The education of Emma—and of its eponymous heroine—pivots on a moment of censure. Mr. Knightley’s rebuke of Emma on Box Hill derails her imagined narrative of moral education, which had positioned herself as the generous teacher and Harriet Smith as her naïve and eager pupil. At first, with Emma’s authority dismantled, it seems that the true education of the novel must then be hers by Mr. Knightley. But if the romance in Emma is really a marriage between teacher and student, it follows that the marriage is not between equals, and certainly critics have labeled the novel’s foundations patriarchal—reducing its plot to a taming of the shrew. Instead, Austen subverts the expected power dynamic between Emma and Mr. Knightley throughout the novel, creating a portrait of growth and mentorship that exists outside of traditional education, and between equals.
At the novel’s inception, Austen makes it clear that Emma’s formal education has in some sense failed her. Although Miss Taylor has always been as “intelligent, well-informed, [and] useful” a governess as Emma could ask for, she also—like most of the society that surrounds Emma— “could never find fault” with her (Austen 6). Miss Taylor’s relationship with Emma exists within the strictures of formal education, but does not fulfill that education’s promise, and Emma reaches adulthood as a dilettante more interested in imagination than introspection. Emma therefore presumes herself an appropriate tutor for the impressionable Harriet, in an endeavor that Mr. Knightley immediately warns will deliver “hourly flattery” to Emma and “only . . . a little polish” to Harriet (Austen 29). Although both Miss Taylor and Emma embark on conscious projects to educate others, their efforts are limited by temperament and vanity, respectively. Meanwhile, although Knightley may be “the only one who ever [tells Emma of her faults],” he does not presume didactic authority over her life. Even during the episode on Box Hill, he admits that his advice and criticism have been “privilege[s] endured rather than allowed,” emphasizing Emma’s power within their relationship. Mr. Knightley does not instruct Emma with the expectation that she will follow his command; he instead offers his opinion, equal to hers in its honesty, often inferior to hers in its influence because she values her own so highly. As with Emma’s ambitious reading lists, which he viewed with mixed appreciation and skepticism but never prescribed, Mr. Knightley remains a spectator in her education rather than a participant. As much as he wants her to learn, he does not assume the role of teacher. That role he leaves to Emma herself.
Unique among Austen’s heroines, Emma Woodhouse enjoys privilege in society beyond most women even of her social class, lacking neither “fortune . . . employment . . . [nor] consequence” (Austen 62). As Mr. Knightley remarks in conversation with Miss Taylor, Emma is “the mistress of house and of . . . all,” both self-reliant and powerful in her situation (Austen 28). Because Emma asserts such an aversion to marriage at the novel’s beginning, and because she understands her independence and pride as mutually exclusive from marriage, feminist critics have sometimes seen her agreement to marry Mr. Knightley after her “education” as a submission to society’s expectations of women. After all, for most of the novel “Emma . . . poaches on what is felt to be male turf,” and it would be easy to interpret her mortification on Box Hill as punishment for her gender transgressions (Johnson 125). Camille Paglia does so when she writes in Sexual Personaethat Austen associates Emma’s “androgyny with selfish privatism,” given Emma’s masculine inclinations and her refusal to engage sexually or emotionally in the ways expected of women—namely, courtship as an avenue to marriage (441). Christine Roulson goes further, arguing that Emma’s attempts to instruct Harriet parallel Mr. Knightley’s “real” instruction of Emma, but are merely a “parodic inversion” of that education, as Emma can have “no . . . claim to legitimacy” except that which marriage to Mr. Knightley gives her (Mezei 47). These interpretations, however, assume that Austen aims to punish her heroine for her disregard of gender roles—when in reality, Austen’s attention to Emma’s narcissism is never poisoned by a policing response to her femininity or a punitive response to her masculinity. The novel is not concerned with “subjecting the ‘masculine independence’ of its heroine to disciplinary correctives,” but with charging her to turn the discernment she prides herself on inward (Johnson 195). And at the end of the novel, Emma does not “submit” to the oppressive contract of marriage as a means to legitimacy, but fulfills the promise she had made Harriet earlier in the story: that if she were to marry it would be only for love, with a freedom afforded to her by her class privilege, and enjoyed by few other women. Indeed, Emma makes no sacrifice of authority in marrying Mr. Knightley, either of her power over her father or her power over her household. As Austen observes, few men of Mr. Knightley’s situation would have “renounced their own home for Hartfield” the way Mr. Knightley does in moving into Emma’s home, relinquishing the seat of his own power to reinforce hers and “sacrificing a great deal of independence” (Austen 309). Critics who view Emma’s arc as that of a free spirit humiliated and subjugated must remember that if any character is dethroned in the novel, it is Mr. Knightley, and it is of his own free will. “In placing himself within her domain,” as Claudia Johnson writes, “Knightley gives his blessing to her rule.”
For his part, Mr. Knightley evades the simplistic definition of teacher, not merely in his reluctance to claim that title, but in his textual relationship with Emma. While Emma credits Mr. Knightley with the instruction and criticism that “counteract[ed] the indulgence” of a spoilt child, he rejects that idea, insisting that “the good [of his criticism] was all to [him]self”—his lectures not a vessel for Emma’s betterment but an expression of his love (Austen 318). His “interference” in Emma’s affairs was not her education, and he says with her “understanding [and] principles . . . [she] must have done well” without it (Austen 318). In his confession of love, too, he lacks the manner of a teacher who knows, professes, and employs his dominance. Mr. Knightley, a man of general confidence, is entirely intimidated by Emma despite having the privilege of both age and gender. His insecurity during the moment of confession is so acute that he assumes Emma does not return his feelings, that she is silent out of disgust or embarrassment, that he must apologize for or explain the way he has so often criticized her. When he tells her, “if I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more,” the admission is not just one of affection but of bewilderment (Austen 296). Mr. Knightley, a man of unsentimental manners and assertive speech, can reduce anything to the jurisdiction of his voice and opinion—anything, that is, except his feeling for Emma.
Furthermore, although the focus of the novel is Emma’s education, Austen does not present Mr. Knightley as perfect, static, and stoic. Critics have often remarked on Knightley’s jealousy of Frank Churchill, and the sly note Austen makes that after discovering Emma’s affection belongs to him alone, “he might have deemed [Frank Churchill] a very good sort of fellow” (Austen 298). His education extends further, of course, beyond correcting a misplaced jealousy over Emma’s flirtation with Frank. Mr. Knightley confesses to dismissing Harriet Smith just as Emma had dismissed Robert Martin—albeit for very different reasons—and when Emma agrees that she has changed since the time of that dismissal, he replies that “[he is] changed also” (Austen 326). Johnson emphasizes Mr. Knightley’s dynamic character when she asserts that he is “far from embodying fixed or at the very least commonly shared notions of masculinity [for the time] . . . a man of energy, vigor, and decision” (201).
Even after Emma and Mr. Knightley have entered their engagement, Austen presents Emma’s story as one of continued growth and learning, mediated not by her husband but by herself. Emma hopes “that the lessons of her past folly might teach her humility and circumspection in the future,” but these are lessons she hopes to confront on her own, not at Mr. Knightley’s demand (Austen 327). She is still prone, after all, to thinking highly of her own predictive power, even if she is now content to be wrong. When Mr. Knightley informs her of Harriet’s engagement to Robert Martin, her first reaction is not one of pleasure but of shock that her judgment—once more—has proven incorrect. Mr. Knightley teases her, asking if she “dare[s] to suppose [him] so great a blockhead” that he could have misunderstood the announcement of their marriage, but he makes no attempt to lecture her about the source of her shock (Austen 326). As Marilyn Butler writes, Emma is not “necessarily more ‘right’ in any single instance at the end of the book than she was at the beginning,” and Knightley, too, never achieves perfection (Austen 391). What Emma attains in her “education” is not the ability to forgo the mistakes she has made in the past, but clear-sightedness, a “capacity for penetration to the truth” (Austen 392). As Lionel Trilling wrote, “the extraordinary thing about Emma is that she has a moral life as a man has a moral life,” allowed self-centeredness and a robust inner life in the way female characters rarely are, perhaps more than any other woman even in Austen (Carson 193). For Emma’s moral life to survive her imperfection must survive too, giving her vanity and meanness to struggle with—but now with the candor and introspection to confront those flaws for what they are.
It is that concept of perpetual education and perpetual imperfection which separates Austen from the belief in “utopian fulfillment” ascribed to education in the literature of her contemporaries, and which gives her work its satiric character (Ford 185). With the folly of attempted teaching at the heart of Emma’s mistakes with Harriet, the central romance of Emma could never rest on the teaching of Emma by Mr. Knightley. For Austen, the “control [required by formal education] is finally impossible as well as morally problematic,” and therefore while Emma is indeed a romance of education, it is one without an easily defined teacher and student (Ford 174). The plot of Emma is not, after all, a taming of the shrew. Emma Woodhouse is neither educated nor mastered by a man, but her love for one opens the door to her personal moral education, and in that process she masters herself.