image: Jennifer Ehle in ‘Pride and Prejudice’/Image © BBC
Every time I re-read Miss Austen’s novels (ahem, every single year), I find something I hadn’t noticed before. I uncover another layer with each return to her works and this year what I’m most drawn to is the theme of self-knowledge. I’m not alone in considering Austen to be a philosopher and she follows in the footsteps of the ancients in urging her reader to “know thyself.”
Why would Austen care so much about being self-aware? Does it really matter? Why yes, it does.
Without self-knowledge it’s almost impossible to grow in virtue. It would be like trying to go to confession without having the ability to examine your conscience. Without the clarity and honesty to know ourselves, we can’t conquer our flaws and become mature people who are able to love others well.
I think we all know someone who decidedly lacks self-awareness. Perhaps it’s the melodramatic Facebook friend who is always publicly complaining about people who cause drama or the gossip who rails about someone who talked about her behind her back. And Austen crafts such characters perfectly.
From Elizabeth Bennet to Henry Crawford to Emma Woodhouse, character after character is revealed to have been seeing themselves not as they truly are, but as a facade of themselves. Some of them are able to unmask themselves, but others, like Lydia Bennet, for instance, never develop self-knowledge.
“Well, mamma,” said she, when they were all returned to the breakfast room, “and what do you think of my husband? Is not he a charming man? I am sure my sisters must all envy me. I only hope they may have half my good luck. They must all go to Brighton. That is the place to get husbands. What a pity it is, mamma, we did not all go.”
After all the scandal and pain she’s caused, she can still make a statement like that. Classic Lydia in serious need of some self-knowledge.
What does Austen teach us about being honest with ourselves about who we are? Although all of the novels center around the theme of self-knowledge, this is a blog post and not a book, so let’s just talk about Pride and Prejudice and Emma. (And feel free to go crazy on the other novels in the comments and chat away about them.)
While Austen brings plenty of comedic material to the table in Pride and Prejudice with minor characters like the insufferable Lydia, or Mr. Collins, or Mrs. Bennet who completely lack self-awareness, the real drama is how the heroine and the hero of the novel come to change and know themselves.
In P&P Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy have been deceiving themselves. They both inhabit a world of their own imagination in which their assumptions and decisions are always right. But eventually their interactions with each other reveal their misperceptions about themselves.
When Elizabeth reads Darcy’s letter explaining his dealings with Mr. Wickham and his opposition to the supposed match between Jane Bennet and Mr. Bingley, she realizes that she has been reading all the events with a warped perception. It did not unfold at all as she imagined. She reflects, “Till this moment I never knew myself.”
While she still passionately disagrees with Mr. Darcy’s interference in Jane and Mr. Bingley’s relationship, she is floored that she is not the intuitive judge of human character that she thought herself to be. How could she be so taken in by Mr. Wickam and so prejudiced against Mr. Darcy? His letter makes everything clear. She trusted Wickam’s story because he flattered her and she was predisposed to see Darcy in the worst possible light because he had slighted her.
Far from being an unbiased judge, Elizabeth had been letting her desire to be admired color her perception. But let’s not be too hard on her. Darcy is also quite flawed. He has fooled himself into believing that he always acts impeccably in light of the pride he should posses due to his place in society. But he’s taken it too far. His proper pride has been warped into arrogance and aloofness and it takes Elizabeth Bennet’s entrance into his life to help him see his error.
By the time they actually get together, they are both more humble, more self-aware, and all-around better human beings. Their love catapults them into not only self-knowledge but the virtue that should accompany it.
It’s very difficult to know ourselves in a vacuum. We need other people to help. And not just any community will do. We need those those willing to speak truth to us about ourselves. Elizabeth calls out Mr. Darcy for his arrogance. Darcy tells her the uncomfortable truth about her poor judgement and bias. And they’re both the better for it.
Like Pride & Prejudice, Emma also features a heroine who is desperately in need of self-knowledge. I have a soft spot in my heart for Emma (selfish know-it-alls need to stick together), but I also understand how she grating she can be and why some readers find her despicable.
It’s easy to see how she ended up so self-centered. Her widowed father has coddled her. Her dearest friend and governess Miss Taylor, while wanting the best for her, has failed to show Emma her flaws. Emma has had, as Austen tells us, “very little to vex her” during her privileged life and that’s poor soil for the development of good character.
In the beginning of the novel, Emma is almost delusional in her matchmaking attempts for her friend Harriet Smith. She’s completely misguided as to whether she’s leading her friend closer or farther away from happiness. And she sees herself as a selfless benefactress while in reality, she’s doing her friend no favors by interfering.
Being friends with ignorant and silly Harriet makes her feel superior while she ignores Jane Fairfax whose education and accomplishments threaten her and make her feel inadequate. By choosing the wrong community to invest in, Emma can maintain the facade that keeps her from truly knowing herself authentically.
Mr. Knightley, my favorite romantic lead of all Austen’s novels, is able to both see Emma’s flaws clearly and love her in spite of them. He sees not only who she is, but who she has the potential to be. And it’s his very selfless love and desire for her good that presents him with the uncomfortable task of pointing out her misbehavior at Box Hill.
The scene at Box Hill is one of the most poignant scenes in all of Austen. When Emma insults her spinster friend Miss Bates, she must face herself. She has not been kind and forbearing to those less fortunate, she has been selfish and flattered. Just as Elizabeth Bennet gains self-knowledge after reading Darcy’s letter. Emma comes to know herself when faced with her own thoughtless cruelty.
Where would Emma be without Mr. Knightley? Would she have carried on in her selfish delusions if he hadn’t spoken in charity and truth?
In Emma, Austen shows us that shallow friendships are not enough to help us know ourselves. Deep relationships and real community are crucial. How can we see our flaws if we can always keep up facades with mere acquaintances? How easy it is to curate ourselves on social media in order to fool not only others, but ourselves. The people who interact with us daily for years are more difficult to fool. True community cannot be hoodwinked.
Love demands that we know ourselves in order to love others well. It requires not only selflessness, but clarity. And it motivates us to be our best selves–the people God created us to be. Love is a refining fire that, often painfully, reveals our flaws and more painfully burns those flaws away. For Emma Woodhouse, it’s Mr. Knightley’s love that prompts her to know herself and become a woman who can love others.
Austen often uses romance to lead characters to self-knowledge and make them worthy of the love they seek. But love doesn’t have to be romantic to teach us about ourselves and help us mature into people who can love more deeply and see more clearly. I have found motherhood to be just as enlightening as marriage in keeping me honest about my deepest flaws.
I can ignore my selfishness when meeting a new acquaintance for coffee, but I am faced daily with my flaws when parenting my children. My impatience and pride come straight to the surface and must be acknowledged and conquered. If we’re to know ourselves, our only hope is other people who love us and will serve as mirrors that clarify our misguided notions about who we think we are so we can mature into the people we are meant to be.
Self-knowledge and growth are necessary for a happy ending, not just to novels but to our story. If Austen were to answer the question, “How do you live a good life?” the answer might be, “Know thyself. And it never hurts to marry a gentleman who has a lovely estate and 10,000 a year.”