Study Guide

Emma Morality and Ethics

By Jane Austen

Morality and Ethics

Chapter Nine
Emma Woodhouse

One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other. (9.77)

Austen uses Emma to express a wisdom (and tolerance) which seems to be beyond her years. Perhaps this is because it’s directed at her father – for whom she’s often a different person entirely.

Chapter Ten

Emma was very compassionate; and the distresses of the poor were as sure of relief from her personal attention and kindness, her counsel and her patience, as from her purse. She understood their ways, could allow for their ignorance and their temptations, had no romantic expectations of extraordinary virtue from those for whom education had done so little; entered into their troubles with ready sympathy, and always gave her assistance with as much intelligence as good-will. (10.23)

Emma’s treatment of the old and poor is usually very considerate and pragmatic – an interesting contrast to her relationships with the young or the wealthy.

Chapter Sixteen

[…] she would gladly have submitted to feel yet more mistaken—more in error—more disgraced by mis-judgment, than she actually was, could the effects of her blunders have been confined to herself. (16.1)

Although Emma often imagines things which don’t exist, she’s never callous about their after-effects. Guilt becomes key to her transformation. Here, however, it’s only fleeting guilt.

Chapter Thirty
Mr. Knightley

Fine dancing, I believe, like virtue, must be its own reward. (30.3)

The conflation of truly admirable values with trivial ones is a classic Austen move. Knightley, of course, is speaking ironically – or is he?

Chapter Thirty-Three
Mr. Knightley

Emma could not but rejoice to hear that she had a fault. (33.35)

We’re not talking about Emma’s own faults, here, of course. Emma’s delighted to hear the Jane isn’t quite perfect – especially when the speaker is Mr. Knightley. Austen’s novel doesn’t allow for perfect people – so choosing which sorts of faults you can live with becomes important.

Chapter Thirty-Nine

A young lady who faints, must be recovered; questions must be answered, and surprizes be explained. Such events are very interesting, but the suspense of them cannot last long. (39.4)

This is another classic move of Austen’s narrator. Right at an exciting part, our narrator backs out of the action to narrate in very broad strokes.

Chapter Forty-One
Mr. Knightley

Yet he would speak. He owed it to her, to risk any thing that might be involved in an unwelcome interference, rather than her welfare; to encounter any thing, rather than the remembrance of neglect in such a cause. (41.30)

Knightley’s honor always trumps his better (or more selfish) instincts. It seems like he loves Emma by now, but he’s willing to risk her respect to tell her the truth.

Frank was next to Emma, Jane opposite to them—and Mr. Knightley so placed as to see them all; and it was his object to see as much as he could, with as little apparent observation. (41.17)

When Knightley decides to play detective, he does it only for the best reasons – love (for Emma) and jealousy (of Frank). OK, maybe they’re not equally good reasons.

Chapter Forty-Two
Emma Woodhouse

[…] such extreme and perpetual cautiousness of word and manner, such a dread of giving a distinct idea about any body, is apt to suggest suspicions of there being something to conceal. (24.42)

Ironically, gossip is the fuel for most misunderstandings in this novel – and yet Emma recognizes the all-too-human propensity for gossip by pointing out how unnatural personal reserve seems in Highbury.

Chapter Fifty-One

She never stopt till she had gone through the whole; and though it was impossible not to feel that he had been wrong, yet he had been less wrong than she had supposed—and he had suffered, and was very sorry—[…] and she was so happy herself, that there was no being severe; and could he have entered the room, she must have shaken hands with him as heartily as ever. (51.1)

As Austen’s narrator takes us through Emma’s response to Frank’s letter, she’s also teaching us how to read – how to be sympathetic to characters we encounter.

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