Areas of Study

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Areas of Study

Emma lets her imagination run away with her. She has a romantic notion that Harriet Smith is the illegitimate daughter of an aristocrat. She imagines that Mr Elton would make a good match for Harriet and persuades herself (and Harriet) that Mr Elton is in love with Harriet. She imagines that Jane Fairfax has been romantically involved with her best friend's husband, Mr Dixon. She starts a rumour that the mysterious piano is a gift from Mr Dixon. In all of these situations, Emma's imaginative guesses are wrong. Mr Knightley's good sense provides the clear, rational viewpoint. It is unlikely that Harriet is of noble birth. Mr Elton wants to marry money - why would he change his mind? Reason tends to find the right answer, and imagination the wrong answer in Emma.

How many examples can you list of Emma imagining something that turns out to be untrue?

Which of the following characters would you say are chiefly rational and which are imaginative: Robert Martin; Emma's father; Mr Knightley; Harriet Smith?

How does the novel engage the reader's imagination? For instance, does it leave the reader imagining what will happen next?

Is imagination an entirely negative quality in Emma?

Emma at the start of the novel is a snob. She wants Harriet to avoid marrying Robert Martin because she thinks he will 'degrade her' by his position of yeoman farmer. Emma threatens not to remain in social contact with Harriet if she 'sinks' to that class. It is a measure of how much Emma has improved by the end of the novel that she invites Robert Martin to Hartfield. Mr Knightley, by contrast, doesn't emphasise class differences - he regards Robert Martin as a friend. He doesn't use his carriage (except to transport Miss Bates, who comes from a poor family) and doesn't hesitate to accept the Coles' invitation to dinner.

Look at Chapter 25. Why does Emma think that she won't accept the Coles' invitation to dinner? What changes her mind?

What clues do we have that Robert Martin is superior to Mr Elton, despite his lower social status?

What social position does Augusta Elton come from? How does her experience of her sister's 'seat' at 'Maple Grove' affect her judgement of Highbury?

In the end, the marriages which take place don't upset class boundaries. Do you think that the novel as a whole tends to challenge or uphold class divisions?

Riddles and games are one of the ways in which men and women flirt in Emma. Look at the riddles which are collected for Harriet?s riddle book; the alphabet game which Frank starts at Hartfield; and the word-games at Box Hill. Mr Elton's riddle spells out 'courtship', and the other riddles are also concerned with love and marriage. Frank uses the alphabet game to communicate secretly with Jane that he has made a 'blunder' in letting slip that he gets private information about Highbury (from her). Games are intriguing but dangerous because they are not frank and open and can hurt people. Communication is hard enough without them.

In the case of the riddle-book, the alphabet game and the word-games at Box Hill who starts the game and who gets involved?

Who is hurt on each of these occasions?

The plot of Emma could itself be viewed as a riddle. Who keeps us guessing most often about their next move? Who plays detective?

Mrs Weston started her life at Highbury as Emma's governess. Jane Fairfax is unhappily preparing to go out to work as a governess. Harriet is a schoolgirl at Miss Goddard's academy. Emma, too, is in some respects finishing her education - Mr Knightley comments that she has had too little firm guidance, and aims to supply the deficit. Jane Austen carefully points out how haphazard it can be for a woman 'to scramble herself into a little education', how governesses are often abused, and how difficult it is for a woman who is not wealthy (like Miss Bates) to live as an old maid.

How many of the women in Emma have living mothers? How does the lack of parental guidance affect them?

What has Emma's education been like? Do you feel that Mr Woodhouse is a good parent?

Look at Chapter 35, where Jane compares getting a job as a governess to the 'human flesh' which is sold in the slave trade. In what ways does Emma express the difficulties of women's position in Regency England?

The first thing we hear about Frank Churchill is his letter, congratulating his father and stepmother on their marriage. The last we hear of him is the long letter in Chapter 50 explaining his devious behaviour. Both letters are charming and long - but both of them use words to explain bad actions. The first is an excuse for not visiting, the second is an excuse for having concealed his engagement to Jane Fairfax. Good communication from men in Austen's novels tends to be brief, sincere, and open. (Look at the description of Robert Martin?s letter in Chapter 7, or Mr Knightley's conversation with him in Chapter 54.) Wordy communication is suspect (like Mr Elton's riddle, which is too long). Look out for words applied to Mr Elton and Frank Churchill like gallant, amiable, elegant, sentimental, charming, trick and rapture. These are all words associated with social concealment and manipulation. By contrast, words with positive value are: open, frank, sincere, unaffected, sensible and truthful.

What does Mr Knightley say about Frank Churchill's letters?

Look at Chapter 6, where Emma's portrait of Harriet is discussed. What does Mr Knightley say about it? What does Mr Elton say? Who do you think is the fairer judge?

Concealment and Openness

Courtship and Marriage

Money and Inheritance