PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.21, NO.2 (Summer 2000)

The Dilemma of Emma: Moral, Ethical, and Spiritual Values

Karin Jackson


Karin Jackson (email: teaches English, including courses on women writers, at the University of Maine at Augusta and has also taught at Westbrook College in Portland, Maine.  In Fall 1999, Professor Jackson taught a seminar entitled “Jane Austen: From Page to Screen.”


Jane Austen and her works are generally considered representative of the late eighteenth-century “classical” world view and its values—judgment, reason, clarity of perception—those of the “Age of Reason.”  In its best sense, this is a moral world view, reflecting the values of the Enlightenment.  Austen’s values represent order in the face of disorder, but her concept of order embodies what is true, organic, living, not the static order imposed merely on the exterior, from “society” or “the church,” for example.  Austen’s attitudes actually differ in subtle ways from the conventional manifestations of the classical attitudes and forms of the late eighteenth century—of the excesses of classicism that the Romantics rebelled against so vehemently.  However, Jane Austen’s novels can also be called anti-Romantic in that they counter the extremes of the Romantic imagination epitomized by the Gothic novels so popular during her time, and satirized by Austen in Northanger Abbey.  In Emma she also satirizes romantic excess, particularly in the character of Harriet Smith who, in a sense, enshrines Mr. Elton by keeping as “her most precious treasures” relics of a scrap of “court plaister” he handled and an old pencil piece that had belonged to him.


The ordered society in Austen’s world is one in which people live in authentic harmony—socially, economically, emotionally, and ethically.  Balance, order, and good sense exist in the face of too much sensibility; a balance of intellect and emotion, thought and feeling, outer and inner experience, society and the interior life, is the key to understanding Austen’s schema of meaningful experience and right relationships.  Throughout Emma we are part of the energy of the novel leading toward the fulfillment of this ideal in the vitality of the characters.


In all of Austen’s novels, the idea of truth, of perceiving the truth, is of supreme importance.  Mark Schorer points out that Emma might have been called “Pride and Perception” or “Perception and Self-Delusion” (98).  The work moves from delusion to self-recognition, from illusion to reality; numerous images of sight and blindness reinforce this—the lack of sight, the necessity for insight.  Emma’s “blindness” to the real nature of Mr. Elton, of Harriet, Robert Martin, Jane Fairfax, Frank Churchill, Mr. Knightley, and of course herself, shows her unknowing errors of judgment, her fundamental lack of self-understanding.  She is deceived as to the nature and reality of the world around her, as well as to the nature of her own emotions.  When the truth of human situations and feelings is not perceived accurately, disorder and unhappiness result.  Unethical, even immoral behavior is fostered through ignorance, and is only rectified when the truth emerges, allowing ethical behavior to predominate.


The novel Emma is a one of courtship and marriage; it begins with a marriage (Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston), and ends with three others, as well as observing in action those of Emma’s sister Isabella and John Knightley, and of Mr. and Mrs. Elton, definitely a negative role model.  According to Jane Austen, for marriage to be successful it must be an intrinsic part of, and connected to the fabric of the genuinely ordered society, and thus represent a true moral and ethical reality.  We recall her well-known statement in a letter in 1814 to her niece Fanny Knight that “anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection.  Nothing can be compared to the misery of being bound without love” (18 November 1814), a point expressing a most basic value of Austen’s view of marriage.  It must never occur just to fulfill societal and economic structures, which would be highly unethical as well as lead to personal misery.  Instead, there has to be genuine “Affection,” or a true “attachment,” as she was so fond of saying, which engenders genuine ethical and moral behavior.


The marriage theme in the Austen novel is fulfilled by the “good match”; society coalesces around the well-matched couple, and moral integrity, equality of being (though limited by the patriarchal structure of the time), and spiritual insight are the result.  The characters become more fulfilled, and the heroine becomes what she should be in moral terms as well as in her personal happiness.  The basis for a moral equality is found between the heroine and the hero, and in a sense a new order of society is formed, outside of and counter to the hierarchical, striving, and unethical elements of conventional society.  In Emma Mrs. Elton represents this position to the extreme.  Some who misread Austen may think that she merely endorses and reinforces the conventional structures of society, but such is not the case; the necessity for inner truth and reality is implicit behind the outer social structures.  But Emma does not easily reach this stage of being, for she makes many errors of judgment in her journey toward maturity.  For example, in her role as social snob, she is condescending and looks down on and inaccurately perceives a character such as Robert Martin, but hers is a false perception of class structure.  She fails to understand and acknowledge the fine qualities that would make him the right mate for Harriet, something Mr. Knightley knows all along.  She strives too hard to “make matches” and in the process is mistaken and does wrong—even does “evil,” in her convoluted matchmaking for Harriet:  “there was still such an evil hanging over her in the hour of explanation with Harriet, as made it impossible for Emma to be ever perfectly at ease” (139).  Her errors involve not only Harriet, but all the other major characters, including Mr. Knightley, and most of all, and most unknowingly, herself.  The result is chaos and confusion.


This, then, is the dilemma of Emma:  she is a victim of her own illusions and creates a world of her own fancy, but it is not the real world, according to Andrew Wright, who notes Emma’s “supreme self-confidence and serene delusion” (135).  Emma is so engrossed in herself that she radically misconceives even her own attachment to Mr. Knightley.  Her fancy, her imagination, and her manipulation of people’s lives are all based on a false perception of reality, despite her grandiose trust in her own judgment.  She is referred to as an “imaginist,” a word created by Jane Austen in this instance.  At the very beginning of the novel we learn that Emma has an exalted and vain view of herself; “the real evils 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; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments” (5).  This statement suggestively foreshadows her coming tribulations.  She must learn that people have an inner life of their own, apart from her perception of what she thinks that inner life should be.  “With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of everybody’s feelings, with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange everybody’s destiny” (412-13).


When Emma actually sees her mistakes and the harm they have caused others, as well as herself, she finally begins to attain a new level of insight and maturity.  The moral development in the novel suggests the need for the diminishment of Emma in the social sphere, a new position for her, but an appropriate place in the scale of value, rather than one defined by her self-aggrandizing ego.  When Emma grows in a moral way as a result of her recognition of objective truth, she evolves into a more integrated person, a better person, and in the process gains what is truly right for her as an individual.  The significance of the moral aspects of the novel is addressed by Arnold Kettle:  “the prevailing interest in Emma is not one of mere ‘aesthetic’ delight but a moral interest,” and Austen’s “ability to involve us intensely in her scene and people is absolutely inseparable from her moral concern.  The moral is never spread on top; it is bound up always in the quality of feeling evoked. . . . [T]he delight we find in reading Emma has in fact a moral basis” (114, 119).


In addition to understanding the novel as an in-depth study of a single character, its moral aspects can be viewed within a larger context, set within a more comprehensive scope—in relation to classical Greek tragedy; in the context of a Christian spiritual world view; in the comic tradition brought to its height by Shakespeare, and in a psychological perspective, particularly from the point of view of Carl Jung.  In all of these approaches moral and ethical issues are implicit, and spiritual evolution is the outcome of the process of internal change.


Classical tragedy embodies the concepts of hubris, the excess of self-pride that brings about a tragic fall; hamartia, the error or mistake of the tragic hero; and finally anagnorisis, the self-recognition of that error by the hero—all concepts named and analyzed by Aristotle in the Poetics.  The character of Emma manifests these ideas, for she has too much self-pride for her own good.  One critic speaks of her “enchanting hubris” (Harris 169), another of the “distorting power of her egoistic imagination” (Litz 140).  She does harm through her mistakes as well as through her misperceptions of others and of herself.  Finally, she experiences a true recognition of her own errors after the Box Hill incident when she is soundly rebuked by Mr. Knightley for insulting Miss Bates for being dull.  Miss Bates represents, in the words of Darrel Mansell, “the simple unintelligent world that Emma has been disdaining in favour of her own heightened imagination” (169); her disdain of and impertinence toward Miss Bates suggest excessive self-pride, a sense of hubris.  From the Box Hill experience Emma begins to grow morally, but then her understanding of her own feelings is dramatically enhanced when she realizes with horror the possibility of Harriet’s marrying Mr. Knightley.  “Such an elevation on her side!  Such a debasement on his!” (413).  “It darted through her with the speed of an arrow that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself” (408).  This realization “breaks the closed narcissistic system in which the world always gives back to her a flattering image of herself, perfection achieved, and she comes to see, as we have seen, the ‘real evils’ of thinking too well of herself and always having her own way. . . . Emma displays for us her faults and the serious moral consequences of her misguided actions” (Crosby 90-91).


In Greek tragedy the hero with too much hubris perceives the truth, but it is “too little, too late,” as discovered by Oedipus in Oedipus Rex and Creon in Antigone.  Growth through suffering occurs in the tragic hero, but he is destroyed as a result of error.  The tragic fall occurs, and unhappiness, disaster, and complete disruption of the social order result.  Happily, Emma and her friends are spared this fate, though Emma’s errors do create unhappiness, disunity, disruption, and mismatched couples.  But led by Mr. Knightley’s patriarchal guidance, she realizes her errors; the plot is unscrambled and we have the delightful comic ending, with each person rightfully restored to his or her “true” mate.


Before this natural pairing can occur, however, Emma must experience what could be identified as the Christian cycle of sin, repentance, redemption, and grace.  Religion and the church are not present as an overt positive influence in Austen’s novels; indeed, they are notable for their absence.  The only representative of the church in Emma, Mr. Elton, is distinguished by his secular, decidedly unspiritual demeanor, and by his social climbing and materialistic wife, an absurd caricature of the traditional “minister’s wife.”  Austen’s novels lack religious or specific spiritual energy; rather, their power lies in the values, ethics, and moral force present in each of the works.  Emma, according to Jesse Wolfe, seems “to argue a Christian ethic, but not a personal God” (111); it is a “secular Christian ethic. Such an ethic sees pride as the primal sin, and the human condition as fallen, i.e., inevitably self-centered” (117).  Despite the lack of conventional religious aspects, the values and the process of recognition of wrongdoing, and the ultimate insight that results, can be interpreted as traditionally Christian in nature.  I believe that Austen was profoundly Christian in her value system, though she never directly calls it that, and that she understood the path of inner enlightenment in terms of Christian principles, though perhaps not in terms of spirituality in its highest mystical sense.


In Emma’s process of inner revelation, she literally undergoes a conversion; she must suffer “the dark night of the soul,” as identified by the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross, and she must repent in order to come into a state of grace, harmony, and right relationships.  When Mr. Knightley reprimands Emma for her rude treatment of Miss Bates at Box Hill, an incident that has been called “one of the most intense moments in the whole of Jane Austen” (Lerner 145), he says to her, “‘I will tell you truths while I can’” (375).  She was “vexed beyond what could have been expressed,” and then she weeps.  “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).  Emma’s tears show her pain—the beginning of her self-recognition, her “anagnorisis.”  The next day she plans to visit Miss Bates and apologize, and here Austen actually uses the Christian terms of “contrition” and “penitence”:  “In the warmth of true contrition she would call upon her the very next morning, and it should be the beginning on her side of a regular, equal kind of intercourse. . . . She would not be ashamed of the appearance of the penitence so justly and truly hers” (377-78).


This scene is reminiscent of an earlier one in which Emma must “undergo the necessary penance of communication” (141) and tell Harriet the truth about Mr. Elton. The Christian, moral vocabulary is also evident in this passage with the use of the words “confession,” “shame,” and the expression “to be in charity with herself”:  “The confession completely renewed her first shame—and the sight of Harriet’s tears made her think that she should never be in charity with herself again” (141), a phrase implying being morally and spiritually reconciled with what is true, what is right.  But at this point Emma has not truly repented her manipulative deeds; shortly thereafter when taking Harriet for a visit to the Martins that turns out to last fourteen minutes, she still maintains her erroneous class bias by lamenting that the Martins were not of a “little higher” rank; “as it was, how could she have done otherwise?—Impossible!—She could not repent.  They must be separated; but there was a great deal of pain in the process—so much to herself at this time . . .” (187).  At the end of the novel, when Emma has to inform Harriet of yet another confusion, the truth that Mr. Knightley is not available for her, “she felt for Harriet with pain and with contrition” (431).  Fortunately, Harriet is saved any long-lasting pain when shortly thereafter she is reconciled with Robert Martin.


Only when Emma suffers herself and realizes that she might lose Mr. Knightley can she genuinely transform.  Her dark mood is reflected in the unsettled weather, just as in the Greek tragedies and Shakespeare’s plays, stormy weather mirrors the disruptive nature of human relationships that are out of sorts:  “The evening of this day was very long and melancholy at Hartfield.  The weather added what it could of gloom.  A cold, stormy rain set in, and nothing of July appeared but in the trees and shrubs, which the wind was despoiling, and the length of the day, which only made such cruel sight no longer visible” (421).  When the weather clears, the stage is set for the transformation leading to the resolution of the novel; the secret engagement of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax is revealed, Mr. Knightley appears, and Emma acknowledges that she “‘seem[s] to have been doomed to blindness. . . . My blindness to what was going on, led me to act . . . in a way that I must always be ashamed of, and I was very foolishly tempted to say and do many things which may well lay me open to unpleasant conjectures’” (425, 426).  Also, the error of Mr. Knightley’s perception that Emma cared for Frank is rectified.  In his recognition that he has been jealous of Frank and in love with Emma, “Mr. Knightley undergoes a spiritual discovery that is faintly like Emma’s own” (Mansell 174).  Mr. Knightley declares his intentions to Emma, and, within a half hour, all is well and happy:  “This one half hour had given to each the same precious certainty of being beloved, had cleared from each the same degree of ignorance, jealousy, or distrust” (432).


Truth emerges from concealment; insight and understanding replace blindness and delusion; redemption and a state of grace conquer sin and the darkness of the soul.  Happiness, the right social order, and true affection reign.  This comic ending is in the tradition of Shakespeare’s comedies such as Twelfth Night, Much Ado about Nothing, As You Like It, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when mismatched couples are restored to their rightful mates.  In an insightful analysis documenting the parallels between Emma and Shakespeare’s great comedy of romantic mischief, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Jocelyn Harris notes that they are alike in several ways:  “the hot pursuit of lovers through a midsummer landscape, matching and mismatching of couples, female friendship and its betrayal, and the movement toward tolerance, forbearance and generosity at the end” (174).  In the midsummer madness of Shakespeare’s play, and in Emma, one finds confusion and delusion, the “blunders and blindness of love.”  The unraveling occurs swiftly, and we have the joyful ending of love and harmony in the now appropriately matched mates.  At the end of Emma mistakes are acknowledged and obstacles overcome, even Mr. Woodhouse’s opposition to marriage; he is the anti-comic influence in the novel, in terms of being anti-marriage, though he is “comical” or amusing in his opposition and extreme hypochondria.  After the forces blocking the three primary relationships are removed, we have a flurry of weddings—marriages that are socially suitable and based on love, on a true “attachment,” and therefore meet Jane Austen’s criteria for a good match:  Jane and Frank, Emma and Mr. Knightley, and Harriet and her first and best suitor, who never flagged in his love, Robert Martin, and whom Mr. Knightley knew all along should marry Harriet.


If we look back from Shakespeare’s comic works to the origins of comedy in the ancient Greek period, we find the beginnings of comedy in the fertility rituals for the god Dionysus, or Bacchus, the deity of wine, vegetation, fruitfulness, sexuality, and reproduction.  These rites were revel songs and dances dramatizing the joys of renewal, the triumph over obstacles, the rebirth of life through vegetation and procreation.  And, at the conclusion of Emma, we have fertility celebrated, not only with the plethora of marriages, but also with the arrival of Mrs. Weston’s baby.


The comic tradition from Shakespeare’s time expresses and celebrates love and marriage, and suggests a bounteous and prosperous vision of life.  Tragedy moves from good fortune to disaster; comedy develops from some kind of minor disaster and ends in good fortune and prosperity.  And, of course, prosperity, both emotional and economic, is the key to Austen’s world; it is the “rightness” of the matches in her novels in all ways—socially, economically, and psychologically—that make us take such satisfaction and pleasure in her characters and plots.  By implication, these relationships are based on moral and ethical rightness, which is what fosters true happiness in the inner life of each individual.


In terms of individual development, we can view Emma as a character in the context of modern psychoanalytic theory, specifically that of C. G. Jung.  We follow the development of Emma’s personality, her psyche, and see her “human growth and development” as she progresses slowly, often reluctantly, from her extreme self-absorption toward self-knowledge and integrity. Integrity suggests the integration of the personality, the unifying of the disparate, fragmented parts of the psyche into an integrated whole, a maturing of the psyche. Of course, Emma is young—“nearly twenty-one years old” (5)—and the time span of the novel is very short, but in that period we have a forceful character development that keeps us “with” Emma through all her trials.  Austen reveals her understanding of psychological behavior and principles long before they were named and codified by modern psychoanalysis.


In Jungian terms, we can observe Emma’s development as an example of the process of what Jung called “individuation,” of becoming an in-dividual, a person undivided within him or her self, an integrated whole.  Emma’s dilemma of finally understanding herself and the world around her, of trying to separate illusion from reality, and of moving toward a recognition of truth from a false posture of delusion and self-centeredness—these are all intrinsic to the psychological portrait of Emma Woodhouse.  Austen shows the process of the inner life at work when Emma comprehends the very real possibility of losing Mr. Knightley to Harriet.  After a meditative period of self-examination, she begins to perceive more clearly, and a major change occurs:


Emma’s eyes were instantly withdrawn; and she sat silently meditating, in a fixed attitude, for a few minutes. A few minutes were sufficient for making her acquainted with her own heart. . . . Her own conduct, as well as her own heart, was before her in the same few minutes.  She saw it all with a clearness which had never blessed her before.  (407, 408)


The use of the word “blessed” here is significant, implying a spiritual component to the nature of self-enlightenment.  Becoming “acquainted with her own heart” also leads Emma to realize the moral implications of this situation, that if she lost Mr. Knightley, no matter what, she must improve her behavior.  She connects this improvement to self-knowledge:


the only source whence anything like consolation or composure could be drawn, was in the resolution of her own better conduct, and the hope that, however inferior in spirit and gaiety might be the following and every future winter of her life to the past, it would yet find her more rational, more acquainted with herself.  (423)


Becoming “acquainted with herself,” with her own heart and mind—this is our hope for Emma as she engages in the process of individuation and emerges a more integrated, and, in the process, a more moral person.


Emma’s relationships with the other characters show insights into the psychological process; each of these individuals offers aspects of experience and reality that enhance both our understanding of Emma and her understanding of herself.  The negative female images of Miss Bates, who carries the stereotype of the “chatty” woman to a ludicrous extreme, and of the intrusive Mrs. Elton, may suggest a dark side of Emma, the “shadow” in Jungian terms.  Emma often talks too much for her own good, as does Miss Bates, and, like Mrs. Elton, Emma interferes in everyone’s affairs.  When Emma spends a quarter of an hour alone with Mrs. Elton she is convinced that “Mrs. Elton was a vain woman, extremely well satisfied with herself, and thinking too much of her own importance” (272).  Does this sound like Emma herself?  Austen is showing us something here:  the shadow figure that embodies the negative qualities of the psyche, Mrs. Elton as an extreme of Emma’s flaws.  In contrast, Jane Fairfax is a positive female image, but one that Emma rejects.  Though poor, Jane is a superior being, well-educated, talented, disciplined, in contrast to Emma’s desultory, dilettantish approach to learning and accomplishment.  As noted by Mr. Knightley, Emma had been “meaning to read more ever since she was twelve years old” (37).  Emma has the advantage of wealth and social position, but Jane is the more highly evolved person.  Emma is competitive with Jane and jealous of her talents, such as her excellent piano playing and singing.  In contrast, Emma’s association with the undeveloped and dependent Harriet Smith may suggest her own intellectual and personal limitations.  Alison Sulloway calls attention to “Emma’s intellectual poverty and other social deformities that have engendered her outrageous behavior” (135), and that perhaps explain her fixated friendship with Harriet.


Finally, it is Mr. Knightley who vehemently calls Emma’s attention to her outrageous behavior with Miss Bates and makes Emma see herself as she is.  Early in the novel we hear that “Mr. Knightley, in fact, was one of the few people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever told her of them” (11), he also makes her know her own heart when she finally realizes her feeling for him.  As A. Walton Litz points out, “Mr. Knightley speaks not only for the author, but for Emma’s heart,” and when he reprimands her, “it awakens part of herself and comes as the voice of her own conscience” (141).  Thus, this rather pompous patriarch teaches Emma about herself, which is what he has been doing throughout her life.  Mr. Knightley has the advantage of age, and thus perspective, a perspective both critical and rational, but also empathetic.  It may be that with the integration into Emma’s psyche of a strong male influence—the masculine, or “animus” in Jungian terms—we can finally see the emergence of an integrated personality in the character of Emma Woodhouse.  But Emma will have an on-going challenge to maintain her new-found moral understanding; as noted by Jesse Wolfe, “salvation in Austen can only be partial. Emma’s pride never disappears. . . . The ego may be defeated temporarily, but not permanently” (115).


Jane Austen has created a novel that, though centered in her late eighteenth/early nineteenth-century world of society and relationships, gives us a much larger perspective on her meaning, if we closely examine the ideas intrinsic to the work.  A broader context of the ancient classical tragic and comic traditions, parallels to the Shakespearean comic world, the Christian world view, and a more modern psychological perspective—all in relation to the moral, ethical and spiritual values implicit in the novel—enhances the experience of reading Emma.  We are personally enriched by Austen’s novel, as we are by all of her works, but because of the constant focus on the character of Emma, we are even more enriched by this work.  We partake in Emma’s quest for wholeness, self-understanding, integrity, and spiritual insight.  In a sense, the dilemma of Emma is also our dilemma, as we work to move toward integration, self-realization, truth, and reality.



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  Emma.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933.

Crosby, Christina.  “Facing the Charms of Emma.”  New Orleans Review 16 (1989): 88-97.

Harris, Jocelyn.  Jane Austen’s Art of Memory.  Cambridge: CUP, 1989.

Kettle, Arnold.  “Emma.”  Watt 112-123.  Rpt. of “Jane Austen: Emma (1816).”  An Introduction to the English Novel.  New York: Harper, 1951.

Lerner, Laurence.  The Truthtellers: Jane Austen, George Eliot, D. H. Lawrence.  New York: Schocken, 1967.

Litz, A. Walton.  Jane Austen: A Study of Her Artistic Development.  New York: Oxford UP, 1965.

Mansell, Darrel.  The Novels of Jane Austen: An Interpretation.  New York: Barnes, 1973.

Schorer, Mark.  “The Humiliation of Emma Woodhouse.”  The Literary Review 2 (1959): 547-69.  Rpt. in Watt 98-111.

Sulloway, Alison G.  Jane Austen and the Province of Womanhood.  Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania P, 1989.

Watt, Ian, ed.  Jane Austen: Critical Essays.  Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1964.

Wolfe, Jesse.  “Jane Austen and the Sin of Pride.”  Renascence 51.2 (1999): 111-31.

Wright, Andrew H.  Jane Austen’s Novels: A Study in Structure.  1953.  London: Chatto, 1964.


Back to Persuasions On-Line Table of Contents

Return to Home Page