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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.
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.
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
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.
The novel also showcases the danger posed by ornate speech—it is
likely to be misunderstood. Though Emma is constantly searching for
subtext because of her own calculating nature, she is not as good as
she believes at reading between the social lines. She continually misreads
Mr. Elton’s behavior, to such an extent that we are tempted to question
all of the insistence on Emma’s “cleverness.” Though Emma is often
correct that there is more to situations than meets the eye, Harriet’s
simplicity sometimes makes her see obvious truths that the too-clever
Emma misses. For instance, Harriet rightly perceives that Emma is
more Mr. Elton’s type than is she is, commenting, “You and Mr. Elton
are one as clever as the other.”