THE THREAT OF
EGOTISM OR VANITY
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.
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
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....
Obviously Trilling's interpretation requires that a distinction be made
between egotism and self-love.
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.
SCALE OF EGOTISM
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
- 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.
DISCUSSION OF EMMA
|Day 2 (M, Feb. 4)
||Austen, Emma, pp. 7-102
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
Web paper due (1-2 pages)