Equal Emma

May 27, 2016

Dear Readers,

   Tea or coffee? I’ll have a hot chocolate. Now, remember when I said I would share some of my Austen insights? Well, today is that day folks. The novel in question is Emma.If you need a quick refresher of the plot click here for a general summary (thank you Sparknotes).

         An ongoing debate in the literary sphere, is whether or not that the marriage between Knightley and Emma is a marriage of equals. I say that it is, in fact, a marriage of equals. On that note, I now say to you brace yourselves ladies and gents, for a long-winded explanation defending my stance using academic language:


   Jane Austen concludes her novel, Emma, with a marriage that has an equal balance of power. Miss. Emma Woodhouse and Mr. George Knightley are equal in their relationship because they treat one another with mutual respect. One can identify several forms of respect for each spouse: Emma values Knightley’s opinion, while he cares for her welfare; also, Emma and Knightley listen to, and are candid with each other. These signs of respect prove that neither Mr. Knightley nor Emma takes on the role of the superior in the relationship. Hence, in Jane Austen’s Emma, the marriage between Miss. Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley is, in fact, a marriage of equals.


    Emma’s form of respect for Mr. Knightley is that she values his opinions. When Emma makes fun of Miss Bates, Knightley is appalled by Emma’s rude behavior, and tells her he is disappointed in her. Horrified by her own behavior and having let Mr. Knightley down, Emma goes to wait on Miss Bates to apologize. Emma states that “it was all done to assure her that she had fully recovered his good opinion” (Austen 301). Emma Woodhouse, an egotistical elitist, admits her fault and humbles her ego to a woman of a lower status to regain Mr. Knightley’s approval. Emma’s valuing of Mr. Knightley’s judgments consequently proves her respect for him.

    Some readers, however, could disagree that Emma highly regards Mr. Knightley’s opinion because, at times, she is dismissive of his judgments. When there is a chance that Harriet Smith might marry Mr. Martin, Emma disapproves of the match. She is well aware that “Mr. Knightley thought highly of them [Martins]- but they must be coarse” (Austen 16). Her judgment is based on her own ignorance, whereas Knightley knows Mr. Martin personally. Her dismissal illustrates that she did not respect him. This claim, however, is false because Emma thinks to herself that she “had a… habitual respect for his [Mr. Knightley’s] judgment in general” (Austen 50). Her reason for dismissing his judgment is to convince herself that Harriet, a dear friend, could marry up. It is her disapproval of the match that leads to her not valuing his opinion, and not her lack of respect for Knightley himself.

    Mr. Knightley reciprocates Emma’s respect. Mr. Knightley develops an affectionate friendship with Emma. At the beginning of the novel when he first visits Highbury, Mr. Knightley tells Emma and her father, “I have a great regard for… Emma” (Austen 5). This statement illustrates that Mr. Knightley respects Miss Woodhouse; ‘regard’ is synonymous with respect, and it also implies Knightley’s concern for her welfare. (Later on in the novel, Knightley couples regard with affection when he tells Emma that “[r]espect would be added to affection,” proving that since he has feelings for her, he respects her (Austen 116).) He expresses his respect by caring for her welfare. When Knightley suspects Frank Churchill is in a relationship, Knightley believes it is his obligation to warn Emma because Frank is flirting with her, and Frank’s attachment to another woman would humiliate Emma. Knightley decides that he “would speak. He owed it to her [Emma], to risk anything that might be involved in an unwelcome interference” (Austen 272).  Mr. Knightley’s decision and his willingness to ‘risk anything’ for Emma show that he respects her, as he acts to protect her wellbeing.

    Mr. Knightley and Emma also treat each other as equals by speaking to one another without reserve, controversial as it may be. Emma lets Knightley speak freely because she genuinely cares for what he has to say; he lets Emma speak openly because of his affections for her. Candor is a sign of respect here, and thus a sign of their equality. Candor is a sign of their equality because neither one takes on the role of the superior spouse; they converse as equals, proven from the beginning of the novel when Knightley openly jokes with Emma, and her father gets defensive; Emma defends Knightley, clarifying that they “always say whatever we like to one another” (Austen 5). We see that when Frank Churchill does not visit Highbury, as promised, and they disagree over his character.  Knightley argues that Frank is a nonsensical fool, guilty of excessive flattery. Emma, however, objects saying that Frank is a well-rounded individual who is unable to visit.  They both respectfully listen to each other. They are able to present their own opinion “without at all being ashamed of it”, as Emma tells Knightley at the end of their discussion (Austen 119). Knightley does not exert male superiority and silence Emma because he cares for her. Likewise, Emma does not act his superior by leaving the conversation and cutting him off, because she values his opinion, even if she disagrees. Hence, their candid dialogue illustrates that they consider each other equals.

    Emma and Knightley’s actions continue to prove that candor is a sign of their respect, and thus a sign of their mutual equality. At the end of the novel when Emma is in the garden with Knightley, and she thinks he is going to profess his love for Harriet, she tells him: “[I]f you…wish to speak openly to me as a friend or to ask my opinion of anything… as a friend…you may command me. I will hear whatever you like. I will tell you exactly what I think” (335).  This statement clarifies that only as Emma’s equal can Knightley address her candidly, for ‘friend’ is synonymous with equal. Knightley, in turn, agrees to only speak candidly as her equal, saying “yes…and [I] refer myself to you as a friend”. Also, Emma will only listen to Knightley because she values his opinion, treating him as her friend and thus her equal (335). Just as discussed in a previous paragraph, when Knightley speaks to protect Emma’s welfare, Emma is inviting him to speak to her openly, to unburden himself- a moment of her concern for his welfare.

        Some readers, however, interpret Emma’s phrase ‘command me’ as her subservience to Knightley’s superiority. One could argue that Mr. Knightley acts as Emma’s superior by constantly pointing out her faults and disciplining her. When Emma persuades Harriet to reject Mr. Martin’s proposal, Knightley tells her that she is wrong and that it is not her place to influence Harriet. He justifies disciplining Emma by telling her, “I have…the advantage of you by sixteen years of experience” (Austen 78).  Knightley emphasizes their age difference, heavily implying that it entitles him to the ‘advantage’ over Emma, in turn establishing himself as her superior. Emma, however, is not submissive to Knightley’s reprimands, disproving the argument that he is her superior. She listens to Knightley’s discipline and then challenges his opinion of her actions: “[M]y side of the argument [has] yet proved wrong…Come shake hands with me” (Austen78). Emma uses the word ‘argument’; so, while one can interpret Knightley’s commentary as discipline, in reality he is defending his opinion in an argument, which is how Emma perceives the situation; a debate between equals. She views herself his equal by openly disagreeing with him, and by offering a handshake. A handshake is a sign of respect among equals, which Knightley accepts, in turn proving their equality.

     Emma and Knightley’s interactions continue to negate the argument that he acts as her superior. When Emma makes fun of Miss Bates, Knightley confronts Emma about her lack of propriety. One may interpret Knightley acting as the disgruntled parent, disciplining his child; however, he is not. When he addresses Emma, Knightley states “I will tell you truths while I can, satisfied with proving myself to be your friend by faithful counsel, and trusting that you will do greater justice than… now” (Austen 292). Knightley tells Emma her mistake to prove himself her friend, and thus her equal. He does not assume the role of a parent, as he offers Emma ‘faithful counsel’; ‘counsel’ is synonymous with advice, implying that Knightley acts to protect Emma’s welfare (for Emma’s behavior would tarnish her reputation if she did not apologize). Knightley’s intentions prove that he respects Emma, in turn treating her as his equal. Thus, the argument that Knightley is the superior spouse in their marriage is invalid.


     In the conclusion of her novel, Emma, Jane Austen presents a marriage of equals. Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley are equal in their relationship because they treat each other with mutual respect. In their marriage there are several forms of respect for each spouse: Emma genuinely cares for his opinion, and Knightley cares for her wellbeing; additionally, they listen and they speak to one another candidly. Neither Emma nor Knightley acts like the superior spouse. Their marriage is a progressive example of relationship equality in the Regency Era, where the societal norm is female subjugation and male supremacy. Perhaps, their marriage is Austen’s social commentary on the Regency Era’s inequality of the sexes.


   Yep, that’s about all I have to say about Mr. Knightley and Emma’s marriage. Reading any Austen novel is best when you have a highlighter & a pen in hand to jot down little notes. Now, while I do love Austen novels, I also love my Austen film adaptations. The best I can recommend to watch is the 2009 BBC version. The aforementioned link is for the first episode of the four on YouTube. It’s hilarious, brilliantly showcases Emma’s foolishness (let’s face it folks, she’s a spoiled brat), and it’s everything one could hope for in an adaptation.  I hope this was intriguing and spiked someone’s interest to re-read Emma!



3 Replies to “Equal Emma”

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