From all Indifferency: The Bias of Selfishness in Jane Austen's Emma
"The exploration of different kinds of selfishness gives Emma considerable depth of meaning beneath it's [sic] comic surface," and also contributes to that comedy. Jane Austen's characters inhabit a hyper-polite society, where admirable displays of selflessness and concern for others are often the result of characters' self-interest, and what is right for them they consider right for everyone. Though many characters, such as Mr. Woodhouse Mrs. Elton, and Mr. John Knightley share this characteristic, it is most important in Emma and Mr. Knightley. Because the novel is filtered chiefly through their perspectives, it portrays a comically confused world in which social virtue and selfishness are indistinguishable when they help these characters, opposites when they do them harm, and worthless in their own right.
Mr. Woodhouse, being Emma's father, doubtless influenced her views of others. He is an invalid, or at least a hypochondriac, who provides a comic foil for Emma as he presses his opinions upon everyone. Because gruel is good for him, all the guests should have some; he is shocked that his grandchildren want to play with knives; he consistently calls Emma's governess, who has just married Mr....
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