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Analysis

What’s Up With the Ending?

Well, Emma’s wedding isn’t really a big surprise, is it? Instead of spending the next few minutes blabbing about the nature of true love, then, let’s talk some trash about Mrs. Elton. It’s only fair. After all, Mrs. Elton steals the last few lines of Emma and she uses them to talk trash about Emma’s wedding. Here’s what she has to say: "Mrs. Elton, from the particulars detailed by her husband, thought it all extremely shabby, and very inferior to her own.—'Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business!—Selina would stare when she heard of it'" (55.11). Emma’s wedding itself gets eclipsed by a vengeful gossip’s critique of the ceremony. And, as it turns out, Mrs. Elton wasn’t even at the wedding. She has to get her account of it from her husband!

Before we get too carried away with hating Mrs. Elton (and let’s face it, there’s a lot to hate), it seems like we should spend some time talking about why Jane Austen would allow the most hideous character in her novel to steal the show. So keep that whiny, high-pitched voice of Mrs. Elton’s in your mind. We’ll get back to it soon.

Amazingly enough, Austen pans away from the main action of her tale frequently. Remember Harriet and the gypsies? If you’re frustrated by the missing love scene or the juicy attack by vagrant children, you’re in good company. What we do get, however, is a sense of how the main story – Harriet and the gypsies, or Emma and Mr. Knightley – gets re-worked and re-told by different members of their community. Mrs. Elton tells her sister all about the shabbiness of Emma’s wedding; Emma herself re-tells the story of a gypsy attack to her nephews. Stories, for Austen, aren’t meant to be lived – they’re meant to be told. Sort of like a novel.

Back to Mrs. Elton, though. Why does she get the last word? We’re not totally sure. But we do have a few thoughts:

  1. Austen’s novels are never really just about what happens on the page. (What? What else could they be about?) OK, we’re being a little coy here. The only things we can know about what’s happening in Emma are the things that Austen chooses to tell us. But here’s the funny thing: Austen isn’t just concerned with the plot of the novel. She’s equally interested in what other characters think about the plot of the novel. In other words, Emma gets married. Great. But what does Jane think about this? Mr. Woodhouse? Mrs. Elton? As you’ve probably noticed, this novel is teeming with other characters’ opinions. Mrs. Elton’s just happens to be the one that Austen’s narrator picks to talk about the wedding.
  2. Austen hates happy endings. This seems a bit counter-intuitive, since Emma does get the guy she loves in the end. But Austen refuses to let us dwell on this, removing any possibility that readers could get sappy and sentimental by emphasizing the criticism which always seems to follow happy people in her novels. Emma’s not the only example of this: check out her early novel, Lady Susan, for a great not-happy ending. You could think of the novel as a balloon: Austen spends most of her time blowing it up into a nice, happy, floating bubble – and then, right at the end, she sticks a pin in it.
  3. Austen can’t help making fun of Mrs. Elton one last time. We know, we couldn’t help it, either.
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