The Self as Moral Guide in Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Emma

Emma and Persuasion set up heroines with different models of the self to produce similar moral conclusions. Persuasion is set up as a moral lesson or education on how to build a good marriage. Throughout the book selfish and self-interested characters are set against good, selfless ones to set up two sets of morality that Anne, as moral north, guides us through. The interior-exterior movement of the apparently third person narrator, the exterior representation in plot of interior character action, the two-tone style and the different time structures of the book join to create a vision where self has limits and must be proportionate to the other. Unlike Persuasion, where Anne’s problem lies in her situation and not her character, every character in Emma suffers from a form of self-delusion as Austen’s ironic style satirises the dislocation between illusion, motive and action versus intention and reality.

Emma is a complex moving-portrait of a multidimensional character with a mix of ‘blessings’ and ‘real evils’ whose internal growth is both funny and a triumph of good nature. By considering the context of contemporary romance and its infection of Emma’s imagination we can trace how her errant match-making turns her interior delusions about herself, her world and her own powers into plots and sub-plots that reverse her self-image and enable her to learn. The ironic vision hinted in the ‘seemed’ of sentence one and present in every page embeds in point of view and comic style an ambivalence of moral and linguistic meanings that render Emma a rich fusion of strengths and flaws which is carefully managed by Austen to blend attraction and repulsion with the very theme of judgement and motive the author suggests in:

I cannot really change for the better. If I were to marry I must expect to repent it.

Emma apparently rejects Stevenson’s Hymeneal Theology (Anne Stevenson - Re-reading Jane Austen) just as she embarks unwittingly on her own journey towards marriage. Emma may mean external situation, but the ironic vision perpetually opposes appearance and reality and her actual change is caused by interior expansion as she comes to know and mortify herself by learning to:

[…] understand the deceptions she had thus been practicing on herself, and living under! – The blunders, the blindness of her own head and heart

As Emma punishes herself with the very word ‘blunder’ Frank uses in his word-game the language and ironic juxtaposition of their relative actions help us respond compassionately to Emma for she has most hurt herself.

The seemingly omniscient third person narrator moves into and out of characters to create moral comedy. Here the movement serves to limit the power of any one self: the removal ensures that despite the focus on Anne and Emma’s experience each self presented is limited by the point of view. However, in chapter twelve of volume two of Persuasion the narrator steps in creating a piece of aesthetic ‘bad morality’ that fulfils Mrs Smith’s claim that ‘self will intrude’. The introduction of the narrator as an ‘I’ relativises the seemingly objective judgements creating drama in the play between the restrained selves of the third person narrative and the self present in the secretly first-person narrator. This establishes a different system of judgements in which Anne can act as trusted moral compass whereas we share the narrative voice’s occasional suspicion of Emma even as we move within her and follow her self development.

It is the character and plot action that finally synthesises the role of the self and other in Persuasion. Characters like Sir Walter represent self-interest. Sir Walter speaks in long sentences where he makes himself his own subject and object. These characters are played against the selfless people like Anne in both personality and plot. The uneven or poorly founded marriages self-interest is shown to create, as in the case of Lady Elliot and Sir Walter and Mary and Charles, form a warning against an excess of self. Instead self is presented in such a way that ‘like all other qualities of mind, it should have its proportions and its limits’. The main Anne-Wentworth romance plot portrays this: captain Wentworth must change and recognise that ‘[his] own self’ is his worst enemy in order to

‘distinguish between the steadiness of principle and the obstinacy of self-will, between the darings of heedlessness and the resolutions of a collected mind.’

Here self and other are acknowledged as possessing an equal claim to happiness – a trait also shown in the novel’s happy marriages as in the Crofts and the Harvilles.

The ironic plot reversals across the three volumes of Emma as dramatic acts repeat the romantification theme as Emma strives to turn Highbury reality into another Romance of the Forest[2] where in place of Adeline’s pursuit by the corrupt Marquis who has murdered her father Emma is endangered by her own imaginings. Instead of the plot balancing the self in relation to the other it becomes the vehicle for a moral message seen through the personal development of Emma. Just as Emma unravels the relationships between situational judgement and the ‘single or double or triple motives’ externally in the Jane Fairfax sub-plot so she comically and painfully learns to apply them to herself. Her blindness to Elton’s ‘love’ for her as she matches him to Harriet is an index of her flawed romantic judgement and appealing innocence and a direct ironic reversal of the position she adopts with Mr Knightley when they argue over Harriet’s rejection of Robert Martin’s proposal:

She still thought herself a better judge of such a point of female right and refinement than he could be.

Here the irony of plot is multiplied by ironic character contrast as Emma battles the future husband who calls her ‘spoiled child’ and is equally as blind to his own emotions as the young woman sixteen years his junior. Emma appears both wrong and wise, strong and independent, wilful, proud, and true to her own point of view in holding feminine feeling, imagination and ‘instinctinve knowledge’ as ways of knowing equal to male prudence, sense and reason. Knightley says

Men of sense, whatever you may chuse to say, do not want silly wives.

And in marrying Emma our static and ironic hero, half-paralysed by the reserve he cannot love in Jane, provides a proof Emma is far from silly. Emma’s very openness, her naïve self-exposures, innocence and charm endear her to us as we embark also upon her journey to self-understanding as after the Box-Hill charade she is ‘shamed into compassion, and in shame, a grace'.

Emma’s moral flaws are most apparent in her treatment of Harriet as doll or toy-friend throughout the novel. In Volume I Harriet is an external surrogate for Emma’s own emotions as well as a token in a match-making contest made with Mr Knightley in chapter 1. Emma is crueller and more consistently dismissive of Harriet than to Miss Bates. Her compassion towards Harriet seems false when she breaks the news of Elton’s marriage:

hardly knowing herself whether to rejoice or be angry, ashamed or only amused, at such a state of mind in poor Harriet – such a conclusion of Mr Elton’s importance with her

Here the double subject of ‘her’ ironically presents compassion for her ‘friend’ while meaning Emma selfishly sets her own amusement above the pain of others. Again, ‘hardly knowing herself’, reveals Emma’s lack of judgement and self-knowledge of her own heart as she plays with Harriet until her own ‘improvements’ raise Harriet to the status of rival for Mr Knightley’s love.

The irony present throughout Emma exists in a two-tone, layered form in Persuasion to both undercut and reinforce Austen’s treatment of self. This two-tone is present from the very start as Sir Walter is introduced aristocratically and then totally undercut on the second page. This style joins with structure to help create ambiguity, as in the double beginning of Sir Walter in chapter one and Anne in chapter four where the original fake beginning plays appearances against Anne’s goodness of spirit. Through the creation of double readings the style restates the question of right relation to the self. This occurs especially in Lady Russel as her persuasion of Anne is presented as part wise to prevent Anne making her mother’s mistakes and part selfish as Lady Russel wishes to see Anne ‘settled so permanently near herself’.

The role of the self in Persuasion is also explored crucially through time. The book presents two time structures: the objective narrative time and personal subjective time. This subjective time is based upon the ‘internal persuasions’ of characters as their self affects how they perceive time. This is present in the speed of the Crofts’ marriage, Anne’s feeling that seven years were ‘as nothing’ in her continued love of Wentworth paralleled against Henrietta’s fast abandonment of Charles Hayter and in the recovery of Anne’s bloom as love makes her younger. Anne’s bloom follows the shift in seasons, from winter to spring, and from tragedy to comedy across the volumes to show time as a facet of self. ‘Presence of mind’ is also important here- Anne’s ability to focus on the present sets her apart from the other characters and demonstrates that her self is in a right relation that Emma learns to develop.

As we learn with Emma to interpret the intrigues and wordplays we unravel the secret motives of her heart. Austen lays Emma’s innards bare and the ‘secret engagement’ concealed passively by Jane and deceitfully by Frank in rendering Emma a fake object of love demonstrates Emma’s honesty and integrity of conduct as she steps into the mistress of Done-Well Abbey. The constant shifts in emotional distance and tone in the play of feelings between omniscient third and indirect first person give Emma a vitality and life, a changeability, that is a realistic portrait of a character who steps from and lives beyond the page. As the narrator comments:

Emma continued to entertain no doubt of her being in love.

Her ‘love’ is disproved on the next page yet when Mr Knightley makes his declaration the narrator withdraws and we, like Emma and all lovers, are left to our own personal imaginings:

What did she say? – Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.

Emma here steps into life as a full-grown mistress of her, and ironically his, situation.

Persuasion sets out to persuade us of the right relation between self and other necessary for a good marriage. It advocates a practical un-Romantic view where the self sits in balanced proportion with the other to form a partnership. Emma provides a similar guide to good conduct as the self of Emma becomes a test set for us by Austen when she claims that Emma is ‘a heroine whom no one but myself will much like’. Emma and her likeability amidst mentioned imperfections we all share offers us a test not of her character alone but, as readers, of ourselves.


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