My Faculty Book Group’s current work, Fruits of Sorrow; Framing Our Attention to Suffering, makes an interesting use of Jane Austen’s Emma. Exploring whether women have a natural “ethics of care,” as some feminists have argued, the book focuses on Austen’s protagonist. Emma at one point seems an argument for and then becomes an argument against. As Spelman makes her argument, we are once again witness to the profound moral education that Austen offers readers.
At first, Emma seems to possess an ethics of care. Spelman demonstrates this through her debate with Knightlesy over how to judge Frank Churchill for his failure to visit Mr. Weston, his father. Here’s the conversation between them:
Knightley: I cannot believe that he has not the power of coming, if he made a point of it. It is too unlikely, for me to believe it without proof…If Frank Churchill had wanted to see his father, he would have contrived it between September and January. A man at his age—what is he?—three or four-and-twenty—cannot be without the means of doing as much as that. It is impossible.
Emma: That’s easily said, and easily felt by you, who have always been your own master. You are the worst judge in the world, Mr. Knightley, of the difficulties of dependence. You do not know what it is to have tempers to manage…It is very unfair to judge of any body’s conduct, without an intimate knowledge of their situation. Nobody, who has not been in the interior of a family, can say what the difficulties of any individual of that family may be.
Knightley: There is one thing, Emma, which a man can always do, if he chooses, and that is, his duty, not by maneuvering and finessing, but by vigor and resolution. It is Frank Churchill’s duty to pay this attention to his father. He knows it to be so, by his promises and messages; but if he wished to do it, it might be done.
Emma: [Y]ou have not an idea of what is requisite in situations directly opposite to your own…I can imagine, that if you, as you are, Mr. Knightley, were to be transported and placed all at once in Mr. Frank Churchill’s situation, you would be able to say and do just what you have been recommending for him; and it might have a very good effect…[B]ut then, you would have no habits of early obedience and long observance to break through. To him who has, it might not be so easy to burst forth at once into perfect independence…Oh! the difference of situation and habit! I wish you would try to understand what an amiable young man may be likely to feel in directly opposing [the other adults who had brought him up].
Knightley: Your amiable young man is a very weak young man, if this be the first occasion of his carrying through a resolution to do right against the will of others. It ought to have been a habit with him by this time, of following his duty, instead of consulting expediency…
Emma: We are both prejudiced; you against, I for him; and we have no chance of agreeing till he is really here.
Knightley: Prejudiced! I am not prejudiced.”
Emma: But I am very much, and without being at all ashamed of it. My love for [his father and stepmother] gives me a decided prejudice in his favor.
Spelman says that Knightley’s “concern for principled behavior, impartial judgment, and everyone’s getting their due” exemplifies an “ethics of justice” and is usually associated with men. Emma, on the other hand, seems to exemplify an ethics of care, based on her
insistence on the contextual details of the situation and her concern for the importance of the many relationships involved. . . For Emma, Churchill’s formal duty is irrelevant.
So far, so good. But Spelman then says that an incident in the following chapter undermines Emma’s ethics of care. She may be willing to excuse someone in her own class but she doesn’t extend the same generosity to someone in a class below her:
They were just approaching the house where lived Mrs. and Miss Bates…There was always sufficient reason for such an attention; Mrs. and Miss Bates loved to be called on, and she knew she was considered by the very few who presumed ever to see imperfection in her, as rather negligent in that respect, and as not contributing what she ought to the stock of their scanty comforts.
She had had many a hint from Mr. Knightley and some from her own heart, as to her deficiency—but none were equal to counteract the persuasion of its being very disagreeable,—a waste of time—tiresome women—and all the horror of being in danger of falling in with the second rate and third rate of Highbury, who were calling on them for ever, and therefore she seldom went near them.
Spelman observes that compassion for suffering can differ depending on who is suffering:
If we get thoroughly caught up in comparing Emma’s unapologetically biased, particularized caring for Frank Churchill, to Knightley’s rather stern, impersonal, principled response, we may fail to ask an important question: for whom does Emma care? What kind of treatment does she give those she regards as her social and economic inferiors? The fact—if it is one—that some women, in reflections on their moral problems, show care, and a fine sense of complexity appreciative of context, tells us nothing about who they think worthy of their care, nor whose situation demands attention to details and whose does not.
Connoisseurs of Emma won’t find this conclusion surprising. As I posted last semester, the novel is riddled with class bias. How smart that Austen should have Emma reverse field from one chapter to the next. And although Spelman doesn’t mention it, Austen complicates Knightley’s ethics of justice as well. Here’s what he says in the next sentence of the dialogue quoted above:
”He [Churchill] is a person I never think of from one month’s end to another,” said Mr. Knightley, with a degree of vexation, which made Emma immediately talk of something else, though she could not comprehend why he should be angry.
The reason he is so angry is because he regards Churchill as a rival. Austen has some fun with his claims of impartiality late in the novel, when his esteem for Churchill rises once Emma reveals that the young man is not after her hand. An “ethics of justice” is never without some bias.
In other words, Jane Austen offers a humbling lesson, not only for men and women, but also for conservatives and liberals. That’s because conservatives often lean towards an ethics of justice while liberals lean towards an ethics of care. Women/liberals must be careful about patting themselves on the back for their sweet compassion (I include myself in this number), and men/conservatives must rigorously query their heroic sense of uprightness over dispensing justice. We are all of us susceptible to a self-blinding pride.
Leave it to Jane Austen to help us negotiate these treacherous shoals.