The Box Hill Incident and Mr. Knightley's Vision of Emma

Our Romantic and Victorian Literature class just finished reading Emma. It's been years since I'd read the book, and I found myself despising the character of Emma in the beginning, so much that I wanted to throw the book across the room at times! Is it that I couldn't bear the reflection of myself in her? Emma grew on me, however, as I again observed her transformation under Mr. Knightley's influence. It is hopeful to think that people who love us will not ignore our glaring flaws, but will hold up a mirror so we can see to change.

Rebecca Newton
Dr. Leslie Babcox
ENB 323 Romantic & Victorian Literature
16 October 2007

"Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessing of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her" (7). Appearances can be deceiving, and in Jane Austen’s Emma, they often are. All is not well in Emma’s world. Charming in her own eyes and in those of her friends and family, Miss Woodhouse thinks herself a loyal friend; in reality, she seems "doomed to blindness" in her relationships. (398). In Mr. Knightley’s criticism of Emma’s interactions with others, he identifies what is wrong in the one relationship Emma has that particularly matters to him: his and Emma’s. Mr. Knightley, the neighbor-turned-mentor, is honest while Emma is not. Emma downplays Mr. Knightley’s fault-finding as "a joke" (12). For Mr. Knightley and Emma to unite in understanding and affection, Emma must learn to see herself as Mr. Knightley sees her. It is through the incident on Box Hill when Mr. Knightley faults Emma for having insulted Miss Bates that Emma begins to see herself from her critic’s point of view and comes to recognize the importance of appearing well in Mr. Knightley’s estimation.

Throughout the novel, Mr. Knightley’s disapproval of Emma’s behavior, especially in her relationships, is a source of conflict between them. Mr. Knightley and Emma disagree about Harriet Smith, a young woman of lower social standing whom Emma takes under her wing. He objects to Emma’s growing acquaintance with Harriet, recognizing that Harriet flatters Emma’s vanity and that in all likelihood Emma will only succeed in making Harriet discontent with her own class (37). At Mr. Knightley’s chiding, Emma attempts to "look cheerfully unconcerned, but was really feeling uncomfortable and wanting [Mr. Knightley] very much to be gone" (63). Emma is not repentant, believing herself to be in the right; however, possessing "a sort of habitual respect for his judgment," she dislikes "having it so loudly against her" (64). Emma seems to resent Mr. Knightley’s insight into her relationships because it infringes on her delusions. Persistent in his criticism of Emma, Mr. Knightley hopes to see her change.

The change in Emma’s attitude and perception seems unlikely, but it is inevitable. The shift occurs following Mr. Knightley’s censure of Emma when she injures their friend, Miss Bates by a pointed insult. Mr. Knightley, it seems, is growing weary of his criticism of Emma’s faults when he confronts her about insulting Miss Bates:"‘I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do: a privilege rather endured than allowed, perhaps, but I must still use it. I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance,’" (351). The incident that warrants Mr. Knightley’s remonstrance occurs on the outing to Box Hill. Emma, who delights in wordplay and wit, seems to have always found the old maid’s constant chatter annoying; here under Frank Churchill’s influence, Emma tells Miss Bates she will be limited as to the number of dull things she can say. The insult is obvious, and Miss Bates is not wrong to be offended by it (351). Emma’s previous shortcomings involve her relationships with people her own age, and of these Mr. Knightley seems more tolerant. But in her jab at Miss Bates, Emma’s behavior is inexcusable because she shows disrespect to a woman who though living in reduced circumstances ought to be respected for her position, especially by Emma who supposed to set an example of good behavior to the community.

Emma’s example is not a good one, as Mr. Knightley identifies, yet Emma again attempts to make light of her behavior. At Mr. Knightley’s persistence, however, she realizes his criticism is fully justified. So acutely does Emma feel the criticism, she is rendered speechless; he, however, mistakenly reads her silence as indifference. In truth, conviction has finally gripped Emma’s heart, and for the first time in the novel, we see her penitent: "Emma felt the tears running down her cheeks almost all the way home, without being at any trouble to check them, extraordinary as they were" (352). Her tears, it would seem, have a clarifying effect on Emma’s vision of herself.

Following the Box Hill incident, Emma becomes hyper-conscious of how she appears to Mr. Knightley. She discerns that her faux pas has not only injured Miss Bates but damaged her own reputation in the eyes of a man she respects. Emma begins to view herself as she imagines Mr. Knightley might view her. Always the dutiful daughter in her father’s eyes, Emma thinks even Mr. Knightley could not reproach her for devoting her evening to a game of back-gammon with her father, where she gives "up the sweetest hours of the twenty-four to his comfort" (353). Emma seems to consider the game as a kind of penitence, but compared to the memory of her behavior at Box Hill, it is "real pleasure" (353). On the following morning, Emma calls on the Bates, "determined […] that nothing might prevent her" (353). She thinks it not unlikely that she might run into Mr. Knightley on her errand, but "She would not be ashamed of the appearance of the penitence, so justly and truly hers. Her eyes were towards Donwell [Mr. Knightley’s estate] as she walked, but she saw him not" (354). On her return from visiting the Bates, Emma meets Mr. Knightley who is calling on her father. Mr. Woodhouse’s comment "She is always so attentive to them!" brings a blush to Emma’s face and she dismisses his claim (361), cognizant of the fact that Mr. Knightley knows the truth: she is not always the kind, "attentive" young woman she appears in her doting father’s eyes.

That Emma is conscious of Mr. Knightley’s insight into her real character indicates Emma is not far from seeing the truth about herself. She "looked at Mr. Knightley.—It seemed as if there were an instantaneous impression in her favor, as if his eyes received the truth from her’s, and all that had passed of good in her feelings were at once caught and honored" (361). Emma imagines that she and Mr. Knightley come to an understanding through their glance. Here, her impression actually reflects the truth. It is at this moment Emma ceases to be the self-deluded young woman she once was, and it was the incident with Miss Bates at Box Hill that has effected this change. Mr. Knightley has been hard on Emma, and he admits it: "I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it" (403). His lecturing and blame, while perhaps harsh, have shaped Emma’s character. His chastisements have brought her to repentance, and her humble response inspires his declaration of love. By his own admission, he has "been an indifferent lover.—But you understand me.—Yes, you see, you understand my feelings—and will return them if you can’" (403). Emma does return his feelings, and happily. Mr. Knightley has given Emma the true perspective of herself, and in doing so, has awakened her love and understanding of his character.

Work Cited

Austen, Jane. Emma. 1815. London: Penguin, 1996, 2003.
Images courtesy of Solitary-Elegance.

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