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Jane Austen’s Emma: An Education in Empathy

As loyal readers of Austen’s entire canon, we know that she is the mistress of a perfectly satisfying happy ending. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet both learn to overcome their pride and prejudices until their marriage is as idyllic as can be desired by even the most romantic reader. And so, with Emma, we expect the same kind of transformation-leads-to-happy-marriage ending. We expect Emma to marry Mr. Knightley—he is the only likely match—but we also expect her to repent of her selfish ways and become more empathetic like Mr. Knightley in order to deserve him. However, although Austen does assure us of “the perfect happiness of the union,” Emma has not truly changed by the time she walks down the aisle with Mr. Knightley (Austen 319). Our desired marriage has come about, but Austen leaves much to be desired regarding the sincerity of Emma’s conversion from her selfish ways. If Austen can make perfectly satisfying endings, as with Lizzy and Darcy, why does she not give Emma such an ending?

As an answer, I argue that, by leading us to want an ideal marriage between a transformed Emma and Mr. Knightley, Austen leads us to do exactly what has frustrated us so much about Emma’s character in the first place; Austen has tempted us to matchmaking. We judge Emma for matchmaking, but in wanting Emma to transform in order to deserve Mr. Knightley, we too are making a match between transformed-Emma and Knightley. Austen has intentionally made us hypocrites in order that we might realize that we must practice the very empathy we so longed for Emma to learn; we must see the novel Emma as Mr. Knightley sees the character Emma—“faultless in spite of her faults” (Austen 284). Only after our education in empathy can we see the value of the frustrating marriage—Emma would not be Emma without her faulty imagination; the novel Emmawould not be Austen’s  masterpiece Emma without its faultily imaginative heroine.

Austen was greatly influenced in her writing by Samuel Johnson, an 18th century moralist, who wrote extensively on the dangers of the imagination. In order to understand what exactly is meant when I claim that the novel Emma is about imagination, it helps to understand how Johnson used the term. Critic Raymond D. Havens defines two important meanings of the imagination in Johnson’s writings. First, he describes Johnson’s condemnation of “day-dreaming—escaping reality and avoiding action by withdrawing into the ideal world or to a fairyland of beauty, love, and adventure” (Havens 246). Johnson’s distrust of the imagination stems from this daydreaming; Emma embodies this dangerous imagination. For Emma, matchmaking—her primary use of daydreaming—is “the greatest amusement in the world!” (Austen 6). Emma lives in an ideal world where she organizes the lives of her friends and acquaintances and, even when this world does not match reality—as when she hurts her friend Harriet—she does not come out of her “fairyland.” Her inability to see anyone’s reality but her own makes her such a frustrating character.

Our frustration with Emma’s failure to see reality can be seen as Austen endorsing Johnson’s distrust of the imagination. However, Havens also defines the other important meaning of Johnson’s imagination: empathy. Empathy is the imaginative capacity that places us “for a time, in the condition of him whose fortune we contemplate” (Havens 246). If Emma embodies Johnson’s daydreaming, I argue that Mr. Knightley instead embodies Johnson’s empathy and consequently succeeds in “[escaping] any of Emma’s errors of imagination” (Austen 224). Mr. Knightley’s experience of the world allows him to place himself into the condition of those around him and allows him to see people and situations truly: “I . . . who have had no such charm thrown over my senses, must still see, hear, and remember” (23). As a result, Mr. Knightley is the only one “who [can] see faults in Emma Woodhouse” and is also “the only one who ever told her of them” (5). As readers who can also see the errors of Emma’s imagination, we approve entirely of Mr. Knightley’s empathetic imagination and consequent clear-sightedness. The novel, then, is about imagination, but instead of being solely about Emma’s misguided, harmful imagination, it also includes Mr. Knightley’s clairvoyant, empathetic imagination.

Two short scenes in the novel illustrate exactly how Emma and Mr. Knightley embody these different types of the imagination. First, in the very middle of the novel, Austen describes a game of anagrams that Emma plays with Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax while Mr. Knightley looks on. Alistair M. Duckworth, who explores the significance of game playing in Austen’s writings, describes the anagrams game as “mark[ing] the wide ‘separation,’ physical as well as moral, between [Emma] and Knightley” (Duckworth 294). This moral separation between Mr. Knightley and Emma is caused by their different imaginations. The anagrams game demonstrates the problem caused by Emma’s daydreaming; it illustrates how her imagination hurts the people around her.

The game itself is simple: the characters choose a word, scramble its letters, and give it to someone else to puzzle out. Frank gives the first word—blunder—to Jane Fairfax, his secret fiancée, as an apology for accidentally letting slip some information that Jane had written him in a letter (Austen 225; 227). He covered up his mistake by claiming to have dreamt the information, but he feels the need to apologize to Jane. Mr. Knightley—who is not playing, just watching—observes: “The word was discovered, and with a faint smile pushed away” (227). He also observes that the revelation of the word causes Jane to blush, a blush which “Mr. Knightley connected . . . with the dream” (227). Mr. Knightley seeks to understand why and how the word could have affected Jane in that way; and, because he does not know of Frank and Jane’s engagement, he suspects Frank Churchill of improper motivations: “These letters were but the vehicle for gallantry and trick” (227). But, as Mr. Knightley continues to observe, Frank Churchill’s antics do not stop with blunder. Next, he spells a word, hands it to Emma and, when she laughs at it, passes it along to Jane. This word—soon revealed to be Dixon—causes an even more prominent reaction in Jane: “She was evidently displeased; looked up, and seeing herself watched, blushed more deeply than [Mr. Knightley] had ever perceived her, and saying only, ‘I did not know that proper names were allowed,’ pushed away the letters with even an angry spirit” (228).

The name Dixon, and its consequent negative effect on Jane Fairfax, is a perfect example of the harms of Emma’s imagination. Earlier in the novel, Emma devised an imaginary scenario where Jane Fairfax is in an illicit affair with Mr. Dixon—a married man (102). She shared her suspicions with Frank Churchill, who, knowing the truth about Jane, found it vastly amusing. In this way, the scrambled Dixon is a direct result of Emma’s imagination, even though Frank actually scrambles the word. Not only has Emma given Frank the idea, but she also fails to stop him from passing it along.

Instead, she laughs at the idea of giving it to Jane: “And [Mr. Knightley] as clearly heard Emma opposing it with eager laughing warmth. ‘No, no, you must not; you shall not, indeed’” (228). She may verbally tell Frank not to give Jane the word, but her only real action is laughter. In telling Frank of her imaginary suspicions, Emma ultimately hurts Jane through the scrambling of this word, simply because she found it amusing to imagine Jane in an illicit relationship with Mr. Dixon. And, in addition to scrambling this harmful word, Emma also breaks the rules by using a proper name (228). Emma feels as though she has the power to take words—and people—and control them to satisfy her own amusement.

In contrast to the selfishness of Emma’s actions in the anagrams game, we see the scene through Mr. Knightley’s eyes, with his empathetic thoughts coloring the narrative. He wonders at Jane’s reactions to the two words; he mentally accuses Frank Churchill of trick; and he attempts, after Frank and Jane have left, to apprise Emma of his observations. Through it all, Mr. Knightley has one object in mind: preserving Emma from being hurt by Frank Churchill: “He could not see her in a situation of such danger, without trying to preserve her” (228). Mr. Knightley, in observing the anagrams game, has begun to suspect that Frank—who up until this point has seemed entirely devoted to Emma—has a secret understanding with Jane Fairfax. In pondering the anagrams scene, Mr. Knightley attempts to place himself in Jane’s position and attempts to understand her blushes; then, he feels for Emma, whom he imagines is about to be slighted by the man he thinks she loves.

Emma, however, sees no danger for herself and instead rebukes Mr. Knightley for voicing his suspicions: “I am delighted to find that you can vouchsafe to let your imagination wander—but it will not do—very sorry to check you in your first essay—but indeed it will not do” (229). Although hypocritical, Emma is right. If Mr. Knightley were simply letting his imagination wander and imitating Emma in attempting to see couples where there are none, it would not do. However, Emma fails to see why Mr. Knightley is telling her his suspicions because she does not understand his empathy for her apparent situation.

Mr. Knightley’s empathy comes from his ability to use his experience to understand the world around him, something that Emma, whose own experience is severely limited by her social world, is unable to do. Growing up as mistress of her own upper-class world in Highbury, Emma knows only the strict social conventions of her time. Within these conventions, just as within the rules of the anagrams game, Emma can, and does, wreak havoc (228). But her imagination, her construction of a “fairyland,” is limited and, in her inexperience, she is unable to see beyond the conventions and rules (Havens 246). Mr. Knightley takes his experience, such as seeing Jane’s blush, and uses it to understand the world and people around him, giving him empathy for them. Emma, on the other hand, takes her experience and constructs an imaginary world within it that suits her fancy. In this way the anagrams game is a perfect illustration of Emma and Knightley’s imaginations: Emma is in the game while Mr. Knightley is outside, observing and experiencing. In the same way, Emma is restricted by her status at Hartfield, whereas Mr. Knightley is able to “[walk] home to the coolness and solitude of Donwell Abbey” (Austen 230).

This contrast between Mr. Knightley and Emma’s experiences appears earlier in the novel when Emma and Mr. Knightley argue about Robert Martin’s worthiness to marry Harriet Smith. Emma cannot approve of the match because Robert Martin is a lowly farmer: “What! Think a farmer, (and with all his sense and all his merit Mr. Martin is nothing more,) a good match for my intimate friend!” (39). Although she admits to seeing sense and merit in the young man, Emma refuses to admit that there is anything to him besides his nominal status as a farmer. Herself the mistress of Hartfield, Emma cannot bear the thought of her particular friend marrying beneath her social sphere. Mr. Knightley, on the other hand, sees beyond Robert Martin’s social status; he sees him as a good man: “I have a thorough regard for him and all his family, and, I believe, [he] considers me as one of his best friends” (37). Emma sees “farmer”; Mr. Knightley sees “best friend.”

This scene, because it is the first scene in the novel where Emma’s selfish daydreaming is set in stark contrast with Mr. Knightley’s empathy, begins to lead us to desire and expect Emma’s transformation from an egotistical snob to a more empathetic human being. Not only did Mr. Knightley see through Robert Martin’s status as farmer to the “respectable young man” beneath, but he also assumed that Emma would do the same: “I remember saying to myself, ‘Even Emma, with all her partiality for Harriet, will think this is a good match’” (38; 39). And, when he realizes that she did not act through partiality for Harriet, but through partiality for her social status, he rebukes Emma sharply: “Till you chose to turn her into a friend, her mind had no distaste for her own set, nor any ambition beyond it . . . You have been no friend to Harriet Smith, Emma” (40). Mr. Knightley proposes the idea that Emma should have been acting out of empathy—“partiality for Harriet”—but that instead she has been acting selfishly. Emma herself squirms under his criticism: “She had a sort of habitual respect for his judgment in general, which made her dislike having it so loudly against her; and to have him sitting just opposite her in angry state, was very disagreeable” (42). As readers who have the marriage-plot expectation of Emma and Mr. Knightley’s future nuptials in mind, we see the solution for Mr. Knightley’s “angry state” as Emma’s conversion from her selfish “love of match-making” (42). We expect a happy marriage; thus, we expect Emma’s transformation.

Austen sets up these expectations even more strongly for the re-readers of her novel. Not only are Emma and Knightley’s imaginations set in contrast to each other—one harmful, the other good—but Austen also makes use of irony to direct our minds toward Mr. Knightley’s astuteness and Emma’s blindness, the implication being that Emma must learn to see with Mr. Knightley’s eyes. In the anagrams chapter, Austen’s narrator says: “But while so many were devoting [Frank Churchill] to Emma, and Emma herself making him over to Harriet, Mr. Knightley began to suspect him of some inclination to trifle with Jane Fairfax” (224). While a first time reader will not pick up on this direct irony, a re-reader of the novel will see that Emma is completely wrong—Frank Churchill will not marry Harriet—and that Mr. Knightley is entirely correct—Frank Churchill is, in fact, secretly engaged to marry Jane Fairfax. Austen not only leads us to desire Emma’s transformation by simply comparing Emma’s bad actions to Mr. Knightley’s more upright observations, she also plants these expectations within the narration itself with the irony of the comparison of Emma’s wrongness and Mr. Knightley’s rightness so that even a re-reader, who knows the outcome of the novel, will desire the heroine’s growth.

However, whether or not Emma actually does grow is widely debated. Critic Susan J. Morgan cites Emma’s allowing Mr. Knightley to speak his proposal as proof of her change from an egotistical to an empathetic imagination (Morgan 39). Other critics, like Eugene Goodheart, question Emma’s ability to live happily married at all, because of her imaginative nature (Goodheart 603). While I do not condemn Emma’s marital prospects entirely, I do agree that, when she marries Mr. Knightley, Emma has not undergone the change that Austen has led us to desire. Her empathetic response to Mr. Knightley’s desire to speak his mind shows that Emma might be beginning to improve herself, but her continued selfishness is assured in her behavior toward Harriet after she realizes that it is she, and not Harriet, who is loved by Mr. Knightley. Although Emma claims guilt over the matter, saying, “She would have been too happy but for poor Harriet,” she also has “no difficulty procuring Isabella’s invitation” for Harriet to go away to London for a while (Austen 296). And, with Harriet safely out of the way, “Emma could, indeed, enjoy Mr. Knightley’s visits; now she could talk, and she could listen with true happiness, unchecked by that sense of injustice, of guilt” (297). The unhappiness her daydreaming has caused Harriet then, is simply pushed to the side so that she can enjoy her time with Mr. Knightley. In addition, Austen reminds us of Emma’s matchmaking when she alludes to making a match between little baby Weston and “either of Isabella’s sons” (303). When she walks down the aisle with Mr. Knightley, Emma has not completely overcome her selfishness and she has not stopped daydreaming.

When we realize that Austen has set up and then frustrated specific expectations, we must attempt to understand why. In contrasting Emma’s imagination with Mr. Knightley’s, Austen has not only made us desire Emma’s conversion, but she has also given us an example of what we want Emma to convert into. We want Emma to become more like Mr. Knightley, to transform from being egotistical to being empathetic. Instead of scrambling the letters to suit her own fancy, we want Emma to step back and observe what her scrambling has done to the people around her. However, in the end of the novel, there is no relationship between a completely transformed Emma and Mr. Knightley. We have created from Austen’s words a relationship and couple that does not exist. In realizing this, we can see that Austen is actually educating us in empathy. We must allow Mr. Knightley’s unconditional love for Emma to lead us to an unconditional love for the novel Emma. Austen herself sums it up well, saying in the last sentence of the novel, “In spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends . . . were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union” (319). In much the same way that the “perfect happiness of the union” occurs despite Emma’s deficiencies, so can our enjoyment of the novel occur despite—or more accurately, because of—our frustrations.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Emma. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000. Print.
  • Austen-Leigh, James Edward. A Memoir of Jane Austen. Richard Bentley & Son, 1871. Project Gutenberg. Web. 8 April 2016.
  • Duckworth, Alistair M. “‘Spillikins, paper ships, riddles, conundrums, and cards’: Games in Jane Austen’s Life and Fiction.” Jane Austen: Bicentenary Essays. Ed. John Halperin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975. Print. 279-297.
  • Goodheart, Eugene. “Emma: Jane Austen’s Errant Heroine.” The Sewanee Review 116.4 (2008): 589-604. JSTOR. Web. 16 Feb. 2016.
  • Havens, Raymond D. “Johnson’s Distrust of the Imagination.” ELH 10.3 (1943): 243-255. JSTOR. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.
  • Morgan, Susan J. “Emma Woodhouse and the Charms of Imagination.” Studies in the Novel 7.1 (1975): 33-48. JSTOR. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.
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