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The Threat of Egotism or Vanity
Egotism vs. Self-Love
Scale of Egotism
Other Scales
Discussion of Emma


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.

Whether the aggression of egotism is covert, as in Frank's game-playing, or overt, as in Mr. and Mrs. Elton's treatment of Harriet at the ball, it threatens social stability and cohesiveness. Thinking only of her own gratification, Mrs. Elton monopolized Jane after dinner and began the unraveling of the social fabric; she forced the four women into two pairs and so into disunity. At Box Hill, the vanity of Emma, who was determined to enjoy herself, and the vanity of Frank, who was angry with Jane and petulant at not getting his own way, contributed to the breakdown of the party into separate groups. 


Should a distinction be made between egotism, a self-centeredness which subordinates the needs and rights of others, and legitimate self-love? If so, is the egotistical Emma also capable of a legitimate self-love? Is self-love necessary in order for her to be able to acknowledge her mistakes, to learn from them, and to change significantly? Is it self-love that enabled her to act responsibly, as in her concern for Harriet's distress over the Elton and Churchill fiascoes? Would the possession of a legimate self-love make her more morally appealing and likable?

Lionel Trilling, for one, finds the basis of Emma's appeal in her self-love; it generates her energy, style, and intelligence and has a moral aspect. He believes, however, that in our culture self-love in women differs from self-love in men:

We understand self-love to be part of the moral life of all men; in men of genius we expect it to appear in unusual intensity and we take it to be an essential element of their power. The extraordinary thing about Emma is that she has a moral life as a man has a moral life. And she doesn't have it as a special instance, as an example of a new kind of woman, which is the way George Eliot's Dorothea Brooke has her moral life, but quite as a matter of course, as a given quality of her nature....

Women in fiction only rarely have the peculiar reality of a moral life that self-love bestows. Most commonly they exist in a moon-like way, shining by the reflected moral life of men. They are "convincing" or "real" and sometimes "delightful," but they seldom exist as men exist–as genuine moral destinies.

Obviously Trilling's interpretation requires that a distinction be made between egotism and self-love.


The characters can be arranged on a scale of egotism, ranging from vanity to a proper self-respect which does not subordinate others to one's self.

  • Frank Churchill was arguably the most successful and the most dangerous egotist in the novel. A master game player, he fooled everyone except Mr. Knightley. Frank not only manipulated others and events to gratify himself, but also enjoyed the manipulations and the sense of superiority they gave him. He laughed with such enjoyment at memories of his previous dissembling that Emma charged, "I am sure it was a source of high entertainment to you to feel that you were taking us all in" (pp. 407-8). Frank was willing to ignore the pain that his manipulations and self-gratification caused; he ignored Jane's tiredness in urging her to sing one more song with him, causing Mr. Knightley to intervene; he ignored her distress at his flirting with Emma and at his teasing about Mr. Dixon.

            At all times his game-playing (secrecy) excluded everyone except Jane, and even at times when he seemed to be flirting or allied with Emma, she was excluded from his real purpose and meaning. Thus he disrupted social harmony and cohesiveness. Also, Highbury was a world of recognition and predictability; people recognized the meaning and behavior of others and knew what to expect; does Frank's behavior disrupt their security as well as society's stability by violating these basic premises?

  • Most of Emma's efforts to shape people and events to her fancy were unsuccessful, though her egotism deluded her into believing she was autonomous and had the power to direct other people's lives. She regretted the pain that she unintentionally caused others when her schemes failed; neverntheless, her self-involvement could make her unconscious of how her behavior was affecting others; if Harriet had loved Frank as Emma believed, wouldn't her flirtation at Box Hill with Frank have wounded Harriet deeply?

  • Mr. Woodhouse, with his "gentle selfishness" (p. 29), contends with Frank for the title of most successful egotist or manipulator. He could not imagine that anyone else saw the world differently from himself and, through his nervousness and delicate health, bent all others to his will. He was, at the same time, concerned about the health and well-being of others, in his own way, and as a host treated his guests courteously and welcomingly.

  • Mr. Weston displayed the egotism of a parent, with his pride in Frank. In his conversations with Mrs. Elton at his own home and at the ball, he was interested only as long as he could discuss Frank, even taking advantage of Mrs. Elton's cough to hold forth about Frank.

  • The egotism of Mrs. Elton, who acts as a foil for Emma, was glaringly obvious. Mr. Elton's egotism motivated him to aspire to Emma.

  • How would you assess Harriet's egotism? or was she selfless? or did she change in this regard as a result of Emma's encouragement?

  • Do Mr. Knightley, Mrs. Weston, and Miss Bates illustrate self-respect and a proper selflessness that contributes to individual well being and to social harmony?


The characters can be arranged on other scales, reflecting other major themes, like sociability. At one end of the scale can be ranged the characters whose sociability was marked by snobbery and a lack of consideration for others. Who do you think they would be? Then there is Mr. Weston, whose genuine friendliness or amiability lacked judgment; Emma, thinking of his "unmanageable good will" (p. 306), decided, "General benevolence, but not general friendship, made a man what he ought to be. She could fancy such a man" (p. 279). How would you rate Mr. John Knightley and his preference for domesticity with his own family, Miss Bates, Jane, Mr. Woodhouse, Mrs. Weston, and Mr. Knightley? Do any characters represent the ideal sociability in Austen's view? Clearly, Mr. Knightley represented Emma's ideal, though she was unaware of this fact until the end.

I have discussed egotism and sociability separately, but in the novel and in life they are intertwined. Mr. Elton is an egotistic snob; Frank's ostensible openness and gregariousness conceal his egotism; John Knightley's sociability is egotistic in its limitation to family; Mr. Woodhouse is selfish sociability.


Day 2 (M, Feb. 4) Austen, Emma, pp. 7-102
  Austen Overview
  Point of View and The Narrator
Day 3 (W, Feb. 6) Emma, pp. 103-209
  Emma, Harriet, and Mr. Elton
Day 4 (M, Feb. 11) Emma, pp. 209-317
Day 5 (W, Feb. 13) Emma, pp. 317-412
  Mr. Knightley
  Women's Lot
  The Ending
  Other Issues
Web paper due (1-2 pages)

January 26, 2009