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"The hunger of the imagination": discordia concors in Emma.

A TRUISM IN POST-MODERN CRITICISM holds that the world, and hence literature, is composed of binary opposites. But binary opposition is no new discovery. The healing power of balance between opposites can be traced to ancient times and the discordia concors, often called concordia discourse, the little war of opposed qualities which can result in harmony. In Discordia Concors: The Wit of Metaphysical Poetry, Melissa Wanamaker traces the concept to Greek and Roman writers such as Horace and Virgil and finds it basic to the thinking of British metaphysical poets. Wanamaker discusses two approaches to discordia concors in her study of seventeenth-century poetry. The first pattern she describes as "unity in multiplicity," a blending of opposites from which harmony emerges. The second she calls "a violent yoking of two opposites that logically contradict each other" (5) and connects to metaphysical wit in Donne and other poets.

The concept of discordia concors, specifically Wanamaker's first-mentioned version, lasted well into the eighteenth century. Bernard Mandeville includes a passage in "The Grumbling Hive" section of Fable of the Bees (1714) that demonstrates his acquaintance with it. Of Alexander Pope, Wasserman writes that discordia concors or "the active harmonizing of differences, ... permeates almost all of Pope's writings and is probably more central to his thought than the doctrine of the Great Chain of Being" (103). Indeed, Pope's juxtapositions of reason and passion, virtue and vice, nature and art, and self-love and social love in Essay on Man are direct adaptations of the discordia concors. "Two Principles in human nature reign," writes Pope in Epistle Two of Essay on Man; "Self-love, to urge, and Reason, to restrain./ ... On life's vast ocean diversely we sail,/Reason the card, but Passion is the gale" (53-54, 107-08). The principle would seem to apply also to Swift's juxtaposition of Yahoos and Houyhnhnms in Gulliver's Travels. Later in the eighteenth century, Samuel Johnson defined discordia concors (which he calls concordia discors) in his biography of Cowley in Lives of the Poets as "'a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike" (200), a definition that agrees with the second description quoted from Wanamaker.

While Jane Austen lived in a time when the discordia concors had been largely forgotten in intellectual circles, her novels demonstrate that the little war of opposites lived on in her imagination. Sense and Sensibility gives us two sisters whose values, named in the title, are eventually harmoniously balanced. Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice must learn that his pride, on the one hand, and her prejudice, on the other, are excessive and must be brought into balance. In Persuasion, the imbalance of Captain Wentworth's romantic values of individualism and Anne Elliot's earlier obedience to authority clearly cause them unhappiness, while they find their bliss when each moderates from the extreme. But perhaps none of Austen's novels demonstrates the discordia concors more interestingly than does Emma in bringing about a harmony of two souls in marriage after a discord signaled by repetition of words.

Austen guides the reader's response to her theme, the necessity of balance between opposing values sets, through repetition of the words imagination and fancy, on the one hand, and reason and understanding, on the other, with various cognates for both. The frequency and placement of the words seems well beyond normal discourse. My count revealed that fancy/imagination appear 113 times in the novel while reason/understanding/sense appear on 53 occasions. The disparity between imagination/fancy and reason/understanding can be accounted for because the novel comes to the reader from the imaginist Emma's point of view. My count includes only direct references, but in addition, the novel abounds with passages in which the words do not appear but their meanings are clearly implied through the characters' actions, responses, and discourse, with earlier appearances of the oft-repeated words preparing the reader to perceive the implied meanings.

More important than the frequency of appearance is the context of the words. For the most part, Emma, Harriet, Mr. and Mrs. Elton, and Mr. Woodhouse fancy or imagine. For instance, the mysterious pianoforte delivered to Jane Fairfax piques "[t]hat very dear part of Emma, her fancy" (214). (1) Austen no doubt intended to evoke a smile from her readers in naming Miss Smith, for Frank Churchill rescues Harriet from Gypsies in the best tradition of Sir Charles Grandison's rescue of Harriet Byron. (2) The connection of the event to an imaginary scene in Richardson's novel might well stimulate Emma's fancy: "an imaginist, like herself" must "be on fire with speculation and foresight" (335). At another point in the novel, Emma uses the word fancy five times in little more than a page while she ponders Mr. Elton's presumption in aspiring to her hand, and it is she who has been guilty of excessive fancy, even greater than Elton's in imagining he could capture Emma (135-36).

When others imagine, the author makes the irony apparent. For instance, when Emma begins Harriet's education, she finds it "much pleasanter to let her imagination range and work at Harriet's fortune, than to be labouring to enlarge her comprehension or exercise it on sober facts" (69). Because she has been taught to fancy herself loved, Harriet is crushed when she learns that Mr. Elton has disabused Emma of her error. He declares that his only interest in Harriet has been that she is Emma's friend, and, he tells Emma, "'[i]f she [Harriet] has fancied otherwise, her own wishes have misled her'" (130-31). Emma, however, believes "'[t]hat she is a gentleman's daughter, is indubitable to me'" (62). Her imagination has identified Harriet as the orphan of the romance tradition who is discovered to be of gentle birth in the denouement, a plot line amusingly spoofed by Eaton Stannard Barrett in his novel The Heroine, as well as by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey.

Elton himself is an imaginist, but of the self-centered variety. He "had fancied her [Emma] in love with him" (136), and she must finally admit that her behavior "might warrant a man of ordinary observation and delicacy, like Mr. Elton, in fancying himself a very decided favourite" (136). The irony of the situation lies in Emma's having taught two people to imagine, thus bringing about two disappointments. But Mr. Elton's imagination is of a more practical and interested sort than Emma's, since she has a fortune of 30,000 [pounds sterling]. As Mr. Knightley points out, "'Elton may talk sentimentally, but he will act rationally'" (66).

Austen reinforces Mr. Knightley's role as representative of reason in the discord of reason and imagination in similar fashion. He repeatedly tries to check Emma's flight of fancy. The passage in which Knightley confronts Emma about Harriet's refusal of Robert Martin's proposal offers a blizzard of references to sense and fancy. He tells her of the young farmer's manners and praises his "'sense, sincerity, and good-humour'" (65). "'Men of sense ...,'" he says, "'do not want silly wives'" (64). When Emma suggests that men prefer pretty women without strong opinions, he cries, "'Upon my word, Emma, to hear you abusing the reason you have, is almost enough to make me think so too. Better to be without sense, than misapply it as you do'" (64). Martin, he insists, is "'as much her [Harriet's] superior in sense as in situation'" (61).

The discord of reason/understanding/sense and imagination/fancy reaches peak intensity when Mr. Knightley and Emma engage in dialogue. When they discuss Frank Churchill, Knightley blames the young man for not visiting his father immediately after his marriage, asserting he had only to announce his intention and to act. Emma points out Churchill's dependence on his adoptive parents for his future well-being and replies, "Nobody but you, Mr. Knightley, would imagine it possible. But you have not an idea of what is requisite in situations directly opposite to your own. ... How can you imagine such conduct practicable?'" (147). Knightley answers, "'Depend upon it, Emma, a sensible man would find no difficulty in it. He would feel himself in the right; and the declaration--made, of course, as a man of sense would make it, in a proper manner--would do him more good, raise him higher, fix his interest stronger with the people he depended on, than all that a line of shifts and expedients can ever do'" (147). Austen makes the discord apparent. Emma imagines the young man's situation and in doing so deludes herself. Mr. Knightley uses good sense, or reason, tempered no doubt with a touch of jealousy, and concludes properly that Churchill is a spoiled young man who fails to act up to his responsibilities to his biological father.

Many other passages in the novel establish this discord to guide reader response. Mr. Knightley notices signs of attachment between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax that "he could not persuade himself to think entirely void of meaning, however he might wish to escape any of Emma's errors of imagination" (343). He tells Emma, "'I have lately imagined that I saw symptoms of attachment between them--certain expressive looks, which I did not believe meant to be public.'" But Emma cries, "'Oh! you amuse me excessively. I am delighted to find that you can vouchsafe to let your imagination wander--but it will not do'" (350). Ironically, when imagination might have been called for, Emma fails to imagine. Moreover, Mr. Knightley's imaginings are based on observation and evidence and are more like the reasoning process, not the sort of fancies that Emma spins from what she would like to happen.

Austen eventually brings concord from the discord of reason and imagination. Emma surely has more to learn than does Mr. Knightley. Her fancy causes her heartache, and the great passage of self-realization refers directly to her character fault. When she finds that Harriet, her own protege, fancies Mr. Knightley, she experiences the oft-quoted epiphany, "It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!" (408). Her sudden insight completes for the reader the delightful irony of her conversation with Knightley at the start of the novel when she tells him, "'I know that such a girl as Harriet is exactly what every man delights in--what at once bewitches his senses and satisfies his judgment. Oh! Harriet may pick and choose. Were you, yourself, ever to marry, she is the very woman for you'" (64).

Only now does she suddenly realize her error: "How improperly had she been acting by Harriet! How inconsiderate, how indelicate, how irrational, how unfeeling had been her conduct!" (408). In her moment of insight, to which Austen gives the most interesting description of "a developement of self" (409), Emma realizes her error has been to let fancy subdue reason. In this passage, cognates for reason abound. To herself, she laments, "How to understand it all! How to understand the deceptions she had been thus practising on herself, and living under! ... To understand, thoroughly understand her own heart, was the first endeavour" (411-12). The repetition of understand demonstrates the development of harmony in the discordia concors; and Austen further emphasizes the correction when she writes of her heroine, "She saw, that in persuading herself, in fancying, in acting to the contrary, she had been entirely under a delusion" (412), an imbalance of imagination over reason. But understanding has been thrust upon her, and it is a delicious irony indeed when her mind cries out, "How she [Harriet] could dare to fancy herself the chosen of such a man," and then answers herself, "Alas! was not that her [Emma's] own doing too? Who had been at pains to give Harriet notions of self-consequence but herself?" (414). Emma's response is the correct one in Jane Austen's moral universe. She will, she decides, bear with her trouble and improve so that each year "would yet find her more rational, more acquainted with herself, and leave her less to regret when it were gone" (423).

Mr. Knightley, throughout the novel, has been right about everything. His reason and good sense enable him to understand when Emma's fancy leads her astray, both as to others and in self-concept. But his rational correctness is not sufficient for happiness. He has great difficulty in expressing his feeling for Emma. His sturdy good sense is admirable but inhibiting. When Emma makes amends for her cutting remark to Miss Bates, Mr. Knightley reacts warmly. Austen reports Emma's feelings:
 [H]e took her hand, pressed it, and certainly was on the point of
 carrying it to his lips--when, from some fancy or other, he
 suddenly let it go.--Why he should feel such a scruple, why he
 should change his mind when it was all but done, she could not
 perceive.--He would have judged better, she thought, if he had not
 stopped. (386)

The irony of the passage is that for once Emma's imagination completely fails her in seeing that Mr. Knightley has feeling beyond friendship for her. And Mr. Knightley has failed to fancy that she might love him. His judgment, lacking harmony with imagination, makes him "let it go." Their souls are not yet in harmony.

In his proposal, Mr. Knightley finally struggles to imagine that Emma might have him. He becomes fancy-free, leaving tile sphere of reason and judgment and allowing a romantic imagination to speak. He manages to do so, "but it had been no present hope--he had only, in the momentary conquest of eagerness over judgment, aspired to be told that she did not forbid his attempt to attach her" (432). Finally, Austen has established harmony in the discord of reason and imagination in her two characters.

Austen ranges other characters on the scale of imagination/fancy and reason/good sense. Mr. Woodhouse, with all his fancied illness and food phobias, is the supreme imaginist, though the words imagination and fancy rarely occur in his dialogue. Harriet, Mr. Elton, and Mrs. Weston (who imagines matches between Knightley and Jane Fairfax and between Emma and Frank Churchill) demonstrate varying degrees of excess in imagination, though none is crippled by his or her predilection as is Mr. Woodhouse. At the opposite extreme is Mr. John Knightley, who is good sense run riot. He lacks the imagination to enjoy social conversation and contacts, and he is unable to control his disapproval of Mr. Woodhouse's health fixations.

One doubts that Jane Austen was deeply read in the ancients who proposed the discordia concors. But she was well read in the works of Johnson, to whom she refers as "my dear Dr. Johnson" in one of her letters (9 February 1807), and in another mentions that he is unlike Cowper in that he understood "the full tide of human Existence at Charing Cross" (3 November 1813). Johnson often inveighs against an excess of imagination in his works, and in Rasselas, Imlac pontificates that the madness of the solitary Astronomer, who thinks that he controls the weather, results from allowing free reign to his imagination: "No man will be found in whose mind airy notions do not sometimes tyranise [sic], and force him to hope or fear beyond the limits of sober probability. All power of fancy over reason is a degree of insanity" (150). And of the Pharaohs who ordered the construction of the pyramids, he writes, "Those who have already all that they can enjoy, must enlarge their desires," and they are led on by "the hunger of the imagination, which preys incessantly on life" (118).

Moreover, many of the eighteenth-century novelists whose works Austen both parodied and enjoyed reading reflect discordia concors, usually of reason and passion. Sarah Fielding even quotes the discordia concors passage from Mandeville's Fable of the Bees at the end of David Simple, and one of Austen's favorites, Fanny Burney, juxtaposes opposites in Evelina and Cecilia, as does Charlotte Smith in her novels, again characteristically of reason and passion. Yet in these works the juxtaposition is merely a device for the creation of rather conventional gender-oriented character conflict. Men are often Werther figures, slaves of passion, while women must exercise reason or suffer tile consequences. Like her sister authors, Austen adapts the discordia concors to create dramatic conflict, but Emma rises above the conventions of the romance genre to describe the growth of a relationship that begins in a true collision of opposite mindsets.

The concept of discordia concors had been nearly lost by the time Jane Austen wrote. There was no room for compromise on issues of feeling for either the first or second generation of Romantics. The idea of the Great Chain of Being was largely forgotten in the belief of the perfectibility, or "perpetual improvement," as William Godwin wrote, of humanity. But for Austen, discordia concors was more than a philosophy of individual conduct and more than a device for creating character conflict. Rather, Austen finds that real love, the union of souls, comes when two people with opposing views come together, strike sparks from the discord of their discourse, blend into a concord as the polarities draw closer, and find a harmony as a couple.


Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. R.W. Chapman. Oxford: OUP, 1933.

Chapman, R.W., ed. Jane Austen's Letters to Her Sister Cassandra and Others. Oxford: Clarendon, 1932. 2 vols.

Johnson, Samuel. The Lives of the Most Eminent Englsih Poets; with Critical Observations on Their Works. Introd. and Notes by Roger Lonsdale. Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon, 2006.

--. Rasselas and Other Tales. The Works of Samuel Johnson. Ed. Gwin J. Kolb. Vol. 16. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990.

Pope, Alexander. An Essay on Man. The Works of Alexander Pope. Vol. 2. New York: Gordian P, 1967.

Wanamaker, Melissa C. Discordia Concors: The Wit of Metaphysical Poetry. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1975.

Wasserman, Earl R. The Subtler Language: Critical Readings of Neoclassical and Romantic Poems. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1959.


(1.) The italics in quotations throughout are mine, for emphasis.

(2.) In addition to the allusion to Sir Charles Grandison, Austen may have used the name Smith as a playful reference to Charlotte Smith, whose Emmeline, in Emmeline, or the Orphan of the Castle, was the prototype of the "heroine" of the romance tradition. Thus "Harriet" and "Smith" both point toward the sort of" character that Emma imagines.

Dr. Carrol Fry is a professor emeritus at Northwest Missouri State University. He has published in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century British literature as well as on film, English education, science fiction/fantasy literature and American literature. His book Cinema of the Occult will be published by Lehigh University Press in the near future.
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Title Annotation:Miscellany
Author:Fry, Carrol L.
Publication:Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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