Jane Austen’s Emma is about the psychological growth of the character Emma in particular. Emma is depicted as a ‘handsome, clever, and rich’ girl of about twenty-one years old. She resides with her father Mr. Woodhouse, who had no contribution in her upbringing. As he, himself behaves like a child, and instead of him caring Emma, Emma used to care about him. Her mother died early in her childhood. Too early, that she only have ‘an indistinct remembrance of her caresses’. Miss Taylor, Emma’s governess was also depicted as more like her friend than as her governess. So, from the very beginning of her life she missed the governing figure, an authoritative person. Who can guide her, points out her mistakes, and has psychological influence on her. Therefore, as a result she became independent. As we were told in ch1, pg. 5:
“Emma doing just what she liked, highly esteeming Miss Taylor’s judgment, but directed chiefly by her own.”
And thus Emma had some flaws in her character, which mainly depends upon flaws in her thinking patterns.
Since Emma lacks a governing figure in her own home, Mr. Knightley (Emma’s sister, Isabella’s brother-in-law, and Emma’s neighbour) acted as Emma’s mentor and moral guide. He was introduced to us as ‘a sensible man’, an objective and a foresighted person. The only person who was critical of Emma, when everyone around Emma were so influenced by her wit and charming personality, was also Mr. Knightley. As Mr. Knightley once pointed out:
“Emma is spoiled by being the cleverest of her family. At ten years old, she had misfortune of being able to answer a questions….Emma has been mistress of the house and of you all.” (ch. 5, pg. 29)
Mr. Knightley acted as a sensable, thoughtful, and judging sort of a person. Therefore, he is considered as a voice of reason, and has a prominent contribution in bringing about change in Emma.
Despite of the good qualities of Emma’s character, like her loving nature, her being witty, social, and conversationalist, she had some flaws in her character, which hinders her being a perfect person. And the main reasons behind these flaws were that there is no one to point them out. So, initially in the novel, when Mr. Knightley point out her mistakes, she doesn’t take it seriously. She thinks that he ‘loves to find fault in her’, and ‘it’s all a joke’ (ch 1, pg. 9). And as a result she never tried to rectify her mistakes.
Emma’s main problems, that hinders her psychological growth are, her being idealistic and over-confident. Emma once talking with Mrs. Weston said:
“You take up an idea, and run away with it; as you have many a time reproached me with doing.” (ch 26, pg 171)
She doesn’t realize the honesty of her own words. That actually, she is the one who comeup with an idea, and imaginations; and then because of her thick headedness, she stick to it, despite the fact that someone (i.e. Mr. Knightley) always points them out right at the beginning. Forexample, in the case of Harriet Smith, she had this wild imagination that Harriet does belong to a noble family, and therefore, she is needed to be detached from “her bad acquaintance” and should be introduced into a “good society” (ch 3, pg. 19). On-the-contrary, the truth was that “Harriet Smith was the natural daughter of somebody” (ch 3, pg. 18), which probably means that she was an illegitimate child. And illegitimate children at Jane Austen’s time were looked down upon, and usually left to live in isolation. But Emma was over-confident by her idea of Harriet Smith belonging to a noble family. Therefore, she tries to mould Harriet according to her own social class. And also tries to make her match with Mr. Elton (a village vicar).
Mr. Knightley foresees the bad influence of Harriet on Emma, and Emma on Harriet. He declared it a bad thing, while discussing Emma and Harriet’s intimacy, with Mrs. Weston. About Harriet he said:
“I think her the very worst sort of companion that Emma could possibly have. She knows nothing herself, and looks upon Emma as knowing everything. She is a flatterer in all her ways; and so much the worse, because undersigned.” (ch 5, pg. 30)
And later when Harriet refused Robert Martin’s proposal because of Emma’s influence on her, he became angry and points out Emma that she is not Harriet’s friend. Mr. Knightley clearly knows the limitation of class differences. Since Harriet parentage is unknown, so she should consider Martin’s proposal as a blessing for her. As in front of Harriet, Martin is much more superior. It’s not that Emma doesn’t know the limitation of class differences, but she became blinded by her imagination in Harriet’s case. Mr. Knightley also points that out to her, when he came to know that Harriet has rejected Martin. He said:
“No, he is not her equal indeed, for he is as much her superior in sense as in situation. Emma, your infatuation about the girl blinds you. What are Harriet Smith’s claims, either of birth, nature or education, to any connection higher than Robert Martin? ” (ch. 8, pg. 48)
Emma does become affected by Mr. Knightley’s criticism. She respects his judgment. Somewhere, she also knows that whatever Mr. Knightley is criticizing her about, is right. But her egotism hinders her to acknowledge his opinion, and makes her uncomfortable.
“Emma made no answer, and tried to look cheerfully unconcerned but was really feeling uncomfortable, and wanting him very much to be gone. She did not repent what she has done; she still thought herself a better judge of such a point of female right and refinement than he could be; but yet 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 against her in angry state, was very disagreeable.” (ch. 8, pg. 51)
The conflict of her mind is dangled in between Mr. Knightley (her rational and intuitive self) and Emma Woodhouse (her irrational and idealistic self). On the one hand she feels her judgments and opinions to be perfect, but on the other hand she also feels dissatisfied with herself; which shows that she has the potential to become rectified, to solve her mind’s conflict and to become psychologically mature.
“She did not always feel so absolutely satisfied with herself, so entirely convinced that her opinions were right and her adversary’s wrong, as Mr. Knightley.” (ch. 8, pg. 52)
All she needed was a realization, i.e. she needed to open her eyes, to put her irrational and imaginative self aside. And to look at things critically and rationally, like Mr. Knightley does.
Emma does realize the accuracy of Mr. Knightley’s judgments before her ‘grand realization’ (which actually brings about change in Emma’s way of looking at things). Her realizations usually come to her, when she was proved of being wrong, like in the case of Mr. Elton. After the incident of Mr. Elton proposing Emma, instead of Harriet, Emma realizes the penetration of Mr. Knightley’s prediction.
“She remembered what Mr. Knightley had once said to her about Mr. Elton, the caution he had given, the conviction he had professed that Mr. Elton would never marry indiscreetly; and blushed to think how much truer a knowledge of his character had been there shewn than any she had reached herself.” (ch. 16, pg. 104)
Although, she get hints before her realizations, either from Mr. Knightley or from within herself; she ignored them and become blinded. As in the case of Frank Churchill, when he goes to London just to have his haircut, Emma considered it ‘nonsense’. But she let this thought go by thinking about her self-made positive imaginations of him.
“But for such an unfortunate fancy for having his hair-cut, there was nothing to denote him unworthy of the distinguished honour which her imagination had given him.” (ch. 25, pg. 155)
Mr. Knightley also points out tendency of Emma’s making right decisions, to evoke Emma to change her way of thinking. That if she realizes that she’s doing wrong, she will not do it, as he knows that Emma is not a person essentially doing wrong things. When Emma asked him “Does my vain spirit ever tell me I am wrong?” He replied:
“Not your vain spirit, but your serious spirit. If one leads you wrong, I am sure the other tells you of it.” (ch. 38, pg 249)
And that’s what Mr. Knightley actually does. He acted as Emma’s ‘serious spirit’, telling her faults, whenever she’s wrong. He doesn’t force his observation on Emma, but just points out her mistakes, like the way it happens in one’s mind; that whenever someone’s wrong, there are ‘serious spirits’ which alarms that person before handedly. Mr. Knightley only wants Emma to realize that there is that serious spirit in her. All she needs is to be attentive towards it.
Emma’s grand realization happened after Box Hill incident. When Emma insults Mrs. Bates, and Mr. Knightley scold her for that.
“Emma, I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do: a privilege rather endured than allowed, perhaps, but I must still use it. I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance. How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?” (ch. 43, pg. 283)
This incident and Mr. Knightley’s scolding of her, proves to be the turning point in Emma’s thinking. From this incident, she, for the first time felt really sorry and ashamed of her behavior. She felt angry, and for this time she’s not angry on Mr. Knightley for pointing out her mistake, but she was angry on herself. We can clearly see her serious spirits taking control over her vain spirits, at this point in novel.
“Never had she felt s agitated, mortified, grieved at any circumstance in her life. She was most forcibly struck. The truth of his representation there was no denying.” (ch. 43, pg. 284)
She, for the first time felt repentant right away, and asked for Miss Bates’ forgiveness, in order to rectify her mistake.
This incident also brings about change in Emma’s way of looking at tings. Before Box Hill incident, she always disliked Jane, but after this incident she actually felt ‘kinder towards Jane’ (ch. 44, pg. 287). She started looking at people by placing herself in their situation, instead of comparing them with her fancies and ‘selfishness of imaginary complaints’ (ch 45, pg. 293). Also, when Mr. Knightley told her about Harriet and Robert Martin’s engagement, she actually raised no objections this time. And felt happy and satisfied with Harriet’s decision. Because this time, she understands and agrees with Mr. Knightley’s previous judgment about Martin, being suitable for Harriet. She also now sees Mr. Martin under Mr. Knightley’s light of judgment.
“She had no doubt of Harriet’s happiness with any good tempered man; but with him, and in the home he offered, there would be the more security, stability, and improvement…..Emma admitted her to be the luckiest creature in the world, to have created so steady and preserving an affection in such a man; -or, if not quiet the luckiest, to yield only to herself.” (ch 55, pg. 365)
Emma started considering Mr. Knightley as superior to her. She has accepted Mr. Knightley to be always correct, and admits that she has always been wrong.
“She was proved to have been universally mistaken; and she had not quiet done nothing- for she had done mischief. She had brought evil on Harriet, on herself, and she too much feared, on Mr. Knightley.” (ch. 47, pg. 312)
She also admits this to Mr. Knightley, when she said:
“I have not forgotten that you once tried to give me a caution.- I wish I had attended to it-but-(with a sinking voice and a heavy sigh) I seem to have been doomed to blindness.” (ch 49, pg. 321)
She accepted her being blinded previously, which means that now she’s mentally awaken.
Emma’s mental awakening and her psychological growth was deliberately done on Mr. Knightley’s part. Mr. Knightley consciously participated in Emma’s psychological growth. Emma, herself also realizes this:
“He had loved her, and watched over her from a girl, with an endeavour to improve her, and an anxiety for her doing right, which no other creature had at all shared.” (ch 48, pg. 314)
So Emma admits that no one but only Mr. Knightley has a share in her improvement, (of her way of thinking, and doing right things) and also Mr. Knightley, himself observes his influence over Emma.
“He had, in fact, been wholly unsuspicious of his own influence.” (ch. 49, pg. 326)
‘His own influence’ on Emma means, Emma adopting his way of critically looking at things, with rational approach, and doing right things. So, it’s also proved that Emma is rid of her biased, irrational, and imaginative thinking. Also we can certainly say that she is rid of such thinking as far as she’s living with Mr. Knightley (who is Emma’s voice of reason and rationality).