Emma experiences several major revelations in the novel that fundamentally change her understanding of herself and those around her. Which revelation do you think is most important to Emma’s development, and why?
One way to answer this question would be to recognize that Emma undergoes her most decisive transformation when Mr. Elton proposes to her. At this point, she realizes that she has been completely misguided in her interpretation of Elton’s behavior, and she also realizes that she herself is implicated in the courtship games that she believed she was manipulating from the sidelines. Another possible answer would focus on Emma’s revelation when Mr. Knightley reprimands her after she has insulted Miss Bates. At this moment, Emma understands that her vain pleasure in Frank’s flirtations and her sense of superiority to others in the community have been wrong. She also realizes how much Knightley’s opinion means to her. One might also argue that Emma’s decisive transformation takes place when she realizes that she loves Knightley, or when she agrees to marry him. A successful answer would consider the intensity of Austen’s language together with plot developments. For example, the episode in which Knightley reprimands Emma for insulting Miss Bates seems relatively unimportant in terms of the plot, but this scene includes some of the most emotional and dramatic language in the book.
In what ways, if at all, might Emma be considered a feminist novel?
Emma may be considered a feminist novel because it focuses upon the struggles and development of a strong, intelligent woman. Though Emma’s activities—visits, parties, courtship, and marriage—are limited to the traditional sphere, the novel implicitly -critiques these limitations, and implies that Emma deserves a wider stage on which to exercise her powers. Furthermore, the novel -criticizes the fact that women must be financially dependent by sympathetically depicting the vulnerability of Jane and Miss Bates.
Alternatively, the novel could be considered antifeminist because it seems to suggest that Emma reaches the pinnacle of her development when she accepts the corrections of a man, Mr. Knightley. Not only does Emma give up her former vow of celibate independence, but she marries an older man who is a father figure.
Frank Churchill and Mr. Knightley represent two different sets of values and two different understandings of manhood. Describe the values that each character represents, and explain how the novel judges these values.
Frank Churchill is seen by many of the characters as an ideal man because of his good looks, warmth, and charm. He focuses most of his attention on determining what will please each person, and he makes his compliments with wit and style. However, the novel demonstrates that Frank is also flighty, unstable, and able to put his own wishes above social and moral propriety. Mr. Knightley, conversely, is Frank’s opposite in many ways. Though also polite and affectionate with those he cares for, Knightley is dignified and reserved. When he expresses an opinion, it is always the correct one and is stated with simplicity and firmness. The novel clearly values Knightley’s qualities above Frank’s. But the fact that Frank is forgiven at the end and rewarded with the love of a superior woman suggests that the book cannot entirely renounce its infatuation with Frank’s charms.
1. To what extent does the narrator express approval of Emma, and to what extent does the narrator criticize her? Choose a passage from the novel and analyze the sympathy and/or ironic judgment the narrator expresses in relation to the protagonist.
2. Emma is filled with dialogue in which characters misunderstand each other. Choose a scene from the novel and describe the mixture of knowledge and ignorance that each character possesses, and how their situations influence the way they interpret each other’s statements. To what extent are we positioned to correct the misunderstanding, and to what extent do we share the misunderstanding until we have more information?
3. How does humor work in the novel? Select a speech made by Mr. Woodhouse, Miss Bates, or Mrs. Elton and describe the techniques Austen uses to make these characters look foolish. What contradictions, hypocrisies, or absurdities are put in their mouths? To what extent do we judge these characters negatively when we see that they are laughable?
4. Emma both questions and upholds traditional class distinctions. What message do you think the novel ultimately conveys about class?
5. Emma is clever but continually mistaken, kindhearted but capable of callous behavior. Austen commented that Emma is a heroine “no one but myself will much like.” Do you find Emma likable? Why or why not?