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Harriet agrees to Emma’s plan to send her to London on
the pretense that she needs to see a dentist, which satisfies Emma
since she does not want to hurt Harriet with news of Emma and Mr.
Knightley’s engagement. Emma decides not to tell her father of her
engagement until Mrs. Weston, who is pregnant, has given birth to
her baby. Meanwhile, she pays a visit to Jane. They are unable to
speak openly because Mrs. Elton is there, and Jane’s engagement
is still supposed to be a secret. However, Emma interprets some
of Mrs. Elton’s remarks and expressions as ostentatious indications
that Mrs. Elton is in on the secret of Jane and Frank’s engagement.
Mr. Elton turns up, annoyed that Mr. Knightley has missed
a meeting with him. Emma decides he must be waiting for her at Hartfield
and leaves. When Jane walks her out, they are reconciled, each feeling
that she owes the other an apology, both full of goodwill.
Mrs. Weston safely delivers a baby girl, much to Emma’s
delight. Mr. Knightley reminisces about how headstrong Emma was
when she was a child. She expresses gratitude that he so often corrected her
mistakes, and he asserts that she would have done just as well without
him. Emma is grieved that she cannot speak more openly with him
about Harriet. Mr. John Knightley congratulates Mr. Knightley and
Emma on their engagement, and shocks the couple by saying that he
is not surprised by their news.
Emma works up the courage to give her father the news.
Mr. Woodhouse is shocked, but he gradually begins to resign himself
to it. Mrs. Weston helps persuade him that his happiness will be increased
rather than diminished. She is surprised and overwhelmingly pleased
by the match. Mr. Weston shares the news with Jane and Miss Bates,
and soon Emma and Knightley’s engagement is the talk of Highbury.
Only the Eltons are displeased that Emma has made such a good match.
Mr. Knightley has news for Emma: Harriet is to marry Robert
Martin. Knightley had sent Mr. Martin to London with a package for
his brother while Harriet was there, and Mr. Martin began to spend time
with the family. Knightley worries that Emma is upset, but in fact
she is thrilled, amazed, and amused at Harriet’s rapid recovery. Emma
is thankful that she has not done Harriet greater injury, and she
is glad that soon she will no longer need to conceal Harriet’s emotional
state from Knightley.
Emma and Mr. Knightley go to visit Randalls and find
Frank and Jane there. At first, Emma’s meeting with Frank is awkward,
but soon they are back on easy terms, joking about all that has
passed. Frank’s ability to speak lightly of all he and Jane have
suffered is not entirely approved by his fiancée, and Emma feels
Knightley’s superiority to Frank.
Harriet returns from London, and Emma is glad to see how
completely she has recovered from her infatuation with Knightley.
It is revealed that Harriet’s father is a tradesman, a respectable
person, but not the aristocrat that Emma had predicted. Emma receives
Mr. Martin at Hartfield, but realizes that her friendship with Harriet must
“change into a calmer sort of good-will” because of their different
Harriet and Mr. Martin are the first of the newly engaged
couples to marry (in September); Frank and Jane will be the last
(in November). Jane is visiting the Campbells, and she and Frank
will live at Enscombe. Emma would like to be married in October,
but it seems Mr. Woodhouse will never agree. But when Mrs. Weston’s
poultry-house is robbed, Mr. Woodhouse is eager to have Mr. Knightley
in the household for protection. The wedding is too modest to please Mrs.
Elton, but “the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions
of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were
fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.”
Although Emma ends in the traditional
manner of a comedy, with a series of weddings to secure everyone’s
happiness and reaffirm social ties, the question of whether or not
the novel’s ending is truly happy is often posed. Some critics suggest
that Emma regresses, rather than develops, at the end of the novel
because she exchanges her independence, energy, and wit for a wish
“to grow more worthy of him, whose intentions and judgments had
been ever so superior to her own . . . that the lessons of her past
folly might teach her humility and circumspection in future.” Instead
of marrying a man who is her equal, Emma marries a father figure,
and, not only will she not be traveling beyond Highbury, she will
not even leave her own father’s home. Emma’s and Mr. Knightley’s
reminiscences about her childhood remind us that his main role in
her life has been as an authority figure and underline the fact
that a large portion of her love for him is as someone who can be
depended upon to guide her. She is so used to calling him “Mr. Knightley”
that she says she will only call him “George” on their wedding day.
Emma’s position at the end of the novel is strikingly similar to
the position she was in at the beginning.
Also, Emma’s thoughts about Harriet indicate that Emma
has grown more selfish. She takes for granted that their differing
social positions mean that they must give up their intimacy. She
does not seem to regret her decision or miss Harriet, suggesting
that the need to adhere to social conventions overwhelms the affection
that she has for Harriet. Emma’s thoughts following the revelation
of Harriet’s parentage demonstrate that class distinctions have
value for Emma apart from their association with personal virtue:
Such was the blood of gentility which Emma
had formerly been so ready to vouch for! It was likely to be as
untainted, perhaps, as the blood of many a gentleman: but what a connection
had she been preparing for Mr. Knightley, or for the Churchills,
or even for Mr. Elton! The stain of illegitimacy, unbleached by
nobility or wealth, would have been a stain indeed.
In other words, a match between a gentleman and the illegitimate daughter
of a tradesperson would be a true contamination. Although at some
points the novel seems to entertain the idea that class distinctions
might be unfair or unfortunate, ultimately the novel is decidedly
conservative. Austen demonstrates that the happiness of a marriage
depends upon the couple’s being appropriately matched, rather than
one of the parties trying to rise above his or her class background.