Jane Austen’s Emma: Reading the Emotions of Others

2017 marks the bicentennial anniversary of the death of one of Britain’s most famous authors: Jane Austen. Whether loved or loathed, Austen’s novels—including Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Sense and Sensibility—summed up and astutely satirized Georgian England. The continued relevance of her stories to our present, evident in the various adaptation of them into films and shows, is a testament to Austen’s genius, to her perspicacious understanding not only of the social mores of Regency society but of the human condition in general. As a sort of tribute to the author, whose face will soon be on the £10 note, we thought we’d have a look at what Austen’s novels can tell us about the human mind and behaviour.

Though not regarded as a psychological novelist (one who delves deep into the psyche of their characters), Austen has created some of the most memorable characters in English literature. Alongside figures like Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett, perhaps none is more singular, more memorable, and more intriguing for a psychological case study than Emma Woodhouse, the protagonist of Austen’s 1815 novel Emma.

Emma Woodhouse: Thoughts, Feelings, Behaviours

A ‘handsome, clever, and rich’ woman who Austen playfully admitted ‘no one but myself will much like’, Emma is known as a self-proclaimed matchmaker—that is, Emma believes she possesses a unique ability to foretell which members of her social circle will marry and seeks throughout the novel to expedite the union of those she deems well-matched.

Emma focuses her matchmaking powers on finding a partner for Harriet Smith, her beautiful yet rather simple companion. It is in this pursuit of a partner, however, that we start to realise Emma’s matchmaking ability, which is tantamount to her ability to read and accurately interpret the thoughts, feelings, and behaviours of those around her, is more flawed than she might have us believe.

For instance, Emma initially seems sure that Mr. Elton, an ambitious and well-liked gentleman, is an ideal match for Harriet. Yet to Emma’s surprise and embarrassment it soon transpires that Mr. Elton does not have eyes for Harriet, as Emma presumed; rather, he fancies Emma. When Emma rejects his advances, a crestfallen Mr. Elton is forced to search elsewhere for a wife, leaving Harriet in the lurch and Emma ashamed at having misjudged the situation and mislead her companion.

From there on, Emma’s misperceptions multiply. When the young and attractive Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax arrive in town, without much explanation as to the reasons for their purportedly independent visits, Emma’s speculative tendency goes into overdrive. First, she theorizes that Jane Fairfax and Mr. Dixon are mutually attracted—a notion that turns out to be wrong. Then, after falling a little for Frank Churchill herself, Emma starts to think that Harriet is enamoured with Frank. Yet this thought, resulting from Emma’s misinterpretation of innocent gratitude as a sign of love, is also wrong. Emma further proves her inability to accurately perceive the thoughts and feelings of others when she repudiates Mr. Knightley’s claim that Frank and Jane appear overly close—as it turns out near the end of the novel, Frank and Jane had been secretly engaged all along, but had to wait for the death of a disapproving relative before going public. Emma’s most flagrant misrecognition, however, regards her own heart’s desire: though she failed to see it before, by the novel’s close she realises that Mr. Knightley, her long-time friend, is the man she loves.

Although all ends well for Emma, the novel’s events highlight her limitations as a reader of the emotions and behaviours of others. In an oft-cited moment of revelation, Austen writes of Emma:

‘She was bewildered amidst the confusion of all that had rushed on her within the last few hours. Every moment had brought a fresh surprise; and every surprise must be matter of humiliation to her.—How to understand it all! How to understand the deceptions she had been thus practising on herself, and living under!—The blunders, the blindness of her own head and heart!’

Here is a piece of timeless Austenian psychological insight: our perceptions and beliefs about the world around us, which tend to be driven by irrational emotions, capricious mood-states, and implicit biases, are not always in keeping with reality.

Emma’s main flaw is her stubborn adherence to certain unverified ideas about reality, most of which are delusions fuelled by nothing more than her desire for them to be true. Not only are her ‘heart’ and emotions ‘blind’ to the reality before her, so is her ‘head’: if Emma had paused for thought more frequently and rationalized the circumstances she found herself in, perhaps by questioning whether her thinking was too biased and her perception too blinkered before acting, she might not have misled and upset Harriet.

Essentially, from a psychological perspective, Emma’s recurrent misjudgment speaks to Daniel Kahneman’s research on System One and System Two thinking. For Kahneman, System One describes the brain’s unconscious, fast, and automatic process that, despite its efficiency, is often biased, driven by emotion, and prone to systematic error. This sort of impulsive thinking seems to dominate Emma. System Two, on the other hand, describes a more effortful and slow yet rational style of thinking, a mode that provides better results than System One when we are under pressure or faced with complex tasks. Emma could have done with more of this.

What does all this tell us? When attempting to read the emotions and intentions of others, as Emma does, or manage a group of individuals, as many of us do on a daily basis, it is important to be able to assert System Two over System One, to step back, think about, and rationalize a situation before acting. By clearing our minds of foggy emotions and biases, we are better able to perceive the reality before us, to understand what troubles, what motivates, what annoys, and what aids those around us. In such a frame of mind, with our capacity for decision-making and emotional literacy enhanced, we put ourselves in the best position to succeed in endeavours with others, seeing the reality that Emma could not!

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