The role of conscience in Jane Austen’s Emma

THE FUNCTION OF CONSCIENCE, CONTRITION AND COMMUNITY IN JANE AUSTEN’S EMMA

“[Emma] walked on, amusing herself in the consideration of the blunders [of others] which often arise from a partial knowledge of circumstances, of the mistakes which people of high pretensions to judgment are forever falling into….” (Chapter 13)

“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–for she had done mischief” (Chapter 47).

Jane Austen’s Emma is singularly a novel about Emma and her life in the village of Highbury. In fact, I will maintain in this short note that the towering theme of Emma is her moral relationship to – and her moral development in – the community of Highbury. Emma is saved from the disastrous consequences of her ill-conceived matchmaking adventures and other mischievous actions in Highbury by the “warmth of contrition” and the remorse of conscience. Emma’s sorrow for her sins is the foundation for her emergence as a woman truly capable of loving and caring for the people in Highbury.

Emma’s epistemological problem (the way she sees things) is also the basis for her moral problems, for when she sees the world as it actually is she acts virtuously (consider her charitable treatment of the poor in Chapter 10). But, the way things are imagined to be in Emma’s mind, compared to the way they actually are in reality, is the foundation of all her misjudgments. It is contrition that bridges the gap between Emma’s excessively subjective perception of things and their true, objective reality. In other words, the “warmth of contrition” is what causes Emma to see things as they really are and thus to act virtuously in her community of Highbury.

It should be added that “Emma is unusual among [Austen] novels in focusing on the heroine as a member of a community. Other heroines will achieve this position with marriage, beyond the span of the book; Emma has it already, and her marriage will only confirm and perhaps enlarge her sphere of influence. So while the other novels follow their heroines away from home on a variety of learning experiences, Emma is static. The action takes place wholly in Highbury, the ‘large and populous village, almost amounting to a town’ where Emma has lived all her life” (The Jane Austen Society). In short, says an academic, “Emma is a story about our responsibilities as members of a community,” and it “explores the consequences of failing in those duties.”

Emma’s primary vice is egotism or vanity. Pride is often defined as the exaltation of self, and Jane Austen let’s us know that Emma’s excellent situation in life (she enjoyed “some of the best blessings of existence”) is conducive to egotistical gratification at the expense of other people:

“The real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her” (Chapter 1).

Emma’s distortion of reality (a major sub-theme of the novel) stems from her egotism. “The dangers of egotism run through Emma. It threatens the happiness and lives of individuals. Despite Emma’s material advantages and positive qualities, her egotism fueled her desire for flattery (however undeserved), for preeminence, and for power and led her into snobbery, self-deception, and cruelty. Because of vanity, she believed in the superiority of her judgment, which in reality was led astray by her fancy or imagination. As a result, she interfered with Harriet’s marriage prospects and future, told Frank malicious, baseless gossip which had the potential to destroy Jane’s reputation and future, and believed she had destroyed her own happiness by putting Harriet in Mr. Knightley’s way” (from CUNY, Austen Overview, Emma) .

What heals Emma is conscience and contrition. In the remainder of this note I will provide three examples (by way of direct quotes from the novel itself) of the healing of Emma’s egotism through conscience and contrition ( and by way of caution I do not mean to imply that Emma’s contrition was perfect all at once, but rather that it was ongoing and cumulative).

1.  Emma’s contrition after the Harriet-Mr. Elton matchmaking fiasco.

“Emma sat down to think and be miserable.–It was a wretched business indeed!–Such an overthrow of every thing she had been wishing for!–Such a development of every thing most unwelcome!–Such a blow for Harriet!–that was the worst of all. Every part of it brought pain and humiliation, of some sort or other; but, compared with the evil to Harriet, all was light; and she would gladly have submitted to feel yet more mistaken– more in error–more disgraced by mis-judgment, than she actually was, could the effects of her blunders have been confined to herself.

“If I had not persuaded Harriet into liking the man, I could have borne any thing. He might have doubled his presumption to me– but poor Harriet!”

How she could have been so deceived!–He protested that he had never thought seriously of Harriet–never! She looked back as well as she could; but it was all confusion. She had taken up the idea, she supposed, and made every thing bend to it. His manners, however, must have been unmarked, wavering, dubious, or she could not have been so misled.

The picture!–How eager he had been about the picture!– and the charade!–and an hundred other circumstances;– how clearly they had seemed to point at Harriet. To be sure, the charade, with its “ready wit”–but then the “soft eyes”– in fact it suited neither; it was a jumble without taste or truth. Who could have seen through such thick-headed nonsense?

Certainly she had often, especially of late, thought his manners to herself unnecessarily gallant; but it had passed as his way, as a mere error of judgment, of knowledge, of taste, as one proof among others that he had not always lived in the best society, that with all the gentleness of his address, true elegance was sometimes wanting; but, till this very day, she had never, for an instant, suspected it to mean any thing but grateful respect to her as Harriet’s friend….

The first error and the worst lay at her door. It was foolish, it was wrong, to take so active a part in bringing any two people together. It was adventuring too far, assuming too much, making light of what ought to be serious, a trick of what ought to be simple. She was quite concerned and ashamed, and resolved to do such things no more” (Chapter 16).

2. Emma’s contrition after the Box Hill fiasco involving Miss Bates.

“The wretchedness of a scheme to Box Hill was in Emma’s thoughts all the evening. How it might be considered by the rest of the party, she could not tell. They, in their different homes, and their different ways, might be looking back on it with pleasure; but in her view it was a morning more completely misspent, more totally bare of rational satisfaction at the time, and more to be abhorred in recollection, than any she had ever passed. A whole evening of back-gammon with her father, was felicity to it. There, indeed, lay real pleasure, for there she was giving up the sweetest hours of the twenty-four to his comfort; and feeling that, unmerited as might be the degree of his fond affection and confiding esteem, she could not, in her general conduct, be open to any severe reproach. As a daughter, she hoped she was not without a heart. She hoped no one could have said to her, “How could you be so unfeeling to your father?– I must, I will tell you truths while I can.” Miss Bates should never again–no, never! If attention, in future, could do away the past, she might hope to be forgiven. She had been often remiss, her conscience told her so; remiss, perhaps, more in thought than fact; scornful, ungracious. But it should be so no more. In the warmth of true contrition, she would call upon her the very next morning, and it should be the beginning, on her side, of a regular, equal, kindly intercourse….She would not be ashamed of the appearance of the penitence, so justly and truly hers” (Chapter 44).

3. Emma’s conscience in her relationship with Jane Fairfax.

“Emma was sorry;–to have to pay civilities to a person she did not like through three long months!–to be always doing more than she wished, and less than she ought! Why she did not like Jane Fairfax might be a difficult question to answer; Mr. Knightley had once told her it was because she saw in her the really accomplished young woman, which she wanted to be thought herself; and though the accusation had been eagerly refuted at the time, there were moments of self-examination in which her conscience could not quite acquit her (Vol. II, Chapter 2).

“[Emma] could now invite the very person whom she really wanted to make the eighth, Jane Fairfax.– Since her last conversation with Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley, she was more conscience-stricken about Jane Fairfax than she had often been.–Mr. Knightley’s words dwelt with her. He had said that Jane Fairfax received attentions from Mrs. Elton which nobody else paid her” (Volume II, Chapter 16).

“Pray no more [said Emma to Jane]. I feel that all the apologies should be on my side. Let us forgive each other at once” (Chapter 52).

Let me add that Emma’s contrition in each of these situations was supported by her good deeds, in her kindness and friendship to Harriet, in her reconciling visit to Miss Bates and continued kindness to her, and in the special foods she sent to Jane among other things. It seems that we get a glimpse of Austen’s religious background through Emma’s contrite, penitential heart.

Virtue is often learned in community because it is tested there too. Highbury has been a sort of learning laboratory for Emma, and after a series of failed experiments she has tested true for growth in virtue and self-knowledge. Her redemption, so to speak, is the consequence of her conscience and her contrition. If Emma had been indifferent to the consequences of her actions, then she would simply be a positive menace to the people of Highbury. As it is, Jane Austen has deemed it necessary to show  us that the heroine of her novel is not without a conscience and contrition, and this demonstration of Emma’s penitence is not done (I would argue) to subvert Emma’s natural vitality and enterprising spirit (which make her such a charming character) but rather to order them to her own good and the good of the community.

CONCLUSION: We see, then, that conscience and contrition gradually cleared away the egotistical distortions in Emma’s mind that so deleteriously impacted the community in Highbury, essentially effectuating her growth into a mature woman who is now  capable of contributing to the well-being of the Highbury community in a most marvelous manner, given her charm, wit, intelligence, elegance and loving heart, not to mention her marriage to Mr. Knightley, except to say that “the wishes, the hopes, the confidence of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.”

Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.

 

References: “Emma’s ‘Serious Spirit’: How Miss Woodhouse Faces the Issues Raised in Mansfield Park and Becomes Jane Austen’s Most Complex Heroine” by Anna Morton (available online)

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