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by Jane Austen

Emma Theme of Foolishness and Folly

Characters who make mistakes and learn from them are almost as much fun to read about as characters who say and do foolish things all the time –and never learn anything. Emma contains a good balance of both: Austen creates a social world chock-full of romantic missteps, social gaffs, and just plain silly social conventions. In so doing, she points out the ways that society constructs ridiculous expectations of people – but she also emphasizes the fact that people depend upon social conventions in order to make it through life. No one is free from folly. Perhaps that’s what makes almost everyone in Emma so likeable.

Questions About Foolishness and Folly

  1. Is Emma’s determination to raise Harriet into respectable society any different from Mrs. Elton’s "friendship" with Jane Fairfax? If so, how?
  2. Does Emma ever really learn her lesson when it comes to matchmaking?
  3. Is the moment when Emma insults Miss Bates the low point for her character? What other mistakes might be her worst moments?
  4. Frank Churchill’s foolishness seems to be excused by everybody – even Jane. Why? Does he actually change by the end of the novel?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Emma never really learns from her mistakes. She’s as irrational at the end of the novel as she is at its start.

Mr. Knightley’s utter lack of foolishness makes him a rather uninteresting character – a fact that Austen herself seems to ignore.

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