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Because of time constraints, I have to move on to Thackeray; on the other hand, there are topics I do not want to omit. So I created this page to touch upon some issues raised by the ending, to stimulate your thinking about the novel, to suggest paper topics, and to help you study for the midterm. The questions and brief comments are arranged by category. I have followed the same procedure in Other Issues. Quotations lists a range of critical perspectives on the novel.


Mr. Knightley's Proposal
Emma's Engagement to Mr. Knightley
The Engagement of Frank and Jane
Emma's Marriage
Circular Structure
Discussion of Emm



Initially, Emma discouraged Mr. Knightley from revealing his feelings about, as she thought, Harriet. But on perceiving his pain, she decided against going indoors and encouraged him to speak, "cost her what it would" (p. 367). Did her decision indicate a moral and emotional magnanimity or largeness? Did it show her capacity to place the well being of someone she loved before herself? (Was this trait also operant in her relationship with her father?)

Was Mr. Knightley rational in his proposal or was he carried away by his feelings? The narrator refers to "the momentary conquest of eagerness over judgment" (p. 370). Do you think he was aware of any growth or change in Emma? Or was he possibly responding, consciously or unconsciously, to a more receptive attitude toward himself? Was he rational and sensible when he thought of Emma as "faultless in spite of all her faults" (p. 371)? Incidentally, how can Emma be "faultless in spite of all her faults"?

What values does Austen's description of Emma's accepting him assume? For instance, the narrator comments:

for as to any of that heroism of sentiment which might have prompted her to entreat him to transfer his affection from herself to Harriet as infinitely the most worthy of the two–or even the more simple sublimity of resolving to refuse him at once and forever, without vouchsafing any motive because he could not marry them both, Emma had it not. She felt for Harriet with pain and with contrition; but no flight of generosity run mad, opposing all that could be probable or reasonable, entered her brain. (p.369)
Do the words "heroism of sentiment" and "sublimity" indicate that Austen approves of these feelings and, by extension, would approve of Emma's rejecting him? Or are they used ironically to indicate an excessive sentiment or sentimentalism at the expense of reason? Lionel Stevenson provides a good definition of sentiment or sentimentalism, as the "wilful refusal to face unpleasant or brutal facts, easy indulgence in shallow and insincere emotions, and assumption of a refined sensibility." Consider Austen's use of "flight of generosity run mad" in this passage. And is Harriet in fact superior to Emma and a preferable bride for Mr. Knightley?

Many readers are upset by Austen's failure to provide a touching or emotional love scene. Rather than describing Emma's response and the love passage that presumably took place between Emma and Mr. Knightley, all Austen says is, "What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does" (p. 369). Is this an evasion, a serious flaw in the novel? Does it show that Austen is incapable of depicting passion or that she herself lacks strong feelings? Certainly Charlotte Brontë thought so.


Was Mr. Knightley an appropriate husband for Emma? A character in Margaret Drabble's The Waterfall wonders, "What can it have been like, in bed with Mr. Knightley? Sorrow awaited that woman." Arguing for Mr. Knightley as a good choice, Lionel Trilling says, "she chooses her husband wisely and seriously and eagerly."

Was he really a father substitute? Mr. Woodhouse barely counted as a father. Mr. Knightley, sixteen years older than Emma, called her "a spoiled child" and "little Emma." Or was he, as at least once critic suggests, a mother substitute? After all, he moved into Hartfield and lived with Emma and her father.

Emma has been charged with being sexually cold and so marrying Mr. Knightley.


Was Frank and Jane's marriage based on romantic passion? Did passion overpower their judgment? Frank said that he would have gone mad if Jane had refused him; Jane agreed to a secret engagement in violation of her own sense of right behavior and of society's values. Emma pitied Jane for yielding to passion or excessive love:
"Poor girl!" said Emma again. "She loves him, then, excessively, I suppose. It must have been from attachment only that she could be led to form the engagement. Her affection must have overpowered her judgment." (pp. 359-60)
Mrs. Weston agreed with Emma's assessment, "Yes, I have no doubt of her being extremely attached to him" (p. 360).

Was Frank and Jane's passionate love intended to contrast with the companionable love of Emma and Knightley? Their love has also been called "intelligent love." The anonymous reviewer who coined this phrase asserted that intelligent love, "the giving and receiving of knowledge, the active formation of another's character, or the more passive growth, under another's guidance is the truest and strongest foundation of love." Which marriage and type of love does Austen prefer? Which type of love provides the stronger basis for a successful marriage in Austen's scale of values, if not in yours?

Does Austen ignore the fact that Frank kept the engagement secret in order to inherit the Churchill money? Would focusing on this fact affect the reader's view of Frank? Does she make clear what Frank would have done if Mrs. Churchill had lived?


Is Emma's marriage a happy one? Austen says, in the final sentence of the novel, "the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true lovers who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union" (p. 412). Nevertheless, many readers see the marriage as doomed to unhappiness; what other result is possible with Mr. Knightley's giving up his own home and having to live with Mr. Woodhouse? Others argue that Emma has not changed significantly, as shown by her not telling him about Harriet during their engagement; nor do they believe that she will tell them once they are married. Even if they are right, does her reticence necessarily spell problems? Austen says,
        Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken; but where, as in this case, though the conduct is mistaken, the feelings are not, it may not be very material. Mr. Knightley could not impute to Emma a more relenting heart than she possessed or a heart more disposed to accept of his. (p. 369)
Is Austen exonerating Emma's withholding information? If so, does this statement inevitably justify Emma's behavior, since Austen says such reticence may not be significant; this is not, of course, the same as saying it is not significant. Is Austen being realistic about human behavior and accepting Emma's reticence, or is she being ironic and so implying problems ahead for the marriage?

Does ending with Emma's marriage avoid dealing with implicit issues?

Does having Emma and Mr. Knightley live with her father after marriage enable Austen to ignore her problematic relationship with her father?

Does Emma deserve to be happy? Is it right that she is not punished for her misdeeds?  Are these even valid questions?

Their marriage is facilitated and Mr. Woodhouse's objections are removed for a comic and undignified reason, a rash of chicken thefts. With this device, is Austen emotionally distancing the reader from the romance and marriage, to prevent a stereotyped and sentimental response to weddings and happy endings?


The novel opens with one wedding and closes with three weddings. Also, it both opens with Emma, Mrs. Woodhouse, and Mr. Knightley together at Hartfield and closes with them together at Hartfield. Is the ending suggested by the beginning?


 Day 1
Austen, Emma, pp. 7-102
  Austen Overview
  Point of View and The Narrator
 Day 2
Emma, pp. 103-209
  Emma, Harriet, and Mr. Elton
 Day 3
Emma, pp. 209-317
 Day 4
Emma, pp. 317-412
  Mr. Knightley
  Women's Lot
  The Ending (Pages 346-412)
  Other Issues
Web paper due (1-2 pages)

January 26, 2009