The learning processes that are experienced through youth often lead to greater self-knowledge. This idea is readily demonstrated in Jane Austen’s “Emma,” where the protagonist is established as an esteemed individual, living in the comfort and indulgence consequent of the limitations of her rural society. Only when Emma opens herself to new experiences that she matures from one who lacks self-knowledge to fulfilment of self-knowledge. The various events that occur ultimately challenge her viewpoint of the world she lives in. Emma’s dealings with befriending and matchmaking Harriet and her misinterpretation of clues given by Mr. Elton and Frank Churchill are events that lead her first to lose confidence in her judgement and which later propels her to greater self-knowledge. Mr. Knightley is a key figure in her change process, leading her to a greater acceptance of others’ viewpoints.
At the beginning of Austen’s novel, Emma Woodhouse is established as the novel’s central character, who suffers from a lack of good judgment and awareness of the world she lives in. Austen establishes this idea through her opening sentence, conveying that Emma is “handsome, clever, and rich”.
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However, the responder is given the impression that she thinks too well of herself as she has “been mistress of his house from a very early period”. We are told that she has been spoiled and indulged by “a most affectionate, indulgent father” and governess whose “shadow of authority being now long passed away”. Emma’s praise from Mr Woodhouse, Mrs. Weston, and Mr Knightley is a warm acknowledgement of her education and accomplishments. Still, it is limited to these few characters whom Emma’s life revolves upon.
Using this as the basis for which Emma has a “comfortable home … with little to distress or vex her”, Austen conveys the idea that she is accustomed to the stability of Highbury society. However, she also warns and foreshadows that all this is about to change by establishing the issues that Emma must deal with before she can reach maturity, “The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way”. The major theme of appearance versus reality is suggested by “seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence” and indicates that Emma subliminally suffers from arrogance and self-deception.
This implies the need for some external stimulus or a new experience to provide an impetus for change. The idea of change is also supported by emphasizing Emma’s age “lived nearly twenty-one years in the world”, suggesting that she is bridged between youth and womanhood. Finally, by exposing Emma’s character flaws and allowing the responder to be aware of them early on, Austen foreshadows events and instances concerned with Emma’s transformation to gain self-knowledge.
Emma’s acquaintance with Harriet Smith is one such event that will lead to her eventual transformation. Both the best and worst of Emma’s character are revealed in her attempts to improve Harriet. Although Emma demonstrates benevolence in her actions to assist Harriet in gaining a place in “respectable society”, she also selfishly seizes the opportunity to pursue her hobby, that of matchmaking, and use Harriet as a companion to replace Mrs. Weston. Austen portrays Emma as a superficial character who feels that as a result of her wealth and status, she also has the power to meddle in the affairs of others. Emma’s reasons for her intervention to prevent Harriet Smith from marrying Robert Martin demonstrate her lack of awareness of the social class structures.
Without meeting Robert Martin, Emma has automatically decided that he is low and unsuitable for Harriet. She unjustly remarks, “I cannot admit him to be Harriet’s equal”. As Austen’s voice of reason, Mr. Knightley sees Emma’s ulterior motive and attempts to educate her, “What are Harriet Smith’s claims, either of birth, nature or education, to any connection higher than Robert Martin?” Emma assumes that manners are equivalent to status and this appeals to the idea of appearance versus reality. In her undeveloped and superficial state, Emma does not understand the full extent of her actions, that she will make Harriet so refined that she will not fit among her true social equals. However ironic it may seem, Harriet is a major catalyst for the eventual change in Emma.
As a direct result of Emma’s meddlesome approach and lack of self-knowledge, she misinterprets various clues presented by Mr. Elton. Austen conveys this through the use of situational irony to create humour through ambiguity. Emma’s confidence in her matchmaking abilities creates a delusion within, blinding her from correctly interpreting the signals and indications Mr Elton gives. Due to her lack of self-knowledge, Emma also discounts the good judgement of Mr John Knightley: “he seems to have a great deal of goodwill towards you”.
Consequently, Emma’s ignorance and lack of self-awareness lead her to humiliation when she discovers Mr Elton’s feigned interest in Harriet as a way of getting closer to Emma: “I am very much astonished, Mr Elton. This to me! … Mr Elton, this is the most extraordinary conduct!” As Emma’s plans go awry, she demonstrates newfound signs of maturity through a greater degree of self-examination. She realises her mistakes and attempts to improve them as well as accepting responsibility for them. Emma’s superficiality dissipates slightly, and she learns not to make assumptions or judge on appearance.
Likewise, Emma’s overconfidence in her ability to judge leads her astray in her acquaintance with Frank Churchill. Without meeting Frank Churchill, Emma makes assumptions that she cannot support as when she refers to him as an “amiable young man”. Again, Emma disregards Mr Knightley’s good judgement. Emma’s subjectiveness and tendency to favour Frank Churchill, as well as her ever-ready willingness to defend him on any grounds, clouds her from viewing him from an unprejudiced perspective. This is demonstrated when Frank Churchill ridiculously travels to London “merely to have his hair cut”. Austen sums up Emma’s opinion on this “There was certainly no harm in his travelling sixteen miles twice over on such an errand.” Emma is blind to Frank’s “vanity, extravagance, love of change” and “restlessness of temper”.
These perceived self-indulgent qualities later manifest themselves on the protagonist. Emma’s worst qualities are indulged and fuelled by Frank Churchill’s feigned interest in her. The latter plants distorted facts to mislead Emma rather than to assist her in gaining self-knowledge. This is highlighted in the scene involving the sudden arrival of the pianoforte from an unknown source. In addition, Frank Churchill misleads Emma by encouraging notions of unfaithfulness on Mr Dixon’s part, “I cannot help suspecting either that, after making his proposals to her friend, he had the misfortune to fall in love with her”. This event somewhat resembles her preceding ignorance of Mr. Elton’s faults, which led to her self-humiliation.
As a result of their present agreeableness, Emma misinterprets Frank Churchill’s “excessive flirtation” and feigned interest in her as a sign that he might be interested in marrying her. In the incident just before Frank Churchill leaves Highbury to tend to a sick Mrs. Churchill, he is on the verge of revealing some sincere emotion to Emma. However, blinded by her stubbornness and superficiality, Emma does not perceive Frank Churchill’s faults and is thus manipulated to believe that Frank might love her while she might be in love with him.
Yet, due to Emma’s lack of experience and consequently her lack of self-knowledge, she has no concrete idea of what love actually entails. In this instance, the responder realises that Emma has grown from a superficial character with little self-knowledge to one who has some self-knowledge. This notion is reinforced by her thoughtful consideration of circumstances and events, leading to an analytical deconstruction of her feelings for Frank: “This sensation of listlessness, weariness, stupidity … I must be in love”. Her eventual realisation that she is not in love with Frank, “I do not find myself using making any use of the word sacrifice”, marks a significant point in Emma’s bid to gain self-knowledge.
The Box Hill excursion is considered the most significant event that deals with Emma’s growth to correct judgement. The picnic party at Box Hill brings into focus Emma’s insensitivity, as well as her lack of manners and social awareness. When is indulged by the pretentious Frank Churchill, she snubs the dull but kind-hearted Miss Bates, “Ah! Ma’am, but there may be a difficulty … you will be limited as to number – only three at once.” Austen emphasizes the harsh cruelty of Emma’s insult: “it could not anger, though a slight blush showed that it could pain her”. In due course, Mr. Knightley delivers Austen’s moral lesson when he educates Emma that she must not ridicule at the expense of others’ feelings, particularly at the cost of the socially inferior and elderly: “How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation? – Emma, I had not thought it possible.”
As a result of the criticism and input from Mr. Knightley, Emma proves that she has emerged, a changed woman. This is underlined by Emma’s feelings of mortification over her cruel treatment of Miss Bates, as explored through her own self-scrutiny: “She had never been so depressed … Emma felt the tears running down her cheeks almost all the way home … extraordinary as they are.” Emma’s ardent yearning to change enables her to understand the folly of her ways.
Free from self-delusion, Emma realises her love for Mr Knightley. Thus far, Emma had been satisfied with the condition of her life, yet it is only when she recognises her faults that she realises her happiness is dependent on Mr. Knightley’s affections. From this, Emma can trust Mr. Knightley’s good judgement while aiding the development of her own. As a result, Emma has transformed from a simple individual to a complex one who respects and accepts others’ viewpoints. This is evidenced in her withdrawal from affairs concerning Harriet Smith’s intimacy with Robert Martin.
Emma starts to perceive things from a neutral perspective and exercises her privileges for the greater good of her friend rather than herself. She does not hesitate to admit her faults but instead corrects them accordingly: “You need not be at any pains to reconcile me to the match. I think Harriet is doing extremely well. Her connexions may be worse than his. But, in the respectability of character, there can be no doubt that they are.” Ultimately, Emma has grown through the learning processes of youth to attain self-knowledge.
The various events that occur during the course of the novel develop Emma into a rounded individual who possesses a wealth of self-knowledge. This was not achieved without the aid of new experiences that penetrated the stability in her life, largely through the limitations presented by Highbury society. Emma’s overconfidence in her own judgement and her misinterpretation of clues given by Mr. Elton and Frank Churchill are important learning processes in Emma’s education. With the good judgement of Mr. Knightley and her own self-scrutiny, Emma is provided with the impetus to improve on her faults. Her growth to maturity and correct judgement ultimately leads to the attainment of greater self-knowledge. In balance, it can be seen through the character of Emma Woodhouse that “Emma” is blatantly a novel about youth through self-knowledge.
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