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Mr. Knightley is introduced as a "a sensible man" (p. 31),Emma drawing Harriet 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 so 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 also present.

  • 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. Knightley was 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?


Day 1
Austen, Emma, pp. 7-102
  Austen Overview
  Point of View and The Narrator
Day 2
Emma, pp. 103-209
  Emma, Harriet, and Mr. Elton
Day 3

Emma, pp. 209-317

Day 4

Emma, pp. 317-412
  Mr. Knightley
  Women's Lot
  The Ending
  Other Issues
Web paper due (1-2 pages)

January 26, 2009