Mr. Knightley is introduced as a "a sensible man" (p.
good sense being a positive quality in Austen. He obviously served
as Emma's mentor and moral guide, being "one of the
few people who
could see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever told her
of them" (p. 32). He bluntly told her she had drawn Harriet too tall, a
charge she knew to be true but refused to acknowledge. Throughout the
novel, he pointed out her lapses, like her neglect of Jane Fairfax and
Miss Bates and her cruel treatment of Miss Bates at Box Hill. How
effective a mentor and moral guide was he? Did he significantly affect
Emma's behavior and her attitudes? Emma acknowledged his influence in
counteracting "the indulgence of other people" and confessed that "I
was very often influenced by you—oftener than I would own at the time.
I am very sure you did me good" (p. 394). He, however, seemed to have
doubts about his guidance:
"My interference was quite as likely to do harm as to
do good. It was very natural for you to say, 'What right has he to
lecture me?' and I am afraid very natural for you to feel that it was
done in a disagreeable manner. I do not believe I did you any good. The
good was all to myself, by making you an object of the tenderest
affection to me. I could not think about you so much without doting on
you, faults and all, and by dint of fancying so many errors, have been
in love with you ever since you were thirteen at least." (p. 394)
Despite such misgivings, many readers see him as
perfect or infallible; he is, for them, Austen's spokesman and the
embodiment of her social ideal. Living up to his name, he was
consistently kind and considerate toward the Bates family, sending his
last apples for Jane, using his carriage to bring Jane and Miss Bates
to the Coles' dinner, and offering to run errands for Miss Bates. He
chivalrously danced with Harriet to rescue her from the Eltons' malice.
Other readers see him as fallible because he is not
necessarily or consistently guided by reason. Their most compelling
evidence is his jealousy of Frank Churchill:
- When Emma and he discussed Frank's deferred visits,
the principles by which he condemned Frank were valid, "There is one
thing, Emma, which a man can always do if he chooses, and that is his
duty; not by manoeuvring and finessing, but by vigour and resolution"
(p. 141) and "Respect for right conduct is felt by everybody" (p. 142).
These are fundamental principles for Austen. Frank's subsequent
behavior justified Knightley's disapproval. On the surface, Mr.
Knightley's objections to Frank appeared to be reasonable.
However, his vehement condemnation of Frank
suggested that he
was guided by some intense emotion rather than just reason. He became
annoyed that Emma changed the subject and was surprised that his high
opinion of himself "could make him
unjust to the merit of another" (p. 145). Later he himself acknowledged
his initial bias and jealousy, "I was not quite impartial in my
judgement, Emma; but yet, I think, had you not been in the
case, I should still have distrusted him" (pp. 380-81). And the
narrator is explicit about his "long-standing jealousy, old as the
arrival or even the expectation of Frank Churchill" (370), suggesting
that his realization of his jealousy might have enlightened him about
his love for Emma.
- He disagreed with Mrs. Weston and Emma about Frank's
handwriting, which he found feminine.
- He was prepared to accept Miss Bates' invitation to
come up and join Emma and Mrs. Weston—until he heard that Frank was
- Once he knew Emma loved him, his opinion of Frank
immediately became more favorable, even though Frank's character had
the same flaws and much of Frank's behavior was still reprehensible.
Critics of Mr. Knightey also cite, as proof of his
fallibility, his initial rejection of Harriet, which they claim was
hasty and based on insufficient evidence. As a result of taking the
time to talk to her, he discovered that she was "an artless, amiable
girl, with very good notions, very seriously good principles, and
placing her happiness in the affections and utilty of domestic life"
(p. 404). Some minor examples of his faulty reasoning may perhaps be
attributed to his love for Emma: he ascribed many of Harriet's good
traits to Emma's influence, and he regarded Emma as "faultless in spite
of all her faults" (p. 371).
Some readers are bothered by Mr. Knightley's statement
(quoted above) that he had loved Emma since she was thirteen; as he is
some sixteen years older than Emma, he would have been about
twenty-nine years old at the time. For these readers, this situation
borders uncomfortably on an inappropriate sexual interest in a child or
nearly incest (he really performs the role of father in her life, not
Mr. Woodhouse). Their concern may be explained away: Mr.
joking, or this interpretation is a modern notion which would not have
occurred to Austen or her contemporaries.
You must decide, based on your own reading, whether Mr.
Knightley is infallible or to what degree he is fallible and whether he
is Austen's spokesperson. Even if he is guided by feeling rather than
reason at times, does that diminish his stature, or does it makes him
more believable and human? And does it necessarily preclude him from
being Austen's spokesperson most of the time?
DISCUSSION OF EMMA