Manhood and Happiness in Emma: Liberal Learning and Practicing the Language of Marriage

By Tarpley, Joyce Kerr | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Winter 2018 | Go to article overview

Manhood and Happiness in Emma: Liberal Learning and Practicing the Language of Marriage


Tarpley, Joyce Kerr, Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


ACCORDING to most experts--anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists--as well as great novelists like Jane Austen, manhood is not biological, but cultural. Some anthropologists contend that the "qualities, or virtues, that define manhood, are not inborn"; they are "moral virtues not physical characteristics"; as such, "they [have] to be acquired"(Lombard 9). This theme of manhood as something not given to men by nature--or as something "constructed" by the author--also has a history in Austen commentary. In "Jane Austen: Revolutionizing Masculinities," published in 1994, Joseph A. Kestner notes that [f]or the last fifteen years or so, the field of Men's Studies and masculinity theory... has begun to interrogate the construction of masculinities in culture" (147). The "masculinity studies" of Austen typically link her "construction" of manhood with that of nationhood, focusing on the contrast, especially in Emma, between "two kinds of masculinity, the English and the French" (Kestner 147). In Equivocal Beings, published in 1995, Claudia Johnson reads Austen's presentation of manhood in Emma as a refutation of the more traditional view by "'Classic' Austenian critics" like Lionel Trilling, who consider manhood to be innate. Johnson argues that the novel commits "itself to the discussion of true manhood and [to] disparaging men who do not measure up, [and in this way] Emma demonstrates that manhood is not, as Trilling supposed, 'a matter of course... a given quality' of a man's 'nature'.... [Such critics] did not imagine that masculinity could be something the novel contests and constructs" (197). Building on these commentaries, later studies continued to frame manhood in the novels in these terms. (1)

In this essay, however, I will frame Austen's understanding of manhood in terms of education, one of her favorite themes. This theme reflects her interest in the mind--or thinking--of her characters, and this preoccupation points to the Christian framework (2) that subtly grounds all the novels. "A Christian perspective on life gives us a framework of meaning that helps us to see value and purpose in the big and small things of life... and enables us to make... distinctions between dignity and depravity, beauty and brokenness, grief and glory" (Winter 130). Such distinctions point to another of Austen's favorite themes: appearance versus reality. With this perspective, Austen's portrayals of male characters in Emma suggest that becoming a man is a learning process, so that in order to succeed at manhood, the male must be teachable, and for Austen, "a teachableness of disposition... is a great blessing." (3) This teachable man must be a liberal learner with the capacity to learn the right things. Even more important, however, he must have the capacity to love the right things: truth, goodness, and beauty. In real life, he may learn to do so in the home, the school, the church, the estate, or the professions; however, in an Austen novel, it is marriage, "a rite of passage into manhood" (Nock 7), which best allows him to do so. Ideally, his marriage is a place of liberal learning in which he may practice the language of marriage and become fluent in the conversation of love, or genuine affection.

I use the word conversation here not only in its traditional sense but also in its Old Testament sense, which comes from the Hebrew derek whose figurative meaning is a "course [or way] of life or mode of action" (Strong 210, 1488). A male's conversation--his way of living and acting--depends on the language he chooses to speak, and the males in Emma speak three languages: the language of self-interest, which may become selfishness or narcissism if expressed to excess; the language of success, which may become acquisitiveness or materialism if expressed to excess; and the language of marriage, which moderates the other two with its expression of virtue.

Austen understands that too much emphasis on either the self or success will cause a male to love the wrong things. …

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