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As Emma and Harriet depart, Emma undermines her goodwill by describing the poor as picturesque—“These are sights, Harriet, to do one good. . . . I feel now as if I could think of nothing but these poor creatures all the rest of the day.” However, Emma exhibits that she is aware of her fickleness and vanity when she adds, “[A]nd yet who can say how soon it may all vanish from my mind?” Emma’s mixture of self-delusion and self-knowledge is complex, and it is ambiguous how much credit we are meant to give her for her assistance to the poor and how much condemnation she deserves for her rapid return to obliviousness.
In chapters 11 and 12, Austen provides context for Emma’s repudiation of marriage by focusing on the marriage with which Emma is most familiar—that of her sister and Mr. John Knightley. Isabella’s attentiveness to her children, husband, and father are admirable, but the novel’s treatment of Isabella as a simpler, less dynamic woman than her sister implies that it does not take very much intelligence or vigor to be a good wife and mother. Furthermore, Isabella and John’s gender-typical behavior is somewhat boring, as the two seem to lack the sort of charisma and personality we see in Emma and Mr. Knightley. Isabella is caring, emotional, and somewhat silly and weak, while John is rational and purposeful but too willing to damage the feelings of others.
As they conspire to keep the family peace, Emma and Mr. Knightley compare favorably to their siblings. Though Mr. Knightley is more reasonable and dignified than high-spirited, impulsive Emma, they share a similar intelligence and get along with each other very well. Their relationship does not seem to be built upon gender stereotypes, and their amiability suggests that Emma might in fact be satisfied in a married life.
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