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Emma's Relationship with Harriet & Mr. Elton
Arranging Marriages
Emma's Self-Analysis
Telling Harriet
Mr. Elton's Marriage
Harriet's Visit to the Martins
Discussion of Emma



When a self-satisfied Emma told Mr. Knightley that she had arranged the Weston marriage, he ironically commented, "Your time has been properly and delicately spent if you have been endeavouring for the last four years to bring about this marriage. A worthy employment for a young lady's mind!" (p. 33). Why does he, as well as Austen, disapprove of Emma's involvement in arranging marriages? Is this activity socially responsible? (Is it relevant to this question that she is not authorized either by society or by Miss Taylor or Mr. Weston to act as matchmaker?) Does Emma have the power to arrange marriages? Or is she deluded by her own imagination and vanity? Is she perhaps seeking to relieve the sameness of her life with some excitement and meaningful activity? Is she trying to assert herself and to gain a sense of power by directing the lives of others? Is she experiencing her own desire to be loved or her own sexual urges vicariously through Harriet? There are other possibilities which I leave to you to suggest and explore.

Certainly imagination, combined with snobbery, caused her to discourage Harriet from accepting Mr. Martin's proposal. Emma held to her belief that Harriet was personally and socially superior to Mr. Martin, despite compelling evidence to the contrary—Mr. Martin's gentlemanly letter of proposal, Mr. Knightley's praise of Mr. Martin, Mr. Martin's considerate behavior to Harriet in Ford's store, and their actual social and economic positions.

A refusal to see what her own good judgment and powers of observation should tell her informs her behavior in the Harriet Smith-Mr. Elton fiasco—as well as much of her other behavior throughout the novel. She preferred her imaginings to a reality that was clear to Mr. Knightley, who warned her Mr. Elton would marry for money; to Mr. John Knightley, who warned her that Mr. Elton was interested in her; and to Miss Bates, who revealed that Highbury was gossiping about Mr. Elton's interest in her. She misinterpreted the allusion to herself in Mr. Elton's charade, though she saw the inappropriateness of assigning a ready wit to Harriet; she mistook Mr. Elton's interest in the painting; and she explained away the many fulsome compliments he paid her as his insufficient breeding. Her refusal to see the truth before her is symbolized in her making Harriet too tall in the portrait.


She was forced to see the truth with Mr. Elton's proposal, in a marvelously comic scene in which both she and Mr. Elton were insulted because their vanity and snobbishness were offended. The question is, how much of the truth did she come to see in her self analysis on pages 132-5 and 137-8? How significant was her change? In what ways didn't she change? How much responsibility for her mistaken views and behavior did she accept? Did she cling to her vanity, her snobbery, and her fancy to any extent? For example, she decided, "It was foolish, it was wrong, to take so active a part in bringing two people together" (p. 134). The key words here are "so active a part"; is this an accurate assessment, or should she have taken no part in arranging a match? Does her deciding not to take an active part in Harriet's love life leave open the possibility that she will take a passive role in managing Harriet's love life?

Please read her self-analysis of the Elton-Harriet fiasco closely; it is an important step in the process of her development (if you think she did learn from this experience and develop) or in her failure to change in any significant way (if that is how you read the novel).

TELLING HARRIET (Pages 137-38)

Harriet took the news of Mr. Elton's interest in Emma submissively; she accepted the news and neither blamed Emma nor showed any resentment toward her. Touched —and relieved?—by Harriet's response, Emma admired her "simplicity and modesty" and her "artless" grief (p. 137). She decided not only that Harriet was her superior but that being more like Harriet would make her happier "than all that genius or intelligence could do" (p. 138). Up to this point, the narrator has presented Emma's thoughts and feelings without indicating her judgment, leaving the reader to interpret Emma's thoughts and feelings and to assess Emma. But in the next paragraph, the narrator says, "It was rather too late in the day to set about being simple-minded and ignorant..." Is there a change in technique?Are the words simple-minded and ignorant Emma's words, or are they the narrator's? With them, isn't the narrator indicating Emma's folly in deprecating sense, intelligence, and talent?

MR. ELTON'S MARRIAGE (Pages 166-68)

Emma was concerned about how the news of Mr. Elton's marriage would affect Harriet and so wanted to tell her tactfully and gently. But Harriet's focusing on a chance meeting with the Martins caused Emma to break the news bluntly and hurriedlly, to distract her. Is Emma's change comic? Do Emma's plans often fail or turn out differently than she intended?


Emma planned Harriet's visit to the Martins at Abbey Mill Farm so that it would last barely fifteen minutes, even though Harriet had spent six weeks with them several months earlier. Her plan was socially irresponsible, rude, and offensive to the feelings of the Martins, as was clear to Emma, though perhaps not to Harriet: "She could think of nothing better and though there was something in it which her own heart could not approve—something of ingratitude merely glossed over— it must be done, or what would become of Harriet?" (p. 173). Her rationalization reveals that she knows what is proper behavior, that she has a conscience which asserts itself when she behaves improperly, and that her fancy, egotism, love of power and manipulation, and snobbery are stronger motives than her knowledge and the pangs of conscience. Is this behavior unique to the Martin visit, or does she ignore her knowledge of right and the urging of her conscience on other occasions?

The heart reference in this sentence, which ends the chapter, is ironically juxtaposted to the first sentence of the next paragraph, "Small heart had Harriet for visiting" (p. 173). The obvious meaning of this sentence is that Harriet did not much care to make the visit. But does the phrase "Small heart" also suggest the shallowness of Harriet's emotional nature?


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


Emma, pp. 317-412
  Mr. Knightley
  Women's Lot
  The Ending
  Other Issues
Web paper due (1-2 pages)

January 26, 2009