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A Novel of Misreadings: Jane Austen’s Emma

I love Jane Austen’s Emma so much that I re-read it every few years. During my most recent re-reading, I noticed something that I hadn’t quite gotten my mind around previously: this is a novel about how people misread one another. Misreading indeed drives the plot of Emma. Austen’s other novels usually contain a misreading or two—but none make it core to the book as Emma does.

Emma is such a classic that I’m going to assume that you, my readers here, know the plot. What I want to do is just highlight the key misreadings among characters.

First, and continuing through nearly the whole novel, is Emma’s misreading of Jane Fairfax’s behavior. Emma dislikes Jane, seeing her as cold and distant—whereas (we eventually learn) it’s Jane’s need to keep her engagement to Frank Churchill a secret that makes her standoffish.

Then throughout most of Volume I, Emma misreads Mr. Elton’s eagerness to please her as his eagerness to please Harriet (the lower-class young woman whom Emma has taken as a friend). This is a misreading with disastrous consequences for Harriet. Emma has worked hard to convince Harriet that Mr. Elton is in love with her, and Harriet is thrilled. But then one day, to Emma’s shock, Elton seizes her hand and is “making violent love to her.” When she protests that it’s Harriet Smith to whom he should be making love, he’s the one to be shocked—with horror: “Miss Smith!—I never thought of Miss Smith in the whole course of my existence—never paid her any attention.… Oh! Miss Woodhouse! Who can think of Miss Smith, when Miss Woodhouse is near!… I have thought only of you.” Which leaves Emma with the difficult, guilty task of explaining to Harriet her own dreadful mistake.

Once Frank Churchill comes on the scene, misreadings abound. Emma misreads Frank’s flirtatious attentions to her as love for herself, when actually they’re a cover for his love for Jane and their secret engagement. The same is true for his wild mood changes: Emma sees herself as the cause, when in fact they’re a response to ups and downs in his relations with Jane.

Harriet again becomes the victim of Emma’s misreadings—when she tells Emma of her longing for a man she can’t have because he’s so far her superior, though he did her a great service. Emma assumes that she means Frank Churchill, whose service was to have rescued her from some gypsies who were harassing her in the countryside; but Harriet means Mr. Knightley, who “saved” her at the recent ball by asking her to dance when Mr. Elton had scorned her. Further, once Jane and Frank’s engagement is public knowledge, Emma rebukes herself for letting Harriet think that Frank favored her, whereas Harriet had never cared for Frank at all.

Then comes Mr. Knightley’s turn to misread. He has all along assumed—from Frank and Emma’s public flirtations—that she was in love with Frank. So as soon as he hears about Frank and Jane’s previously secret engagement, he rushes to console Emma for losing Frank—whereas we know that she never (well, almost never) cared for Frank, as she now tells Mr. Knightley as they walk in the shrubbery near her home: “Mr. Knightley, I am in a very extraordinary situation. I cannot let you continue in your error…. I have never been at all attached to the person we are speaking of.”

This confession moves Mr. Knightley to inner joy and hope that Emma might have him as a husband. He tells Emma that in one respect he envies Frank. She doesn’t reply, so he continues: “You will not ask me what is the point of envy.… Emma, I must tell what you will not ask.” Emma by now has decided that she wants to marry Mr. Knightley, and she fears that he’s about to confess his love not for her but for Harriet. So she stops him: “Don’t speak it,” she eagerly cried. “Take a little time, consider, do not commit yourself.”

Mortified, he stops speaking. But then, to his surprise, she wants to take another turn in the shrubbery, where she apologizes for quieting him and generously urges him to speak. To her elated surprise she hears him say that it’s she whom he loves and wants to marry.

Full of misreadings, this scene is surely one of the most delightful proposal scenes in all of literature. Emma hears Mr. Knightley’s declaration with relief and joy—though still feeling guilty that she hadn’t urged him to propose to Harriet instead, since she knows of Harriet’s longing for him.

Then Austen’s narrator, instead of giving us Emma’s words of acceptance, playfully says: “What did she say?—Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.” For Emma won’t breathe a word to him about Harriet. Which brings the narrator to the marvelous famous sentence, acknowledging misreading as the most normal of human experiences:

Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken; but where, as in this case, though the conduct is mistaken, the feelings are not, it may not be very material.

I don’t know of a more wonderfully nuanced statement about misreading. “Seldom, very seldom”: that is, disclosing “complete truth” in even our most intimate conversations is quite a rarity. And another “seldom”: hardly ever do we avoid just a “little” disguising or a “little” mistaking in what we speak. But as long as one’s “feelings” aren’t mistaken, it “may not” much matter.

All these qualifications! Yes, misreading is natural—and even the norm, says Austen’s narrator. Yet in a sense it “may not be very material”—as long as our deepest feelings are understood.

What fun Jane Austen must have had writing this sentence…this proposal scene…this entire novel of partial confessions, mistaken impressions, and misreadings galore.


Peggy Rosenthal has a PhD in English Literature. Her first published book was Words and Values, a close reading of popular language. Since then she has published widely on the spirituality of poetry, in periodicals such as America, The Christian Century, and Image, and in books that can be found here.