Intellectual Equals: Why Mr. Knightley Needs to be Wrong

Emma and Knightley’s relationship changes significantly in chapter 38 of the novel, when both admit they have been wrong and have misread others. Emma’s apology here is fuller than it had been before, and she admits that she was “completely mistaken” about Elton, when Knightley had discovered his “littleness.” She concludes this acknowledgement without fully admitting her own culpability in the matter: “I was fully convinced of his being in love with Harriet. It was through a series of strange blunders!” (222). Her apology, which places the cause of her misperception in the passive voice, and references equally ambiguous “strange blunders” does not, perhaps, take full ownership of her mistake. But, at this point, this is perhaps the best we can expect from Emma, and it does show a trajectory of character growth.

More remarkable than Emma’s apology, however, is Knightley’s apology that follows. He says, “And, in return for your acknowledging so much, I will do you the justice to say, that you would have chosen for him [Elton] better than he has chosen for himself. Harriet Smith has some first-rate qualities…An unpretending, single-minded, artless girl– infinitely to be preferred by any man of sense and taste to such a woman as Mrs. Elton” (222). With this statement, he revises his earlier judgment that Harriet “is not a sensible girl, nor a girl of any information. She has been taught nothing useful, and is too young and too simple to have acquired any thing herself. At her age she can have no experience, and with her little wit, is not very likely ever to have any that can avail her. She is pretty, and she is good tempered, and that is all.” By acknowledging his own failure to judge Harriet well, Knightley reveals that he, too, is wrong (and this is the first of several misperceptions that he owns by the end of the novel– including the misperception that Emma cared for Frank; once freed from jealousy, he also allows for Frank’s potential and admits that jealousy has blinded him).

Why does it matter that Knightley is wrong, especially when Emma provides such an immature contrast? I argue that the novel’s key problem– set up in the first chapter– is Emma’s quest for an intellectual equal. Emma begins “handsome, clever, and rich,” but she also starts out by losing a friend. Miss Taylor/Mrs. Weston had been her intellectual equal, but even she has not challenged Emma enough; Knightley criticizes her for being too indulgent of Emma’s whims. Harriet Smith is too admiring and sycophantic to be an equal, and Jane Fairfax (who by all accounts should be friends with Emma) is too reserved. Yet at the beginning of the novel, Knightley is also not Emma’s equal. He does not value Emma’s opinion, and sees himself as her intellectual superior.

Knightley’s belief that he is superior to Emma keeps him from filling the heroine’s lack, and he must admit that he is wrong in order to level the playing ground. After their disagreement about Harriet and Mr. Martin, Emma complains, “To be sure—our discordancies must always arise from my being in the wrong.” “Yes,” said he, smiling—“and reason good. I was sixteen years old when you were born.” She replies, “Does not the lapse of one-and-twenty years bring our understandings a good deal nearer?” Though Knightley acknowledges that their judgments are now “nearer,” Emma points out that they are “not near enough to give me a chance of being right, if we think differently.” This scene clearly sets up that Knightley sees himself as sixteen years older, and Emma is both “a pretty young woman and a spoiled child.”

To make himself fit for Emma, then, Knightley’s acknowledgements of wrong are key. They show his transformation from the superior mentor to the eligible marriage partner. He fulfills a need that Emma is unable to find in her female community: someone who is able to match her intelligence, while at the same time forming an honest recognition of her faults and his own.

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