When played for laughs, Emma's repeated ability to get things wrong while confident that she has nearly flawless, penetrating insight usually leads only to her own will being thwarted and relatively inconsequential collateral damage. If played primarily for laughs, this characteristic might be the foundation for a comic romp--it might have been a chick version of Tom Jones.
Emma is, though, primarily a novel of character, not of plot, and if it is made of many small, even trifling incidents, it nevertheless manages to paint a picture of a complex young woman in the minutest detail.
Chapter Twelve begins with a one of these scene-setting incidents that is not particularly necessary to the the plot of the chapter but that reveals details about the character that are going to be significant later on. The visit to Hartflield of John and Isabella requires an invitation to dinner of Mr. Knightley, and the chapter begins with a passage containing little plot but which provides a lot of insight into character:
Emma is a little embarrassed at her argument, and she really misses her friend, so she uses a social obligation as a means of trying to pave the way to a renewed intimacy. On the surface this may seem passive-aggressive, perhaps even duplicitous. It does show, however, Emma's ability and willingness to subordinate her own feelings of anger or embarrassment to the duties of social propriety. (In doing so, it foreshadows her response to the drunken Elton in the carriage of which we shall have much to say at the proper time.) How many of us, in Emma's situation, would do the exact inverse and let the argument be a pretext for avoiding the duty? Yes, we might point out that the duty is hardly onerous here--Knightley's presence at dinner might be a welcome relief given the delicate and difficult diplomacy Emma was called upon to practice in the last chapter. Emma's father, however, wants Isabella to himself, and so it would be quite easy to let this duty slide and even have a pretext for avoiding an unpleasant moment.
Mr. Knightley was to dine with them--rather against the inclination of Mr. Woodhouse, who did not like that any one should share with him in Isabella's first day. Emma's sense of right however had decided it; and besides the consideration of what was due to each brother, she had particular pleasure, from the circumstance of late disagreement between Mr. Knightley and herself, in procuring him the proper invitation. (64)
Emma, we are told, had "particular pleasure" in securing an invite. If we were to stop and ask why she feels such pleasure, we might begin to wonder about Emma's feelings for Knightley. That she wants and values his good opinion is clear enough. That she is especially pleased at the opportunity to demonstrate her ability to secure a "proper" invitation suggests she is especially solicitous of his good opinion of her propriety, the very point on which a closer examination of her conduct towards Harriet and Robert Martin might give her some unease.
There are two (at least) opposing forces at work in Emma. One wants to avoid the subject of their argument altogether, the other wants to find some way to justify her behavior (to herself or him) so that she can once again be in his good graces. The psychological word for what Emma is doing here is "projection," and I think we are meant to understand her description of what Knightley will never do as her desire to avoid such actions herself:
She hoped they might now become friends again. She thought it was time to make up. Making-up indeed would not do. She certainly had not been in the wrong, and he would never own that he had. Concession must be out of the question; but it was time to appear to forget that they had quarelled; and she hoped it might rather assist the restoration of friendship, that when he came into the room had one of the children with her--the youngest, a nice little girl about eith months old, who was not making her first visit to Hartfield, and very happy to be danced about in her aunt's arms. (64)
Okay, so lets set the stage for Knightley's entrance. Emma's plan is to pretend the argument never happened. She hopes to avoid the subject of disagreement altogether because she knows "he" will not admit he is in the wrong. She arranges to have her niece in her arms both to shield her from any attempts he might make to broach the subject (Knightley being too much the gentleman to argue in front of the children) and to give a neutral focus to and topic of discussion.
And it works. As Austen says, "It did assist" (64). Knightley moves from "grave looks" and "short questions" to talk in "the usual way" to taking the child "with all the unceremoniousness of perfect amity" (64).
Given her plan comes off without a hitch and results in exactly what she wants (a restoration fo the friendship with no recurrence of the source of conflict), why does Emma, at the point of success, scuttle her plan and bring the topic about?
Emma felt they were friends again; and the conviction giving her at first great satisfaction, and then a little sauciness, she could not help saying, as he was admiring the baby,What follows is a short exchange in which Knightley gently reasserts that Emma was in the wrong and that his age gives him an advantage over her in certain matters. It is Knightley then who brings the matter to a close with:
"What a comfort it is, that we think alike about our nephews and nieces. As to men and women our opinions are sometimes very different..." (64)
"I still have the advantage of you by sixteen years' experience, and by not being a pretty young woman and a spoiled child. Come, my dear Emma, let us be friends and say no more about it. Tell your aunt, little Emma, that she ought to set you a better example than to be renewing old grievances, and that if she were not wrong before, she is now." (64)Emma rushes to agree with this statement. Strange how when we are trying not to apologize over one thing we are often quick to apologize over something else, perhaps in hopes that doing so will help us avoid the former. Even here, though, Emma cannot let the matter rest and expresses an idle hope that Robert Martin's feelings of disappointment are not too strong. Knightley, however, will not sacrifice a third party to smooth a disagreement and confirms that he is.
So Emma gets what she wants--twice. A return to normalcy and an agreement to forget the matter without her having to admit wrong. But if that were really what she wanted, she should have been content with having it the first time, and so Austen keys in the attentive reader that Emma's deeper desires may be hidden even from herself. She may want something more than being "friends" again.
What is that something?
A chance to justify herself, perhaps. One last opportunity to make her case to one who she feels has forgotten but not changed his judgment. And...I keep going back to this, I think she wants his good opinion and not just his friendship. This would explain why she is so anxious to agree with him when he mentions she is wrong for renewing the quarrel (she really wants to agree with his judgment) and why, even then she tries to win some measure of good opinion by inquiring after Robert Martin's feelings.
I might even argue that this inquiry after Robert Martin's feelings could be sincere and evidence some growth in her. That is to say she is now, as a result of her conflict with Knightley, thinking of something and someone that was beneath her notice before the conflict. This is another way in which Emma is very human. She is even willing to alter her behavior and attitude moving forward, an alteration that implicitly affirms the initial posture was in need of a corrective, but cannot bring herself to say she was wrong.
At least not yet.
The real test of how unwilling she is to admit she is wrong will come when she has incontrovertible evidence. At those moments in the text, the disconnect between Emma's assumptions and reality is a shock to the system, but as hard as she will fight to cling to her interpretation of events, she is not a revisionist personal historian.
[For more close readings of Emma, please click on the labels to this post below.]