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The Relationship Road to Self-Awareness

“Know thyself,” the renowned saying goes. This potent phrase dates back to Ancient Greece, where it was inscribed over Apollo’s temple at Delphi (Best). While “knowing oneself” might seem confined to one’s self alone, it is not. Being in touch with and having a realistic perception of oneself shapes a more accurate worldview, calibrating one’s barometer to gauge the traits of others. What is more, a true understanding of oneself is often, paradoxically, only achieved through the help of others. In Jane Austen’s novels, relationships are vehicles through which self-knowledge is either obfuscated or attained. The three main types of relationships Austen depicts are those based on convenience, delusion, and self-awareness. The protagonists of Pride and Prejudice and Emma reject two suitors who embody the first two types, and ultimately choose one aligned with the third. In both novels, the drawbacks of marriages of convenience and delusion are contrasted with the benefits of the more challenging yet more fulfilling marriages founded on self-awareness.

The epitome of a marriage of convenience is that of Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Collins actually enumerates his reasons for marrying when proposing to Lizzy, and they are all pragmatic: his wish to “set the example for matrimony in his parish” and heed “the particular advice and recommendation” of the much-vaunted Lady Catherine (Austen 73). Charlotte Lucas also cites practicality when she states, “I am not romantic you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home.” (87) Charlotte is blunt and realistic. She knows that “marriage was the only provision for an educated woman of small fortune.” (85) She is relieved to have provided for her comfort, regardless of the person she is with. Elizabeth Bennet’s vehement opposition to Charlotte’s marriage sheds light on the author’s attitude towards marriages of convenience. Elizabeth is aghast that Charlotte could have “sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage” (87) and is convinced that “no confidence can ever subsist between them again.” (89) The fact that Lizzy sees this as effectively ending her friendship with her closest confidant demonstrates just how great a breach of right conduct she believes this to be. Interestingly, Lizzy is so harsh despite the fact that she acknowledges women’s extremely limited options during this time. Jane Austen’s real-life decisions show that she lived by Lizzy’s principles. In 1802, Austen rejected a proposal from Harris Bigg-Wither, who was “due to inherit a sizeable amount of real estate.” (Janeausten.org) She gave up the chance of a marriage of convenience that would have provided for herself and aided her financially struggling family. In a letter to her niece, Austen counseled, “Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection.” (Austen) This advice followed a litany of obstacles, including poverty, that faced women who remained single; yet Austen’s statement comprehends all possible miseries and still asserts them preferable to marriage without love. To Austen, marriages of convenience were antithetical to happiness. This explains Lizzy’s disgust at Charlotte’s decision, and her “conviction that it was impossible for that friend to be tolerably happy in the lot she had chosen.” (87) For Lizzy and Austen, even as understandable an aim as avoiding poverty is not worth sacrificing one’s happiness. One reason to view marriages of convenience as antithetical to happiness is found in their overlap with the second relationship type, delusion. In the Collinses’s marriage, while Charlotte is perfectly cognizant of the union’s basis in practicality, Mr. Collins is under the delusion that theirs is a love match. He tells Lizzy, “My Charlotte and I have but one mind and one way of thinking. We seem to be designed for each other.” (146) Film versions such as the 1995 BBC miniseries add irony by having Mr. Collins wave at Charlotte awkwardly, while Charlotte cringes. This visually reinforces the fact that, despite Mr. Collins’ delusions to the contrary, they are not on the same page; they are at opposite ends of the book. The disparity between his wildly mistaken notions and reality entails that they will never enjoy true connection.

A parallel character to Mr. Collins, Mr. Elton, forms a marriage also situated at the crossroads of convenience and delusion. Before his marriage, Mr. Elton maintained a gallant façade: he fooled Emma into thinking he was a gentleman worthy of Harriet, and Mrs. Weston into viewing him as “amiable, obliging, gentle Mr. Elton.” (Austen 297) Yet beneath this veneer, he harbored delusions of self-aggrandizement. These were hinted at when Mr. Knightley heard him “speak with great animation of a large family of young ladies . . . who have all twenty thousand pounds a-piece,” (59) and confirmed when he disdains Harriet’s birth. His animation about their wealth indicates that he, too, seeks to marry for practical advantage. He does so, marrying the well-off and well-connected Augusta Hawkins. Yet in a fascinating and hilarious turn, Augusta’s arrival completely alters Mr. Elton’s role: he is all but ousted from the book. In fact, his only significant line of dialogue after marrying is to snub Harriet at the dance. By contrast, pages and pages are filled with the insufferable dialogue of Mrs. Elton, littered with her oft-reiterated “Maple Grove” and “caro sposo.” (250-1) She shows presumptuous familiarity in calling Mr. Knightley only “Knightley” after having just met him. (250) Such details depict a woman so assured of her own superiority that she is incessantly shoving it in others’ faces. Mrs. Augusta Elton personifies Mr. Elton’s delusion: his marriage had so confirmed and magnified his once-carefully-concealed attitude that it comes to life in her person. Emma recognizes that Mrs. Elton is so vain that “her society would certainly do Mr. Elton no good.” (245) Mr. Elton’s lack of self-awareness led him to make a poor choice in marriage, which in turn exacerbated his already-inaccurate self-view. His choice only entrenches him deeper in delusion. While Lydia’s infatuation with Wickham is arguably the most blatant instance of delusion in Pride and Prejudice, the novel also portrays a delusion-based marriage twenty years after its inception. Mrs. Bennet was very beautiful at the time of their marriage, and Mr. Bennet deluded himself into thinking it was true love. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Their interchange during the opening pages speaks volumes about their relationship. All Mr. Bennet’s replies are sarcastic, and most of them go over Mrs. Bennet’s head. While Mrs. Bennet waxes rhapsodic about a young man of fortune coming into the neighborhood, and exhorts her husband to visit him, Mr. Bennet casually remarks, “‘I see no occasion for that.’” (2) Mr. Bennet knows perfectly well why she wants him to visit, and knows how she will respond if he does not; but since the time he awoke from his delusion, his sole pleasure in life, besides reading, is teasing his wife. He is described as “so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character.” (3) In contrast to his complexity, Mrs. Bennet is described as “a woman of mean understanding.” (3) Her lack of understanding and his witty character do not blend well, and the resulting disequilibrium is all too clear in each daily exchange. Yet perhaps no Austen plot is as preoccupied with delusion as that of Emma. The entire plot follows Emma’s deluded matchmaking attempts for Harriet Smith. First, Emma mistakenly chooses Mr. Elton as the man for Harriet, not seeing that there was “‘a littleness about him’” that Mr. Knightley detected. (299) Next, it is increasingly apparent to readers that Mr. Elton is making overtures to Emma and not to Harriet, but Emma is so blind that she does not realize this. Dramatic irony is created in the increasingly strained rationalizations Emma employs to explain away the seeming inconsistencies of Mr. Elton’s behavior. She notes that he is “almost too gallant to be in love,” but chalks it up to “his gratitude on Harriet’s account.” (43). Yet even if Mr. Elton’s preference for Emma were out of the picture, it is no less of a delusion to conclude he admires Harriet. The so-called “treasures” Harriet hoards as proof of Mr. Elton’s affection exemplify this. These are a pencil stub and a piece of plaster. It is hard to imagine any less romantic objects, and even guilty Emma must stifle a laugh at the disproportionate level of sentiment Harriet has attached to them. The fact that these measly items were thought evidence of love reveals that there never was any meaningful connection between Harriet and Mr. Elton.

Although Mr. Elton’s confession of love shocks and sobers Emma, it does not end her delusions. The next is thinking herself in love with Frank Churchill. Jane Austen’s ironic voice rings out in the remark, “Emma continued to entertain no doubt of her being in love.” (238) The emphasis on the negative reflects the contortions of self-convincing occurring behind a supposedly unequivocal assertion. Although she does later note that Frank seems less interested in her, she remains utterly blind to his ties to Jane Fairfax. Only Mr. Knightley is perceptive enough to notice signs of a closer link between them, but when he tells Emma, she dismisses it out of hand. Mr. Knightley’s perspective notes that she “spoke with a confidence which staggered”—she did not even attempt to grasp the truths his careful observations had gleaned. (319)

The third type of relationship, which both books’ protagonists eventually form, is one founded on enhanced self-awareness. If there is one character who embodies self-awareness, it is Elizabeth Bennet. She prides herself on her discernment, reads often, and perceives much that escapes the notice of others. Yet she is utterly blind when it comes to Mr. Wickham. She fails to register that Wickham’s disclosure of intimate accounts to a stranger is both illogical and violates time period etiquette. She fails to note this because “‘there was truth in his looks.’” (59) In other words, the brilliant Lizzy Bennet was blinded by good looks and the suave manner of the tale’s delivery. When she at last realizes the delusion she had fallen into, she has an epiphany which becomes the lynchpin of the whole book. Her “eureka” moment, captured in the line “‘Till this moment, I never knew myself,’” illustrates why self-awareness is paramount. (141) Lizzy had been making decisions, such as who to trust or snub, who to marry or reject, based on erroneous information. She had also been giving herself airs as the righteous avenger of Wickham’s woes, when the truth was the opposite. The person who enlightened her to this truth, who persevered in setting the record straight despite the pain of rejection, was Mr. Darcy.

Just as Mr. Darcy helped Lizzy attain greater self-awareness, she sparked greater self-awareness in him. Early in the novel, Lizzy sarcastically asks whether vanity and pride are the faults he has guarded against. Mr. Darcy agrees that vanity is a weakness, yet holds fast to a positive vision of pride, claiming that “‘where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will always be under good regulation.’” (39) Mr. Darcy, too, is intelligent—and wealthy, and distinguished by birth—so by the Regency era’s standards, he has every reason to have pride. His pride in these qualities is blatant in his first ill-fated proposal to Lizzy. Although his letter clarified that her family’s “total want of propriety” (134) was a greater concern for him than their lack of money, his proposal conveyed an arrogant view of his loftier status. Lizzy’s reproof that he had not behaved in a “‘gentleman-like manner’” shocked him into reconsidering his conduct (131). Because his high status had almost always led him to encounter abject flatterers like Miss Bingley and Mr. Collins, no one had ever dared fling the truth about his actions in his face. Lizzy’s reproach sparked his own inner tumult that led to improved self-awareness. All his subsequent actions, from his courtesy to the Gardiners to searching for Lydia and helping to ensure her marriage, stem from this epiphany. As Mr. Darcy himself put it by the novel’s end, “‘I have been a selfish being all my life . . . and such I might still have been but for you.’” (248) He directly acknowledges Lizzy as the catalyst for his transformation. Her refusal to let his arrogance go uncondemned even at the cost of losing the most advantageous match of convenience imaginable meant that Mr. Darcy was confronted with his faults for the first time. Once aware of them, he began to correct them.

Just as Mr. Darcy’s wealth and status initially impede his ability to form an accurate perception of himself, Emma Woodhouse’s position facilitates a warped worldview. The first line establishes this: “Emma Woodhouse, rich, beautiful, and clever, had lived nearly twenty-one years with very little to vex or distress her.” (1) Emma’s station entails that she is almost exclusively surrounded by flatterers. While Lizzy’s mistaken view of Wickham is a hiccup for a usually perceptive person, for Emma, mistaken perception is not the exception, but the rule. She herself realizes at the novel’s close, “I seem to have been doomed to blindness.” (386) Her self-proclaimed matchmaking title is emblematic of her blindness, as she presumes to “arrange every body’s destiny” and turns out to be “universally mistaken.” (375) Vanity, not the welfare of those involved, was her motive, and her efforts actually injured others more than they assisted.

If Emma’s chief malady is blindness, Mr. Knightley is the antidote. His character embodies honesty, truth, and keen perception, all of which Emma is sorely lacking. He indicates this himself when he tells Emma, “‘You hear nothing but truth from me.’” (390) Like all medicines, this is often unpleasant, but no less necessary. Emma unveiling her portrait of Harriet exemplifies how Mr. Knightley’s simple truths serve as a “cure” for flattery. While Harriet, Mr. Woodhouse, and Mr. Elton praise Emma’s painting to the skies, Mr. Knightley simply says, “‘You have made her too tall.’” (42) In one short line he points out a glaring flaw that should be instantly obvious to anyone, but which had been somehow overlooked amid heaps of praise. Yet it is not until the graver violation of Emma’s poor treatment of Miss Bates that he delivers the harshest criticism of all: “‘badly done, indeed!’” (341). Just as with Lizzy’s words to Darcy, Mr. Knightley’s comment sets off a self-examination that forces her to re-evaluate her actions.

Mr. Knightley’s comments grant Emma self-awareness of her conduct, but her heart ironically only becomes known to her through someone else’s delusion. When Harriet tops all of Emma’s deluded matches by thinking herself meant for Mr. Knightley, Emma at last realizes that she loves him. She now sees that “she had been entirely under a delusion, totally ignorant of her own heart.” (375) While Emma thinks this epiphany has come too late, speaking with Mr. Knightley reveals that “Harriet’s hopes had been entirely groundless . . . as complete a delusion as any of her own.” (391) In fact, Emma’s friendship with Harriet can be seen as a fostering-ground for delusion, which is why the staunchly truthful Mr. Knightley opposed it from the start. By contrast, Mr. Knightley’s conversations with Emma, while less pleasant than Harriet’s reverence, lead her towards truth and self-growth. Just as Lizzy balks at Miss Bingley flattering Mr. Darcy, and insists on bringing up his flaws, Mr. Knightley holds Emma to a high standard, and refuses to accept anything less. His belief in Emma is evidenced when he says, “I will leave you to reflect on it yourself.” Emma’s reply, “Why would you leave me with such flatterers?” claims that her mind, like her surroundings, is populated with counselors who only approve of all she does. But Mr. Knightley counters, “Not your vain spirit, but your serious spirit,” (299) indicating that there are several facets of her mind, and she has the power to choose between them.

Such a choice is one that everyone needs to make: stay ensconced in vanity, or venture out into the rockier terrain of serious realizations. Lizzy and Darcy could have disregarded each other’s harsh words. Emma could have dismissed Mr. Knightley’s reproof as she did his thoughts on Frank and Jane. But the protagonists’ willingness to let unpleasant truths change them sharpens the lens of awareness through which they self-reflect and see the world. They bypass marriages of convenience and delusion for a union that pushes them to attain their fullest potential and forms a foundation for lasting happiness.

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