Lynette Abel  / Aesthetic Realism & Life

Aesthetic Realism seminar:
What's the Big Thing Women Need
to Know about Power?,
part 3

     We see some of the effects of bad power working in Emma when she and Harriet briefly meet Mr. Martin on a walk, and later Emma contemptuously remarks to Harriet:
" 'He is...remarkably plain:--but that is nothing, compared with his entire want of gentility....I did not expect much; but I had no idea that he could be so very clownish, so totally without air....'To be sure,' said Harriet, in a mortified voice, 'he is not so genteel as real gentlemen.' "
And Emma tells Harriet of some warm personal praise Mr. Elton said of her.  We see, as Harriet blushes and smiles, that Emma?s bad power over her is weakening Harriet, encouraging her to make less of her true feeling for Robert Martin. 

     Later, Emma learns that Mr. Martin has proposed marriage to Harriet, and when she tells Mr. Knightly that he is certainly not her equal, Knightley objects:

"Not Harriet's equal!" [he] exclaimed..."Emma, your infatuation about that girl blinds you."
The infatuation is really Emma's lust for an ugly power based on ill will and this is what Mr. Knightley is objecting to.  "Aesthetic Realism sees good will as the aesthetic oneness of encouragement and criticism," writes Mr. Siegel,
"If we are to be true to a friend, or anyone, we must hope to be able to tell him what he may be doing against himself.... In the same way as a wall may be washed because we care for the wall, so a person may be told he has welcomed something harmful to himself." [TRO 195]
Knightley has good will for Emma; he sees she is bringing out  something bad in Harriet and, in the process, hurting herself; and he tells her of it so she will change.  In contrast to Emma's desire to manage and run other people's lives, Jane Austen shows that Mr. Knightley has given careful, deep thought to Robert Martin, Harriet Smith, and also to Emma.  He says to Emma:
"[Harriet] was as happy as possible with the Martins in the summer.  She had no sense of superiority then.  If she has it now, you have given it.  You have been no friend to Harriet Smith, Emma.  Robert Martin would never have proceeded so far, if he had not felt persuaded of her not being disinclined to him.  I know him well.  He has too much real feeling to address any woman on the haphazard of selfish passion."
Emma is stirred by Knightley's criticism but she is also, Miss Austen shows, in a fight between questioning herself and justifying herself.

Good Will Is the Biggest Power in the World

In her commentary to The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Ellen Reiss writes that we are truly important,

"through seeing that we are related to every person and thing in the world and that justice to them is the way to take care of ourselves.  [This is] good will, which Mr. Siegel showed to be the biggest power there is." [TRO 757]
Because Emma has been going after another kind of power, she has totally missed the boat as to Mr. Elton.  She was powerless to see that Mr. Elton was never interested in Harriet--it was Emma, he'd had designs on, being well aware she would one day be a wealthy heiress.  She is shocked that she could have been so deceived, and feels bad as to her influence over Harriet.  But Jane Austen shows the ego can put up quite a fight in its wanting to justify bad power or ill will.  Emma thinks, yes, she was wrong about Mr. Elton for Harriet, but pretty quickly starts enumerating all the many ways she has been right as to her.

     A culminating point in the novel is what occurs at a party in the home of Mr. Knightley.  One of the guests is an old family friend of Emma's, Miss Bates, who is described by Jane Austen as

"devoted to the care of a failing mother, and the endeavour to make a small income go as far as possible.  And yet she was a happy woman, and...quick-sighted to everybody's merits;...She was a great talker upon little matters,...full of...communications..."
As part of a game to amuse and entertain others, Emma makes fun of Miss Bates being so talkative.  We see the power of good will in Mr. Knightley, when he says:
"Emma,...I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remon-strance.  How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates?  How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?--Emma, I had not thought it possible....Her situation should secure your compassion.... You, whom she had known from an infant,...and before others? This is not pleasant to you, Emma--and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will,--I will tell you truths while I can,..." 
Emma is deeply affected by this. "The truth of his representation," writes Jane Austen "there was no denying.  She felt it at her heart.  How could she have been so Miss Bates!"  The beauty of the end of this novel is that Emma changes.  She comes to have more feeling for Miss Bates, whom she hopes to know better.  Emma gets to a new power--she comes to be affected by the real selves of other people.  There is a true pride in her now as she questions her "insufferable vanity," and "unpardonable arrogance [in] propos[ing] to arrange everybody's destiny."  She sees "she had brought evil on Harriet," and "on herself" and was "universally mistaken."  And fortunately, Harriet does marry Mr. Martin.

    And now Emma wants to understand her own heart.  Jane Austen writes: "How long had Mr. Knightley been so dear to her, as every feeling declared him now to be?"  She is deeply in love with the man who has most strengthened her life through his criticism of her injustice.  And he, swept by how Emma has changed, asks her to marry him.  She accepts.

We Need Criticism to Be Strong

When Michael Palmer and I had our first date, I felt I was in large, new territory; I was excited by the possibility of trying to know a man and have a good effect on him.  I had made mistakes as to love, and now I saw a man sincerely interested in knowing what I felt, who wanted to make me stronger.  And as we talked, I liked learning from Michael as he spoke about current things happening in the world, the music he cared for, books that affected him, and baseball.  And I liked his humor and keen criticism of me.  Michael didn't flatter me.  He asked me, for instance, "[Did I feel my life was held back, because I didn't have a deep and continuous enough interest in other people?"  Yes, it was.  I was affected by Michael's thoughtfulness, and also by his saying he wanted to be deeper about people too!  And I fell in love with him.  I'm grateful for our very happy marriage these past years. 

     During the time we began to know each other, I received, and it continues, such grand education in what it means to have good will for a man and for the world he represents.  Some of the questions I was asked in classes given by Ellen Reiss--as fresh today in enabling me to be a better wife and person, as when first asked--are:

Do you want to be a beginning point of Michael Palmer's seeing all human beings more happily and deeply?

Do you think you want enough for Mr. Palmer to be fair to what's true in this world?

Do you think Michael Palmer's mind is worthy material for you to get excited about--something you should be interested in, concerned about, and educated by all the time?

 Yes!  Aesthetic Realism shows--and the great literature of the world backs it up--what the big power is in a person's life: wanting to be just to other people and to the world, which is the purpose of our lives.
Go to first page


Logo Lynette Abel, Aesthetic Realism Associate
Articles on issues explained by the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel
Aesthetic Realism Seminars
Reports of Aesthetic Realism classes taught by Eli Siegel
Art and Life Discussion
Links about Aesthetic Realism and related resources

Lynette Abel