READERS HAVE HAD MUCH TO SAY ABOUT JANE AUSTEN’S Mr. Knightley. Like many critics, Stuart Tave views Mr. Knightley as the voice of reason, who corrects Emma’s mistakes of an overactive imagination (208). Other critics have acknowledged Mr. Knightley’s rationality, but have recognized his human flaws. For example, J. F. Burrows proposes that he is “one fallible creature among others” (9) and details times when his judgment of others, especially Emma, is “harsher . . . than the facts warrant” (18). Mary Waldron explores how Mr. Knightley, although having “sane and rational prudence” (144), is as confused about his feelings and as focused on marriages as other characters. For Theresa Kenney, Mr. Knightley starts the novel as Emma’s taskmaster (111) and has to become more amiable in order to become her lover. These last three critics highlight the limits of Mr. Knightley’s rationality.
I wish to continue this line of criticism. Not only does Mr. Knightley use his rationality to judge Emma’s behavior and seek to act as her moral guide, but in doing so he neglects to understand her emotional experiences. Through the dynamic between Mr. Knightley and Emma, Jane Austen shows the challenges of emotionally connecting with or sympathizing with people who are different from you. In exploring this theme of the challenges of sympathy, I will discuss the work of Adam Smith, an Enlightenment philosopher whose work resonates well with Jane Austen (see Bohanon and Vachris; Fricke; Knox-Shaw; Michie). Smith contends that we must sympathetically imagine other people’s feelings in order to understand them, feel their emotions, and properly judge their behavior (10-23). Before Emma and Mr. Knightley can marry, Mr. Knightley needs to abandon his attempts to be the impartial judge and objective moral guide of Emma and develop his sympathetic imagination to feel her emotions accurately, especially her loneliness and loss.
Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (hereafter TMS), first published in 1759 and reworked significantly in the sixth edition of 1790, was influential and well-known in the late 1700s and early 1800s (Knox-Shaw 7; Moler 568). Jane Austen would have been exposed to Adam Smith’s work at least indirectly through her reading (Knox-Shaw 7, 17-18). Some authors, however, have found striking parallels between TMS and parts of Jane Austen’s novels that suggest that Austen knew TMS well. Kenneth Moler first pointed out that the way Mary Bennet discusses pride and vanity in Pride and Prejudice has connection with TMS (567-69; also Fricke 2-8; Knox-Shaw 7). When Elizabeth Bennet says of Mr. Darcy, “‘I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine’” (PP 20), Moler hears an echo of Adam Smith’s statement about men of pride, that “their self-estimation mortifies our own” (Smith 246; Moler 569; Fricke 6-7). Peter Knox-Shaw reviews several allusions to TMS in the novels, including one in Sense and Sensibility when Robert Ferrars buys a toothpick case with much affectation (SS 220-21). To Knox-Shaw that scene seems to be a reference from Austen to Smith’s discussion about frivolous purchases, which mentions “tweezer-cases” and “a tooth-pick” (Smith 181-82; Knox-Shaw 148). Like Moler, Fricke, and Knox-Shaw, I find the multiple allusions to Adam Smith in Jane Austen’s novels to be convincing evidence that she had a reader’s understanding of TMS. Like them, I believe that if we understand Adam Smith better, we have a clearer sense of one source of the moral theory underlying the novels.
In TMS, Adam Smith presents a moral theory that tells us how to balance self-interest with the interests of others, a balance that Jane Austen also explores in her works (Fricke 1-2). Smith posits that humans, although “selfish,” also are interested naturally in the “happiness” of other people (9). Sympathy is defined by Smith as our ability imaginatively to feel others’ emotions (9-10) as they would experience the situation, changing “persons and characters” with others (317). Smith uses the terms “pity” and “compassion” to apply to feeling “the sorrow of others,” but for him the term “sympathy” is broader and can be used with any kind of feeling (10). Jane Austen’s discussion of Emma’s attitudes toward the poor is a good example of “sympathy” and “compassion” being used in Smith’s sense:
Emma was very compassionate; and the distresses of the poor were as sure of relief from her personal attention and kindness, her counsel and her patience, as from her purse. She understood their ways, could allow for their ignorance and their temptations, had no romantic expectations of extraordinary virtue from those, for whom education had done so little; entered into their troubles with ready sympathy, and always gave her assistance with as much intelligence as good-will. (86)
Since Emma imagines the lives of the poor from their perspective, she is realistic in her expectations of them and treats them with kindness and compassion. When Austen describes Emma as having both intelligence and good feelings to help the poor, she stresses that it requires good reasoning to assume another’s perspective in order to have proper sympathy.
To be sympathetic we must imagine the emotions of other people as they would feel them (Smith 317). Yet Austen knows this imaginative act is hard: “‘One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other’” (81), Emma tells her father when he complains that he cannot understand how the Knightley children enjoy being tossed in the air by their uncle. Several characters in Emma are deficient in the ability to imagine others’ perspectives. Mr. Woodhouse is “never able to suppose that other people could feel differently from himself” (8) and deprives hungry guests of food when the food is disagreeable to him. More seriously, Austen explores challenges in imagining others’ lives through Mr. Knightley, who is accused of being unable to imagine dependency and what women feel. He has to feel his own loneliness and dependence before he can feel Emma’s loneliness and lack of freedom (Kenney 117).
Adam Smith offers insight into how we should feel and act in order to receive social approval. As humans we desire “the pleasure of mutual sympathy” (Smith 13) and want others to approve of our emotions. We know that observers do not feel our emotions as strongly as we do since they are using their sympathetic imaginations; we thus lower our emotions to a level that observers will approve of, a process that Smith calls “self-command” (Smith 21-26). When Emma chides Harriet, urging her to regulate her disappointment about Mr. Elton, she uses a Smithian vocabulary of self-command, including the mention of duty and propriety:
“I have not said, exert yourself Harriet for my sake; think less, talk less of Mr. Elton for my sake; because for your own sake rather, I would wish it to be done, for the sake of what is more important than my comfort, a habit of self-command in you, a consideration of what is your duty, an attention to propriety, an endeavour to avoid the suspicions of others, to save your health and credit, and restore your tranquillity.” (268)
Emma wants Harriet to learn to regulate her emotions both for her own mental health and to avoid the censure or judgment of other people.
To behave appropriately and with good self-command, Smith proposes that we examine our behavior as we imagine it would be seen by outsiders, using the imagined perspective of what he calls the “impartial spectator” (110). The impartial spectator develops through feedback from real spectators, but over time it becomes an abstract and unbiased standard that we consult when judging our behavior: Smith describes it as “reason, principle, conscience, the man within” (137). Through the impartial spectator and self-command, we reduce our biases toward self-interest (Michie 22; Smith 109). We approve of our own behavior when we judge that the impartial spectator would approve of it (Smith 114). Several critics argue that Mr. Knightley shaped Emma’s internalized “impartial spectator” (Smith 110), or her conscience, because his approbation or disapprobation of her behavior becomes her guide for what is morally right (Bohanon and Vachris 119-22; Knox-Shaw 204; Michie 21-22). Emma’s thought, “could Mr. Knightley have been privy to all her attempts of assisting Jane Fairfax, could he even have seen into her heart, he would not . . . have found anything to reprove” (391), shows that she uses him to judge her behavior (Bohanon and Vachris 120; Knox-Shaw 204; Michie 22). That Emma imagines how her behavior would be seen by another person (Mr. Knightley) when making moral choices is consistent with Smith’s “impartial spectator,” and that she consults his ideal shows his importance to her life.
We also are supposed to use the vantage point of the impartial spectator when we make judgments of the behavior of others with whom we do not have a close relationship that would make us partial (Smith 69; see also Fricke 9-12). Instead of acknowledging the partiality that a close family friend should have for Emma, and perhaps in reaction to seeing her “‘spoiled’” (37) by everyone else in the family, Mr. Knightley is more removed in his judgment of her, like an “impartial spectator.” As someone who is older, Mr. Knightley assumes that his judgment is better than Emma’s (99), and he tells her how she should behave (Waldron 155). Emma sees him as critical of her, telling her father and Mr. Knightley that “‘Mr. Knightley loves to find fault with me’” (10). Adam Smith argues that “every man . . . is first and principally recommended to his own care” (219) and that the prudent person “is not a meddler in other people’s affairs” (215). Since Emma is an adult, it is not morally correct for Mr. Knightley to instruct her in proper behavior because she has her own conscience to guide her (see Bohanon and Vachris 111-14 for a similar discussion of Emma’s treatment of Harriet). Mr. Knightley does not view Emma as his moral equal, which he must in order to have a marriage based on both love and equality (Fricke 11).
Although Smith wants the actor to show self-command and lower her or his emotion, spectators or observers should increase their sympathetic emotions that they feel for others to be virtuous. When we possess “the amiable virtues” (Smith 23), we habitually experience the feelings of others with “sensibility which surprises by its . . . delicacy and tenderness” (25). Smith calls the amiable virtues “benevolence” (225) or “beneficence” (241); Jane Austen uses the term benevolence in a manner similar to Smith to discuss extreme kindness to another. For example, Emma describes Mr. Knightley as benevolent when she and Mrs. Weston discuss how he has ordered horses to bring Jane Fairfax and Miss Bates to the Coles: “‘I know no man more likely than Mr. Knightley to do the sort of thing—to do any thing really good-natured, useful, considerate, or benevolent’” (223). For Smith, those who interact with an amiable person feel comfort from that person’s benevolent sympathy: “How amiable does he appear to be, whose sympathetic heart seems to reecho all the sentiments of those with whom he converses, who grieves for their calamities, who resents their injuries, and who rejoices in their good fortune!” (Smith 24). Mrs. Weston is described as “truly amiable” (17), and Emma’s thoughts about Mrs. Weston at her house on Christmas eve reflect Emma’s view of her as an affectionate friend who is always sympathetic to her:
there was not a creature in the world to whom she spoke with such unreserve . . . , to whom she related with such conviction of being listened to and understood, of being always interesting and always intelligible, the little affairs, arrangements, perplexities and pleasures of her father and herself. She could tell nothing of Hartfield, in which Mrs. Weston had not a lively concern; and half an hour’s uninterrupted communication of all those little matters on which the daily happiness of private life depends, was one of the first gratifications of each. (117)
Throughout the novel, Mrs. Weston has the emotional maturity and imagination to enter sympathetically into the feelings of others, especially Emma, in a way that is truly virtuous. Smith argues that we are “habituated to sympathize” with our family members (219), and thus Mrs. Weston’s unfailing sympathy for Emma as her surrogate daughter/sister and close friend is appropriate.
The “wise and virtuous” person is both amiable and has self-command (Smith 247). “To feel much for others and little for ourselves, . . . to restrain our selfish and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature” (Smith 25). Benevolence and “mutual sympathy” (Smith 13) allow us to create close communities—“the small band of true friends” (E 484)—and are crucial in a love relationship (Fricke 2). Mr. Knightley does not treat Emma with “delicacy and tenderness” (Smith 25) or show good self-command of his anger when he is upset about her behavior. He must learn to be more amiable and benevolent, to control his temper, and to let Emma direct her own behavior in order to have a successful marriage.
We start Emma learning of the special relationship Emma has with her former governess, now Mrs. Weston, who was “little short of a mother in affection” (5). We see Emma’s thoughts and mixed emotions about Mrs. Weston’s marriage: Emma feels sad about the “melancholy change” when Mrs. Weston leaves Hartfield, and she suffers from “intellectual solitude” because her father is “no companion for her” (7). Yet Emma also feels positive emotions, such as gratitude for “the kindness, the affection of sixteen years” and joy at the marriage with its “promise of happiness” (6). Through Mrs. Weston’s affectionate care, Emma knows the importance of love and companionship, and now that she is gone, we are told, Emma needs someone to “meet her in conversation, rational or playful” (7).
Mr. Knightley soon enters the story to enliven Emma and her father’s evening and offer her conversation. He is described as “a sensible man” (9), and his language is direct and open. He shows some understanding of Emma’s and her father’s feelings about Mrs. Weston’s leaving: “‘Being pretty well aware of what sort of joy you must both be feeling, I have been in no hurry with my congratulations’” (10). This comment reflects an ironic view of the Woodhouses’ feelings, rather than the view of someone who enters into their feelings. When Emma’s father says that “‘she will miss her more than she thinks for,’” we are told that “Emma turned away her head, divided between tears and smiles” (11)—signs of real feeling that she attempts to hide. Rather than offer emotional support, Mr. Knightley enumerates for Emma the good reasons for the marriage, which she already knows. When he says that Emma “‘cannot allow herself to feel so much pain as pleasure’” (11), Mr. Knightley wants her to control her emotions, offering a “reduction of complex emotions to tangible simplicities” (Burrows 19). Mr. Knightley criticizes Emma’s purported matchmaking when he tells her that Mr. Weston and Miss Taylor “‘may be safely left to manage their own concerns.’” With no sense that he is trying to “manage” Emma’s concerns, Mr. Knightley explains the problems with her matchmaking: “‘You are more likely to have done harm to yourself, than good to them, by interference’” (13). Thus, in the first chapter we see several themes that will return: Mrs. Weston’s being a model of affection and amiability, Emma’s feelings of loss and loneliness without Mrs. Weston, and Mr. Knightley’s preference to judge and guide Emma rather than to offer her sympathy.
Initially, Mr. Knightley has trouble imagining Emma’s feelings of loneliness or restricted freedom because he does not know those feelings himself. As a man, he is independent and can walk or ride anywhere. He prefers time alone: he tells Emma that he would “‘rather be at home, looking over William Larkin’s week’s account’” (257) than dancing at a ball. In contrast to his freedom, we are told that since Mrs. Weston has left, Emma does not feel comfortable walking to Randalls alone (26), a discomfort that shows her lack of independence. In the first chapter we have seen Mr. Woodhouse’s excessive demands for Emma’s emotional support and attention. We know her life is restricted both as a young woman in her time period and as the caretaker of her father.
When Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston discuss Emma and Harriet’s friendship early in the first volume, Mrs. Weston speaks of Emma’s good qualities while Mr. Knightley focuses on her faults. Mrs. Weston uses Adam Smith’s sympathetic imagination when she tells Mr. Knightley that he cannot imagine what Emma’s situation is: “‘Mr. Knightley, I shall not allow you to be a fair judge. . . . You are so much used to live alone, that you do not know the value of a companion; and perhaps no man can be a good judge of the comfort a woman feels in the society of one of her own sex’” (36). Trusting Emma to do right, she minimizes her faults and highlights her strengths: “‘Where shall we see a better daughter, or a kinder sister, or a truer friend?’” (39). She cannot remember Emma’s past failures of application, but Mr. Knightley claims impartiality about Emma: “‘I, . . . who have had no such charm thrown over my senses, must still see, hear, and remember.’” He sees Emma as “‘spoiled by being the cleverest of her family’” and details her flaws, especially her avoidance of “‘a subjection of the fancy to understanding’” (37). One criticism of Emma’s friendship with Harriet is that Harriet’s “‘inferiority’” will prevent Emma from “‘imagin[ing] she has any thing to learn herself’” (38). This comment and his “‘wonder[ing] what will become of her’” show that he does not yet see her as an adult, as fully formed. Mrs. Weston views Emma as an adult who can make her own choices, and she very gently asks Mr. Knightley not to be “‘unjust or unkind’” to Emma by complaining about Harriet’s friendship to Emma’s sister and her husband, Mr. Knightley’s brother. She also quietly reminds him that Emma’s father is the only person to whom Emma is “‘accountable’” (40) and that Mr. Woodhouse does not have a problem with her friendship with Harriet. In this scene, Austen has staked out two positions on Emma: one of a benevolent, affectionate friend, who has sympathy for her feelings and sees her as an adult; the other of an impartial spectator, who treats her as a child, sees many faults in her behavior, and cannot understand what she feels.
When Emma and Mr. Knightley discuss Harriet’s refusal of Robert Martin’s proposal of marriage, Mr. Knightley is very angry and will not consider Emma’s arguments. In his inflexibility, Mr. Knightley is not behaving in a way that Adam Smith would consider “wise and virtuous,” as one who has a “character of real modesty; with . . . a full sense of the merit of other people” (247-48). Mr. Knightley censures Emma for “‘persuad[ing]’” (60) Harriet to refuse the proposal, insults Harriet after he has initially praised her, tells Emma that she is “‘abusing the reason [she] has’” (64), and warns her that Harriet may not get another offer of marriage. Emma experiences “dislike [at] having [his judgment] so loudly against her” and “feels uncomfortable” (65) about the interaction and his anger, but he seems unaware of his effect on her. After he has left, the narrator tells us that “she did not always feel so absolutely satisfied with herself, so entirely convinced that her opinions were right and her adversary’s wrong, as Mr. Knightley. He walked off in more complete self-approbation than he left for her” (67). In this scene Mr. Knightley has not shown modesty about his opinions or recognized any potential merit in what Emma says. He has conveyed his anger and disapprobation of her behavior, but he has not recognized how his anger could be affecting her. He is neither amiable nor showing good self-command.
They revisit this issue of judgment when Mr. Knightley, after keeping away, finally returns to Hartfield for the visit of John and Isabella at Christmas. With the aid of her niece, Emma gets Mr. Knightley to be more cordial and, with “a little sauciness” (98), complains to Mr. Knightley that he thinks their “‘discordancies must always arise from my being in the wrong.’” Since he is much older, Mr. Knightley views his judgment as better. When Emma asks if their “‘understandings [are] a good deal nearer’” now that she is twenty-one, he acknowledges that they are “‘nearer.’” Emma pushes him about whether she can ever be right if they disagree, but he says, “‘I have still the advantage of you by sixteen years’ experience, and by not being a pretty young woman and a spoiled child’” (99). They do reach some resolution once Emma asks about Robert Martin’s disappointment. Mr. Knightley answers in a way that shows he shares Mr. Martin’s pain, and Emma says she is sorry that Mr. Martin has been hurt by Harriet’s refusal (99). In this scene, although Mr. Knightley has again shown little modesty concerning his superior judgment, they have at least come to an emotional connection by both sympathizing with the distress of Robert Martin.
Sympathetic imagination is addressed again when Emma and Mr. Knightley argue about Frank Churchill’s failure in courtesy for not visiting the newly-married Westons. When Emma and Mrs. Weston had discussed this discourtesy earlier, Mrs. Weston has urged Emma to consider his situation, saying, “‘I cannot bear to imagine any reluctance on his side’” (122). Emma has shown sympathy for the anxious feelings of her friend about the meeting. Emma uses Mrs. Weston’s arguments in her discussion with Mr. Knightley and says that Mr. Knightley does not understand those different from him. Emma is “drawing analogies between [Frank’s] life and her own” (Burrows 58), and the subtext is “you can’t imagine my feelings either.”
In the lengthy discussion, Emma is able simultaneously to see the perspective of both Frank Churchill and Mr. Knightley. Emma tells Mr. Knightley that he focuses on his own experiences to make claims of how Frank should act, rather than appreciating the situation from Frank’s perspective, as Adam Smith urges. She tells him that he does not understand dependence: “‘That’s easily said, and easily felt by you, who have always been your own master. You are the worst judge in the world, Mr. Knightley, of the difficulties of dependence. You do not know what it is to have tempers to manage’” (145-46). Like an impartial spectator, Mr. Knightley argues about duty:
“There is one thing, Emma, which a man can always do, if he chuses, and that is, his duty. . . . A man who felt rightly would say at once, simply and resolutely, to Mrs. Churchill—‘. . . I must go and see my father immediately. I know he would be hurt by my failing in such a mark of respect to him.’” (146)
The standard that Mr. Knightley applies to Frank is the same standard of duty to which he holds himself, but he does not understand Frank’s complex family situation and the conflicting duties that make it challenging to visit his father and step-mother.
As the scene progresses, Emma continues to urge Mr. Knightley to have sympathy. Several times she asks Mr. Knightley to consider Frank’s situation and to sympathetically imagine his feelings: “‘I wish you would try to understand what an amiable young man may be likely to feel in directly opposing those, whom as child and boy he has been looking up to all his life’” (148). As a woman, Emma understands that opposing parental figures is difficult. Mr. Knightley imagines Mr. Weston’s feelings being “‘hurt’” (146) by Frank’s not coming and that Mrs. Weston “‘must doubly feel the omission’” (149) since she is not a person of consequence. However, Mr. Knightley cannot imagine Frank’s situation or feelings and focuses instead on abstract principles:
“Your amiable young man is a very weak young man, if this be the first occasion of his carrying through a resolution to do right against the will of others. It ought to have been an habit with him by this time, of following his duty, instead of consulting expediency. . . . As he became rational, he ought to have . . . shaken off all that was unworthy in their authority.” (148)
In this scene, Emma seems better able to consider the perspectives of many different people—Mr. Knightley’s, Frank’s, and the Westons’—and imagine their feelings. Mr. Knightley can take the position of the Westons but does not take the perspective of either Emma (as the recipient of his arguments) or Frank.
The ability to sympathize with the feelings of those who are different from you creates social harmony, according to Smith (317), but here Mr. Knightley cannot imagine “what it is like to answer to another person” (Kenney 114). Mr. Knightley argues with Emma about the meaning of amiability, saying it represents “‘English delicacy towards the feelings of other people’” (149), a definition consistent with Smith’s “amiable virtues” (23). In Austen’s works, characters have to distinguish between mere agreeableness and true amiability, which requires “the ability to perceive with a moral clarity of definition” (Tave 123). With his “hot temper” and jealousy of Frank Churchill, Mr. Knightley is not amiable or benevolent in his treatment of Emma (Kenney 113-14). He does not have good self-command of his emotions: he is described at the end of the scene as “displeased,” “angry,” and speaking “with . . . vexation” (149-50). Both Mr. Knightley and Emma have misread the underlying feelings of the other. Mr. Knightley thinks that Emma is romantically interested in Frank, and Emma is confused about why he has become so angry and judgmental. They “part more bitterly than ever” (Burrows 62-63).
Mr. Knightley shows dawning sympathy for Emma’s feelings when the ball is canceled, commenting with “considerable kindness” on her lack of opportunities to dance even though he is glad of the cancellation (262). At the end of volume 2, when they discuss whether Emma has time to care for their nephews, they bicker again, although more humorously: Mr. Knightley tries “not to smile” (312) at the end. Emma stresses her lack of freedom, pointing out “‘how very, very seldom I am ever two hours from Hartfield.’” She also highlights his preference to be alone, throwing his words about William Larkin’s accounts back at him: “‘if aunt Emma has not time for [the little boys], I do not think they would fare much better with uncle Knightley, who is absent from home about five hours where she is absent one—and who, when he is at home, is either reading to himself or settling his accounts’” (312). In this rebuttal, Emma implicitly accuses Mr. Knightley of failing to understand her life.
As Mr. Knightley becomes more aware of his love for Emma, he uses his sympathetic imagination better. At the ball, when Mr. Elton refuses Mrs. Weston’s urging him to dance with Harriet, Emma feels Mrs. Weston’s “mortification” and Harriet’s embarrassment puts her “heart . . . in a glow.”. Seeing Mr. Knightley dance with Harriet, Emma feels “pleasure and gratitude, both for Harriet and herself” (328). Mr. Knightley shows that he offered to dance with Harriet because he felt the distress of both Emma and Harriet when he says, “‘They aimed at wounding more than Harriet.’” Emma admits to her errors about Mr. Elton, but Mr. Knightley, with a “smile of indulgence,” refuses to “‘scold’” her. He abdicates his position as judge and moral guide here, trusting her “‘serious spirit’” to guide her (330). He admits to Harriet’s good qualities, which he was not willing to do before. They end by joining a dance—their mutual goodwill and concession of errors allowing them to see each other in a new way.
When a large party has tea at Hartfield and plays with scrambled letters, the reader sees Mr. Knightley’s concern that Emma will be hurt by Frank, although Emma does not have that privileged information. Mr. Knightley hesitates to speak with her, with some delicacy, but “he owed it to her, to risk any thing that might be involved in an unwelcome interference, rather than her welfare.” He gently calls her “‘[m]y dear Emma’” and asks about Frank and Jane’s relationship with “earnest kindness.” He says he has imagined looks between them suggesting attachment, but she laughs at him for “‘let[ting] your imagination wander’” (350). She tells him that Frank has no affection for Jane. Austen’s phrase, “she spoke with a confidence which staggered” (351), uses a “graphic verb” that is a metaphor for “a reel from a blow” (Kenney 116), conveying the strength of his distress. Mr. Knightley’s “feelings were too much irritated for talking,” and he goes home “to the coolness and solitude of Donwell Abbey” (351). The word “solitude” here echoes that applied to Emma in the novel’s opening and connects his loneliness to hers. Mr. Knightley has attempted to sympathetically imagine Emma’s emotions, but he has misread her feelings for Frank. Mr. Knightley is “vulnerable and powerless” (Waldron 153; also Kenney 112), fearing he has lost Emma to the manipulative Frank. The reader sees his feelings of distress and loneliness, but Emma does not.
In Mr. Knightley’s remonstrance of Emma’s insult to Miss Bates at Box Hill, he again assumes the role of judge and seems oblivious to the pain his comments will cause Emma. His words are harsh, yet they echo Adam Smith’s view that one has to consider the situation of others to understand their feelings: “‘How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? (374). How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?’” When he tells her, “‘It was badly done, indeed! . . . to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her’” (375), his moral censure is almost overpowering. Emma’s copious tears after his criticisms are due not only to regret over hurting Miss Bates but also partly to her reaction to Mr. Knightley’s “ill opinion” (376) of her. Later, when Emma realizes she loves Mr. Knightley, she reflects on Box Hill to ascertain his feelings for her:
She could not flatter herself with any idea of blindness in his attachment to her. She had received a very recent proof of its impartiality.—How shocked he had been by her behaviour to Miss Bates! How directly, how strongly he had expressed himself to her on the subject! . . . far, far too strongly to issue from any feeling softer than upright justice and clear-sighted goodwill. (415-16)
Austen uses Smith’s language—impartiality, justice, and goodwill—to highlight the moral impropriety that Emma thinks Mr. Knightley has seen in her behavior. Thus, Emma begins the proposal scene convinced that Mr. Knightley is an impartial spectator to her wrongs, not someone who loves her.
In the aftermath of Frank and Jane's engagement, Emma uses sympathetic imagination when she thinks of “poor Harriet”: “There was little sympathy to be spared for any body else. Emma was sadly fearful that this second disappointment would be more severe than the first” (403). Emma’s sympathetic imagination foreshadows Mr. Knightley’s use of sympathy in the love scene. In exposition after the scene, we are told that he has heard of the engagement and, imagining Emma’s pain, has ridden to her with “fond solicitude, so much keen anxiety for her” (433). Austen’s language echoes Smith’s terms about sympathy, benevolence, and amiability. Mr. Knightley shows his sympathy for Emma, pressing her arm against his heart and speaking “in a tone of great sensibility,” calling her “‘my dearest Emma,’” and offering her the “‘feelings of the warmest friendship.’” She feels his “tender consideration” and acknowledges his “‘kind[ness]’” and “‘compassion’” (425-26). Emma has seen her errors and admits her faults such as accepting Frank’s attentions through vanity. Emma feels the pain she has caused Mr. Knightley by cutting off his assertion that he envies Frank because she thinks that he wants to reveal his love for Harriet. Her mature ability to accept what she fears most—her delusion that he wants to marry Harriet—leads Emma to invite him to share anything he wishes. In a spontaneous decision, Mr. Knightley declares his love to Emma “in a tone of . . . sincere, decided, intelligible tenderness” (430). He has seen that his judgment is not perfect, humbly admits to his faults (Kenney 118), and can see her merits (Smith 248). He tells her that he has “‘blamed’” her, and “‘lectured’” her, and that she has “‘borne’” with him gracefully (430). Through imagining each other’s painful feelings—including loneliness—and admitting their own mistakes, they are able to open their hearts and finally understand each other.
Mr. Knightley’s ability to abandon his judgmental attempts to direct Emma’s behavior in order to sympathetically imagine Emma’s feelings—his ability to “see into her heart” (391)—reflects great change. After they are engaged, we see how much they both have changed. When Mr. Knightley reads Frank’s letter of explanations, he admits that “‘I was not quite impartial in my judgment’” (445) about him. There is gentleness in his treatment of Emma. When he sees her shame as he reads the Box Hill part of the letter, he immediately withdraws his glance “in the fear of giving pain” (447). Later he tells her that he should not have interfered in her life: “‘it was done in a disagreeable manner,’” and he had no “‘right’” to “‘lecture’” her. He knows he caused her pain at times, saying, “‘My interference was giving you two bad feelings instead of one’” (462). Through the use of the word “interference,” he is admitting that he has tried to influence her in the same way that he has accused her of doing with Harriet and others.
Emma, who has used the approbation or disapprobation of Mr. Knightley to develop her internalized “impartial spectator” for moral decisions (Smith 110), defends him: “‘I was very often influenced rightly by you’” (462). To have a marriage of equality, Mr. Knightley should give up trying to direct Emma, and Emma should continue to consult her conscience, which he helped to form. As “wise and virtuous” (Smith 247) lovers, each feels the other’s emotions strongly, sees the other as “faultless in spite of all [her or his] faults” (E 433), and trusts the other to make her or his own moral choices. Through wanting to please the other, each has grown to become a better person. Truly they attain “perfect happiness” (484).