Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Emma ~ A Challenge to Charity

Living intensely with this story (for several months now!) one of the things that’s kept thrilling me—and kept me at it—is one of the themes lying at the heart of Emma. In short: charity.

Charity is really a type of love, but of a specific kind. For a definition, charity is a “provision of help or relief to the poor…benevolence or generosity toward others…an indulgence or forbearance (a goodwill) in judging others.” Most importantly, it’s a love directed (primarily) towards “one’s neighbors as objects of God’s love.” And I think that’s where Emma starts getting highly exciting!


So what does charity look like?

Beginning as a heart attitude, it’s solid—which means it’s action, whether that action takes shape in speaking or doing. It doesn’t mean we can’t make definitive judgments—or that we’re obliged to agree with everyone else—but it is a daily love extending over the many little frictions tending to occur most often between us and those closest to us (in the home, or in a wider circle of similarly very familiar faces).

Peter Leithart says in his book on Austen (Miniatures and Morals) that by placing Emma in the context of a “closely knit and unchanging community, Austen raises questions about truth and charity in social life. …In a town whose chief characteristic is sameness, old provocations will constantly reappear—unless they are dealt with by truth and love. …G.K. Chesterton once commented on the importance of the fact that God commanded us to love our neighbors. We can choose our friends… Our neighbors, however, are simply given, simply there, and that challenges our love.”


Interestingly (and quoting yet again from Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters), we learn that, “(Jane’s) needlework was nearly always a garment for the poor; though she had also by her some satin stitch ready to take up in case of the appearance of company. The nature of the work will help to contradict an extraordinary misconception—namely, that she was indifferent to the needs and claims of the poor: an idea probably based on the fact that she never used them as 'copy.' Nothing could be further from the truth. She was of course quite ignorant of the conditions of life in the great towns, and she had but little money to give, but work, teaching, and sympathy were freely bestowed on rustic neighbours. A very good criterion of her attitude towards her own characters is often furnished by their relations with the poor around them. Instances of this may be found in Darcy's care of his tenants and servants, in Anne Elliot's farewell visits to nearly all the inhabitants of Kellynch, and in Emma's benevolence and good sense when assisting her poorer neighbours.”


Hearkening back to an earlier point, charity is the oil that’s to keep daily life running smoothly. It can’t possibly be a solely inward virtue and (by definition) it can’t be turning inward even on its own particular circle of friends. While running deep, it’s also to run broad and full—spilling out and extending to everyone we touch.


Leithart says about Emma and Knightley’s romance at one point, “The ball scene…is an important symbol of the kind of match that Emma and Knightley will make. The dance is obviously a communal event. Like a feast, a dance is a picture of a community’s life. There is organization and intersection of various people. They are ordered. Each plays a unique part in the dance, but the dance is a social event, greater than the sum of the people involved.” (When Elton slights Harriet and Mr. Knightley rescues her), “It is clear that this is as much for Emma as for Harriet. Afterward, Knightley and Emma engage in a conversation whose simplicity belies its passion. There is no need for communication at first except by eyes and countenance. Knightley’s love for Emma does not break up the dance. He does not take Emma off into a corner and he does not operate by tricks and charades. Rather his love for Emma overflows in general charity toward his neighbor.”


In Emma, clear lines are drawn. Mr. Knightley isn’t blind—he knows foolish behavior when he sees it. At the same time, he is constantly championing charity. Leithart again: “Knightley’s…instruction (leads) Emma on the path to self-knowledge…also reordering Emma’s preferences and loves. Knightley is not just a teacher of truth, but a teacher who leads Emma to charity. Knightley’s qualifications for this position arise from his own constant charitableness.” 


Charity in Emma isn’t a sugary sweetness. It doesn’t prohibit confrontation. True loving concern for another sometimes involves speaking hard truths. When someone is going severely astray to their own (and other’s) hurt, it’s unloving to let them continue on their wayward path. Yet the confrontation is always done with the best interests and good of the other person held forefront.


So charity is love at the daily testing point. It’s a largeness of vision to see around circumstances, allowing for growth and change. And—always ready with genuine kindness—charity springs from a heart of grace.


8 comments:

  1. So, I guess charity could be similar to agape? Or maybe that's different. This is an excellent piece. Emma' actions to those less fortunate than her stuck out to me from the first time I read it. I think it's one of the reasons Mr. K loves Emma, because she is dutiful in helping the poor, but she does kindly and not in a condescending way. That could be why Mr. K scolds her so harshly after her comments to Miss Bates. Because I think he knows that Emma wouldn't have normally said such a thing, but having Frank Churchill around made her forget practically all her sense and good manners.

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    1. Joanna! :)
      Yes! (It's that old thing about how the Greeks had at least four words to describe love....and in English we have one to make do with?? :)) And I agree! At the same time (I think she's very generous), but she really has to gain the true heart of patience and lovingkindness underlying it. And you're absolutely right---her charity even early on really gives you hope that she'll pull through. ;)

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  2. Wow! This is certainly a much deeper look at the themes of Emma than I've ever taken. Well done!

    I have to say the scene that really makes me like the GP version of Emma is her being so very kind to the poor sick woman she visits with Harriet. I feel much more akin to Harriet in that scene, always certain I'll say or do something that will make a sick person worse. I want to help, but I'm never sure how :-o

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    1. Hamlette,
      Thank you!! And yes, that scene always comes to mind for me, too. And I think they placed it perfectly. Just as you might be starting to get seriously annoyed with certain of Emma's qualities, you see that there's hope for her....that she does have a warm heart and genuine care and concern for others. And as far as actually "knowing what to do"/feeling awkward, I think I probably tend to be more like Harriet, too. :p. ....But yes, they did quite an excellent job with all of it in that adaptation! :)

      (Btw, I don't know if you've read my "Wit, Truth Telling and Virtue in Austen" post yet, but Henry Tilney gets honorable mention in it. ;))

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    2. (If that post is more recent than this one, then nope, haven't gotten to it yet.)

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  3. "Knightley’s love for Emma does not break up the dance. He does not take Emma off into a corner and he does not operate by tricks and charades. Rather his love for Emma overflows in general charity toward his neighbor."

    "Charity in Emma isn’t a sugary sweetness. It doesn’t prohibit confrontation. True loving concern for another sometimes involves speaking hard truths. When someone is going severely astray to their own (and other’s) hurt, it’s unloving to let them continue on their wayward path. Yet the confrontation is always done with the best interests and good of the other person held forefront."

    Those two parts stuck out to me the most. :) Great post!

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    1. Natalie,
      Yes, that first quote from Peter Leithart is such a perfect summary....

      And again, I'm so glad you liked the post! Thank you (again ;)) for reading through all of them! It was such a delight to find all your comments! :)

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  4. My pleasure! I enjoyed reading through your posts, I'm only sorry it took me so long to get around to it. But I'm glad you enjoyed my belated comments. :)

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Oh, you're thinking of leaving a comment! How entirely lovely -- thank you and please do!! :) I just ask that all comments be God-honoring and edifying. (And btw, I LOVE comments on old posts! ;))

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