Jane Austen, psychologist III: Emma and Envy

Jane Austen, besides having an acute sense of what makes people tick, also had a keen sense of irony. In particular, she delighted in showing us how people can be their own worst enemies. In Emma, she takes the story of Pride and Prejudice and reverses the lead roles to show us the self-defeating nature of envy.

The difference between jealousy and envy, says Ann Belford Ulanov, is that jealousy is based on fear that something you have can be taken away, while envy is based on feeling that you want, but can never have, something someone else has.  Jealousy occurs when someone perceives another person as a threat to the happiness they have: the “other woman” who threatens the marriage, for example. Envy occurs when a person feels that they  can never have something that they think would make them happy, something that other people “get” to have.

As a poor second, the envious may try to get close to the person who does have those things. Elton pursues Emma because he wants to be rich and admired, even though he knows he is not of her social station, just like Caroline Bingley pursues Darcy.

Envy has its roots in low self-esteem. When someone has low self-esteem, there’s always a little voice whispering that they don’t deserve what they want. But to listen to that voice is too painful. To shut it up, they may decide that the the envied person has somehow “taken” something from them that they don’t deserve either. It’s all their fault! Thus George Wickham convinces himself and others that he “deserves” to have much more of Darcy’s wealth. However generous Darcy is to him, it is never enough. In fact, Ulanov says, no matter how much the envied person tries to give to the envious person, it can never be enough, because the lack is within. But few have the gumption to realize this and work on filling that inner lack. It’s so much easier to blame others instead. Rejected by Emma, Mr. Elton accuses her of his own sin, of wishing to marry above her station, as the only reason why she wouldn’t accept him.

Emma and Darcy are, in fact, good people, genuinely concerned with the well-being of others and feeling a moral duty to help them–the very quality Wickham exploits. But because they do not have a strong need for others to like them, they can be less aware, less attuned to what others are thinking and feeling–particularly when others are less than open or honest with them. This means that they sometimes come across as aloof or indifferent, which only validates the envious people’s assumptions about them.

The key difference is how they react to honesty. Emma and Darcy are shocked when Knightley and Lizzy tell them harsh truths about the consequences of some of their actions, and their shock quickly becomes remorse. Emma cries, Darcy spends a sleepless night, but then they begin to make things right almost immediately. A strong sense of self means one can accept criticism and learn from it, even change.  And because they change, they are able to find real love and happiness.

And therein lies the irony. If the envious person could hear and accept criticism, they might use it to change for the better, stop blaming others for their misfortunes, and increase their chances of getting what they really want: to feel good about themselves. But because they can’t, they can’t.


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