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.