Miss Bates of Emma: A Liar, Liar Case Study

Continuing in the Cooperative Principle and how to break it, we turn our attention to a literary example of rampant unintentional violations: Miss Bates from Jane Austen’s Emma.

Character Profile: Miss Bates

Miss Hetty Bates lives in Highbury, a frequent associate of Emma Woodhouse. The novel describes her in frank terms.
Character description of Miss Bates from Jane Austen's Emma

So she’s a middle-aged spinster, plain in appearance and impoverished in purse.

(Basically, she’s my patronus. But I digress.)

Miss Bates is a fundamentally good woman. She would never hurt a fly. And yet, conversationally, she violates the Cooperative Principle on every level.

Unintentionally, of course.

The Many Unintentional Violations of Miss Bates

  • Quantity: She regularly gives more information than anyone wants.

“Mr. Knightley I declare!—I must speak to him if possible, just to thank him. I will not open the window here; it would give you all cold; but I can go into my mother’s room you know.” (Vol II, Ch 10)

  • Quality: She speaks her assumptions, whether they’re true or not.

“Two steps, Jane, take care of the two steps. Oh! no, there is but one. Well, I was persuaded there were two. How very odd! I was convinced there were two, and there is but one.” (Vol III, Ch 2)

  • Manner: She rattles off her information without letting others get in a word edgewise.

All this spoken extremely fast obliged Miss Bates to stop for breath. (Vol II, Ch 1)

  • Relevance: She routinely goes off-topic.

“My mother’s deafness is very trifling you see—just nothing at all. By only raising my voice, and saying any thing two or three times over, she is sure to hear; but then she is used to my voice. But it is very remarkable that she should always hear Jane better than she does me. Jane speaks so distinct!” (Vol II Ch 1)

In short, she drives Emma crazy. When Harriet compares the unmarried status of both women, Emma declares,

If I thought I should ever be like Miss Bates! so silly—so satisfied—so smiling—so prosing—so undistinguishing and unfastidious—and so apt to tell every thing relative to every body about me, I would marry to-morrow. (Vol I Ch 10)

Non-Cooperation as a Narrative Force

Miss Bates’s character arc reaches its climax in the Box Hill episode (Vol III, Ch 7), in an exchange with our heroine:

“Oh! very well,” exclaimed Miss Bates, “then I need not be uneasy. ‘Three things very dull indeed.’ That will just do for me, you know. I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan’t I? (looking round with the most good-humoured dependence on every body’s assent)—Do not you all think I shall?”

Emma could not resist.

“Ah! ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me—but you will be limited as to number—only three at once.”

In this unkind response, Emma flouts the maxims of Manner and Quantity:

  • ­Manner: She insults Miss Bates in the form of a jest.
  • ­Quantity: She shouldn’t have said an insult at all (and she knows it).

Miss Bates doesn’t immediately catch the slight, but when she does, she becomes so flustered and embarrassed that she leaves the group as soon as she can afterward.

As for Emma, she retreats into a “violation” defense when Mr. Knightley calls out her poor behavior:

Emma recollected, blushed, was sorry, but tried to laugh it off.

“Nay, how could I help saying what I did?—Nobody could have helped it. It was not so very bad. I dare say she did not understand me.”

The event serves as a wake-up call. Emma realizes that she has a responsibility to treat her friends and neighbors with kindness. Her higher wealth and privilege comes not because of any merit on her part, but because of her good fortune to be born to it.

Multiple Layers of Deception

The whole scene at Box Hill has some awesome deceptive dynamics at play:

  • Mr. & Mrs. Elton’s poorly hidden contempt for Emma and Harriet
  • Mr. Weston trying to keep everyone happy and also matchmake between Frank and Emma
  • Mr. Knightly concealing his jealousy of Frank and his ardor for Emma
  • Frank and Jane having a secret argument and Frank flirting with Emma to twist the knife
  • Emma plotting to matchmake between Frank and Harriet and also concealing her dislike of the Eltons, Jane, and Miss Bates

In short, everyone except Miss Bates is hiding something. The crux of the scene, the insult, leads to the breakup of the party and our heroine’s greater enlightenment.

Miss Bates unintentionally violates the Cooperative Principle, but so also do Emma and her sympathetic narrator. They have both portrayed this honest, well-meaning woman as a contemptible nuisance when no one else in the neighborhood judges her that harshly.

And that’s the grand surprise: Miss Bates is a silly foil for a silly girl whose worldview is so often wrong, and so often mistaken as correct. Any reader who allows Emma and the narrator to guide their opinion has a rude awakening alongside them both.

The Moral of the Case Study

Miss Bates, good and well-meaning as she is, provides a perfect example of a character who unintentionally violates the Cooperative Principle. She also provides a standard for this type of break on our other layers of dialogue.

Consider your current Work in Progress. Now, imagine that Miss Bates is your narrator.

Did you wince? You should have.

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Up next: Breaking the CP on 3 Layers

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