Is Emma a likable character? Why or why not?
From the very beginning of the novel, Jane Austen makes it clear that Emma may not be a likable character. She writes: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” With her wealth, beauty, and position in society, Emma has the perfect life and is difficult to relate to. Moreover, her arrogance and self-involved nature make her a largely unlikable character. It is only after Austen reveals the imperfections in Emma’s life and character that she becomes a more real (and thus more likeable) character. Her struggles to improve herself and win Mr. Knightley’s heart are efforts that readers can understand and respect.
What role does Mr. Knightley play in the novel?
Mr. Knightley’s major role is as the voice of judgment and reason in the novel. He is the only character who recognizes Emma’s faults and strives to help her become a better person. In addition to providing rational commentary for the readers, he also gives Emma advice about the major conflicts of the novel, including Harriet’s relationship to Robert Martin, Emma’s relationship with Mr. Elton, Frank Churchill’s relationship with Jane Fairfax. Mr. Knightley also serves as an ideal male romantic figure; although there are other male characters who Emma could marry, Mr. Knightley is the most well-suited to her in terms of temperament and social station.
Compare and contrast the characters of Emma and Jane Fairfax. How are they similar? How are they different?
Emma and Jane Fairfax are equally beautiful, intelligent, talented, and well-bred. The primary different between the two of them is fortune. While Emma is an heiress who enjoys complete financial and social independence, Jane has no fortune and is doomed to work as a governess for other wealthy families. In the end, Jane is saved from her fate through marriage to Frank Churchill, but Austen makes it clear that many women in Jane’s situation would not have been “rescued” by a convenient love affair with a wealthy man. This single contrast between the two characters reveals the extent to which British society was informed by wealthy and social standing. Austen also emphasizes the difficulty for women during the time; even with beauty and intelligence, a woman can still end up a lowly governess if she lacks a fortune.
Describe the different marriages that are portrayed in the novel. How do they support (or not) Jane Austen's view of courtship and marriage?
Austen explores many different kinds of marriages in the novel, particularly in terms of the way matches figure into the social network of Highbury. Austen especially cautions against marriages that bridge social classes, arguing that relationships between individuals from different backgrounds are likely to fail. Harriet’s search for an appropriate match is presented as an example as this. Although she initially hopes to marry Mr. Elton or Mr. Knightley, both men are inappropriate choice because of their higher positions in society. In the end, Robert Martin is the ideal choice because he is at an equal level with her. Mr. Elton’s designs on Emma are similarly inappropriate because of his lower social status; his marriage to Augusta Hawkins (while obnoxious) demonstrates proper social etiquette. Though social status is the primary consideration for marriages, Austen also admits that love can play an important role. In the case of Emma and Mr. Knightley, both characters are ideal matches in terms of intelligence, weath, and social class, but they also have the added benefit of love.
How is Emma unique as an Austen heroine?
Emma is the only Austen heroine who begins the book in a position of wealth and high social status. The majority of her other famous characters (Elizabeth Bennet from “Pride and Prejudice,” Catherine Morland in “Northanger Abbey,” Elinor and Marianne Dashwood in “Sense and Sensibility,” and Anne Elliot in “Persuasion”) are in positions of low social standing and use their charm, intelligence, and beauty to find true love (and financial security) through marriage. In each of these cases, the heroine is real danger of spinsterhood and financial dependence. Yet, in “Emma,” Austen describes a heroine who has none of these problems. In the end, however, Emma must undergo the same personal development that other Austen characters go through in order to find real happiness.
Over the course of the novel, Emma has several epiphanies about herself and her behavior. Which one is the most significant to the narrative and why?
All of Emma’s epiphanies about herself are the result of bad behavior relating to those around her. In most cases, Emma’s bad behavior stems from good intentions. For example, in her desire to find an “appropriate” husband for Harriet, Emma encourages Harriet to reject Robert Martin and focus on Mr. Elton, a decision which results in Harriet’s humiliation and Mr. Elton’s proposal of marriage to Emma. The most significant epiphany, however, stems from Emma’s willful insult of Miss Bates during the picnic at Box Hill. Instead of having good ulterior motives, Emma insults Miss Bates simply out of boredom and sheer meanness. Earlier in the novel, Emma had always prided herself on her kindness and good manners; at this point, she comes face to face with her selfishness and disdain for the feelings of others. Because this event forces Emma to face her shortcomings, it inspires her eventual development into the kind of woman that Mr. Knightley would want to marry.
Compare and contrast the characters of Mr. Knightley and Frank Churchill. How are they similar? How are they different?
Mr. Knightley and Frank Churchill are presented as almost complete opposites in the novel. While Mr. Knightley is logical, responsible, and thoughtful (and the character manifestation of the narrator), Frank Churchill is weak, superficial, and manipulative. However, both characters possess the appropriate fortune, appearance, and social status to be suitable husbands for Emma. In this way, Austen suggests that either Mr. Knightley and Frank Churchill could work as a husband for Emma; in the end, her development as a character will determine who would be the more appropriate choice. At the picnic at Box Hill when Emma insults Miss Bates, it seems likely that she has developed into a match for Frank Churchill. Yet, after her epiphany, Emma makes an active effort to change and gradually becomes the compassionate and mature woman that is meant to marry Mr. Knightley.
What role does the narrator play in the novel, especially in terms of Emma's characterization?
The narrator serves as the voice of judgment and reason in the novel, particularly when it comes to Emma’s character faults. In essence, the narrator provides objective (and trustworthy) commentary of everything that occurs over the course of the novel. The characters themselves are unable to recognize larger themes and patterns, so the narrator serves to highlight key points for the benefit of the reader. Mr. Knightley serves as an extension of this rational narrative voice and helps Emma, in particular, to identify and improve many of her flaws. Significantly, Austen ensures that the narration is not dry and boring but reminiscent of an actual character, with a witty and ironic style.
How does the novel portray the issue of class in British society? What conclusions does it ultimately make?
Austen is very careful to maintain the importance of British class structure in “Emma.” Though it is a small town, Highbury has a very specific social structure that mirrors the larger class system of Britain. Emma, as heroine, is at the top of the social ladder with the rest of her family and Mr. Knightley, while Harriet Smith, Miss Bates, and Robert Martin are at lower levels of respectable society. Although Austen permits her heroine to associate with Harriet and Miss Bates, she emphasizes the importance of knowing one’s proper place. Emma’s first significant blunder in this regard is elevating Harriet to an inapporpirately-high social level. As a result of her interference, Harriet begins to think too highly of herself and is ill-equipped to find a husband on her own level. Even while Austen emphasizes the importance of maintaining social status, however, she still encourages respect between classes. For example, because Emma has the highest status in her social circle, she is held to a higher standard in terms of the way she treats those around her. When Emma insults her social inferior, Miss Bates, she breaks a fundamental rule of class interactions which reflects poorly on her own character. Above all, Austen notes, class structure must be upheld, both for the sake of society and for the sake of those within it.
Describe Emma's relationship with Harriet Smith. How does Emma's interactions with Harriet reveal Emma's own failings as a character?
Emma’s relationship with Harriet Smith is one of condescension, rather than equality. Emma selects Harriet to be her friend specifically because Harriet is NOT her equal, and Emma had already decided that it was futile to look for a replacement for Mrs. Weston. Because Harriet is not her equal, Emma embarks on the friendship with the goal of “improving” Harriet, both by making her fit for high society and by finding her a wealthy husband. Emma’s attitude toward Harriet demonstrates the extent of her self-absorption: she believes that she is qualified to improve another individual when, as Mr. Knightley later points out, Emma has many issues to resolve on her own. In the end, Emma’s treatment of her new friend is to Harriet’s disadvantage. Not only does Harriet become accustomed to an inappropriately-high social status, but she nearly loses the opportunity to marry Robert Martin. It is only through luck that Emma’s interference does not adversely affect Harriet’s future, and Emma eventually learns the mistake she has made in acting as Harriet’s friend and guide.
Jane Austen dedicated Emma to the Prince Regent, as an expression of her appreciation for his compliments and encouragement. It is a romantic comedy of manners that treats the middle-class values of marriage and family and hardly goes beyond the concerns of three or four families of an English country village.
Yet these commonplace themes are presented with such skill and depth to make Emma a popular novel among readers, from its time of publication to today. Its themes are the favorite ones of Jane Austen, the unmarried daughter of an Angelican minister in rural southwest England. Some may say that marriage and family concerns are all that she knew, living her entire life among a large, close family of well-educated, well-read parents; six siblings; and many nieces, nephews, cousins, aunts, and uncles. Certainly she accurately describes the small-town values, aspirations, behaviors, and concerns common to her age and social class.
Austen, however, also touches on universal human themes relevant to other times and places. Among these themes are the transition of young adults from parental authority to independence, the managing of conflicts between parents and adult children, the wise choice of marriage partners, and the overcoming of psychological obstacles to realizing love and marital happiness.
Emma centers on the interests and concerns of handsome, clever, and rich Emma Woodhouse, who faces all these issues as she separates from her nurturing governess (a substitute for her long-dead mother), fails to guide a needy friend toward happiness and security, and ultimately opposes her devoted father by choosing to marry rather than remain single in order to care for him. Other characters face difficult trials of love and friendship as well: Harriet Smith chooses her humble husband in spite of her friend and mentor’s strong disapproval; Frank Churchill chooses a destitute wife whom his aunt will never accept; and Jane Fairfax enters a forbidden secret engagement with a capricious young man who refuses to acknowledge their relationship publicly. All these characters face choices of love and loyalty that test their strength of purpose and wisdom.
The story’s point of view allows readers to see events and situations through the eyes of the manipulative but well-meaning Emma. They know that she sometimes feels disappointed in herself and that she suffers guilt for her cruel words and thoughtless actions. They share her sympathetic view of the people of Highbury and so also tend to excuse her conceited and foolish mistakes, hoping that she corrects her self-absorbed views and stops seeking power over those weaker than herself or expecting continual admiration from her friends.
Austen deftly captures the pain and poignancy of these characters’ difficulties in the minor events of the story: a broken boot lace, the emerging message of a parlour word game of anagrams, a love letter hidden and secretly read, a mysterious gift of an expensive piano, a gallant rescue from a band of curious gypsies, an afternoon picnic in the country, a cruel snub at the town ball. In these small events, hearts are revealed and their messages both understood and misunderstood by those most interested. These difficulties are the stuff of tragedy as well as comedy. Austen allows her lovers’ difficulties to be conquered, after they suffer in embarrassing and comic situations.
Readers may ask whether these characters’ romantic successes do, in fact, bring them their expected happiness. This important question is not so easily answered in the novel. In many ways, the major romantic couples are comically mismatched: high-spirited, imaginative Emma with proper, fatherly Mr. Knightley; flighty Frank Churchill with melancholy, delicate Jane Fairfax; hardworking, sensible Robert Martin with vacuous, silly Harriet. Rather than bringing out the best in each other, these partners may bring out the worst, as newlyweds Mr. and Mrs. Elton certainly do. Austen grants these couples their heart’s desire, but she may be quietly laughing at them as she does so.