Philosopher Richard Eldridge on Imagination, Emotion, and Social Stance in Jane Austen's Emma
In late February, Charles and Harriett Cox McDowell Professor of Philosophy Richard Eldridge explored the “literary study that Jane Austen has a kind of model of self-understanding that is more humanly believable than either skepticism or too quick hero worship.”
“Self-understanding develops initially when it develops out of self-consciousness in the narrower sense," says Eldridge, speaking in the McCabe Library atrium. "That is, out of experiences, especially in early adolescence, of embarrassment, anxiety, shyness, and affectation; Hence, the pursuit of apt self-understanding cannot be a dispassionate theoretical inquiry. One must confront and evaluate one's character or personality as it is already in development as one feels oneself to fall under the gaze of others, and as one must face up to responsibilities and possibilities for change.”
Eldridge, who joined the faculty in 1982, has interests that center around the topic of expression: its varieties, its nature(s), and its uses. He regularly teaches philosophy courses on artistic expression (aesthetics), linguistic expression (philosophy of language), and expressivist conceptions of human nature (19th century philosophy).
Tamsin: Hello, everybody. It's my great pleasure today to introduce my colleague and a member of the Philosophy Department, Richard Eldridge. Richard's accomplishments are too extensive for me to list them all here, so I will limit myself to his two latest books. One fresh hot off the presses is Werner Herzog: Filmmaker and Philosopher, a book about the famous German director and fundamental issues of human existence. Another very recent book is Images of History: Kant, Benjamin, Freedom, and the Human Subject.
In addition, Richard is currently the series editor for Oxford Studies in Philosophy and Literature. There are four books that have already come out in this series, and there are four waiting in the wings. Hopefully that gives you just a taste of how rich and varied his work is. Today, he will be speaking to you about Jane Austen's novel Emma and the title of his talk is Self Understanding: Imagination, Emotion, and Social Stance in Emma. I give you Richard Eldridge.
Richard E.: Thank you, Tamsin, and thank you all for coming. I do want to express my thanks to the college, and in particular to the Mary Albertson Faculty Fellowship that gave me an entire year of sabbatical year during 2017-18. The main project of that leave was indeed this book, Werner Herzog: Filmmaker and Philosopher. $24.95 in paperback. Available on Amazon. Let's hope this is being broadcast on the web to millions of people. In addition, if you're curious about that, I will be giving and showing a set of three Herzog films at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute and talking about them on the last two Thursdays in March and the first Thursdays in April.
In addition to that Herzog book, during the year I produced some seven or eight other essays, including On Hegel on Sculpting and Painting, On Ordinary Language Philosophy, On Adorno as a Modernist Writer, On Cavell on Shakespeare, On Danto on Philosophy and Literature, and more. I am ... Right. As one of my colleagues here in the second row once remarked to me, "Scribble, scribble, scribble, eh, Mr. Gibbon?" I scribble a lot, though I am grateful to the college for this, and I do want to say that most of this scribbling figures pretty directly in continuous conversational volition with my teaching.
Speaker 3: [inaudible 00:02:57]
Richard E.: Good. There's a handout. This is pretty old school. Most of the handout consists of the major passages I'll be citing from Jane Austen's Emma, those are the second page, and some passages of philosophy, mostly from Gilbert Ryle, on the first page. It might help to introduce this essay a little bit by saying I'm interested in the consequences for philosophy. If we take Jane Austen's account or exemplification of her character achieving [inaudible 00:03:40], a form of self-understanding seriously. I will be arguing that self-understanding of a kind we can believe in is better understood as a temporally extended cultivation of a skill rather than as simply knowledge of true propositions. I mean, in some sense, it's a piece of self-knowledge that I know how tall I am, but that's not the kind of self-knowledge that interests me here.
Philosophers, I think, have too often taken self-knowledge to be simply a matter of knowing some true propositions or sentences. In the philosophy of action, we've been much more interested, or most philosophers have been interested in things like trigger pullings and ink spillings, and what makes a trigger pulling or an ink spilling as an action different from a mere physical event. Here, I think we should direct our interest instead more to temporally-extended actions in situations, including things like composing a sonata or running a business or, in general, in achievements that are managed progressively over time.
For literary study, I hope one of the consequences of this essay is to try to find a way between triumphalist hero worship, though I have a fair amount of hero worship for Jane Austen. She's smarter than I am. A way between triumphalist hero worship, and on the other hand, skepticism about the possibility of self-understanding. I'm going to be urging, I think, that Jane Austen has a kind of model of self-understanding that is more humanly believable than either skepticism or too quick hero worship.
Those are the main things I wanted to say by way of introduction. The title of the paper as it will be published is actually A Danger at Present Unperceived. That's a line from page one of the novel. A Danger at Present unperceived: Self-understanding, Imagination, Emotion, and Social Stance in Emma. The point will be that self-understanding requires imagination, involves the training of emotion, and involves taking up and modifying a social stance. That's the whole argument of the paper, but the details are terrific, and the details largely come from Jane Austen.
To the novel. On the first page of the novel, we are told that Emma Woodhouse, though handsome, clever, and rich with a comfortable home and happy disposition also suffers from what the novel calls the "real evils" of possessing the power of having rather too much her own way, and the disposition to think a little too well of herself. Surely no philosopher said those vices. These evils constitute, we are further told, a danger at present unperceived both to her own enjoyments and to the enjoyments of others. This danger is then consistently realized throughout the novel as Emma repeatedly acts out her dispositions to fantasy and self-centeredness by meddlesomely and ineptly scripting the affairs of others.
The catalog of her errors includes at least her attempt to match Harriet to Mr. Elton, her vanity feeding insults to Miss Bates on Box Hill, her flirtations with Frank Churchill, her imagining an affair between Jane Fairfax and Mr. Dixon, and her misunderstanding the objects of Harriet's interests: First Robert Martin, later on George Knightley. In each case, what Emma is in fact doing, what her actions objectively mean, is not what she thinks she is doing, as she mistakenly supposes, variously, that she is being helpful to Harriet, amusing her audience, ferreting out secrets, and so on.
Jane Austen herself famously described Emma as "A heroine whom no one but myself will much like." If, for many readers, that prediction has turned out to be false, it is nonetheless not easy to say why Emma is, after all, likable. One might suppose that she learns from her errors, and so is educated into being a proper grownup with concern for others as well as vivacity so that she earns her entry into what is supposed to be a happy marriage as the seal of completed maturity. But then, it is not quite clear either how Emma changes or how much. Her errors are persistent throughout the plot, and it is not clear how any of us ever managed to overcome or to curb persistent tendencies to self-centeredness, vanity, and fantasy.
Emma's character constitutes, then, in its fitful, incomplete, but genuine development, a study in the nature and possibilities of self-understanding for creatures such as us who share her tendencies. Frequently, philosophers have conceived of self-understanding as in one way too easy and irrelevant to practical life, and in another way too difficult and alienating from practical life. Within a broadly Cartesian tradition that focuses on a current thoughts, emotions, and qualitative states, self-understanding conceived as a matter of introspective awareness is simply too easy.
Surely, it seems, I cannot fail to be wrong about what I am currently thinking or feeling no matter how the world itself is. I am thinking about a dancing pink elephant or experiencing anger with a taste of lemons if and only if I take myself to be doing so. Despite appearances, however, this account of self-understanding is open to a number of objections. First, I must know what a claim, publicly assessable as true or false or anger or an insult or the taste of a lemon is in order to have such forms of awareness, and in order to know these things, I must already know something about what is in fact true or false in the world. What, in fact, an insult is, and what is in fact a lemon.
Absent such kinds of knowledge in general, I am left only with a stream of unstructured sensory inputs that lack clear discursive representational content. Hence, introspective knowledge of distinct discursive representational contents cannot be simply primitive and independent of knowledge of the world. About the way the world is, I can sometimes be wrong. The introspection's picture of self-understanding mistakenly takes knowledge of discursive representational contents to be automatic and infallible.
Second and more important, this kind of self-knowledge, knowledge of a current episodes of thinking, feeling, and sensing, is in any case not central to what we care about when we care about self-knowledge or self-understanding. Quassim Cassam has recently usefully distinguished between what he calls "trivial self-knowledge", including the cases of self-knowledge favored in the introspectionist tradition as well as, for example, his nice example, your awareness that you are wearing socks ... that's trivial self-knowledge ... and substantial self knowledge, that is knowledge of your deepest desires, hopes, and fears. Knowledge of your character, emotions, abilities, and values, and knowledge of what makes you happy. That's harder to come by.
Only this latter, substantial form of self-knowledge, Cassam rightly insists, is what we care about when we care about self-understanding, and it is frequently hard to come by. In developing his own view, however, Cassam casts self-understanding as both too difficult to come by and too impersonal, drawing on cases of implicit unacknowledged bias, but overgeneralizing from them. Cassam argues that substantial self-knowledge, "is normally based on evidence and is inferential." That is, I must, for example, infer from my behavior that I am cowardly, that I desire to eat a peach, or that I love my children.
While this view has some plausibility in the case of cowardice, it is less plausible as an account of desiring peaches or loving children. Surely it can't be all that difficult to know these things about oneself. Secondly, the existence of these kinds of facts about oneself is not a matter entirely of just how things in the world happen to be, but rather also significantly of what I decide on or set myself to do. No doubt, I sometimes fail in my resolutions, and no doubt I am sometimes unclear about what I have resolved, what I am in fact doing, and what motivates my behavior. But that is not normally the case.
In Matthew Boyle's elegant phrase, the issues of what I have resolve to do, what I am doing, and what I count as my motivations are normally, as he puts it, "mine to settle." It is significantly up to me to count my peach-eating urges as reasons for action thence to eat a peach and to count my children as to be loved and so to love them. Yes, there is a significant background of feelings and urges that I do not control behind such countings and doings and resolvings, but I am not wholly or even normally the passive victim of them, as if they hydraulically move me to act of their own power. Were that so, I would not be the agent I normally am in being responsive to complex norms and in taking responsibility for what I do and believe and, in many cases, feel. I would instead be deeply alienated from my own practical life, if I thought of my desire for peaches as a mere happenstance or my love for my children.
Yet, while this latter anti-introspectionist view that emphasizes responsibility for self and for one's own stances, epistemic and practical, is surely right, it is also easy to over-emphasize our volitional power and possibilities of success in a genitive navigation of our worlds, come what may. Where, after all, are the boundaries between my normal enough control of my commitments and actions in familiar enough cases, and my bumbling in one way or another elsewhere? What about all the liabilities to which action is vulnerable that J.L. Austen famously noted under the heading of excuses? All the things I do out of inadvertence, negligence, hastiness, self-centered failure or due consideration, or just plain sloppiness.
Human agents do sometimes get into trouble; Do sometimes fail to take responsibility effectively for their commitments, and thus, for their actions, and we had better have an account of that as well as an account of rational and volitional powers. Emma's valetudinarian father, Mr. Woodhouse, for example, is pretty much unable to take any effective action at all. He relies on Emma especially to see to the running of the household, while his dependence on others, as Richard Jenkins has noted, in fact disguises a rapacious manipulativeness.
His genuine surface amiability both masks and expresses the unconsciously assumed stance of what Jenkins calls a "bloodsucker fastened upon his daughter's flesh, determined to get his own way in matters of food, visits, after-dinner entertainments, and especially Emma's marriage, which he would block at all costs in order to secure his own care." How are we to make sense of cases of alienation from one's own motivations and actions? They're dominating oneself rather than vice versa, such as this.
In his fine article on Jane Austen, Gilbert Ryle notes that Austen offers to us ... and now, we have the first passage from Ryle on your handout ... an ample variegated and many-dimensional vocabulary. Her descriptions of people mention their tempers, habits, dispositions, moods, inclinations, impulses, sentiments, feelings, affectations, thoughts, reflections, opinions, principles, prejudice, imaginations, and fancies. Her people have or lack moral sense. Sense of duty, good sense, taste, good breeding, self-command, spirits, and good humors. They do or do not regulate their imaginations and discipline their tempers. Her people have or lack knowledge of their own hearts or their own dispositions. They are or are not properly acquainted with themselves. They do or do not practice self-examination and soliloquy.
This is surely right, and Ryle is correct to dwell on and to praise Austen's generosity and complex intelligence in [inaudible 00:18:02] simplistic moralizing and in being concerned with substantial self-knowledge. But Austen's authorial habits of complex generous presentation and her overall moral sensibility do not yet explain, however, how a particularly alienated and un-self-knowing character might develop over time. Ryle himself suggests that what he calls "improper solicitude", Emma's besetting vice, is actuated by love of power, jealously, conceit, sentimentality, and so on. That it fails to manifest what he calls "genuine goodwill" with the result that Emma, "is not effectively self-critical."
This, too, is surely right. But how do those failings arise and develop over time? What sorts of creatures are we in general insofar as we are subject to them, and how might they be overcome? That is, all those [inaudible 00:19:05], love of power, jealously, conceit, sentimentality, and so on. How might they be overcome to the extent that they can be? At one level, the answers to these questions are straightforward. Emma's absent mother, weak father, and indulgent governance supported by wealth have given her from childhood on, again, the power of rather having too much her own way and a disposition to think a little too well of herself. Her meddling and vanity are curbed in the end both through the intervention of Knightley and through her experience guided by him of how she has misunderstood and wronged others.
But these answers, true in summary way though they are, do not yet capture what one might call the phenomenology, textual, or psychodynamics of the experience coming to a degree of increased self-understanding that the novel tracks in detail. In particular, how might one come to have some imperfect agentive control over one's actions so that one is significantly responsible for what one does while also being alienated from one's commitments unresponsive to others and under the sways of motives that one has not adequately grasped or assessed? How, that is, can one both in some sense know what one is doing, and yet also not know, and how, and how far, can one change?
In a nice piece of influence or dramatic irony, the most useful general philosophical vocabulary for describing Emma's errors and subsequent development is provided by Gilbert Ryle in his work on self-understanding. Notoriously, by the way, when asked whether he ever read novels, Ryle was reported to have replied, "Oh, yes. All six of them every year."
Like Cassam, Ryle focuses on substantial self-knowledge, or what he calls "self-consciousness in an enlarged sense" that is, one's estimates of one's own qualities of character and intellect. That requires skill and attention, these estimates, to form accurately well beyond awarenesses of a current episodes of qualitative feeling. Like Cassam, Ryle also urges, "that the sorts of things that I can find out about myself are the same as the sorts of things that I can find out about other people, and the methods of finding them out are much the same." Unlike Cassam, however, Ryle also notes at least five significant interrelated differences between self-understanding and the understanding of others, and now we're onto the list of five points from Ryle, plus two more from Richard Wollheim that are on your handout.
One: Self-understanding develops initially when it develops out of self-consciousness in the narrower sense. That is, out of experiences, especially in early adolescence, of embarrassment, anxiety, shyness, and affectation; Hence, the pursuit of apt self-understanding cannot be a dispassionate theoretical inquiry. One must confront and evaluate one's character or personality as it is already in development as one feels oneself to fall under the gaze of others, and as one must face up to responsibilities and possibilities for change.
Two: It is notorious, Ryle observes, that people deceive themselves about their own motives, and there is one class of persons whose qualities and frames of mind are especially difficult to appreciate, namely hypocrites and charlatans. The people who pretend to motives and moods, and the people who pretend to abilities. That is, most of us in some stretches of our lives, and some of us in most stretches of our lives. One's own tendencies specifically to hypocrisy, charlatanry, and pretense must be themselves confronted and worked through.
Three: Both pretense and candidness are learned from others. In the development of linguistic competence, ego identity and discursively structured point of view-having what Ryle calls "normal, unstudied talk" and imitation of it come first. A fall into pretense comes second. But is it self-required, in turn, for being forthright as a matter of settled commitment? That is, there's a difference between the natural openness of expression of a young child whose linguistic behavior is less controlled and the specific controlled sincerity of adult character. A person, Ryle writes, could not be honest or candid who had never known insincerity or reticence.
Four: Learning to be forthright specifically involves the internalization of an authority figure and its skills of character assessment self-assessment depends upon the assessments of others carried out by others that one first imitates and participates in, and then only later comes to understand and to practice upon oneself. As Ryle writes, at a certain stage, the child discovers the trick of directing higher order acts, assessments, upon his own lower order acts, having then separately victim and author or jokes, coercion, catechism, criticisms, and mimicries in the interpersonal dealings between others and himself, he finds out how to play both roles at once.
He has listened to stories before, and he has told stores before, but now he tells stories to his own enthralled ear. He has been detected in insincerity, and he has detected the insincerities of others, but now he applies the techniques of detection to his own insincerities. He finds that he can give orders to himself with such authority that he sometimes obeys them, even when he is reluctant to do so. Self-suasion and self-dissuasion become more or less effective. He learns in adolescence to apply to his own behavior most of those higher order methods of dealing with the young that are regularly practiced by grownups. He is then said to be growing up.
Five: Assessment of one's own motivations, character, and conduct is a principle never fully completed. The eye suffers from what Ryle calls "systematic elusiveness," as we never fully succeed in understanding ourselves. Self-commentary, self-ridicule, and self-admonition are logically condemned to eternal penultimacy, he writes. Insofar as my commentary on my performances must always be silent about one performance, namely itself.
To these five points of Ryle's, summing it up quickly, the rootedness of self-consciousness and embarrassment and anxiety, the standing possibility of self-deception, forthrightness in [inaudible 00:26:43] and assessment as a skill learned from others, the role of others as internalized authorities, and the in principle incompleteness of self-assessment, we can add two further points that Richard Wollheim nicely makes.
Six: There are typically specific occasioning circumstances for self-assessment. In various ways, the smooth formation of intentions to act on the basis of beliefs and desires and the subsequent smooth carrying out of these intentions can be disrupted. The relevant beliefs and desires may be incoherent so that no intention is formed, or an occasion or action is missed, or an intention is executed but no satisfaction results. Or, they can just be disasters in life. In such cases, as Wollheim puts it, a person is required to ask himself a question about his desires and beliefs. A question which would never have arisen in the course of unreflective life. This self-interrogation, once it has begun, has no natural termination.
Seven: There is a particular danger that one's self-assessments may be distorted by what Wollheim calls "crystallization." The tendency of a disposition to persist by reinforcing itself as one rationalizes it and shrinks from change as a special and unique experiences of, according to Wollheim, envy, hatred, superstition, and the love of gambling. Though, more happily, also love and friendship. In having motivational force, many occurrent emotional states tend, as he puts it, to reinforce the dispositions they manifest. As a result, change is not easy and it can require shocks or breakdowns to motivate active and more accurate self-assessment.
Critics have focused on Emma's path toward increased self-understanding, noting both its general character and its more specific occasions and contents. Now I'm turning, for the rest of the paper, to the text of Emma, pretty much. Karen Jackson describes the general progress of the novel ... Number three. That's on page two ... as a matter of Emma's movement from delusion to self-recognition. From illusion to reality. Numerous images of sight and blindness reinforce this.
The lack of sight, the necessity of 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 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.
George Justice describes the class inflection of Emma's initials errors, noting that she must "unlearn some of the vulgar categorizing of Mrs. Elton, who cares only about money, while preserving believe in the value of traditional social relations, wherein the upper classes at least are judged on the basis of their contribution to the general wellbeing of the community." What Emma must learn is a matter of not only content or standards for evaluation, but also of personal style as both object and manner of judgment. She must, as Justice notes, come to see flirting and gallantry as aggressive tricks of the young that mark out their youth, while also preserving her imagination, spiritedness, and readiness in sympathetic feeling.
In general, Emma's errors are a matter all at once of evaluative standards, misunderstanding of others, and failures of both personal style and self-understanding. As Jackson puts it, 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. What these apt summary characterizations of Emma's progress do not yet fully capture, however, are first the specific structure of the resistance to self-understanding that haunts Emma's character, and second, the complex process of confronting and working through this resistance that the novel unfolds.
The core of this resistance is, of course, Emma's wish to have her own way, coupled with her tendency to generate narratives for both herself and others that will bring about the states of affairs that she takes to be desirable. She has had, after all, the possibility and the habit of doing just what she liked, with little in the way of parents or governances to oppose her, and she has been in daily control of the considerable material resources of Hartfield. Joking with Mr. Knightley, she claims to see herself as "a fanciful troublesome creature," when in fact, her view of herself is that she and only she is in a position to arrange the affairs of others most effectively and benevolently.
The very fact that she makes this claim in jest is evidence of how her view of herself as benevolent, imaginative, perceptive, and effective has crystallized, forming a kind of center of her personality. Hence, it is no surprise that upon meeting the younger, fair, plump, sweet but somewhat dim Harriet, Emma should resolve ... and here's the first passage marked A from Austen on your sheet. This is an utterly brilliant piece of writing. Note, to begin with, the italics. Austen's italics.
She, Emma, would notice her. She would improve her. She would detach her from bad acquaintance and introduce her into good society. She would form her opinions and her manners. It would be an interesting and certainly a very kind undertaking, highly becoming her own situation in life, her leisure, and powers. The astonishing thing about this passage is its use of free, indirect discourse. We're inside Emma's train of thought, mixed with formulations such as "highly becoming" and the stress on the "she" that introduced sly authorial commentary into the very structure of her consciousness. Only Austen can do this so well.
Harriet is here little more than an occasion for Emma to fantasize about the worth and pleasantness of her own character and powers. This point about Emma's tendencies to fantasy and to approving self-regard is reinforced, as we find in the next paragraph, B, on your handout, that with an alacrity beyond the common impulse of a spirit which was yet never indifferent to the credit of doing everything well and attentively, with the real good will ... the irony hill is dripping, isn't it? With the real good will of a mind delighted with its own ideas did she then do all the honors of the meal, and help and recommend the minced chicken and scalloped oysters with an urgency which she knew would be acceptable to the early hours and civil scruples of their guests.
Tellingly, the focus of this description is neither on what Emma literally does, nor on whom, if anyone, she in fact benefits, but rather on Emma's attitudes and self-satisfactions in her own performance and its style. For Emma, at this point, Harriet is less a being of independent worth or interest than she is an occasion for Emma to cultivate her own self regard, or, as the novel tells it, she ... again, in Emma's consciousness ... she, Harriet, would be loved as one to whom she, Emma, could be useful.
Given that Emma's view of herself as benevolent, imaginative, perceptive, and effective has crystallized, it will not be easy for her to change, especially since she has, as Mr. Knightley observes, no industry and patience, and especially no subjection of the fancy to the understanding, having been always quick and assured, and mistress of the house ever since she was 12. Her quickness and self-assurance lead her to fail to appreciate Robert Martin's merits and suitability for Harriet, and to decipher Mr. Elton's courtship riddle, but to misunderstand it as directed toward Harriet rather than herself.
Emma is, in fact, determined to persist in her mastery of Hartfield and of those around her. She proclaims, "very little intention of ever marrying at all," arguing explicitly that, "a single woman of good fortune is always respectable," and that, "mine is an active, busy mind with a great many independent resources, and I do not perceive why I should be more in wont of employment at 40 or 51 than one and 20." When John Knightley suggested Mr. Elton may be interested in her and that she may inadvertently be encouraging him, she dismisses the thought and walks one, now C on your handout, "from using herself in the consideration of the blunders, which often arise from a particular knowledge of circumstances of the mistakes which people of high pretension to judgment are forever falling into."
When Emma learns she is wrong about Elton and that he has in fact been courting her, she admits her error as well as her pain and humiliation, but she also rationalizes her mistake and fails, genuinely, to question her own character and powers of judgment. On your handout, "She looked back as well as she could, but it was all confusion. She had taken up the idea she supposed and made everything bend to it." Mainly that Mr. Elton is interested in Harriet. "His manners, however, must have been unmarked, wavering, dubious, or else she could not have been so misled." Here, Emma primarily regards her mistake as, first of all, one of evidential judgment alone rather than as also a function of the fantasies of authority and effect that have led her into error.
She fails genuinely to question her own character, motives, or powers of judgment in general, casting the mistake as a kind of factual error made in light of misleading evidence. Austen's "she supposed" is an especially nice touch in indicating that Emma is taking up a theoretical or exterior stance toward her own mistake in judgment ... it happened to me, not something I did ... rather than taking responsibility for it as expressing her own genuine but flawed character.
While she does form the resolution of being humble and discreet and repressing imagination all the rest of her life ... note the over-formulation there, but still fantasizing about her perfect character ... she also imagines that carrying out this resolution lies in her immediate power, without any change in basic character or personality on her part. That she expresses this resolution hyperbolically as binding all the rest of her life shows that it and her self image remain in the grip of a fantasy of superiority.
She has, one might say, not yet been genuinely humbled, and her youth and natural cheerfulness, a good night's sleep, and her propping up of her image of herself through her fantasy-tinged resolution, are enough to restore her spirits without any fundamental change. It is then no surprise when in book two, Emma continues to judge that Harriet and Robert Martin must be separated, even after Harriet has revealed her genuine feelings for Robert, awkwardly and in an obvious rush of emotion, recounting to Emma her meeting with his mother and sisters.
Moreover, Emma's fancy is now prompted by Frank Churchill in whom she finds ... again, a description from inside her consciousness ... "Nothing to denote him unworthy from the distinguished honor which her imagination had given her. The honor, if not of being really in love with her, of it being at least very near it and saved only by her own indifference." Here, Austen blends free, indirect discourse, thus involving us in Emma's train of thought, and calling attention to the fact that she sees herself yet again as an agent in awarding honors with authorial commentary and hinting via her double negative and somewhat hyperbolic formulation, "nothing to denote him unworthy of the distinguished honors."
But there is something amiss in Emma's course of thought. Unsurprisingly, Emma then goes on during a party at the Coles' not only to take delight in the thought that "she was Frank's object," but also that everybody must perceive it, thus seeing herself as observed and admired by others for her attractiveness and command rather than herself attending to and taking responsibility for her character and comportment. That Emma continues to see herself as seen and admired by others is especially marked in her imaginative rehearsal of Frank's courting her, wherein the conclusion of every imaginary declaration on her side was that she refused him, thus maintaining control of both her inner life and her external relations untouched by others and confident in her power.
Later, when her own flirtations with Frank have withered, Emma encourages what she must understands to be an attachment to Frank on Harriet's part, continuing to imagine that she might, again, effectively and benevolently manage Harriet's affairs. Emma's tendencies to self-centered, self-reinforcing fantasy about herself as the admired, benevolent, and effective manager of the affairs of others become explicit, are then finally challenged by Knightley at the party on Box Hill. When Emma insults Miss Bates by remarking archly that Miss Bates may have "a difficulty in producing only three dull things at once, rather than an unlimited number."
Emma issues this insult in response to Frank's proposal to the party that they should each, besides Emma and himself, produce what Frank calls either one thing very clever be it prose or verse, original or repeated, or two things moderately clever, or three things very dull indeed. About Frank's proposal and Emma's reaction to it, Mary Poovey insightfully observes that, "The vanity Frank invites reawakens the original narcissism of his auditors, including, especially, Emma, for implicit in his challenge, the opportunity to imagine for just a moment that every thought is as precious to one's listeners as to oneself, that one is, in short, the center of a non-judgmental little universe."
Indeed, the prompting of narcissistic fantasy is especially strong in Emma, for though she is not herself intended to produce a witty remark, she has already been fantasizing about others noticing and admiring her flirtatious command over Frank. She is, herself, to be the judge of whether any remark offered by another is suitably witty, and she is unable to resist the witty jive of Miss Bates. Though she had just teased Frank about the importance of self-command, she here proves entirely unable to exhibit it herself.
Here, Emma's failures of self-command and benevolent command over others are on full display to others and to herself. Miss Bates blushes. Those who care for her may be supposed to be quietly aghast. Mr. Weston recalls them to the contest away from Emma's remark, and after a short time, Mr. Knightley forcefully reproves her in private. Initially, we're told, Emma recollected, blushed, was very sorry, but tried to laugh it off.
But after Knightley presses the point and then hands her into her carriage, she finds herself alone ... passage on your handout ... "filled with anger against herself, mortification, and deep concern. Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life." She has been forced by the very figure whose judgment she most values to confront the falsity, at least on this occasion, of her crystallized image of herself as benevolent, imaginative, perceptive, and effective.
Unsurprisingly, Emma resolves to do better, and to call upon Miss Bates the next morning in the warmth of true contrition. Tellingly, however, she also, in doing so, imagines "that she might see Mr. Knightley in her way, or perhaps, he might come in while she were paying her visit." That is, even while she is remorseful, she still wishes to be seen, and especially by Knightley, as in appropriate command of her situation. Nonetheless, Emma does manage to check her vanity and to retain her self-command. She remains calm and does not interfere as Harriet reveals her interest in marrying Mr. Knightley. Despite her, Emma's own sudden realization that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself.
With composure, she tells Harriet that "Mr. Knightley is the last man in the world who would intentionally give any woman the idea of his feeling for her more than he really does." So that Harriet may have some ground to think that her interest might be reciprocated. Caught in contrition and disappointment, Emma finally fully confronts her own [inaudible 00:45:36] of character as she reflects on what she has done, passage five on your handout. "With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of everybody's feelings. With unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange everybody's destiny. She was proved to have been universally mistaken, and she had not quite done nothing, or she had done mischief. She had brought evil on Harriet, on herself, and she too much feared on Mr. Knightley."
Anticipating her marriage to Mr. Knightley, she then finds that 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, and leave her less to regret when if we're gone.
Matters are, at last, happily resolved only when Emma reveals to Knightley that while she had been flattered by Frank's attentions, she had never really loved him, whereupon Knightley proposes to her, having found, as he puts it, that one sentiment on his part, jealously of Frank, had probably enlightened him as to the other, love for Emma. What are we to make of this resolution? Has Emma changed and earned her match with Knightley? And what is the character of that marriage likely to be?
Critics have been divided over this issue. There is general agreement that Emma embodies a number of qualities often thought to be interrelated and to be significantly shared among women: Imagination, fantasy, wit, a desire for male admiration, curiosity, and meddlesomeness. I won't say this is factually true, but it is the cultural trope, right? Lacking the possibility of making herself an independent socioeconomic identity apart from marriage or inheritance, her passions and intelligence have been channeled into the domestic and village spheres. As Tony Tanner puts it, "In bearing imaginative energies that she cannot express otherwise, Emma is a very active fantasist. The central eccentric who is the potentially most disruptive figure in the society. She is the danger from within if, that is, society itself is not beginning to seem like the danger from without."
From a traditionalist point of view, then, Emma deserves chastening and requires control, both of which are provided by Mr. Knightley, in order to fit appropriately into the regnant social order. In Alistair Duckworth's formulation, "Emma, in the end, chooses society rather than self, and inherited order rather than a spontaneous and improvised existence." Claudia L. Johnson adds that this choice, "implicitly opposes and prefers the orderly, patriarchal, rational, masculine, and above all, right to the disorderly, subjectivist, imaginative, feminine, and self-evidently wrong." Even more sharply, Maya A.
Stewart argues that Emma's change from sole mistress of Hartfield to Knightley's wife, like Elizabeth Bennet's in Pride and Prejudice, is marked by a loss of wit and autonomy as she is disciplined to accept the male gaze. Reality, in the form of Austen's inscription of patriarchy in the novel, refuses to yield to Emma's desires as it, patriarchy, she writes, educates and immobilizes this most independent of heroins firmly in the marriage plot.
Other readers, however, have seen Emma as maintaining her independence and wit within the framework of the social order, as Mr. Knightley is induced to take up residence at Hartfield after marriage in order to avoid requiring the quarrelous Mr. Woodhouse to move. Johnson argues here that the conclusion which seemed tamely and placidly conservative thus takes an unexpected turn as the guarantor order himself, Mr. Knightley cedes a considerable portion of the power which custom has allowed him to expect.
In moving to Hartfield, Knightley is sharing her home, and in placing himself within her domain, Knightley gives his blessing to her rule. Emma assumes her own entitlement to independence and power. Power not only over her own destiny, but what is harder to tolerate, power over the destinies of others. In doing so, she poaches on what is felt to be male turf. In its willingness to explore positive versions of female power, Emma is itself an experimental production of authorial independence unlike any of Austen's other novels.
Patricia Minor [inaudible 00:50:50] adds that "Emma has kept herself alive while all around decayed. Kept herself alive with the energies of gossip. As a subtext for the major line of narrative, gossip supports the imaginative improvisational, valuing the private, implying the saving energies of female curiosity and female volubility, celebrating the possibility and the importance of a narrative of trivia. It exemplifies the subversive resources of the novel as a genre."
Depending on which reading one favors, then, Emma either subordinates her imaginative energies to the requirements of social life, appropriately or not depending on what you make of the requirements of social life, or persists in them and retains some control over her affairs. Here, the correct things to say are first that we just don't know which is decisively the case, second that the novel ends by suspending us in this very uncertainty, and third that Emma's achievements in self-understanding and in marrying Mr. Knightley are best regarded as both genuine and partial.
The last sentence of the novel is, "But in spite of these deficiencies ... " that is to say Mrs. Elton judged the wedding all extremely shabby and very inferior to her own. "In spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union." As Poovey aptly notes, this last sentence "has the effect of robbing the future of its potential for change, for its temporal stasis freezes the Knightleys' marriage in an eternal repetition of their perfect happiness."
Or, perhaps not, for this freeze-frame ending not only stops the dynamics of Emma's and Knightley's relationship, but also leaves their happiness just slightly qualified. Just who composes the small band of friends? Mr. and Mrs. Weston, perhaps? But how reliable is their judgment? Exactly what were their wishes, hopes, confidences, and predictions? Austen's art and genius here is to a presented character ... that is virtues and vices ... as essentially existing in courses of their change and development, including experiences of humiliation and embarrassment. And then to have cut that development off, this not only forces to readers to speculate about the protagonists' futures and to entertain ambiguities, it also reminds us that character and self-understanding remain things for which these figures will be responsible, with nothing settled absolutely, and with crystallization and emotion always in play.
Philosophy typically seeks standing terms for assessment here for describing and assessing the achievement of self-understanding and worldly success from its own more dispassionate, spatialized, abstract, and generalization-seeking point of view. It offers useful standing terms for assessing which characters understand themselves and their situations, and so act well, and which do not. In contrast, Austen's concern as a novelist for dramatic presentation over time rightly discloses complexities and responsibilities that attach to self-understanding as an ongoing, unclosed, and socially situated process that is suffused with feeling.
Her presentation in free, indirect discourse of Emma's streams of thought about herself and others qualified by adverbial phrases that express ironic or thoreal evaluations. "Highly becoming." "Nothing to denote him unworthy." Show the complexity, temporality, partiality, and elusiveness of self-understanding. Emma has somewhat curbed her tendencies to self-centered vanity and meddlesome plotting. She did not attempt to block Harriet's interest in Knightley, and she accepts the standing role of a wife, but she also retains her wit and her interest in self-management and the management of others.
Philosophers would do well, like Emma, to register the complexities of self-understanding and self-management without quite abandoning address to them. Even if self-understanding in general has standing appropriate targets, motivations, temperaments, qualities of character, interests, desires, and so on, it is both a social and emotional process that we do not fully control as individuals, and something also always to be achieved, as Austen compellingly demonstrates in the figure of Emma. Given the social situations, the emotion-laden characters, and the needs for imaginative narrative rehearsal that may always be structured by crystallized vanity that surround all exercises of agency, there is always, for all of us, a danger at present unperceived.