In Mansfield Park the charming Mary Crawford claims, “Selfishness must always be forgiven, you know, because there is no hope for a cure.” But she’s dead wrong. Jane Austen shows us in another novel, Emma, that there is indeed a cure for selfishness: love. And no I don’t mean just falling in love or romantic love, but the kind of love that transforms us.
Emma gets a bad rap. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people (mostly men) chime in with their disgust over this unusual Austen heroine. She’s easy to hate. Her arrogance, vanity, thoughtlessnes, selfishness, and insistence on meddling in other people’s affairs make her loathsome. But I have to confess, I don’t hate Emma. I am Emma. Or at least I could be Emma at my worst.
In my tradition of writing in defense of various Austen heroines, I’m compelled to stand up for dear Emma, because I get her. Her faults are my faults. We both had very little to vex us for the first couple of decades of life which always makes difficult ground for cultivating mature virtue.
But Emma isn’t all bad. No, indeed. She’s not a malicious person and she is capable of great self-sacrifice. She tenderly cares for her father who is quirky at best and infuriating at worst, even when doing so means constant inconvenience. Due to Mr. Woodhouse’s anxieties she cannot travel, but must stay in her own town for his comfort. Her life is very confined, yet she admirably feels only affection for her father and no resentment.
What Emma lacks is self-knowledge (always the major flaw in Austen while knowing oneself is a high virtue in each novel) that results in a lack of empathy. She does not stop and reflect on the workings of her own heart, so she definitely does not consider the feelings or circumstances of other. It’s not because she is being cruel but because she is simply not thinking about other people at all. Her downfall is her thoughtless selfishness.
Another great flaw is in wanting to be admired and flattered. Emma does not befriend her equal–perhaps superior–in accomplishments and character, Jane Fairfax. Instead of seizing the opportunity to grow while encouraging a fine young woman, she makes Jane a frenemy. She chooses Harriet Smith to be her companion, a sweet, but hilariously silly young woman who is as beneath Emma in intellect as she is in station.
Harriet, of course, idolizes Emma and Emma’s vanity is stroked. But Emma does not have the maturity to see what’s really best for her friend. She puts her desire to play matchmaker above her friend’s welfare and happiness.
Austen is very wary of charming people, but Emma isn’t so wise. While Mr. Knightley sees through Frank Churchill’s attentions immediately, Emma is convinced of his authenticity because he flatters her. And who doesn’t love being admired? Emma is certainly not alone there, but her vanity causes her to treat others (particularly Harriet and Jane) as entertainment instead of people deserving empathy and concern.
And then there’s Mr. Knightley. Isn’t it terrible to think what Emma would have become without Mr. Knightley?! Mr. Knightley is the soul of not mere politeness, but genuine kindness. While never having any romantic interest in Jane Fairfax, he is always considering her welfare. He has empathy for her difficult circumstances. He sends his carriage to pick up Jane and the Bateses knowing long walks are difficult for Jane’s poor health and Mrs. Bates’s age. He is thoughtful of these friends and considers ahead of time how best to be of use to them while they can offer him nothing in return.
image:Laurence Cendrowicz – ©BBC
And oh, Box Hill! Mr. Knightley is devastated when Emma insults poor Miss Bates, an action that reveals a complete lack of empathy on Emma’s part. She is thinking only of herself and how Frank will enjoy the joke at Miss Bates expense. And it is the one time that her behavior can be considered truly cruel.
Mr. Knightley can’t bear to see someone he cares about behaving so badly. And he is the only one to tell Emma truth about her behavior. He knows what kind of woman she could and should be. Yet he loves her despite her mistakes and flaws.
Because Emma is thoughtless rather than malicious, when struck by her own selfishness she does change. She not only behaves better (by visiting Miss Bates to extend the olive branch) but she starts thinking better. She considers Jane’s trying living situation and feels for her. And because of that empathy and genuine concern for others, she begins treating the members of her community with love, as Mr. Knightley has always done.
His love transforms her into the woman she should have been all along. Not just romantic love, but the faithful love that speaks the truth even when it hurts. It’s Mr. Knightley’s lifelong friendship and Emma’s respect for him that compels her to take his criticism to heart.
Love is indeed the antidote to selfishness. Once Emma loves others well, her selfishness melts away. She simply cannot be thinking of herself because she has the welfare of others on her mind. But it takes someone else loving her at her worst and loving her faithfully to help her change into something better than she is. Our community plays a vital role in transforming us into what we were created to be.
I met my Mr. Knightley 15 years ago and we’re about to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary. I’ve never been the same since (and thank goodness for that.) I think there’s hope for Emma.
Three cheers for Emma! And for all the Mr. Knightleys out there – in a good marriage, both parties elevate the other in virtue. It’s a beautiful thing!
Have you seen the babylit Emma? It’s an emotions primer. Evie LOVES it. I say “Emma is…” and she yells, ” EXCITED!” Jane Fairfax is tired, Mr Woodhouse is bored, Mr. Knightly is loved, etc. 🙂 I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep up with her voracious appetite for books, I’m thankful for all your reading lists!
I haven’t seen that one! We’ve got the P&P and S&S though!
We were gifted that cute, cute board book and we have read it over and over again. You can see the characters so clearly. And for a baby board book, the pictures have little extras that you only notice with additional readings. Its so pleasant!
My husband and I just watched the version of Emma starring Romola Garai for a date night, and we both enjoyed it. At the time we joked about my husband being Mr. Knightley. It takes a special person to share the truth in charity.
I’m glad to know that I’m not the only Emma out there.
Wow. Great break down! I learned So much more about these characters, (and more about austens genius) and in turn myself. Thank you!
Thanks Rebekah! So glad you enjoyed it 😉
Justine Rauch says
I love this so much! I just went back and watched this series again a few days ago and it is so hard to look past her selfishness and remember her somewhat good intentions. This is an awesome analysis. I feel like I am Emma so much of the time too! I’m so happy she has Mr. Knightley to balance her out… God knows I need my Mr. Knightly to help me keep my selfishness in check too 😉
Thank goodness for Mr. Knightleys!
I love this! Emma is one of my favorite Austen novels and I think it’s because I can relate to Emma so well. I have re-read Emma several times and each time I learn something new about the characters and even about myself. Now, if only I had a Mr. Knightley of to keep me in check! 😉
Haley, this is a wonderful break down of Emma-I love how you point out her transformation and growth. It’s so true-she doesn’t do or say things out of maliciousness, she’s just kind of unaware, and needs Mr. Knightley to help her see things as they really are. Oh goodness, the Box Hill part is truly one of the more painful-yet fantastic-parts of her story. It’s so hard to see Emma behave so thoughtlessly, but it’s so beautiful to see Knightley hold her accountable! I just love how Knightley is all about fraternal correction, something that so many saints have recommended, but which-in our age of “don’t judge”-we too often fail to remember.
Living a Catholic Fairy Tale says
I love Jane Austen and I think reading her novels can be character-building. There is so much wisdom in her work!
Connie Rossini says
Bravo! You’ve nailed it–kindness. We see a similar theme in S & S when Mrs. Dashwood admires Col. Brandon for traveling all the way to get her when Marianne was sick. Eleanor says that any man in love may have done the same. What she appreciates in the Col. is his general kindness to others to whom he has no attachment (perhaps especially giving a living to Edward Ferrars?). Edmund Bertram too is kind to his cousin Fanny, because he is simply a kind and good young man.
As for Emma, the Gwynneth Paltrow version is my favorite. It does astonishing justice to the Box Hill scene for a big-screen movie.
Interesting that I just read an article that mentions Emma (although a different film version) in the context of free speech.
Ti Thompson says
I love your Austen posts! (Reader/lurker of several years here.) I’m headed off to a master’s program in Western Literature this fall, (in Europe!) and reading your literary posts gets me excited for what is to come!
“Badly done, Emma!”/”It was badly done, indeed!” is such a wonderful line. Maybe my favorite Austen line ever. It’s so rich in subtext that my heart leaps into my throat when I hear it/read it. His love and his disappointment are all mixed in with the knowledge that she is better than her actions.
I love love love this post! You hit on so many points that I believe as well about Jane Austen’s writings and self-knowledge. I feel like reading her books is a character study on so many different types of people and behaviors.
One thing I love about Mr. Knightly is how subtle he is. In how he loves Emma, talks to her, and even criticizes her. It is heartwarming to read Emma’s realization of what is going on inside her.
I’m inspired to go read this book, but first I need to finish Sense & Sensibility (again). 😀
I went on a kick reading all your Jane Austen posts. I love your insights and how you talk about the stories and characters with an air of sharing about your good friends, which I’m sure they are after many re-readings!
I think it is so true how you can justify/defend the faults of some of JA’s characters because you recognize them as your own. I think reading JA can help you though in identifying what are your own actual faults if you read with an attuned heart. I believe reading is so important for increasing our own self-knowledge, which can be hard to develop on one’s own.
I wanted to comment on the MP post, but since that’s old I thought I’d do it here. I don’t know if I agree that it’s Fanny’s introversion per se which is so unappealing, because I can think of other beloved characters in literature who are very introverted, but not as hard to get as Fanny. e.g. Anne of Green Gables, Emily of New Moon, Jane Eyre, Beth from Little Women. These are all beloved characters who are strongly introverted individuals, but still have dynamic personalities. I don’t think it’s fair to call introverts wet mops and say we don’t get them as a society. I think Fanny is just a wet mop of a personality and so hard to take the time to get to know because we want to know vivacious, interesting characters. I think you are spot on about MP, but don’t quite agree with that aspect of your analysis of Fanny.
Thanks for all your excellent writing, I really enjoyed these posts!
I realize this is an older post, but I just stumbled across your blog and had to leave a comment!
First, I am amazed at your clarity in breaking down and describing these novels. You put into words everything I have always thought, but have never really been able to vocalize.
Sadly I do not have many in my circle who are avid readers and even fewer who read Austen. (Though to be fare she’s the only classic author I enjoy reading, because as you mentioned somewhere, the over detailing of everything bogs me down and I can’t stay interested. A flaw I’m sure to many.) So everyone I talk to are uber Darcy fans, and they can’t understand why, though I adore him, he isn’t my favorite!
Mr. Knightly all the way!! He’s always been my favorite, since I first read Emma in 7th grade. I love his pure goodness, no ulterior motives or personality flaws to make up for, he’s just good! He’s just kind, and he’s not afraid to nudge (or lecture) the people he loves to make them realize their potential! He has all the same things going for him as Darcy yet he’s not prideful or aloof, he’s a beloved member of his community, his opinions and wisdom sought after by many, and he laughs and enjoys moments with friends and family. He’s just so human and so relatable! At 12 years old I knew I would always be looking for a Knightly instead of a Darcy! (Though I think Northam is the best Knightly ever, but I might be swayed by his dang good looks.)
Secondly, I really rather adore Emma. Lizzie always seemed so “larger than life” almost too perfect (yes I realize there is the whole Prejudice thing but still…). She always had just the perfect thing to say and the right retort. Yet she was fun and likable and could make fun of herself.
Emma I could relate to. I can see myself in her. Even as I figure out more about myself every year there is still always more to learn.
And don’t we all want to be liked and adored and feel as though people need us? I’ve never for a moment considered not liking Emma because of her flaws! Though I do get annoyed sometimes at just how “Clueless” she can be!
Third, Just, thank you! I’ve always cherished Fanny Price. She was quiet and kept a lot to herself but she was pure and real and true, and she never faultered from that. She understood that “all that glitters isn’t gold”, and she lived by it. And I always thought people should be more like her! Though I do have a hard time with Edmund, I mean as a man of God shouldn’t he have been a bit more difficult for Mary to distract?
Anyway, I’ve spent way too many hours reading through all your posts and love them! I’d totally love a post as to why YOU think Kightley is the best! (You know, an expansion on what you wrote here)
So sorry for the super long comment, but i guess I was inspired!
Love your insights! Thanks so much for stopping by to read 🙂
Madeline Osigian says
Oh my goodness! It’s so beautiful! I love the way you explain it all so perfectly. And Mr. Knightley is so wonderful. He’s better than Mr. Darcy any day.
Thank you for writing this! I’m new to your blog and loving every bit of it, being a bookish Catholic as well (hello!) and more Emma Woodhouse than I’d sometimes care to admit. Would you please consider writing about Mr Knightley and the art of (what someone above called) fraternal correction?