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This is a paper written by an undergraduate English student.

Character Transformation in
Emma and Clueless

							Jordie Margison
							English 209E
							Prof. Orange
							Dec. 3, 1996

The film Clueless, written and directed by Amy Heckerling, is an adaptation of Jane Austen's novel Emma and closely parallels the story in terms of characterization and action. Both of the main characters, Cher and Emma, are spoiled, high class snobs who, after undergoing a crisis brought on by their own pride and repression of their feelings, are transformed from callowness to mental and emotional maturity. However, the film also diverges from the original story in that it eliminates a key character and events that have an effect on Emma Woodhouse's psychological growth.

From the very beginning of both the novel and the movie, we can see the similarities between the two main characters. Emma Woodhouse is part of the rich, upscale society of a "large and populous village" in nineteenth century England, while Cher Horowitz lives in rich, upscale Beverly Hills, U.S.A. In Highbury, the Woodhouses are "first in consequence there. All looked up to them." (7) Cher and her father are also among the cultural elite; he is a litigation lawyer, a prestigious and lucrative occupation in one of the most affluent cities in the world. Cher is also one of the most popular girls at her school. The description of Emma that Austen gives is also a description of Cher. She is "handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition." (5) However, we shall see that Emma and Cher are not as perfect as they may seem.

Because of their wealth, both Emma and Cher are spoiled, in control socially, and tend to think too highly of themselves. This is a result of the lack of a maternal figure in their lives, as well as their fathers' over-indulgence. Cher has everything a teenage girl could want: money, her own Jeep, a huge wardrobe, et cetera. Like a lot of girls, she spends a large amount of time and money at the mall; however, she spends hundreds and thousands of dollars on her clothes, not the kind of money a typical teenager would spend. Because her father is so busy with his court cases, he has little time to spend with her to give her guidance and discipline. An example of Cher's snobbishness can be seen in the scene where she and Dionne are explaining to Tai how to become more popular. Cher states that she has already started to elevate her social status "due to fact that you hang with Dionne and I." Cher may be taking pity on Tai, but she does so with an air of arrogance because she knows she is from a higher social class.

A similar state of affairs exists in Emma. Emma's mother had also died when she was very young, and her father and governess were too lenient and indulgent during her upbringing. Jane Austen states: "The real evils indeed of Emma's situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself." (5) An example of her haughtiness is shown in her bragging that she is exceptionally adept at matching couples.

This snobbery leads Cher and Emma to, in their eyes, take pity on Tai and Harriet Smith, two girls of lower social status. Emma decides that Harriet's "soft blue eyes should not be wasted on the inferior society of Highbury and its connections", and that the friends Harriet has already made were "unworthy of her" and "causing her harm". Even though she has never met the Martin family, with whom Harriet had stayed, she condemns them as "coarse and unpolished, and very unfit to be the intimates of a girl who wanted only a little more knowledge to be quite perfect." Emma's arrogance causes her to assume that Harriet's acquaintances are not good enough for her, and that they are holding Harriet back from a better social life and status, even though Harriet is in the social class she should be in. So, Emma embarks on a mission to advance Harriet to a more desirable state. She "would take notice of her; she would improve her; she would detach her from her bad acquaintance, and introduce her to good society; she would form her opinions and her manners." (23) Harriet is not clever and desires only "to be guided by any one she looked up to." (26) She is therefore perfect material for Emma to mold.

In Clueless, Cher sets out to improve Tai, the new girl at school and the counterpart to Harriet in the novel. Tai is obviously of a lower class than Cher; her clothes lack style, her hair is stringy and dyed a hideous red colour, she has a thick Bronx accent and she likes to smoke drugs. Cher decides to give her a complete make-over: a new hairstyle, new make-up, a new wardrobe. She forces Tai to exercise in order to improve her physique, and wants her to read "one non-school book a week" to improve her mind. When Josh states his disbelief, Cher proudly replies, "What, that I'm devoting myself so generously to someone else?" Josh returns, "No, that you found someone more clueless than you to worship you." Cher honestly believes that she is taking "that lost soul in there and making her well-dressed and popular. Her life will be better because of me." We can see here that, like Emma, Cher is not just helping Tai out of the goodness of her heart, but to feed her own ego and pride.

As part of their assimilation to higher status, there are rules to be followed when it comes to dating and marriage; they are not allowed to see certain males, and should only date the men Cher and Emma find appropriate. Tai and Harriet are so captivated by their mentors that they do not dissent, even though they are being coerced into ignoring their own hearts. On her first day at her new school, Tai meets and instantly likes Travis in the cafeteria. However, Travis is from the long-haired, drug-smoking, lower-class skateboarder group, which Cher says, "No respectable girl actually dates." Cher will not allow Tai to consort with a boy of lower social status, even though Tai and Travis would make a good couple because of their common interests. She automatically assumes that if Tai were to date Travis, Tai's social status at school would plummet.

At the expense of Tai dating the boy she prefers, Cher makes it her mission to find a proper boyfriend for Tai. Tai is shown the various social groups of the student body, of which a small group of boys "are the only acceptable ones." One of these boys is Elton, a rich, snobbish hypochondriac and the counterpart to Elton in the novel. Cher sets into motion a plan to bring him and Tai together; she lies to Tai when she tells her that Elton is interested in her. When Cher takes a picture of Tai, Elton asks for a copy. Cher and Tai automatically assume this is proof of Elton's interest in Tai, especially after he hangs it in his locker. Later, however, it is revealed that the only reason he wanted the picture was that Cher took it, not because it is a picture of Tai. Their assumption that Elton likes Tai is understandable; it is only natural to assume that the subject of the photograph would be the object of his desire.

The situation comes to a head during the party in the Valley. Cher originally balked at going to the party because it "took an hour to get there and they're usually broken up after the first hour" She changes her mind, however, when she learns that Elton will be there. Everything seems to go as Cher plans; when Tai is hit on the head with a shoe, Elton comes to her rescue, and pays attention to her until the end of the party. Cher congratulates herself: "I have to give myself snaps for doing good things for others." However, it is during the party that Elton first shows his true intentions; while playing a game of "suck and blow", he intentionally kisses Cher. And, when the party is over, Elton insists that Cher rides home with him, despite Cher's objections. When he tries to kiss her, she pushes him away and says that she thought he liked Tai. Elton, in disbelief, reveals that he likes Cher, not Tai, and that, "Tai and I don't make sense. You (Cher) and I make sense." Because he is of the higher class, he would not even consider dating Tai. When he haughtily exclaims, "Don't you know who my father is?", Cher ironically scowls, "Ugh, you are such a snob." She sees in Elton the same qualities that she herself possesses -- those of a rich, egotistical snob. This is the first time that something does not go as Cher plans, but it only fazes her temporarily. She decides to find someone else to replace Elton as boyfriend for Tai.

In Emma, while staying with from friends from school, Harriet begins to fall in love with Robert Martin, a young farmer. Martin poses a threat to Cher's improvement of Harriet, so she must quash any hopes Harriet may have of a relationship with him. Although Harriet is thoroughly impressed with Martin, Emma denounces every one of his favourable attributes. She wants "to see [Harriet] permanently well-connected -- and to that end it will be advisable to have as few odd acquaintance as may be." (31) Emma effectively dissuades Harriet from any connection to him by arguing that she is almost assuredly a gentleman's daughter, and that she "must support [her] claim to that station by everything in [her] power, or there will be who would take pleasure in degrading [her]." (30) According to Emma, Martin will eventually become "a completely gross, vulgar farmer -- totally inattentive to appearances, and thinking of nothing but profit and loss." (33) Emma's snobbishness is most evident here, in her prejudicial denunciation of the poor farmer.

With Robert Martin out of Harriet's affections, the next stage in Emma's plan is set, to match her to a man of acceptable social status -- Mr. Elton. Her first mistake occurs when she contrives to arouse Elton' interest in Harriet by drawing a portrait of her. This is the basis for the photograph scene in Clueless. It seems like an excellent stratagem, for Elton enthusiastically praises the picture and even takes it to London to be framed. To Emma, this seems to be proof of his warming affection for Harriet. She is "dead wrong, utterly unaware that the evidence may equally be evaluated in quite another way", (Wright, 141) -- that Elton is praising the portrait only because Emma drew it, not because it is a picture of Harriet.

Her second mistake occurs when she misinterprets Elton's charade as being for Harriet. He hands it to Emma, "his speech was more to Emma than to Harriet, which Emma could understand. There was a deep consciousness about him, and he found it easier to meet her eye than her friend." (70) We can see by his actions and manner that he intends the charade for Emma, but she mistakes them as bashfulness. Emma concludes that the charade is further proof that Elton is interested in Harriet; she relates each of the lines as references to Harriet. Harriet, being so naive, believes what she is told only because Emma tells her it is so, as is shown in the following passage:

"Whatever you say is always right, and therefore I suppose, and believe, and hope it might be so; but otherwise I could not have imagined it. It is so much beyond anything I deserve. Mr. Elton, who might marry any body! There cannot be two opinions about him. He is very superior. Only think of those sweet verses-- `To Miss ----.' Dear me, how clever! -- Could it really be meant for me?" (74)

Emma assures Harriet it is for her, "but Harriet is stupid, and Emma, as usual, the victim of her own delusion." (Wright, 142) The combination of the portrait, the charade, and Elton's special attention to Harriet all point to the conclusion that Elton is falling in love with Harriet, when in fact he is falling in love with Emma.

Emma even ignores John Knightley when he points out that Mr. Elton "seems to have a great deal of good-will towards you." (112) She replies:

"`I thank you; but you assure you that you are quite mistaken. Mr. Elton and I are very good friends, and nothing more;' and she walked on, amusing herself in the consideration of the blunders which often arise from a partial knowledge of circumstances, of the mistakes which people of high pretensions to judgment are forever falling into; and not very well pleased with her brother for imagining her blind and I ignorant." (112)

This passage is "a marvelous piece of anticipatory dramatic irony" (Wright,144) and appropriately occurs on the fateful day of the Westons' party.

It is after the party that Emma is forced to ride home alone with Elton, and it is in the carriage that he professes his love for her, not Harriet. She replies that she will be glad to relate any messages to Harriet, for though the truth is now evident, it is too much for her to handle. Elton insists, however: "Everything that I have said or done, for many weeks past, has been with the sole view of marking my adoration of yourself. You cannot, really, seriously doubt it." (131) Elton's unexpected proposal to herself instead of Harriet brings Emma's first disenchantment. Her attempt to arrange the union of Elton and Harriet, she realizes, "was foolish, it was wrong, to take so active a part in bringing any two people together. It was adventuring too far, assuming too much, making light of what ought to be serious, a trick of what ought to be simple." She is "quite concerned and ashamed, and resolved to do such things no more." (137) Although it appears that Emma has made a giant leap in the direction of self-knowledge and maturity, she soon lapses; she decides that the only way to ease Harriet's pain and disappointment is to find another match for her. She is "convinced that she merely blundered -- an admission of intellectual, but no moral, error." (Shannon, 152) She is more angry at Elton for thinking that he could have any chance of being with her (because he is of a lower class) than for hurting and disappointing Harriet. The lesson, therefore, has not reached deeply enough.

The arrival of Frank Churchill sparks a great deal conversation in Highbury and Emma is instantly attracted to him, just as Cher instantly falls in love with Christian on his first day at school. In Emma, before he has even met Frank Churchill, Knightley declares that he is not impressed with him. His opinion is that

"if he turn out anything like it, he will be the most insufferable fellow breathing! What! at three-and-twenty to be the king of his company -- the great man -- the practiced politician, who is to read everybody's talents conduce to the display of his own superiority; to be dispensing flatteries and that he may make all appear like fools compared with himself! My dear Emma, your own good sense could not endure such a puppy when it came to that point." (150)

The arrival of Frank Churchill causes Knightley to sense consciously for the first time the real nature of his feelings for Emma because he feels immediate jealousy.

In Clueless, Josh (Knightley's counterpart) takes an instant dislike to Christian (Frank Churchill's counterpart) when he arrives to take Cher on their first date. Josh watches jealously as Cher comes down the stairs, looking more beautiful than usual. The scene is "accompanied by the music from Gigi, from the scene in which Gaston suddenly realizes that Gigi is no longer a gawky girl but a beautiful young woman to whom he is much attracted." (Karen P) Josh hints to Cher's father that her dress is too short, and that he should go to the party to keep an eye on her. Although he may not be consciously aware, it is obvious that he has some strong feelings for Cher -- and not those of a concerned step-brother.

At the party in Clueless, Cher has a great time dancing with Christian, but her "happiness is put on hold" when she sees Tai dancing by herself. She immediately rejoices, however, when she spies Josh dancing with her. This scene corresponds to the ball at the Crown Inn in Emma, when Elton deliberately snubs Harriet, and she is "the only young lady sitting down." (326) However, Emma is extremely happy and grateful to Knightley when she sees him dancing with Harriet, thus compensating for Elton's deliberate slight.

Cher and Christian begin spending more time with each other, and she soon realizes that she is falling in love with him. Indeed, they seem to be well-suited for each other, since they have at least one major common interest -- clothes. Finally, she decides she likes him so much that she is willing to give him her virginity. She invites him to her house to watch movies, and while lying down on the bed, tries to initiate sexual intercourse. However, much to Cher's confusion, he quickly gets up and leaves. She is later told that the reason Christian would not sleep with her is that he is homosexual, thus effectively destroying any hope Cher might have had of a relationship with him.

Similarly, Emma admits to herself that she is falling in love with Frank Churchill. She "entertains no doubt of her being in love (with Frank Churchill). Her ideas only varied as to how much... She had great pleasure in hearing Frank Churchill talked of; she was very often thinking of him, and quite impatient for a letter." (264) However, Emma, although she may be vain and blind, is "neither stupid nor unanalytical. She cannot be quite satisfied with her first appraisal of the situation." (Wright, 148) After much pondering, she realizes "the conclusion of every imaginary declaration on his side was that she refused him. Their affection was always to subside into friendship. Everything tender and charming was to make their parting; but they were still to part. When she became sensible of this, it struck her that she could not be very much in love." (264) Emma represses her true feelings of love and by setting out to match Harriet with Frank Churchill, she saves herself from the fear of the risks and commitment of a relationship. Instead of acknowledging her fear, she uses Harriet as a pawn to play through relationships with the men Emma likes. The idea of an attachment between Harriet and Frank Churchill is aided by his rescue of Harriet from the gypsies. The counterpart to this scene in Clueless occurs when Christian saves Tai from two hooligans in the mall who hold her over a railing. However, the possibility of Christian and Tai becoming a couple is not possible since he has already been revealed to be gay, so the film does not explore the possibility any further.

Instead, the scene is blown out of proportion at school the next day; Tai embellishes her story into a life-and-death situation, and her popularity soars. Cher's popularity, on the other hand, starts to plummet; Tai is too busy to go shopping with her, Dionne is seeking sexual advice from Tai, and nobody wants to hear what Cher wants to say. Her El Salvadoran maid becomes furious at her when Cher rudely describes her as speaking "Mexican", for which Josh scolds her.

Emma's popularity also nose-dives after the Box Hill incident. After cruelly insulting Miss Bates, Knightley appropriately gives her a strong and stern lecture, and at last Emma's feelings are deeply struck:

Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life. She was most forcibly struck. The truth of his representation there was no denying. She felt it at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates! How could she have exposed herself to such ill opinion in any one she valued... As she reflected more, she seemed but to feel it more. She never had been more depressed... Emma felt the tears running down her cheeks almost all the way home, without being at any trouble to check them, extraordinary as they were. (376)

Obviously, Knightley's remonstration of her actions causes Emma to change her wicked ways. Her tears "mark the turning point of Emma's development, signify an emotional as well as a mental commitment to a new mode of conduct and to the necessity of Mr. Knightley's approval. She at last recognizes that her intelligence, wealth, and social pre-eminence require kindness, rather than contempt, towards Miss Bates." (Shannon, 134) She awakens to the obligations of her position and henceforth, Emma acts "with the true tenderness of heart." (Wright, 155) She calls on Miss Bates and tries, though unsuccessfully, to make amends with Jane Fairfax.

In Clueless, Cher's life is also in turmoil; she completely fails her driver's test, and "for the first time in [her] life, [she] failed something [she] couldn't talk her way out of." This is comparable to when Emma is asked to play the piano and sing, but she is shown to be not as talented as Jane Fairfax. These failures show that Cher and Emma are not as perfect as they may seem; they are humiliating and humbling experiences for both characters.

When Cher arrives home after her test, she finds Tai in the back yard with Josh, hacky-sacking and flirting with each other. Tai is there to burn her box of Elton memorabilia, just as Harriet does in the novel. But she is also there to ask for Cher's assistance in matching her with Josh. With a hint of jealousy, Cher insults Tai by saying that she and Josh "don't mesh well." This could be comparable to the Box Hill incident, as mentioned above, where Emma insults Miss Bates. When Tai insults her in return, Cher ironically realizes she has "created a monster" -- a snob.

Like Tai in Clueless, Harriet confesses to Emma her hopes that Knightley is interested in her. This confession "explodes one of Emma's last misconceptions and impels her to recognize her own love for him." (Shannon, 136) The irony of this situation is that it was Emma herself who fostered Harriet's hope for Knightley.

A few minutes were sufficient for making her acquainted with her own heart. A mind like hers, once opening to suspicion, made rapid progress. She touched -- she admitted -- she acknowledged the whole truth. Why was it so much worse that Harriet should be in love with Mr. Knightley, than with Frank Churchill? Why was the evil so dreadfully increased by Harriet's having some hope of return? It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself! (407)

In the self-examination that follows this realization, Emma admits her folly: "With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of everybody's feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange everyone's destiny. She was proved to be universally mistaken; and she had not quite done nothing -- for she had done mischief. She had brought evil on Harriet, on herself, and she too much feared, on Mr. Knightley." (412) She has finally absorbed the "meaning of responsibility -- that one must endure the consequences of one's acts; for now her own happiness is involved." (Shannon, 137) It is the commencement of full awareness, but she must live for a while in the fear that Knightley does love Harriet.

While walking along Rodeo Drive in total misery at the mess she has created, Cher does some soul-searching. She admits for the first time that she had made a mistake with Elton and Christian, but what really bothers her is that Josh was mad at her. She begins to remember the good times she had with Josh, and with a sudden burst of inspiration, she finally realizes that she is in love with him. In order to prove herself worthy of Josh's love, Cher undergoes a character transformation. She becomes a school `do-gooder' and organizes a food drive for victims of a local disaster, and it is here that she becomes friends with Travis. He impresses her with his desire to improve himself, with his participation in a twelve-step program as proof. When she attends his skateboarding competition, she remarks, "I didn't know he was so motivated." This complete change of opinion about Travis reflects Emma's new view of Robert Martin; she knows believes that Harriet is far better off with him, as opposed to her original opinion that any connection with Harriet would only degrade her social status.

Both Emma and Cher, however, have yet to complete their transformation by admitting their true feelings to Knightley and Josh. Fortunately, Cher knows that Tai is out of the picture once Tai and Travis are together at last. After the lawyer yells at Cher and Josh for flirting with each other and thus bungling up some court documents, Josh tries to comfort her and in doing so, confesses his love for her. Cher admits she loves him too, they kiss and everything is okay.

In Emma, after the announcement of Frank Churchill's engagement to Jane Fairfax, Knightley comes to Highbury to comfort Emma, whom he believes is still in love with Frank Churchill. Emma is still under the presumption that Knightley loves Harriet, but after these misconceptions are cleared up, they reveal how much they love each other. Both Knightley's and Josh's discourses are made up of broken clauses which betray the intense, private emotion they are feeling.

And so the book happily ends with the triple marriage of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, Harriet Smith and Robert Martin, and Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley. The end of the movie carries on the marriage motif with the wedding of Cher's teachers, Mr. Hall and Miss Geist, whom Cher matched together just as Emma matched Mr. Weston and Miss Taylor.

The major difference between the novel Emma and the movie Clueless is the absence of a key character in the film: Jane Fairfax. To Emma, Jane Fairfax represents "a rival in everything except birth and prospects (including wealth)." (Wright, 146) Emma instinctively dislikes her:

Why she did not like Jane Fairfax might be a difficult question to answer; Mr. Knightley had once told her it was because she saw in her the really accomplished young woman, which she wanted to be thought herself; and though the accusation had been eagerly refuted at the time, there were moments of self-examination in which her conscience could not quite acquit her. (166)

Jane Fairfax is also a rival for the affections of Frank Churchill, although Emma does not know it. If Jane Fairfax had not been included in the novel, Emma probably would have ended up with Frank Churchill; or else he would never have arrived in Highbury in the first place, since he was only there to keep an eye on Jane Fairfax. In Clueless, since there is no counterpart to Jane Fairfax for Christian to be engaged to, or to be a rival to Cher for Christian's affection, the film instead presents Christian as a homosexual, a testament to the 1990s. Amy Heckerling, the script writer and director of Clueless, probably excluded the character of Jane Fairfax (as well as Mrs. Elton, Mrs. Bates and Miss Bates) for the sake of complexity and time constraints.

With the exception of the exclusion of a few characters, Clueless is a faithful adaptation and update of Jane Austen's Emma. Most of the characters and much of the story in Emma are paralleled in the film, but the major similarity between the two is the main character's transition from a self-centered snob to a more tolerant and understanding young woman in touch with her true feelings. Emma and Clueless show "the advisability of openness and sincerity, the evil of slander and of hastening to derogatory conclusions, the cruelty of inflicting mental pain, the falseness of snobbery...[and] demonstrates that we cannot escape the consequences of our acts, that love is not an emotion to be toyed with, and that marriage is not a game." (Shannon, 146) Emma and Cher pay for their delusive self-confidence by painful humiliation; as their social status declines, their moral status increases. Because they have progressed from self-deception and vanity to perception and humility, Emma and Cher are now deserving and worthy of Knightley's and Josh's love.


Austen, Jane. Emma. London: Oxford University Press, 1960.

Clueless, written and directed by Amy Heckerling, produced by Paramount Pictures. U.S.A., 1995.

Karen P. `Some Reactions From Janeites.' Clueless and Jane Austen's Emma Website.

Internet URL: http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~churchh/clueless.html, August 16, 1996.

Shannon, Edgar F. `Emma: Character and Construction', Jane Austen: Emma, (130-147) London: MacMillan & Co. Ltd., 1968.

Wright, Andrew H. Jane Austen's Novels -- A Study in Structure. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1964.

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