Learning the Art of Charity in Emma

  • Sarah Emsley


Emma is about the process of learning to respect other people, to tolerate differences, and to be charitable to others, and it is about the role of misery in the process of education. Although Emma Woodhouse never suffers severe physical pain or loss, in the course of the novel she is required to undergo suffering that contributes to her education, and the kind of pain she endures is the torment of coming to consciousness of her own errors. In contrast to Fanny Price, who possesses a firm knowledge of herself, but struggles to act with confidence, Emma acts confidently but has to learn to think about the consequences of her actions; she thus resembles Elizabeth Bennet. The novel describes how a young woman who appears to have everything comes to realize that she does not quite have it all, and, moreover, that she definitely does not know everything. Some have suggested that the process she has to go through to arrive at that realization is education by humiliation, and that she is required to submit to the better knowledge of her moral superior, her friend/ brother/father-surrogate, whose testing of her moral worth is rewarded by her hand in marriage. A number of critics have objected to the idea that Emma must be disciplined by Mr. Knightley in order to be worthy of becoming his bride.1 In contrast, I read Emma as primarily responsible for her own moral education, an education into charitable thought.


Moral Education Moral Worth Romantic Love Virtuous Life Firm Knowledge 
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© Sarah Emsley 2005

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  • Sarah Emsley

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