How independent should one be of society?
This question echoes throughout Emma, and a blog post doesn’t give quite enough space to cover it fully, but I’d like to begin thinking about it in connection to some specific statements of Mrs. Elton, that social climber/butterfly. At various points Mrs. Elton asserts her independence from society, saying “Blessed with so many resources within myself, the world was not necessary to me” and “a woman cannot have too many resources—and I feel very thankful that I have so many myself as to be quite independent of society” (253, 276). We are not really meant to like Mrs. Elton (forgive the understatement!), so are we to dismiss her statements out of hand? Or are there elements of truth hidden in them, about independence and the value of society?
Because our dear narrator is tricky and embraces tensions, I think we should err on a more nuanced take on these statements. Parsing Mrs. Elton’s statement, the first thing to establish is that she does not in fact have many inner resources (this is just another example of her words running contrary to reality—see also her claims about Mr. Knightley and Mr. Elton being great friends). But that does not necessarily negate her general pronouncement. This raises more questions: If one has inner resources, does one need society? Is it good to be independent of society? Can one be independent of society?
Mr. Knightley, our (supposed) paragon of virtue and moral center, does have inner resources, as shown in his ability to move in a different direction from the crowd and from others (see his resistance to Mrs. Elton in the arrangements about the strawberry picking on pages 310-312). He carves out a position of independence, and yet he nevertheless takes part in the social events and is an active member of the community (he arranges carriages for women without them, protects Jane from singing too much, attends dinner parties, and even dances when absolutely required by duty). This independence yet participation in society actually seems to contribute to his weighty place in society and the approbation of its members, a conclusion he seems to suggest when he discusses duty and independence from others’ demands. When talking of Frank Churchill, he says that he should assert his independence and visit his father—if he does, then the people around him would end up respecting him more and “their little minds would bend to his” (161). And yet even Mr. Knightley’s independence is attenuated by his connection to Emma. Because of her opinions, he reexamines the evidence and shifts his opinion about Miss Smith, which the novel seems to applaud (398).
Is he independent of society, then? If we deem society the world outside of the home, then he is not (but perhaps could be, if he wanted, unlike Mrs. Elton). Yet a tension develops at the end of the novel, when he ends up incorporating the most important people to him into a home: when he and Emma, he agrees to move in with her and her father. But we are given no indication that he will turn out like Mr. John Knightley, surly at anything that removes him from his domestic comforts.
Mr. Knightley, then, has inner resources—he is well-read, intelligent, and even wise. Yet he seeks out the companionship of others, and even commits to the small society of a home while remaining integrated into the larger society of the town.
The questions of independence and society are vitally important to the novel, because Emma is set up from the start as the story of Emma and her relationship to the people around her. The tension between society and independence also connects to other themes of the text—outward appearances versus interiority and the inner life, relationships with others, social status and ranking, and even to knowledge (what people know about you matters; who you know affects your knowledge; sharing knowledge is important). Emma seems potentially about how an individual navigates the tensions between self and others and how he or she can become incorporated into society rather than continually asserting his or her independence. Mr. Knightley has already done so.
Applying these ideas to our title character, Emma has to learn to use her inner resources and independence wisely (see especially Harriet Smith and Miss Bates) and in a way that promotes the well-being of the society at large. For example, in the first few pages, we learn that because her governess has married she is “in great danger of suffering from intellectual solitude” and Highbury can give her “no equals” (56). She also permanently aligns herself with Mr. Knightley and marriage, and their individual, independent lives become combined. While marriage is not exactly incorporation into society writ large, it does entail less independence—but both Mr. Knightley and Emma see it as worth the cost and seem to think that pooling one’s “inner resources” with another enriches life. Nonetheless, they are very much part of the social life of the town, and Austen spends some time on society’s opinions of their match.
Perhaps the novel suggests it is important to develop one’s self and to have those inner resources, but to do so while acknowledging the importance of others. Mrs. Elton’s assertion of independence, then, is flawed both because she has no inner resources and because it seems to value a type of disconnect from the world—although independence is valuable, it is not an absolute good. Playing one’s role in society is equally important.