2012 JASNA Essay Contest Second Place Winner College/University Division
Emily E. Kingman
University of Wisconsin
Madison, WI

Miss Woodhouse’s Misapplied Sense: Separating Situation from Manipulation in Emma

At first glance, Austen’s Emma appears a display of the manipulative abilities inherent to one person’s situation over another’s; however, such an assessment falls short of identifying the novel’s fuller intent, as it fails to differentiate the ability to manipulate from the decision to do so. This distinction is at Emma’s center, as the eponymous character comes to realize how her “blessings of existence” (E 3) have empowered her “to think a little too well of herself” (E 3) and to manipulate her more “modest” (E 48) acquaintances. As Miss Emma Woodhouse grapples with her own oversight in dealing with others, she receives a moral education of Smithian1 proportions, learning to value those around her not as playthings with “value in exchange” (Smith 174), but as worthy beings in and of themselves.2 Austen thus uses Emma to demonstrate the important place of personal choice in manipulative action. Other characters, in their situational variety, reassert manipulation as belonging to neither one class nor one sex, but to one particular outlook. While certain figures’ relative advantages in sex, status, and/or wealth qualify them to manipulate others in Emma, whether they actually do so depends on if they tend to judge others’ value as intrinsic or instrumental.3 In this way, Austen contends that it is how a figure approaches understanding others’ worth—not their situation, in itself—that ultimately enables their manipulative action.

Austen therefore enters into an age-old debate between the philosophies of social determinism and free will, as she attempts to answer one of life’s big questions: to what degree are people’s actions determined by their situation? Or, how much freedom does an individual actually have in deciding to act (in this case, to manipulate) when the influences of his or her given society are fully considered? She wrestles with answering this question in all her novels, creating characters who range in the degree to which societal influences affect their actions. In Pride and Prejudice, for example, Elizabeth Bennet and Charlotte Lucas face similar pressures to marry, but they act differently when presented with Mr. Collins’s proposal. Elizabeth rejects him because her “feelings in every respect forbid it” (P&P 105), whereas Charlotte accepts him “solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment” (P&P 117). Thus, society’s insistence that every woman should, to avert ridicule and poverty, avoid becoming an “old maid” (P&P 117) at any cost influences Charlotte to a greater extent than it does Elizabeth, who—despite having a mother who “insists upon” (P&P 107) the union—never ceases to be guided chiefly by her own heart.

Whereas these characters in Pride and Prejudice demonstrate how situation influences individuals’ actions to different degrees, the figures in Emma are designed to ask why and reveal how so. At the heart of this design is Emma herself, who makes a series of social blunders through the course of the novel that propel her toward taking a new perspective not only of herself, but also—and perhaps more importantly—of her “self” as it relates to others. As the narrative unfolds, Emma gains an increasing awareness of her “insufferable vanity” and “unpardonable arrogance” (E 356), and she slowly turns from being an “imaginist” (E 288), drawing up manipulative schemes concerning others and their emotions, toward being “more rational, more acquainted with herself” (E 365) in how she engages with the world. What’s important to note in this development is how Emma’s mindset changes while her situation (and those of her peers) is held relatively constant. When Emma ceases her “schemes” (E 19), it is not because her situation has altered (she is neither more or less wealthy, nor more or less female), but because she matures into an increasingly “better judge” (E 56). Author Mark Schorer notes:

on the surface of the [novel’s] action … [is] a world of refined sensibility, of concern with moral propriety, and in Emma’s case, presumably at least, of intelligent clarity of evaluation. … [There is a] discrepancy that we see here, from the tension between these two kinds of value, these different scales, material and moral, which the characters … are all the time juxtaposing and equating (62).

In fact, these “different scales” for valuation are reminiscent of Adam Smith’s two definitions for value: the first of which describes the intrinsic, or the “worth for which there is no monetary equivalent”; and the second of which conveys the instrumental, or “the exchange rate at which material goods may be purchased” (Craig 185). Emma is at first inclined to seek out other’s instrumental value without taking their intrinsic worth into consideration. This inclination leads her, in turn, to overvalue Harriet Smith (who she imagines must be “a gentleman’s daughter” [E 25]), Frank Churchill, and Mr. Elton—whose material features play well into her schemes—and to undervalue Miss Bates, Jane Fairfax, and Robert Martin, whose moral virtues are worthy in and of themselves, but have no concrete place in her designs.

Only as her understanding of “value” deepens does Emma stop acting manipulatively, a change which is facilitated by her interactions, as well as the social environment that supports them: Highbury, a “populous village, almost amounting to a town” to which she—like her estate, Hartfield—“does really belong” despite its “afford[ing] her no equals” (E 5). Scholar Julia Prewitt Brown notes that Emma is part of “a system of interdependence” in Highbury (68), where every citizen is known and valued. Sheryl Bonar Craig continues in this thought, writing in her dissertation that Highbury is a community in which “the residents ... all know one another, and one another’s business, [so] they extend credit or charity in their mutually beneficial society … [and] have [thus] achieved … a communal consciousness, a group think, which allows [them] … to transcend money and to value people instead” (184). Unlike fellow Highburians who recognize such intrinsic worth, however, Emma dismisses the community as being full of “tittle-tattle” (E 47) and “harmless gossip” (E 21), and she is thus “blind to” (E 116) its value from the start and must learn that “she has been used to despise the place rather too much” (E 189).

In fact, Emma’s “blindness” (E 355) about Highbury’s worth is shared by all of the novel’s schemers, from Frank Churchill to Mr. Elton and his wife-to-be, Augusta (née Hawkins), among others. And while, unlike Emma, these figures are “outsiders” who “bring their materialistic, big city values to Utopian Highbury,” they parallel her in that they, too, “must be converted before they can be fully accepted into the small, rural community” (italics mine; Craig 184). As Edward Copeland writes in “Money,” all of these manipulators must learn to “read past the consumer signs of … society (false and misleading) to see and read the ‘real’ signs of social behavior … (true and abiding)” (89). While Emma makes this transition, ceases her actions, and finds acceptance among the community’s members, her fellow schemers do not. Mr. Elton is unable to make Miss Woodhouse—“the heiress of thirty thousand pounds” (E 116)—his wife and so leaves Highbury to try his luck in Bath, where he captures a different bride: “charming Augusta Hawkins,” a merchant’s daughter who has “all the usual advantages” and “an independent fortune” (E 154-155). The two return to Highbury in “a new carriage, bells ringing” (E 228), no doubt a display of what has been materially “gained” (E 154). By their union, “she and his ‘vanity’ are satisfied; they act out of mutual self-interest dictated by ‘prudence,’ the necessity for Elton to marry for money and for ‘the lady’ to marry” (Baker 77). In other words, each serves as a valuable instrument in the other’s private scheme—to gain either money or security, or both. Frank Churchill is similarly driven to judge others materially, and he uses those he deems “valuable” as instruments in his schemes. His flirtatious advances toward Emma are a prime example. As he writes in his letter to Mrs. Weston, explaining his behavior, Emma was always his “ostensible object,” an instrument used “to assist in the concealment” of his engagement to Jane Fairfax, at least in part because of their “relative situation” (E 337) to one another. As several characters muse, his behavior most likely has its foundation in Frank’s having been reared by his aunt, Mrs. Churchill, whom Mr. Weston, a “man of unexceptionable character” (E 4), deems “the instigator” (E 265) even when she has taken to her deathbed.

Whereas “purseproud intruders and interlopers” (Craig 184) like the Churchills and the Eltons are enabled to act manipulatively by their instrumental valuation methods, Highburians are more apt to seek out others’ intrinsic value and so act oppositely. For instance, when Robert Martin first takes notice of Harriet Smith, he has surely noted her intrinsic worth, as she has minimal instrumental value to him. Mr. Woodhouse looks onto others in a similar manner, being “everywhere beloved for the friendliness of his heart and his amiable temper” (E 3). Out of all the Highburians who seek intrinsic value, however, Miss Bates is the epitome. As Emma herself admits, “there is not a better creature in the world” as Miss Bates (E 323), who is so elsewhere described as being “quicksighted to every body’s merits” (E 17). Miss Bates’s intrinsic evaluation strategy is evident in her speech. When she spots Mrs. Elton at the ball at the Crown Inn, for example, she does not, make disparaging comments behind her back (as Emma might have), but instead compliments her “beautiful lace” from afar, remarking that she is “Quite the queen of the evening!” (E 283).

Because Highburians like Miss Bates create an environment in which individuals are valued for their intrinsic worth, Emma’s journey towards adopting such an approach can be viewed as a process of “coming home” or “finding belonging” there; however, instead of winding up in Highbury at the novel’s end, Miss Woodhouse “comes home” to Hartfield, a development which is meant to signify the need for an understanding and integrating of both valuation methods. In Emma’s increasingly consumerist society, she must learn to be attuned to others’ instrumental value, yet selective in the way that she acts upon what she determines. While “Mr. Knightley forces Emma to look at Miss Bates as a person rather than as a means” (Morgan 73), Emma must still remain wary of others’ instrumental value—however only insofar as to avoid being used herself.

Just as Emma must cease her “schemes” (E 19) and realize her misjudgments before truly coming home to Hartfield, so must Mr. Knightley. As Morgan writes, “Mr. Knightley, it is true, also succumbs to the fault of judging another through the distorting perspective of his own interests” (73). His jealousy forces him to misjudge the connection between Emma and Frank Churchill, and he rushes to her side after news of his engagement to Jane Fairfax, thinking she must be “agitated and low” with the news (E 373). Mr.Knightley also misjudges Harriet Smith: while at first he deems her “the worst kind of companion Emma could possible have … a flatterer … [with] delightful inferiority” (E 32), he later concedes that she is, in fact, a “good-tempered, soft-hearted girl” (E 408). Mr. Knightley’s greatest misjudgment, however, is of Emma. “I never flatter her,” he remarks at the begninning of the novel (E 8). Indeed, at first, Mr. Knightley is only aware of Emma’s material worth and somewhat doubtful of her moral virtues. In discussing her merits and faults with Mrs. Weston, Mr. Knightley depreciates Emma’s intrinsic value; however, he is unable to dispute that, as an heiress with such a fortune as hers, Emma has considerable instrumental value. Thus, when he later comes to see Emma as the “sweetest and best of all creatures, faultless in spite of all her faults” (E 373), he has deepened his understanding of value much in the same way that she has. Despite differing in sex, their change is “equal” (E 372), a fact which gives support to the idea that schemes, in whatever format, are enabled more by mindset than situation.

While Mr. Knightley can be measured as Emma’s equal for sometimes being erroneous in what he discerns (instrumental or intrinsic value, depending on the person), he is undoubtedly her superior in how he discerns it. Unlike Emma, he is generally quick to see others’ motives: first, he warns Emma about Mr. Elton’s plot; later, he attributes Frank Churchill’s return to his having some ulterior motive; etc. Morgan writes, “For most of the story Emma is incapable of seeing or understanding other people except in relation to her own concerns … [and, as such, she] ignores facts” (71-72). In this, her problem is two-fold, as to begin with, she is unable to discern intrinsic worth; and on top of that, the worth that she does discern (instrumental) is filtered through her selective attention. When considering Emma’s “blindness” (E 165), the list of exampls seems endless: she is ignorant of Mr. Elton’s advances until dining with him at the Westons, misreading his riddle (E 60-67) and mistaking his motive for commissioning her painting (E 41); she is first unable to make the connection between Frank’s and Jane’s arrivals, as well as the latter’s gifted pianoforte (E 194) and the earlier’s sixteen-mile journey for a “haircut” (E 189); for most of the novel, she is even unaware of her own love for Mr. Knightley (E 351). Beyond this ignorance, Emma and other manipulators also discern worth using charm, a form of address which appears as a facade for the truth in most of Austen’s novels. Whereas Mr. Knightley, by his own admission, is “no flatterer” (E 265), Emma is at first quick to compliment others, as it helps facilitate her schemes. In this respect, she is like Frank Churchill, who appears overly complimentary from the moment he meets Miss Woodhouse, praising Mrs. Taylor’s merits despite his not knowing her well (E 163-164). Whereas Frank never ceases being complimentary, a fact which is evident in the long, “fine” (E 384) letter he sends Mrs. Weston at his engagement’s discovery, Emma finds alternative means of discerning worth. In fact, at the same time that Emma becomes better equipped to judge others’ intrinsic worth, her methods for discerning a person’s value become increasingly better, and she turns away from using charming language and listening with selective attention, towards being more authentic and attentive in her interactions with others. Though Mr. Knightley tells Emma, “You are materially changed” (E 409) at the end of the novel, in all actuality, Emma has morally matured.

Ultimately, Austen’s Emma is far from what it first appears, and it is therefore just as deceiving as the schemes it contains. Readers of Emma must learn alongside the novel’s “imaginist” (E 288) protagonist that manipulation is an action enabled by mind over matter. And while Emma Woodhouse is, as the central figure, undoubtedly the novel’s most central manipulator, many others like her make an appearance as the narrative unfolds—others who sometimes differ from her in their sex and wealth, but who parallel her in their mindset. In this simultaneous variety and similarity among schemers, Austen asserts that manipulative action is ultimately enabled by how a figure approaches judging others’ value. In making this argument, she places “free will” squarely in between a person’s ability and his or her decision on how to act. As Emma journeys toward a deeper meaning for “value,” she develops a better picture of her place in the world and becomes simultaneously less self-centered and more self-understanding. In this way, she learns yet another lesson: that is, the best resistance to manipulation—whether one is the actor or the object—is in knowing and accepting the stable, intrinsic value of oneself.


1. Meaning of (or characteristic of) the theories of Adam Smith, a pioneer in the field of political economy.

2. In The Wealth of Nations (1776), Smith wrote, “The word VALUE … has two different meanings, and sometimes expresses the utility of some particular object, and sometimes the power of purchasing other goods which the possession of that object conveys. The one may be called ‘value in use;’ the other, ‘value in exchange’” (174).

3. In this paper, “intrinsic value”conveys the value of something in and of itself (Smith’s “value in use”), while “instrumental value” refers to the value an object has in acquiring something else (Smith’s “value in exchange”).

Works Cited:

Austen, Jane. Emma. New York: Signet Classics, 2008. Print; hereafter cited as E.

---. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Signet Classics, 2008. Print; hereafter cited as P&P.

Brown, Julia P. “Civilization and the Contentment of Emma.” Jane Austen’s Emma: A Sourcebook. Ed. Paula Byrne. New York: Routeledge, 2004. 68-69. Print.

Copeland, Edward. “Money.” Jane Austen’s Emma: A Sourcebook. Ed. Paula Byrne. New York: Routeledge, 2004. 88-89. Print.

Craig, Sheryl B. “Above Vulgar Economy”: Jane Austen and Money. Dissertation, Kansas University. Lawrence: ProQuest/UMI, 2010. (Publication No. AAT 3460910.)

Morgan, Susan. “Emma and the Charms of Imagination.” Modern Critical Interpretations: Emma. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. 67-89. Print.

Schorer, Mark. “The Humiliation of Emma Woodhouse.” Jane Austen’s Emma: A Sourcebook. Ed. Paula Byrne. New York: Routeledge, 2004. 61-62. Print.

Smith, Adam. The Essential Adam Smith. New York: Norton, 1987. Print.