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 social positions.
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.