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Emma and Harriet make a charitable visit to a poor family
near Mr. Elton’s vicarage. On the way, Harriet expresses her surprise
that Emma has not married, and Emma explains her resolution to remain
single. The poor family they assist engages their compassion, but
soon the girls’ thoughts turn to Mr. Elton, who meets them on the
road. Emma attempts to leave Mr. Elton and Harriet together by falling
behind, speaking with a child, and pretending to lace her boots.
Using the need for new ribbon to lace her boots as an excuse, Emma
requests that they stop at Mr. Elton’s house at the vicarage, but
even though Emma contrives to leave the would-be lovers alone there
together, Elton fails to show interest in Harriet. Emma considers
him slow but is not dissuaded in her plans.
Mr. and Mrs. John Knightley and their children arrive
at Hartfield and temporarily occupy all of Emma’s attention. Mr.
Woodhouse and Isabella commiserate over losing Mrs. Weston, and
there is speculation about whether Mr. Weston’s son, Frank Churchill,
will make his visit. Isabella is like her father in both tenderness
and nervousness, and Emma believes that Isabella’s sharp-minded
husband sometimes speaks too sternly to Isabella and to the family.
Mr. Knightley comes to dinner at Hartfield, and though
he and Emma still disagree about Harriet, they reconcile. Knightley
tells Emma that Mr. Martin has been terribly disappointed by Harriet’s rejection.
Isabella is filled in on all of the latest news from Highbury. She
inquires after Jane Fairfax, Miss Bates’s niece, and suggests that Jane
would make a good companion for Emma.
The conversation turns to Mr. and Mrs. John Knightley’s
decision to go to Southend, a beach resort, instead of visiting
the Woodhouses in the autumn. Mr. Woodhouse advocates the advice
of a friend, Mr. Perry, who is an apothecary. All the while, Isabella
maintains that her doctor, Mr. Wingfield, is more trustworthy. Emma tries
to change the subject, and eventually Mr. John Knightley snaps that
Perry should mind his own business. Emma and Mr. Knightley smooth
When Emma visits the poor in Chapter 10,
we see her desire to be “useful,” which she has emphasized throughout
the novel, fulfilled in a new way. Her aspiration to be active and
do good in the world is noble, especially considering the fact that
her riches and her beauty might have left her content to fill her
days in frivolous pursuits. Yet, Emma’s charitable acts—for example,
the guidance she offers Harriet—often stem from her own vanity and
are therefore harmful as well as helpful. The narrator clearly contrasts
Emma’s romantic, misguided attitude toward Harriet with her attitude toward
the poor, writing,
She understood their ways, could allow for
their ignorance and their temptations, had no romantic expectations
of extraordinary virtue from those for whom education had done so
little, entered into their troubles with ready sympathy, and always
gave her assistance with as much intelligence as good-will.
Austen seems to signal that in this sphere, a woman with
Emma’s privilege and advantages can actually do good. The fact that
Emma displays the capacity for genuine empathy and for a usefulness
that exercises her intelligence more than her vanity bodes well
for her improvement.
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
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
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.