Emma is a comedy in that the misunderstandings and possibly serious consequences of Emma’s meddling are turned into a happy ending – marriage – for all parties. Emma does eventually learn from her mistakes and she and Mr Knightley will benefit from each other’s influence. It is unlike Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility in that Emma is not become infatuated with the wrong person because of superficial first impressions (she is never truly in love with Frank Churchill) but she is blind to her own potential feelings just as she is blind to the damage she causes by interfering with the emotions of others.
Jane Austen knew that she was taking a “heroine whom no-one but myself will much like,” but Emma appeals to us because of her humanity, her many good qualities and the fact that she is not a cold, reserved person like Jane Fairfax. Despite the tendency towards comedy, the novel deals with serious themes: the nature of love; reason and emotion; true and false judgement; self-knowledge and self-deception; education; folly and wickedness; morals and moral judgements; the capacity of an individual for a full life; and the responsibility of one person for another. Jane Austen’s own values emerge clearly from the narrative and interaction between the characters, but mainly from the mouth of Mr Knightley who speaks in moral terms about the society in which he lives: apart from the severity of his judgements on Emma (which result from unrecognised love for her), his opinions can be relied upon. It is worth noting his vocabulary when he praises or criticises; the words and phrases suggest liberality, decorum, right conduct, respect and the need for rationality.
There is some caricature in the persons of Mr Woodhouse and Miss Bates and the major characters can be seen as dynamic (in that they change in the course of the novel) or static (though we may discover more about them). Jane Austen is sometimes derided for having a narrow view of life but she wrote about what she knew and her observations go deep. Marriage was an even more serious question to a woman then as there were few other outlets and we see the perils of being a governess when Jane Fairfax speaks. Manners are the surface sign of moral values: when Emma insults Miss Bates it shows a fundamental lack of due respect and decorum. The life of the novel is not on the heroic scale and so small events have a significance far beyond their apparent meaning. The overarching mode is irony: verbal, dramatic and situational. Jane Austen rarely makes direct statements in her own voice; the reader must deduce – or listen to Mr Knightley. Because of the use of third person omniscient narration, the author can slip easily into the third person point of view technique and give Emma’s inner feelings from within or see matters as Emma does: lovers when there are none. The novel does limit itself largely to Emma’s perspective: we do not know why Frank Churchill went to London any more than she does and so full use of the omniscient method is curtailed for purposes of subtle irony. We must infer where Emma is perceiving wrongly without being told explicitly.
Chapters I to 17 The first chapter merits careful re-reading. We notice that Mr Knightley appears here and is thus signalled as a leading player but it is the author’s remarks about Emma herself which indicate much of what is to come. She is “handsome, clever and rich” but the word “seemed” alerts us to examine the claims further. She has had too easy a life, is in a high position locally and has done just what she liked; we know she will continue that way, particularly as her governess/friend is to marry and move away. The picture of her temperament is gradually built up with a mention of her thinking “a little too well of herself.” The relationships within the household are topsy-turvy: Miss Taylor was somewhere between friend and mother and Emma has to be maternal towards her hypochondriac and anti-life father. Miss Taylor’s character is irreproachable: “intelligent, well-informed, useful, gentle…” but she never found fault with Emma, although the author, reader and Mr Knightley can. Emma’s life now has a vacuum: her father cannot converse in a manner either “rational or playful”: clearly we are heading for trouble. A characteristic dialogue is given, showing what a good and dutiful daughter Emma is and we note that, when Mr Knightley happily breaks up the tedium, he adopts the same rational and cheerful tone to the gently selfish old man. The chapter is masterful in slipping in facts about ages and relationships without holding up the narrative drive and by its end we see where the new danger lies: Emma, priding herself on having found her governess a husband, will now mistakenly apply those energies to Mr Elton despite the warning that a man of his age can take care of himself.
Chapters two and three deal mainly with minor characters but set up Frank Churchill for future interest and give a thumbnail sketch of the off-stage Mr Perry whose views Mr Woodhouse invents but whose supposed strictures add to the humour throughout. Miss Bates is described in what seems to be disproportionate detail but a clear view of her worthwhile character is needed for us to judge Emma’s behaviour to her, both as a good neighbour but also as a rude wit at Box Hill. Miss Goddard’s school is praised for its kindly common sense and Harriet Smith is introduced – and Emma’s new hobby with her. She is of no known origin or family but Emma deceives herself that she must be of good birth and resolves to detach her from the only worthwhile family she has and replace the Martins with herself or an inappropriate ‘suitor’ with no possible future in either for Harriet. The snob in Emma prevails, along with overweening confidence and a love of interfering: poor Harriet is the perfect victim, pretty, mindless and malleable, yet we find we do not care much about her personally.
Emma does not wish for another Miss Taylor (chapter 4) because she wants to play Pygmalion: in her boredom she overlooks the responsibility involved in altering another person’s outlook and prospects. Harriet, as Mr Knightley later observes, would be lucky to marry Mr Martin: she would have a good husband with a reliable future and a loving family who know her well. Emma wishes to be “useful” by which she means meddling. All would be well if she left matters alone. We disapprove strongly of her methods of persuading Harriet against Mr Martin particularly since she is impressed by him when she meets him, inwardly admitting he looks “a sensible young man”. This is a significant word of praise, meaning that the person combines feeling with common sense, and has been applied by Jane Austen to Mr Knightley. Yet she insults him in vigorous language for his lack of high birth and guesses that he will become “a completely gross, vulgar farmer.” After this, she starts to praise Mr Elton, the fortune-seeker: her manipulations are dangerous and could have disastrous consequences.
A discussion with almost no authorial intervention in Chapter 5 invites us to decide who is right about Emma’s relationship with Harriet and we may end by feeling that both Mr Knightley and Mrs Weston (Miss Taylor) have valid ponts to make: they have clearly argued about Emma many times before. It is Mr Knightley’s neat severe and powerful statements which ring in the mind, however, saying of Harriet: “Her ignorance is hourly flattery” and of Emma: ” She will never submit to anything requiring industry and pateince, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding.” Fancy is a trivial side of the imagination and his criticisms of Emma’s reading lists are comic. She will never improve Harriet’s mind; she will merely raise hopes which cannot be achieved. A clue to Mt Knightley’s feelings for Emma occurs when he says “I love to look at her” – she is so far the younger that, previously, a sexual attitude would have been wrong but his severity stems from a growing affection, of which he is not fully aware. By “her vanity lies another way” he means that she is not proud of her appearance but of her mind and powers but there is truth too in Mrs Weston’s claim that she is an “excellent creature … Where shall we see a better daughter, or a kinder sister, or a truer friend?” At this moment her faults are not as “little” as to be tolerated: she could be ruining the life of someone else while her own wealthy position remains untouched. Mr Knightley’s harsh wish to see Emma in love but not requited appears to come about, ironically, in relation to himself later.
The narrative speeds along during the highly comic scene of the portrait painting where Emma’s blindness to behavioural signals gives a dramatic irony as we see that Mr Elton fancies her, not Harriet. Part of her realises that his manner is odd but her imagination overcomes doubt. The small comment: “I am rather proud of little George” actually means that she is proud of what she has made of the boy – a dangerous vanity. “Steadiness had always been wanting,” writes the author about Emma’s accomplishments, underlining Mr Knightley’s attacks. The gallantry in Mr Elton’s attitude is superficial and not true manners.
When Mr Martin’s letter arrives, (Ch. 7) Emma’s honesty acknowledges that it is correct, gentlemanly and expresses ” good sense, warm attachment, liberality, propriety, even delicacy of feeling”, all words of strong approval in Jane Austen. Yet she is prejudiced and thinks he is trying to forge a profitable connection and that one of his sisters must have written it; here she is self-deceiving as her initial slow response indicates. Over the next pages she uses every tactic to persuade Harriet from this advantageous marriage, finally dropping the bombshell that she could never remain friends with the wife of a farmer. When Harriet refuses, Emma thinks she is “safe” but there is no prospect for Harriet at Hartfield, if Emma were to marry or tire of her. In fact, Emma does look down on Harriet as we realise when she puts forward for her suitors she herself would never accept. They are not good enough for her, but they will do for Harriet. Instead of allowing the girl to make a sound match, she fills her head with day-dreams, viewed with verbal irony: it is not the imaginations of Mr Elton’s family that are stirred; it is those of the two friends.
Mr Knightley is furious with moral indignation when he learns of Harriet’s refusal (Ch. 8) but shows himself also full of respect for emotion when he says: “He is desperately in love…” He has thought in rational detail about the marriage and thinks it is practical: when he is told it will not happen he colours and stands up “in tall indignation” realising that Emma has intervened. His summary: “A degradation to illegitimacy and ignorance to be married to a respectable, intelligent gentleman-farmer” sums up his, our and Jane Austen’s view. As he also says, it is “Better be without sense, than misapply it as you do” and, though his criticisms are harsh they are just. Emma tries to treat the matter “playfully” but is troubled eventually by the disagreement and Mr Knightley’s anger. He knows that Mr Elton will find a woman of means and he is “mortified” by having assisted in Mr Martin’s disappointment. These are powerful feelings about a potentially tragic situation. Marriage is serious as is shown later by the introduction of children into the narration and by the real prospects for Harriet if she does not marry. The position of a spinster was unenviable at best.
With irony targeting the contemporary trivial attitudes to literature in Chapter 9 Jane Austen informs us of what we already suspected: Emma and Harriet will chat romantically and collect silly riddles rather than work towards improvement: “In this age of literature, such collections on a very grand scale are not uncommon…”: Mr Woodhouse’s contribution is hilarious and Harriet’s incomprehension shows her silliness. Emma should not seriously think that Mr Elton could be referring to Harret with the epithet “ready wit.” Yet the note of comedy prevails even when Jane Austen’s own preference for sensible prose is made clear. When the children are mentioned we recall that marriage is serious and we also have Emma’s memorable though kind explanation to her father: “One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.” She is wise on every matter except love and match-making where she is patronising in that she would like to laugh at Mr Elton while passing him off on Harriet.
Chapter 10 includes a discussion about marriage in which Emma’s over-confidence is set against her genuine and commonsensical kindness to the poor. Here she is not patronising but fulfilling the duties of the higher class towards the needy but, ironically, she fails to see that she may have a need for love and marriage and she is harsh, if realistic, in her description of the life of a poverty-stricken old maid. It is, paradoxically, Emma’s blind prejudice that makes her ‘see’ lovers standing at the window: the author has shifted from omniscient narration to her point of view to create the ironic effect. Verbal irony opens the next chapter, where Emma accepts that Mr Elton “must now be left to himself.” She cannot leave anyone alone in a romantic situation and so the words do not mean what they seem to say yet they echo Mt Knightley’s statement earlier. Her family is briefly described: they are not dynamic characters and we sense that they will not change much during the novel. Their marriage works because of the compliant maternity of Isabella and the fact that John, though sometimes ungracious, is not an “ill-tempered man.” The account, in third person omniscient mode, coming at this point, alerts the attentive reader to the possibility of a richer and deeper union between the other brother and sister: Mr George Knightley and Emma, endowed in both cases with superior attributes and therefore capable of greater happiness.
This sense is reinforced at the opening of Chapter 12, where they play with the children in “perfect amity”: they have much in common and like each other more than either recognises, Emma being more blind to her own feelings than My Knightley is to his. Agreement about the treatment of children is vital in marriage. The age difference is stressed, this being the main factor which has prevented them from romance so far. Mr Knightley’s blunt response about Mr Martin’s disappointment, “A man cannot be more so”, leaves Emma no room for self-deception but they cannot remain distant for long. Jane Austen seems ill at ease representing the conversation of two men on their own and we realise what a wise artistic decision she made to avoid unknown material: they soberly discuss drains. Mr Perry, meanwhile, is used by Mr Woodhouse as a weapon in his argument with Isabella, an instance of comic dramatic irony as the reader knows that neither Perry nor Wingfield has said anything of the kind. It becomes evident that Jane Fairfax would be a more suitable friend for Emma than Harriet but the chapter ends in comedy with the intervention of Mr Knightley in a dispute.
One of Jane Austen’s rare but ironic generalisable observations on life opens Chapter 13: “It was a delightful visit; — perfect, in being much too short.” Emma, now left alone to contemplate Mr Elton’s behaviour, is forced by her own mental honesty to accept that is is strange: we know that he is a sponger and will go anywhere for a free evening but even Emma can see that he should not willingly leave the sick Harriet behind so happily if he is in love with her. John Knightley’s cutting comment “when he has ladies to please, every feature works” portrays him visually even though the speaker is in grumpy, anti-life mood. We are shown the mode of the novel in the brief “her heroism reached only to silence.” In a non-heroic world, good manners become heroism. Mr Elton has bad manners as is shown by his remark on the law and this is a sign of deeper flaws. Comedy prevails also in the account of Mr Elton’s behaviour to Emma (Ch 14) and her seizing on Frank Churchill as a possible lover for herself even though she deplores his not coming to visit. Irony is apparent in the complex situation here: Mr Martin looks to Harriet who looks to Mr Elton who looks to Emma who looks to Frank Churchill whose affections are not yet revealed. There are the seeds of tragedy present in this but they are never allowed to dominate.
The threat of snow separates rational responses from irrational and Emma’s suspicion that Mr Elton is in love with her is confirmed when they all escape and he, slightly inebriated, pays court to her. His exaggerated behaviour (we must remember he is a vicar) is presented humorously, however, even though he is a victim too: Emma has led him on and her view that he shows “inconstancy and presumption” is unfair. Even though the truth of his words: “who can think of Miss Smith when Miss Woodhouse is near!” is immediately apparent, Emma needs to be told several times how mistaken she has been. She is now deaf as well as blind. Both are deeply disturbed, partly on grounds of snobbery.
The disturbance is merely temporary: we know Mr Elton will find a woman of fortune and Emma is able to decide to wait to give vent to her misery: when “the hair was curled and the maid sent away.” True unhappiness, such as she feels later, cannot be postponed. She fully accepts her self-deception and blushes to think how Mr John Knightley was right to point out the truth. She recognises her own foolishness over misinterpreting all the signals but, in particular, “making light of what ought to be serious”, a stricture where omniscient and point of view narration are combined. Yet her realisations are incomplete: she still thinks she was right to dissuade Harriet from Mr Martin and she immediately thinks of William Coxe: even though he is dismissed as unsuitable, she cannot stop match-making. The chapter ends with an instance of true affection when Mr Knightley arrives through the bad weather because nothing will keep him away. Harriet now has to be told and Emma is once more filled with shame (Ch 17) and wishes, comically, that she could set about being more like her: “simple-minded and ignorant.” The reader is only glad this is impossible but feels that Emma should not be surprised that Harriet is “more resolutely in love that [she] had foreseen.” If Harriet were to marry, she should be resolutely in love. Emma has not learned her full lesson: she still has no thought for Mr Martin and the real marriage she has prevented. Yet, because of the comic spirit, his unhappiness and the danger to Harriet are kept in the background for the reader also.