Dances in Austen’s time were intricate group numbers (for a great rendition of dances in Austen’s time, we recommend that you check out the 2005 movie adaptation of Pride and Prejudice). Sure, you had a partner, but you had to dance together with lots and lots of couples. There are rules and a recognized order for all your movements. Moreover, your parents (and everyone else’s parents) are watching.
OK, so this might not sound exactly like your homecoming dance – but it does echo the way the novel as a whole functions. Dating and marriage, like dancing, operate according to well-established rules of courtship. Mr. Elton even writes a riddle all about it. As Austen takes care to inform us, when Emma makes mistakes, someone else knows all about them. And, like dancing, marriage becomes a way of functioning as a little group (a couple) within a larger social network.
Notice that Harriet gets slighted at a ball and on the love market. Coincidence? We think not.
The Gypsies, the Chicken Thieves
We’re lumping two groups of characters together here. We might be playing fast and loose with our symbols here, but it seems to us that these outsiders serve pretty much the same purpose in the novel. They’re vagrants. Thieves. Scary, dirty, probably smelly people. Terrorizing the townspeople seems to be their only purpose in life. The gypsies and the thieves help us to understand that Highbury is a social entity which needs to be protected from the dangers of the outside world. It’s lucky that there are big, bad men like Frank Churchill to fight the gypsies off with a walking stick.
Wait a second, though, aren’t the gypsies just little kids? And isn’t it only Mr. Woodhouse who’s scared of the chicken thieves? Well, yes. You’ve got us there. As it turns out, the only people who seem to need protecting are actually pretty silly themselves. Harriet and Mr. Woodhouse might be justified in their fears of the gypsies and the thieves, respectively. Or they could just be melodramatic.
Austen allows her descriptions of encounters with outsiders to hover on a knife’s edge: the gypsies could, after all, become a threat to society. They could also be perfectly harmless – which would mean that Harriet and Mr. Woodhouse’s fears (and, by extension, Highbury’s fears) are over-exaggerated. We’ll leave it up to you to decide.