Study Guide

Emma Themes

  • 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

    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.

  • Marriage

    As one of the characters says early on, marriage is an agent of change. For women in Austen’s time, marriage was one of the only ways of changing your lifestyle. It’s no wonder that so much of the novel is devoted to imagining (and re-imagining) different potential matches. Marriage here isn’t just about love, however. Questions of love are complicated by money, family, land and social status, all of which come into play whenever Emma attempts to arrange marriages – including her own. Austen emphasizes the social aspects of marriage in order to expose the economic and class dynamics of romantic love.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. By Highbury standards, what is a good marriage? Do any examples of good marriages exist in this novel?
    2. Why does Emma think that Robert Martin is such a horrible candidate for a husband? Is this a realistic assessment?
    3. Why does the novel start with Mr. and Mrs. Weston already married? How might it change our view of Mrs. Weston if she were Miss Taylor at the beginning?
    4. Although Emma and Mr. Knightley’s marriage is, obviously, the central romance of the novel, there are many, many other matches. How are these other matches narrated, and how does that narration differ? Think, for example, of Frank’s engagement to Jane. We learn about this in a letter – how does that affect the way we understand their romance? How does this relate to the other letters in their storyline? Does it matter that the letter is passed from Mrs. Weston to Emma before we see it?

    Chew on This

    The convoluted way in which Emma and Mr. Knightley’s marriage is arranged indicates that they may not be the best partners for each other.

    Uneven marriages abound in Emma – one character is always more rounded (and more respectable) than the other.

  • Home

    Owning a home (or better yet, an estate) isn’t just about having a place to sleep at night. Owning land separates the gentlemen (or upper classes) from common folk (or the lower classes). Austen explores the fortunes of the landed families and the misfortunes of those without a home. Some of the latter have to marry for money or become governesses in order to make a living. Marriage in this novel becomes as much about land and money as love. Maybe that’s cynical, but, well, Austen’s a bit of a cynic. In its best moments, however, the home can be a place of refuge – and even a happy, relaxing place for family to gather.

    Questions About Home

    1. How does Mr. Knightley’s decision to move in with the Woodhouses affect his social standing? Is Emma really concerned about preserving Donwell Abbey for her nephew? If not, why does she use this as an excuse?
    2. Is Hartfield (and not Highbury) the center of the novel?
    3. We never see Frank Churchill’s home. How does this shape the ways that we understand his character? How is this different than, say, our understanding of Mr. Knightley?

    Chew on This

    Domestic life becomes the unrecognized focal point of Emma: marriage is just another way to start up new forms of home life.

    Mr. Knightley’s decision to move to Hartfield inaugurates a new era in relationships, allowing marriage to become a form of stasis, not change.

  • Society and Class

    Class structures are the most obvious –and most important – differences between characters in Emma. The rich control social situations, the social climbers attempt to seem rich and important, and the poor are at the mercy of the rich. Although Austen’s novel turns on Emma’s attempts to raise her friend out of social oblivion, the narrator mocks any and all attempts to change the social hierarchy. Manners mean everything, and those who weren’t born with good breeding just can’t measure up to those who are.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. When Emma learns of Harriet’s engagement, our narrator tells us that she can’t imagine it (that’s a first, huh)? Why do you think this is?
    2. We argued that Austen ends the novel with Mrs. Elton’s opinion of Emma and Mr. Knightley’s wedding because she always emphasizes various character’s responses to events in the plot. Some critics, however, suggest that Austen can’t figure out how to write a love scene. What do you think?
    3. Is Miss Bates actually respectable? Is Mr. Woodhouse? What determines respectability?
    4. To what extent do good manners determine social standing? What other factors influence social status?

    Chew on This

    An ironic tone allows Austen’s narrator to fully explain the workings of a trivial social system as if it were the center of the world – a move which eventually places readers in the position of valuing the very system Austen critiques.

    Austen’s novel implicitly endorses the class system which it overtly critiques.

  • Transformation

    Changing her friends, changing her loves, and changing her boring life, Emma seems to be committed to transformation. Self-transformation, however, is harder to come by. Learning how to move from impractical –and often hurtful – imagining of other people’s situations to a reflective "consideration" of her own faults becomes the true transformation Emma undergoes. When marriage is defined as change, any novel about marriage is going to be fraught with transformations – just not the ones that you might immediately expect. Social transformation may be impossible; self-transformation, however, becomes a necessary and natural form of growing up.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. Why does Emma need Mr. Knightley to point out her errors? Would she have figured out her mistakes on her own?
    2. Does Mr. Knightley change over the course of the novel? How? Where specifically do you see this change?
    3. Does Emma’s attitude towards Harriet change by the end of the novel? How so?
    4. Can we actually imagine Jane as a governess? Does the novel present this as a realistic possibility?

    Chew on This

    Society only recognizes one real transformative experience for women: marriage.

    Self-knowledge isn’t as important as social knowledge in Emma.

  • Respect and Reputation

    What do the neighbors think? What do we think of the neighbors? What does it mean to be properly English? What will we do in the name of good manners? Circling around all of these questions, Emma builds up various definitions of respectability – and its evil cousin, pretension. Pretension may be the more interesting of the two, but it’s always deflated as the sort of social climbing it is. A good family reputation takes time (perhaps centuries) to build. Everybody knows who everybody else is – and where they fall in the social hierarchy.

    Questions About Respect and Reputation

    1. Does Mr. Knightley respect Emma?
    2. Harriet’s an illegitimate child. By the end of the novel, does this matter?
    3. Why doesn’t Emma like Jane Fairfax?
    4. How do the gypsies figure into the social scheme of Highbury?

    Chew on This

    Shame becomes the most important barometer of change in Emma.

    Minor characters (such as Mr. Woodhouse or Mr. Weston) become unrespectable only because we’re not allowed access to their moments of doubt or repentance.

  • Love

    Love is, well, complicated. You can’t marry for love unless you have money. And if you have money, then why worry about getting married? But dating is out of the question – so how do you know if you’re in love? Romantic love, in other words, is a big bucket of worms. Secret engagements, imagined crushes and crushed hopes are all too common in Emma. Love is the unspoken half of all questions of marriage, but learning to recognize love as a value of its own is pretty difficult. Love for families, however, is surprisingly uncomplicated (and surprisingly common). Aged (and irritating) fathers, demanding aunts and silly sisters all get more affection than they deserve.

    Questions About Love

    1. Is Frank and Jane’s decision to keep their engagement secret a respectable one? Do you think that their marriage will be a happy one?
    2. Emma shows love for her family easily. Does it seem strange that she would decide that she can never have romantic love? Why?
    3. Why does Mr. Knightley love Emma?
    4. Is it possible to dissociate love and money? Does the novel’s attitude to the relationship between love and money change?

    Chew on This

    Emma’s imaginary loves actually contain more emotional content than her eventual "real" love.

    Although Emma appears to offer a vision of pure love between Emma and Mr. Knightley, it’s only possible because they’re both wealthy.

  • Wealth

    For women, wealth equals independence from men and demeaning jobs. For men, wealth means a life of leisure. The allure of money leads men to marry irritating and socially insignificant women or to ignore ones they truly love. The (imagined) promise of future money causes Emma to propose impractical and imaginary loves for her friend. As love becomes increasingly important, it has to be balanced against the possibility of financial incompatibility. There aren’t any fairy-tale endings in Austen. If people are happy, it’s because they’re well-fed and well-housed. And that takes money.

    Questions About Wealth

    1. Mrs. and Miss Bates aren’t rich, but they are respectable. Why?
    2. Do people have to be equally rich to be happy in marriage?
    3. Is Mrs. Elton a good catch? (After all, she does have £10,000!)
    4. Which character cares the most about wealth? How can we tell?

    Chew on This

    Highbury’s social scene is completely determined by money, not friendship.

    In Austen’s novel wealth is only significant if you’re a man. A wealthy woman has as few options as a poor one.

  • Morality and Ethics

    Morals and manners might seem to be contradictory concepts, but in Emma they are one and the same. Describing someone who acts like a gentleman (or gentlewoman) is another way of describing someone who acts according to accepted social norms of behavior. Compassion and kindness, true indications of gentility, aren’t always valued as good manners by everyone in the novel – but only crass people never realize how important such forms of sympathy really are. Satirizing bad manners becomes as much of a concern as validating good manners: characters (and readers) learn from the mistakes of those who just can’t seem to get it all right.

    Questions About Morality and Ethics

    1. Are manners the same thing as morals?
    2. Emma’s sympathy for the poor shows us that she has a sense of right and wrong. Why does this get all mixed up in her other interactions?
    3. Is Mr. Knightley ever wrong?
    4. How does repentance change Emma? (Alternatively, does it change her?)

    Chew on This

    Morals are synonymous with good manners in Emma.

    Introspection, not action, is the key to morality in Austen’s novel.

  • Gender

    Gender roles seem to blur in everyday life: men gossip as much – if not more – than women, women run the social and political networks of the community as much as their male counterparts do, and everybody vies to be the perfect host/hostess. Women, however, have fewer options than men. They can get married, or they can live with their families. Without options, they become defined by a very different set of expectations and images then men do. Men still marry for looks or money (or a combination of the two); the women who choose to ignore or change the ways the marriage market works run into lots and lots of trouble.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Austen’s narrator tells us that Emma starts arranging Harriet’s life because she’s bored. What other options does a woman have to entertain herself? Is Austen making a comment on gender roles?
    2. Mr. Weston seems to be as much of a gossip as Miss Bates. Does this make him effeminate? Is gossip a woman’s occupation or not?
    3. The narrator inserts many asides about gendered experiences (i.e., how men can’t understand x, etc). Many of these sections aren’t explained in the novel. What effect does this have?
    4. Is the role of a governess looked down upon? By whom? What are their reasons?

    Chew on This

    By the novel’s standards, perfect women are also boring women.

    Emma is really a novel about women. Men are only present as potential husbands or fathers.