13 April 2015


For her own pleasures, Emma Woodhouse has consistently led poor Harriet Smith down false, illusory paths of love and wedded domesticity. First Emma had insisted that Robert Martin, a young, educated and respectable farmer, was not good enough for Harriet, and at Emma’s insistence, Harriet refused the suitor’s proposal. Next, Emma convinced Harriet that Mr. Elton, the local vicar, had become enamored of her and a proposal from him was imminent. Alas, it was to Emma that Mr. Elton proposed, and shocked and even somewhat appalled, she turned him soundly and roundly down. (Mr. Elton then left town in a huff only to return several weeks later engaged to a very obnoxious, but very wealthy lady). Harriet was left bereft. To Harriet’s rescue apparently arrives Frank Churchill who saves Harriet from an assault by a band of gypsies; Harriet takes his action as a sign of his affection for her. Emma had earlier thought herself enamored of this very Frank, and she experiences just a bit of jealousy as a result of Harriet’s assumption of Frank’s intentions.  Emma is relieved to know that she doesn’t in fact desire Frank, but Harriet . . . well, as it happens, Frank has been secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax, and poor Harriet seems again to have suffered rejection.  Learning that Frank has been already romantically committed, Emma expresses heartfelt (?) sympathy for Harriet’s loss, but the latter confides to Emma that indeed, she was not at all disappointed because Mr. Knightley (who has served throughout her life as Emma’s companion and conscience) has shown Harriet some attention, and Harriet expects that Mr. Knightley will make her a marriage proposal. At this news Emma suffers a strong bout of jealousy, realizing that she, indeed, has always imagined that Mr. Knightley, somewhat older (37 years old to Emma’s 20 years) would remain forever unmarried and her intimate, albeit platonic companion. Mr. Knightley returns from London, and just when Emma anticipates his announcement of his engagement to Harriet, and announces to Emma his love for her.
     But thrilled as she must be, Emma experiences considerable guilt over this latest disappointment to befall Harriet, and in order to relieve her own guilt, Emma sends Harriet to her sister and brother-in-law’s home in London so as to put Harriet at great distance from Emma and ease Emma’s disquiet.
     And the narrator writes, “Now Emma could, indeed, enjoy Mr. Knightley’s visits; now she could talk and she could listen with true happiness, unchecked by that sense of injustice, of guilt, of something more painful which had haunted her when remembering how disappointed a heart very near her, how much might at that moment, and at a little distance, be enduring by the feeling which she had led astray herself.”  And here is my question: Emma acknowledges her responsibility for the injustice of her actions suffered on Harriet by Emma’s insensitivity, even as Emma experiences inestimable guilt as a result of her vain and foolish actions. I appreciate Emma’s recognition of the consequences of her gross selfishness and solipsistic behavior on Harriet: Emma has played matchmaker for her own egotistic delights without consideration for any consequences her actions might have on others—and especially on Harriet.  Emma sought pleasure alone for Emma alone. Her sense of injustice and guilt are well deserved. And I am wondering what can be meant by that  ‘something more painful’ which Emma suffers. And I think that Emma here experiences for once—for the first time in her very privileged and egocentric life—some doubt about the integrity of her self; some concern that whatever pride she had once felt, whatever opinions she had held and of which she had boasted regarding the goodness of her character might not be justified; that her faith in the genuineness of her own essential self is questionable. The pain might derive from the realization that her existence has been based on a Winnicottian false self. She is not—has never been—what she has claimed to be to herself and others. Emma experiences here, not a failure of faith, but a loss of the security of the very ground on which she once felt secure;, the sense of a dangerous vertigo. Emma wonders not merely who she is now, but who has she ever been? The pains of guilt can be eventually relieved, and the wrongs of injustice inflicted may be eventually righted, but how to gain back a lost sense of a self that might have never been ever known? I think this latter might be the identity of that ‘something more painful.’


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