A Source of Errors in Judgment

Austen’s treatment of judgment centers on Emma’s inability to judge well. A passage from page 136 indicates that a lack of information is a key part of the issue: “she walked on, amusing herself in the consideration of the blunders which often arise from a partial knowledge of circumstances, of the mistakes which people of high pretentions to judgment are for ever falling into; and not very well pleased with her brother for imagining her blind and ignorant, and in want of counsel” (136). The passage’s use of irony (and the coming revelation of Mr. Elton’s affection for Emma) suggest that her information about Mr. Elton’s love of Harriet is incomplete, throwing her method of observation and judgment into question. Emma collects information through the type of observation she implores Harriet to employ: “Be observant of him. Let his behaviour be the guide of your sensations” (301). While Emma relies heavily on physical behavior and manners of speech, she cannot gather enough information to make informed judgments.

Clearly, Emma errs, as in trying to bring Harriet and Mr. Elton together: “it was wrong, to take so active a part in bringing any two people together. It was adventuring too far, assuming too much” (154). Even as Emma pulls away from meddling, at least somewhat, she still finds trouble in the form of Frank Churchill and misinterpreting his actions as romantic. This suggests her issue primarily stems from a lack of access to information. She, as a young, unmarried woman, does not have access to all of the interactions that married women, or men have with people to make better judgments.

For example, Mr. John Knightley’s comment about Mr. Elton suggests that he knows more of him than Emma could: “‘I never in my life saw a man more intent on being agreeable than Mr. Elton. It is downright labour to him where ladies are concerned. With men he can be rational and unaffected, but when he has ladies to please every feature works” (136). In this case, Emma simply cannot see a holistic view of Mr. Elton and gauge his intentions well because she can only see him in certain environments.

Even in the environments to which Emma has access to information, cultural limitations often prevent complete communication. When she interacts with Frank Churchill, his actions seem to indicate infatuation because she’s been conditioned (primarily by Mr. Elton’s romantic advances) to interpret his actions and sincere talking as romantic advances: “‘It was something to feel that all the rest of my time might be given to Hartfield’…He [stopped] again, rose again, and seemed quite embarrassed.—He was more in love with her than Emma had supposed” (242). Emma thus incorrectly perceived Frank as being in love with her. Austen thus suggests that Emma is forced into poor judgments because she is not given access to adequate information to judge people, nor do social rules of propriety permit complete communication. She must make do, rather poorly, with what she is given.

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