser characters, tend to see things as they want to. Emma’s ultimate love interest, George Knightley (who morphs into Clueless‘ perfect Josh), gets maddest at Emma’s careless behavior when she’s flirting with Frank Churchill (the novel’s precursor to Clueless‘ Christian), because he unconsciously wants Emma for himself. Frank Churchill assures himself that flirting with Emma despite his being unavailable won’t hurt her, because he doesn’t want to deny himself the pleasure of her wit. And of course the odious Mr. Elton dares to imagine that Emma is interested in him even though she’s actually pushing her young friend, Harriet Smith, into his path. Mr. Woodhouse assumes everyone is as neurotic about health issues as he is, and Mrs. Elton, Austen’s great comic creation, wills herself into social prominence with the subtlety of a battering ram.

Characters bend reality to satisfy their own psyches throughout the novel, which is why it’s so profound — there’s nothing more human than this tendency. Indeed, there are always two narratives happening in our lives; there’s what we see, think, and interpret, and then what’s actually taking place beyond the reach of our perception, in those far-off realms known as other people’s lives. Emma, more than any other novel I’ve read, demonstrates the perils of this divide with perfect, and humorous, clarity. I think that’s why some readers find it the most uncomfortable of Austen’s novels.

Emma eventually shows genuine remorse, and just as Cher does, manifests a desire to see life more clearly and be more generous. In fact, as we now know from many a bruising Internet battle, being forced to confront one’s own ignorance and privilege can make people say really ugly things — yet Cher and Emma, who have indeed done ugly things in the past, both react by willingly accepting their respective humblings. This is one saving grace in the characters’ conception; the other being how much of our own foolishness they inhabit, even if we don’t share their immense privilege.

Clueless helps point the way to Emma’s meaning.  Emma isn’t merely a novel about being pampered and sheltered, but a novel about the view through the solipsistic lens of youth. And then again,  it’s not merely a novel about the perceptive limits of being young, but a novel about a condition that endures throughout life — that of being trapped in our own consciousness, hindered by the powerful screens of our egos from clear vision. Even when we grow up and recognize our flaws and shortcomings, from time to time we’re all still going to slip into behaving like Emma Woodhouse — which is to say, we will always be a little bit clueless.