Friday, August 17, 2007

Emma (4-7) "A very old and intimate friend..."

Mr. Knightley makes his appearance at the end of Chapter 1, which strikes me as pretty early for a love interest to show up, especially in a Jane Austen novel.

It is a convention of the romantic comedy, that descendant of the comedy of manners, that the love interests "meet cute," a phrase meaning that they cross paths through some carefully articulated set of circumstances designed to show that Fate wants them to be together if only they can see that THIS IS THE MOMENT OF DESTINY!

Mr. Knightley, on the other hand is "a very old and intimate friend of the family" (4). The word "friend" is clearly an important one in this work. It (or some variation such as "friendly" is used twelve times in the first chapter alone. Some key examples include:

--Miss Taylor is called "a friend and companion such as few possessed" (2).
--Knightley is called "a very old and intimate friend" (4)
--Knightley opines that "every friend of Miss Taylor must be glad to have her so happily married" (5).

At Box Hill, the emotional and moral turning point of the novel, Knightley will profess his friendship to Emma. Indeed his words will suggest that it may be harder to be a true friend than a devoted lover. Much of Book I deals with Emma's befriending of Harriet Smith, and the question of whether or not Emma is acting the true friend when she recommends Harriet refuse Robert Martin is the source of disagreement between her and Knightley that permeates the first third of the novel.

The reason every friend of Miss Taylor "must" be glad, as Knightley explains, is that her marriage is so clearly to her advantage--both economically and emotionally. The true friend, then, is the one who rejoices in the good to her friend even if that good comes at the expense of hardship to herself. What is interesting about this concept of love and friendship is how much contemporary mores have reversed it. Love is putting the other first. Friendship is enjoying another's company. [Okay, yes, there are a number today who think that's all love is as well, but really that's another story.]

In Christian circles, C.S. Lewis's The Four Loves has alerted many readers to the fact that in New Testament Greek "love" can mean different things. "Eros" is erotic love, "philia" is brotherly love/friendship (hence the nickname for Philadelphia), while "agape" is the selfless, Christian love that most approximates the love of God.

That being a friend is something more than being an amiable companion is a lesson Emma has not yet learned. It may very well be THE lesson she has not yet learned, since learning it leads to the realization that friendship and love are built on the same foundation. Emma says of Knightley: "Mr. Knightley loves to find fault with me you know--in a joke--it is all a joke. We always say what we like to one another" (5).1This is not entirely true. In fact, really, no part of it is true. Knightley does find fault with Emma but he doesn't "love" to do so. Knightley never jokes about moral faults or instruction. And while Emma may say whatever she likes to Knightley, he apparently has a great deal of difficulty saying exactly what he would like to say to her. 2

I digress from my main point, however, which is that attentive readers ought to pick up on the fact that Emma is using words differently not only from Knightley but also from the narrator. When the narrator says that Knightley was an old friend of the family, her (I always think of the narrator as a she, so sue me) use of the word, unless we think it duplicitous or inaccurate, is closer to Knightley's than Emma's. Emma's father is, too be sure, beloved for "the friendliness of his heart" (2) but it is Miss Taylor who acts in the office of friend by promoting Emma's welfare: "Sixteen years had Miss Taylor been in Mr. Woodhouse's family, less as a governess than a friend" (1).

The office of a friend is something different from, and requires something different than, friendliness (or amiability).Mr. Woodhouse is beloved for his friendliness, but to whom is he a friend and who is a friend to him? (Knightley, we might note, is a friend of the "family," suggesting that his service to Woodhouse is service that promotes the good of all members of the family--for example it relieves Emma of some of her tedious duties--more so than it challenges Woodhouse to grow personally.)

The other thing we are told about Knightley is that he is a "sensible" man. The contrast between Knightley's "sensible" nature and Emma's "clever"ness comprises one of the the thematic foundations of the novel. When Emma boasts she made the match between Taylor and Weston, her response to Knightley's claim that it was a lucky guess is telling: "And have you never known the pleasure and triumph of a lucky guess?--I pity you.--I thought you cleverer--for depend upon it, a lucky guess is never merely luck. There is always some talent in it" (6). Maybe, maybe not. But it is telling that the "clever" party here speaks primarily of "pleasure" and "triumph" wrought by "talents" while the man of sense speaks primarily of "merit" demonstrated by "worthy employment" and culminating in "success."

Emma and Knightley are speaking the same language, but they have very different working vocabularies. For Emma, making matches is "the greatest amusement in the world" (6). It may be too easy, though, to read Knightley as always right. Usually there is a germ of truth in what Emma says, and here I see it in her claim that Weston was "comfortable" as a widower and may not have pursued Taylor had not Emma given "many little encouragements" (6). Already in Chapter 1 we see a gender pattern emerging. Each of the men described, Weston, Woodhouse, Elton (and, so, perhaps it is hinted, Knightley) are comfortable. Perhaps it is not out of sense or virtue that they withdrawn but simply by temperament and, perhaps, Emma does do the office of a friend by drawing out Weston, making him momentarily less comfortable but in the long term more happy. That she may not be always or completely motivated by altruism doesn't make actions any less that of a friend. Certainly promoting another's success at some cost to ourselves might be more virtuous than promoting it at no cost to ourselves, but that doesn't mean there is no virtue or sense or friendship in helping another when our interests coincide.

Where Emma will begin to get in trouble is when she will be unable to distinguish her interests from those of another. Her guess has, in fact, been "lucky." But lucky in the sense that she wields power and influence and the exercise of those qualities can injure others as well as help them, so they must be used judiciously. Still, as her friendship with Harriet (I think) will demonstrate, it isn't so much that Emma is unwilling to learn this lesson as that she has never had to do so. It's not that she can't ever put others before herself, only that she is careless in her assumptions about what others want or need.

1Is this yet more foreshadowing of Box Hill? There, too, Emma will insist that her words are just a joke. Knightley, however, will finally correct her.

2The most obvious example of Knightley's difficulty to say what he wants is at the end of Book III where Emma must--against her misperceived self-interest--encourage him to say what he wants. Because Emma's misperception here is so early and because the reader doesn't have any contradicting evidence, it is easy to be lulled into treating her characterizations as facts. Part of Austen's richness is how much of the text opens itself to different nuances on repeated readings. This is one reason why it is difficult to do a meaningful commentary without reference to plot spoilers. So much of a first reading is getting our bearings, and most of our initial bearings are tied to Emma's perceptions since she is both the character who is most open (we'll say more about that when she meets Jane Fairfax) and the character with whom the narrator is semi-omniscient. The narrator does say, "Mr. Knightley, in fact, was one of the few people who could see faults in Emma..." (5). The use of "in fact" constitutes the second time in the first chapter (along with the previously mentioned use of "real" to describe the evils of Emma's situation) the narrator has seen fit to contradict something Emma says or believes with an assertion of fact from that omniscient point of view. We may have to wait awhile before we get contrary evidence, but attentive readers should be alert from the get go to hints the narrator is dropping not to take Emma's perceptions as gospel.

For more close readings of Emma, simply click on the hotlink label at the bottom of this post.

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