Discovering Virtue In Jane Austen’s Emma

by Morals & Values, Testimonies

Jane Austen wrote Emma knowing that most people would not like the main character: “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” 

Perhaps you have read the striking story Emma or watched the newest cinematic adaptation. Whether it is an old favorite or a story you’ve never known, the characters’ relatable flaws and exemplary virtues captivate those who are paying attention.

Like the Greeks watching their plays over and over again because they craved the character development, I find myself returning to Emma’s story again and again– so often that my five year old knows the basic plot and sings the piano music I play from the 2020 adaptation. (“I like to rise when the sun she rises early in the morning…”) Why

I love that self-important snob because she is not merely a self-important snob. 

All those movies we watch about revenge on the popular girl or getting the better of that rival guy are not the right message. Rather, the Gospels preach we meet people where they are at, and Emma was met with those around her where she was at, was humbled in her own time, and the man who loved her and lectured her and disagreed with her over and over again finally found her admiring him back. 

Most people don’t like Emma Woodhouse, the main character, but we’ve all committed her prideful and careless sins in one way or another. We might even be jealous of her virtues elsewhere and find delight in her major slip-ups.

Read or watch the story enough and you might find that you also like the famously haughty Emma Woodhouse, too, despite her flaws. Or because of them. We’ve all said something absolutely ridiculously wrong; we’re all self-important at times. We’re all sinners!

Her flaws come by honestly. She was raised with indulgence and inherited respect. In a unique position to be mistress of her father’s house, she had never had real troubles until she was twenty-one and set her mind to playing matchmaker after one successful coupling. She says things like how she can have nothing to do with someone who is not poor enough for her help and not noble enough for her company. Her story shows her flaws, her mistakes at times open to humiliation amongst her peers—some easily considered to be enemies who would love her knocked down.

It is easy to point out the splinter in others, especially fictional characters, but it is more admirable to practice finding the talents and the virtues in others in books and movies. That is akin to putting yourself in meditation with biblical characters. Think about walking with Emma closer to Christ.

Two main virtues I admire in Emma Woodhouse are her charity and hospitality.

Is hospitality really a virtue? Yes, actually. 

This isn’t her winning points in heaven for hosting the best parties or having the Pinterest-perfect invitations and photos. This is her being welcoming to her guests, and being a welcome guest. She strives to make her guests truly comfortable with the company and surroundings. Though she is jealous of Jane Fairfax’s piano skills because of her own lack of discipline, she compliments Jane openly even though it’s obvious she doesn’t personally like her. That takes an immense amount of strength and prioritizing others above oneself. 

Also, Emma regrets any comments she made to others, especially that meddlesome Frank Churchill, that verged on gossip about another woman–Jane Fairfax. Her loyalty and self-correction on issues like that show her priorities of fostering a good community is above any pride in herself

She visits chatty Mis Bates,  even if it means hearing about Jane Fairfax again and again or apologizing for her foolish slip of tongue when carried away at a picnic. Emma invites the woman, who is lower class, to all events, including her intentionally without advertising it. Others follow her example, which is why her rude comment to Miss Bates merited such a harsh reproof from Mr. Knightly.

Emma also keeps her respect and manners at forefront. She is appalled for multiple reasons that the new Mrs. Elton speaks so commonly, using first names of people she’s just met and butting in other people’s business, like Emma sneakily tries matchmaking Harriet Smith with gentlemen. With Emma,  manners matter, and seeing similarities between herself and Mrs. Elton helps her grow in virtue. 

Her charity is not just helping the less fortunate but with her love. Specifically, her love of her frail, quirky father is something few possess today. Most people would have thrown him in a nursing home or hired someone else to deal with him, but she not only tolerates all his fancies to the point of gracefully leaving a dinner party early on account that he heard it was snowing.

This honors him as her father, following the fourth commandment. Her patience with him is not borne out of trying to change him the least bit but purely out of love for him as he is. We on the other hand would probably argue with him about the weather or run out to a party without telling him because he’d fuss. 

Our culture craves being “right”, which leads to pettiness. In turn, that means that most people in our culture would not be virtuous like Emma towards her father but rather argue with him, diagnose him constantly, and find petty, passive-agressive work-arounds that trigger or toy with his quirks. Rather, we should be more like Emma–rationally patient and magnanimously composed. 

His quirks are evident to all who know him.  She does not need to explain or make excuses. Or even be embarrassed because he is so loving and caring about others that he is well-loved despite his harmless though odd and inconvenient habits. I imagine Mr. Knightly saw this in her and knew she was a precious soul despite her need to grow out of her schemes and foolish pride. So much better to foster the virtues that fuel disdain for the flaws.

If you read or watch Emma, you’ll notice how heart-broken she is every time she realizes what she has done. Though not entirely a candidate for sainthood at the end, Emma can will you over by virtue of her, well, virtue. 

Here’s a challenge: try looking at another–fictional character or real person, who you are most inclined to dislike, and without dismissing their flaws or sins, look to where they are admirable and virtuous. 

Also, while you’re (re)acquainting yourself with Emma, look for these virtues in the other characters as well:

  • Mr. Knightly, prudence and temperance
  • Mr Woodhouse,  diligence and selflessness
  • Mrs Weston,  gentleness and kindness
  • Mr. Weston, magnanimity and hospitality
  • Jane Fairfax, faithfulness and prudence
  • Miss Bates, cheerfulness and gratitude 
  • Harriet Smith,  facility and fortitude
  • Robert Martin,  hard work and patience

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