The Shared Characteristic of Valued Intelligence in Jane Austen’s Emma

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The main character Emma, in Jane Austen’s Emma (titled after the main character), portrays a very strong willed and intelligent personality. One of the major ways that Emma’s personality represented this strength of will and intelligence was in regard to her views on marriage, which can be argued to have been ahead of their time. Throughout Emma, several of the other characters share Emma’s ideals concerning marriage, but none as much as Mr. Knightley, with whom Emma ends up marrying in the end. This essay will detail some of the major ways in which Jane Austen’s title character, Emma, shares this major personality trait with Mr. Knightly in particular. Additionally, we can see that perhaps Emma’s viewpoint serves as a reflection of Jane Austen’s personal attitudes toward marriage.

According to Bjornestad (40), marriage served as one of the very limited number of ways that women in the 18th and 19th centuries could find security and opportunity in their lives. This began to change in the early 19th century, as Colley (238) writes, “women were coming to be recognized in this society in a new way”. Colley (239) further explains that the previous polarization of the view of women in society was caused by the threat of women demanding rights in the late 18th century.

However, women’s “new way” is one that defines a large part of Emma’s character, and is shared by Mr. Knightley as well as some of the other characters in Emma. This characteristic is defined and portrayed by Emma as being very intelligent and rational, and sharply contrasted with the idea of women at the time. Thomas Gisborne quotes the Bible in his An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex with, “Wives, submit yourselves into your own husbands as unto the Lord” (227). Obviously, Austen did not share this view of the time, and Emma and Mr. Knightley especially serve well to portray this.

Emma’s major characteristic of emotional intelligence that differed from major views of the time period are seen in her (and Mr. Knightly’s) views on marriage in particular. This likely stems from Jane Austen’s own views, which can be seen in her own letter to her friend Cassandra in 1808, “I consider everybody as having a right to marry once in their lives for love” (Austen, 240). Additionally, Austen wrote in 1814, “Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection”, to her niece Fanny (Austen, 410).

This same attitude is portrayed in Emma when Mr. Knightly says on pg. 366 concerning his marriage to Emma, “I wish your father might be half as easily convinced as John will be, of our having every right that equal worth can give, to be happy together” (Austen, 366). This reflects Austen’s portrayal of marriage as, rather than simply an institutional way to gain status and security in life, an opportunity for happiness and love.

Emma’s role as matchmaker and opportunist throughout the book reflects her similar attitude that marriage is an important opportunity for love and happiness, and as such reflects Emma’s personality characteristic of strong will and intelligence.

In fact, Bjornestad argues (47 – 48) that of all of Austen’s characters Emma is the closest reflection of Austen’s own personality, who was raised in a house with five brothers and large number of male students that her father taught in the house itself. This gave Austen, according to Bjornestad, a large amount of male influence, which can be seen in the masculine characteristics in Emma.

Tomalin (30) wrote of Austen that “Growing up in a school meant Jane knew exactly what to expect of boys and was always at ease with them; boys were her natural environment, and boys’ jokes and boys’ interests were the first she learnt about”. This shows that not only did Austen portray Emma and many of her characters with masculine characteristics, but that Austen herself held these same characteristics. In fact, Tomlin (31) writes that “Jane Austen was a tough and unsentimental child, drawn to rude, anarchic imaginings and black jokes”. This seems to portray the large amount of male influence in Austen’s life while growing up.

Emma’s male qualities are shared with Knightly in the ways in which she sometimes seems patronizing towards Harriet, especially at the beginning of the novel. Emma seems to desire power in this relationship, much like Knightly does when offering Emma advice and talking down to her at the novel’s beginning. Like Knightly’s with Emma, however, Emma’s power stance does change and becomes more equal with Harriet by the end of the novel, in which Harriet finally marries Robert Martin out of love. Knightly also must give up some of his power stance in a similar fashion after marrying Emma. This loss of power grabbing for Knightly is seen by his moving to Hartfield after the wedding so that he can make Mr. Woodhouse happy.

Besides the male trait of desire for power, Emma also displays the male characteristics of independence, assertiveness, and lack of concern for vanity and appearance. When Mr. Knightly and Emma are at the dance at Crown, for instance, Mr. Knightly asks Emma who she will dance with, and she responds, “With you, if you will ask me” (Austen, 266). This is a reflection of the role reversal that Emma portrays throughout the novel, and the similarly held characteristic of openness to this type of role by Mr. Knightly.

While Mr. Knightly shares Emma’s views on a masculine position for women and in marriage, Jane Fairfax and Isabella do not share such characteristics, and in fact represent opposites to Emma’s character in the novel. Jane is concerned with being proper and shy and upholding the traditional views of womanhood so much so that she is portrayed in a negative light by Austen. That is not to say that Jane does not have some good, and not deserving of the attention of Frank in the end, but she certainly is not the heroine of the novel like Emma is portrayed to be, and that Mr. Knightly is accepting of. Mr. Knightly literally rejects Jane as a potential love interest in a way that shows how he and Emma are very similar and are not of the same personality type that Jane is representative of.

In much the same way that Jane is opposite of Emma, Isabella is also. Isabella represents a stereotype of feminine values throughout the book, and as such is not very intelligent but is very kind. Her entire worldview and concern seems to be attached to that of her family and husband especially, and she seems to need protection from them (as well as Emma herself). Emma is even outwardly opposed to Isabella’s position in the novel, in particular to how her husband treats her. Austen says, “He was not a great favourite with his sister-in-law. Nothing wrong in him escaped her. She was quick in feeling the little injuries to Isabella, which Isabella never felt herself” (Austen, 90).

This shows that, while Isabella and John Knightly were in a traditional marriage for the time period, Emma’s views and characteristics contrasted starkly with them. In fact, it can be seen that the marriage between Isabella and John Knightly seemed to bring out the worst parts of each of them, which contrasted directly with the way that Emma’s and Mr. Knightly’s marriage seemed to bring out the best in each other.

Emma contrasts with Isabella in that she is equal to her husband, Mr. Knightly, in position and will. Wiltshire (73) writes that “Emma’s ideas … just because they capture something of a world that is less tractable, more random and ungovernable than Mr. Knightly’s own good sense a rationality allow – have a good deal of value”. While this may not be as strong of a stance as complete equality in their marriage, it certainly is a large contrast with the total lack of equality seen in Isabella’s marriage.

While Emma seems to share very few, if any, personality characteristics with Jane and Isabella, she does seem to share very many with Mr. Knightly, the primary being their basic belief structure. Both have the basic belief that helping others is of utmost importance in one’s integrity.

While both Emma and Mr. Knightly may slip from this from time to time, they are both only human and still try their best to adhere to the basic concept. It seems that when Emma does slip from this, it is merely because of her relative inexperience and youth. Also, Mr. Knightly slips from this because of the opposite problem of having to high a mind. Emma is critical of him in this regard when she talks about his jealousy of Frank, saying, “To take a dislike to a young man, only because he appeared to be of different disposition than himself, was unworthy the real liberality of mind which she had always used to acknowledge in him; for with all the high opinion of himself … she had never before for a moment supposed it could make him unjust to the merit of another” (Austen, 132). This shows that Emma’s abilities to reflect could see that Mr. Knightly was sometimes a bit too high minded to see his own errors. However, as was mentioned above, the two both consistently strove toward moral ideals despite their occasional slip ups.

Another way in which both Mr. Knightly and Emma share personality characteristics is seen in the way in which both characters develop and change over the course of the novel. At the beginning of the novel, Mr. Knightly acts in a patronizing way towards Emma quite often and belittles her in her quest to help Harriet in particular. But, by the time he proposes to Emma, he readily admits that can sometimes be too strong viewed and that he has a tough time talking about his true feelings.

This shows that he, like Emma, must develop flexibility open mindedness throughout the novel (with him, towards Emma herself, with Emma, towards Harriet’s potential love interests). Mr. Knightly must change the way he sees Emma, from the role of an older brother, to that of a lover and equal. This meant that he had to learn to accept his true feelings and stop his tendency towards high mindedness and rigidity. From this change, though, Mr. Knightly was able to be more accepting of Emma’s small mistakes, as well as the mistakes that he himself made. In addition, he had to take on some of Emma’s personality traits of the ability to reflect on the self and doubt the self in a more consistent and helpful fashion.

Another way in which Mr. Knightly developed over the course of the novel to take on some of Emma’s personality characteristics were the ways in which he had to learn to move away from being so emotionally distant and stiff. He learned, from Emma, to be a more open-minded person and less high minded.

Emma’s open mindedness can be seen from the beginning of the novel, in which she sees that there are admirable traits in Mr. Knightly from the very beginning. She sees these admirable traits because she is open minded enough to be able to look past the negative parts of Mr. Knightly’s overall character and find the good parts that she likes.

Despite the fact that Mr. Knightly has many flaws (of which Emma herself even points out throughout the novel), overall Mr. Knightly portrays many of the ideal qualities that Austen also portrays in Emma. For instance, he is portrayed by Austen as, “had nothing of ceremony about him” and gave “short, decided answers” (Austen, 63).

Additionally, he was not as involved and obsessed with his own self as most of the other male characters were throughout Emma. In fact, he differs from Frank in much the same way that Emma differs starkly from Jane and Isabella, in that he does not adhere to the strict and limiting definition of masculinity of the time. This is especially seen when Mr. Knightly says, “There is one thing, Emma, which a man can always do, if he chooses, and that is, his duty; not by maneuvering and finessing, but by vigour and resolution” (Austen, 129).

Another way in which he contrasts sharply with Frank is that Mr. Knightly is very honest and open, which of course contrasts with Frank and Jane as they both essentially are maintaining a large lie throughout the entire novel. Mr. Knightly’s honesty is portrayed when Emma says, “Mr. Knightly does nothing mysteriously…” (Austen, 187).

By the end of the Emma, both Mr. Knightly and Emma bring out the best qualities of each other’s personality traits. Mr. Knightly’s strong honesty and morals bring out the best of Emma, while Emma’s open mindedness and warm personality bring life to Mr. Knightly’s stiffness. As such, Mr. Knightly eventually grows to share the most personality characteristics with Emma, and vice versa, as each character greatly influences the other to bring out their best qualities.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. Alistair Duckworth. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002.

Austen, Jane. Jane Austen's Letters. Ed. R.W. Chapman. London: OxfordUniversity Press, 1952.

Bjornestad, Kathy. "Redefining Personhood in Jane Austen's "Emma"." Order No. 1421883 California State University, Dominguez Hills, 2003. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 19 Nov. 2013.

Colley, Linda. Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Gisborne, Thomas, M.A. An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1974.

Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Vintage Books, 1999.