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Harriet receives a letter from Mr. Martin proposing marriage and goes directly to Emma to seek advice. Emma acts as if there is obviously no doubt that Harriet should not accept, and she proceeds to offer Harriet advice about the wording of her refusal. When it becomes clear that Harriet is doubtful about her answer, Emma becomes somewhat cold and disingenuously states, “I shall not give you any advice, Harriet. . . . This is a point which you must settle with your own feelings.” When, under Emma’s subtle guidance, Harriet states that she will probably reject Mr. Martin, Emma immediately congratulates her friend on having made the right decision and points out that if Harriet had accepted him, then Emma would no longer be able to be her friend. Harriet immediately affirms that the loss of Emma is unthinkable, and the two of them draft a letter refusing the proposal. It is clear that Harriet is pained by her decision and cares for Mr. Martin, but Emma cheers her up with reminders of Mr. Elton.
With Harriet at Mrs. Goddard’s preparing for an extended visit to Hartfield, Mr. Knightley and Emma have the opportunity for a lengthy conversation about Harriet and Mr. Martin. Knightley reveals that Mr. Martin has consulted him about proposing to Harriet, and Mr. Knightley makes it clear that he supports the match. Emma informs him that the proposal has already been made and rejected, and she insists that Mr. Martin is not Harriet’s equal. Knightley very nearly loses his temper, and he insists upon Mr. Martin’s superiority to Harriet in sense and “true gentility.” Knightley is especially displeased by what he immediately guesses was Emma’s role in the rejection, and he states flatly, “You have been no friend to Harriet Smith.” Emma counters that Harriet’s beauty and good temper, along with the possibility that she is the daughter of a gentleman, make her a desirable match. Knightley tells Emma that if she thinks Mr. Elton will marry Harriet, she is wrong, because Elton will only marry a woman with money. Vexed with one another, Emma and Knightley part ways. Emma is comforted by the return of Harriet, who has heard a rumor that Elton is on an important errand regarding a lady.
Emma and Harriet have been collecting riddles (also called “charades”) into a scrapbook, and when Mr. Elton returns from London with the framed portrait of Harriet, he contributes one. Emma immediately decodes the riddle and sees that its answer is the word “courtship.” She translates the riddle for Harriet, who could not solve it herself, but Harriet is nonetheless flattered by its meaning. Emma convinces Harriet that the riddle foretells a proposal, and she copies the riddle into Harriet’s book. After some discussion among the family anticipating the upcoming Christmas visit of Isabella, Mr. John Knightley, and their children, Emma tells Mr. Elton that she has solved his charade and copied it into Harriet’s book. Elton is clearly moved, and Emma concludes that his emotion comes from seeing his riddle in Harriet’s book.
Chapters 7 and 8 adhere to a pattern already established by Chapters 4 and 5: first, we read a chapter that relates Emma’s manipulation of Harriet; then we read a chapter offering Knightley’s negative judgment of her actions. Chapter 7 again reveals Emma’s gift for double-edged speech. While Harriet believes Emma’s protestations of not wanting to influence Harriet’s behavior, it is perfectly clear to us that everything Emma says is calculated to make Harriet reject Mr. Martin’s proposal. However, Emma also has endearing moments of uncalculated honesty—when she admits to Harriet that Mr. Martin has written a better letter than she had expected, for example, even though this admission does not support Emma’s plan to match Harriet with Mr. Elton.
Emma’s conversation with Mr. Knightley, in Chapter 8, about Harriet and Mr. Martin, Austen may offer an implied criticism of what men look for in a wife. While Knightley suggests that good sense is the quality that men most value, Emma points out that most men would be content to have a wife as beautiful and good tempered as Harriet. When Emma comments, “I am very much mistaken if your sex in general would not think such beauty, and such temper, the highest claims a woman could possess,” we may hear a slight bitterness in her words. Though the novel rewards good sense as the most important human virtue, Austen is aware that the marriage market often rewards more superficial qualities.
Sharing riddles was a common genteel pastime in the early nineteenth century, and the riddle in Chapter 9 serves as an important metaphor for the social interactions that define the novel as a whole. Emma is able to decode Mr. Elton’s riddle immediately, while Harriet is comically helpless. Emma’s manipulations of Harriet succeed because Harriet is unaware of the conscious, calculated nature of Emma’s influence, even though it is perfectly discernible to us. In general, the novel contains two groups of characters: those who can read between the lines and those who cannot. As readers of the novel, we join the former group, and our ability to interpret hidden meaning guides our loyalties as we read. However, while the novel delights in wordplay on a stylistic level, on the level of ideas it prefers plain and honest feeling to overwrought expression. Austen juxtaposes Mr. Elton’s ornate riddle and the plainness of Mr. Martin’s letter, and while Emma and Harriet believe that Mr. Elton’s riddle is much superior, Emma from time to time finds Elton’s speech absurd in its rhetorical flourishes, as the closing sentences of Chapter 9 indicate.
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