syllabus hotspot syllabus hotspot syllabus hotspot austen hotspot austen hotspot austen hotspot austen hotspot novel page hotspot novel page hotspot novel page hotspot novel page hotspot novel page hotspot


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, 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 The Ending. Quotations lists a range of critical perspectives on the novel.


Emma's Growth
Miss Bates
Austen and the Narrator
Discussion of Emma


In what sense is Emma a comic character–in being witty and having a sense of humor or in being ridiculous so often? Or isn't she comic?

Emma's fancy, rather than good sense, dominated when she indulged in stereotypical romantic fantasies–e.g., meeting Mr. Elton on an errand of charity would increase his love for Harriet, rescuing Harriet from gypsies would encourage Frank to fall in love with her, and the love-struck Mr. Elton spent the evening in London sentimentally admiring Harriet's portrait. It also created theories which hid the truth from her; love lets Elton see ready wit in Harriet, Mr. Elton's talk of the menu of a dinner would lead to love; Mr. Elton quickly accepted Mr. John Knightley's offer of a ride because single men had a propensity for eating out.

Did Emma push against the limits imposed by her society? Did Mr. Knightley assert and uphold those limits?

In view of the fact that Emma never separated from her father and that she learned to see the world as Knightley saw it, was she ever truly autonomous? Despite her wealth and lack of obvious restraints, was Emma truly free? Was Jane Fairfax superior to Emma in choosing love over society's rules?


This novel has been called a bildungsroman, a novel of education. Generally in a bildungsroman, the protagonist matures as a result of gaining important insights into the self and/or the world. A crucial question in Emma is whether Emma changed and, if she did, how significant the change was. Also, did her growth entail any loss?

Emma decided that Frank would be an appropriate match for Harriet, that she would not encourage Harriet, and that they would not mention his name. What did she learn from the Elton fiasco and what didn't she learn?

Did Emma finally give up her fancy and manipulation of others? what about her scheme to get Harriet out of the way by sending her to Isabella's in London? She professed a preference for openness and honesty, even though she didn't tell Mr. Knightley about Harriet. Do you think she tells him after they are married?

If you see Mr. Knightley as the upholder of society's values, did Emma need to learn the principles he inculcated? Do you agree with those critics who believe she had to change before she would be a good wife for Mr. Knightley or even that she had to change in order to be worthy of him?

Was Emma's change in attitude toward Miss Bates (p. 326), toward Jane (p. 328), and toward her fantasy about Mr. Dixon (p. 332) significant? If significant, do you think the change was permanent?

Was there a significant change in her attitude and feelings toward Harriet when she thought Harriet was in love with Frank (p. 346)? when she knew Harriet was in love with Mr. Knightley (pp. 351-8)?

Did Emma perceive and take responsibility for her foolish, misguided behavior and self-created delusions? Consider the following passage: "She was most sorrowfully indignant, ashamed of every sensation but the one revealed to her–her affection for Mr. Knightley. Every other part of her mind was disgusting" (p. 355).


Did Miss Bates's compulsive talking suggest a narrow life with few outlets? A number of critics suggest that the the narrowness of her life and the dark side of life are symbolized by her caution to Emma and Harriet that "ours is a rather dark staircase–rather darker and narrower than one would wish" (p. 216).

Did Emma avoid Miss Bates because her praise of Jane did not gratify Emma's need for praise and preeminence?

Does the reader's attitude toward Miss Bates change because of her pain at Box Hill?


In the opening scene, Emma was isolated with her father, but her anxieties were dissipated by Mr. Knightley's arrival. As the novel progressed, she became increasingly involved with social activities (dinner at the Westons, dinner for the Eltons, Coles' dinner, the ball at the Crown, the outing to Donwell Abbey, and the excursion to Box Hill). Simultaneously, her social circle enlarged (Harriet, Mrs. Elton, Frank, Jane). With Jane's engagement, Mrs. Weston's baby, her cruelty to Miss Bates, and Mrs. Knightley's assumed marriage to Harriet, Emma was again isolated, with her father as her primary companion. And again Mr. Knightley rescued her. Did her isolation, however temporary, result from the expression of her self and her self-interest? Was the free expression of self and self-interest (e.g., Frank and Emma) a threat to society?


Emma uses the term elegant as high praise. Often it means elegance of mind, or a sensitivity to human values. Elegance also indicates a polished manner and appearance.

Mr. Knightley expressed his disapproval of Frank's behavior and Emma's vision of him by contrasting what he called French amiableness with English amiableness. He was distinguishing between superficial manners and moral principle. To use definitions from Johnson's Dictionary, Frank was "pretending" to concern for others; he was not being "pleasing" because he had a genuine consideration for the others, as did Mrs. Weston.


Is Austen uncritically accepting of her society, or is she concerned with the social responsibility of the privileged (that is, idealizing their responsibilities and showing the consequences of not fulfilling them)? Or both?

Does the reader experience characters from the outside and/or from within?

Does the reader experience Highbury from the outside and/or from within?

Is one way the narrator keeps up interest in a very small circle of people and in Emma by having characters arrive in and leave Highbury? Frank was expected and Jane arrived. Mr. Elton left for Bath and Frank arrived. Frank returned to Enscomb and Mrs. Elton arrived.

Is Austen, as a prisoner of her society (if she is), free to say what she likes about it? (This is the most difficult question and one I offer as a brain teaser; I will not base a test question on it.)

Does Austen use the weather to reflect the feelings and situations of the characters? Emma heard the news of Frank's impending arrival in the spring. Mr. Elton's proposal occurred during a snowstorm; her distress was mirrored by an intensified snow storm which temporarily cut them off. When Emma feared that she had lost Mr. Knightley, a "cold stormy rain set in." The next day, he and the sun reappeared. Her marriage occurred during October, a time of harvest and fruition.


Day 2 (M, Feb. 4) Austen, Emma, pp. 7-102
  Austen Overview
  Point of View and The Narrator
Day 3 (W, Feb. 6) Emma, pp. 103-209
  Emma, Harriet, and Mr. Elton
Day 4 (M, Feb. 11) Emma, pp. 209-317
Day 5 (W, Feb. 13) 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