Signet Essay Contest 2012
Mirza Oishee Shemontee
From Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to Titanic’s Jack and Rose, most love stories end before even a mention of marriage.
There is a reason for this: most people believe that once the wedding is over, so is the romance. As candlelight dinners
inevitably morph into discussions of paying bills and arguments over the position of the toilet seat cover, couples are
forced to face each other’s faults as the ‘honeymoon period’ draws to an end. In the novel, Emma, however, Jane Austen’s
two characters Emma and Mr. Knightley never have any such honeymoon period to speak of. They enter their relationship with
a very exact idea of each other’s failings, well–aware of the differences in their two personalities. From the very
beginning, Austen depicts them squabbling, an inevitable result of their completely opposite points of view on numerous
topics. While these differences of opinion are sure to strain their relationship at times, Emma and Mr. Knightley are just
as aware of each other’s virtues, and above that, are able to admire those virtues even while accepting the flaws. This is
perhaps the strongest glue binding them together, ensuring that they will be happy together and resolve, in time, any
conflicts that arise.
Ironically, the conflicts between the two can be attributed equally to their similarities as well as their
differences — Emma and Mr. Knightley share an innate stubbornness, even though their viewpoints on issues are often
radically different, often leaving the two at an impasse. One such issue Austen portrays in the novel is the importance
of social class to marriage. Emma, a staunch believer in social stratification, decides that Mr. Martin, a farmer, is far
below the standing of Harriet Smith, whom she believes to be a gentleman’s daughter. She dissuades Harriet from pursuing
Mr. Martin at every turn, going so far as to comment that any wife of Mr. Martin’s cannot be “fit for [Harriet] to notice,”
(23) implying that Mr. Martin is an unworthy beau simply because of his social standing. In contrast, Mr. Knightley
approves of the match, saying that he has “never [heard] better sense from any one than Robert Martin” (49). He does
not see social class as an obstruction to marriage, and focuses much more on Mr. Martin’s character and ability to
support Harriet. Despite Mr. Martin’s impeccable character, Emma remains obstinate. It takes the disintegration of all
her carefully planned matches, as well as Mr. Knightley’s censure for Emma to finally admit that social class should prove
no barrier between Harriet and Mr. Martin, a clear indication of her stubborn streak. Mr. Knightley exhibits similar
signs of obduracy — when Emma accuses him of being biased against Frank Churchill, Mr. Knightley continues to insist “I
am not prejudiced!” (129). Even though Mr. Knightley is in fact condemning a man he has never even met, he is unwilling
to admit that Emma is right, changing the subject before the argument can be resolved. Both Mr. Knightley and Emma exhibit
this reluctance to concede an argument to the other’s point of view. These qualities can very well cause strife in Emma
and Mr. Knightley’s marriage at many points; however, if the issues are minor enough, such quarrels can just as easily act
as spice for their marriage — burning the tongue only when applied too liberally, but keeping the relationship fresh in
Despite their disagreements, Emma and Mr. Knightley share a good relationship that is unlikely to be disrupted by
dissatisfaction after marriage. From the very beginning, Austen portrays the two as close friends, who not only know
everything about each other, also acknowledge the faults in each other while appreciating the good. They have no need
for a conventional ‘honeymoon period’ because they already know each other too well to be blind to each other’s
shortcomings. In fact, Mr. Knightley is “one of the few people who [can] see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one
who ever [tells] her of them” (6), giving Emma advice that is proved sound over and over again, rather than fawning over
her like everyone else. Mr. Knightley has no malicious intent in pointing out her flaws — on the contrary, he sees it as
“very far from pleasant” (325), but believes that he is &qupte;proving [himself to be Emma’s] friend by very faithful counsel”e;
(25). He only critiques Emma because that is what he believes is ultimately best for her, showing that he cares about
Emma’s future and character rather than just her opinion of him. Emma, for her part, has no trouble speaking just as
plainly to him as he does to her, to the point where she seems to enjoy arguing with him. At one point, Emma even bemoans
the lack of “leisure for quarreling with Mr. Knightley” (157), indicating that she enjoys their heated sparring sessions.
This is quite understandable, considering that Mr. Knightley and Emma are portrayed as the two lone intellectual equals
amidst a sea of inferior brains. They consider each other equals at every turn, despite the gender disparity of the times.
Many other men of the era could easily ignore Emma’s opinion as the fanciful imaginings of a woman; Mr. Knightley,
however, takes her words seriously, and actually tries to use logic to counter her arguments, respecting her “good sense”
(129). This is another unique facet of their relationship — even as they criticize each other, they see the good
intermingled with the bad. Emma thinks highly of Mr. Knightley no matter what, commenting that “not one among the whole
row of young men who could be compared with him” (269). She readily acknowledges his superiority to all the other young
gentlemen around, and values his opinions even when they are contrary to her own. Similarly, when proposing to her, Mr.
Knightley tells Emma that “Dearest you shall always be, no matter what the events of this hour’s consideration” (372).
This is an accurate summary of his feelings towards Emma — regardless of whether they are fighting or happy, she is his
top priority. This ability to remember the best of each other, even through misunderstandings and arguments, is what will
enable Emma and Mr. Knightley to go beyond the traditional love story, and turn their romance into an ultimately happy and
Austen, Jane. Emma. New York: Bantam, 1981. Print.
For information on the 2012-2013 Signet Classics Essay Contest, click here.