Emma Questions and Answers
by Jane Austen

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Wayne Booth argues that "since Knightley is established early as completely reliable, we need no views of his secret thoughts. He has no secret thoughts, except for the unacknowledged depths of his love for Emma and his jealousy of Frank Churchill." Is Mr. Knightley "completely reliable"? Does he have secret thoughts beyond those Booth mentions? If so, what are these thoughts, and what do they tell us about him or the society in which this novel takes place? Why might it be worthwhile to consider Knightley as less than reliable?

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No, in this perhaps most misleading of Austen's novels, Mr. Knightley cannot be characterized as a reliable character, in the sense that we can not be sure that the portrait of him we receive is correct.

First, almost the entire novel is told from Emma's point of view, meaning we see Mr. Knightley primarily through her eyes, and Emma is nothing if not clueless. We can't rely on Mr. Knightley's being what Emma thinks he is because we can't rely on Emma: she tends to radically misread people.

Second, even on the very rare occasions that we see him unfiltered through Emma's consciousness, his interior thoughts are kept veiled. For example, though we do learn that he dislikes Frank, we also discover that there are things he knows about himself but that we do not:

Mr. Knightley, who, for some reason best known to himself, had certainly taken an early dislike to Frank Churchill, was only growing to dislike him more. He began to suspect him of some double dealing in his pursuit of Emma.

The quote above is no doubt the source of Booth's claim that Mr. Knightley does not acknowledge the depths of his dislike of Frank, but that is not what the passage says. We are led to believe—and Austen is slippery in this novel—that Mr. Knightley dislikes Frank because Mr. Knightley is, unbeknowst to himself, in love with Emma: but that is not what the passage actually communicates. It only tells us that Mr. Knightley is deliberately keeping something to himself—and that should instantly be a red flag that even his self-presentation is unreliable.

Although Emma utterly discounts the idea—even when Mrs. Weston mentions it—it could be that Mr. Knightley is in love with Jane Fairfax. He takes an interest in her, to the extent that he picks up on what seems to be a secret understanding between her and Frank and is concerned that she not be strained such as by being asked to sing too much. He also gives her the last of his apples. He does not propose to Emma until after it has become public that Jane and Frank are engaged. Further, Jane is a woman of great grace and elegance, who would be likely to attract a person like Mr. Knightley.

Whether the above is a correct interpretation or not, the fact that a creditable argument can be raised that Mr. Knightley is in love with Jane suggests that he is not a reliable character. We really don't know who he is or what goes on in his mind.

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