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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors
used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Also known as charades, riddles in the novel take the
form of elaborate wordplay. They symbolize the pervasive subtexts
that wait to be decoded in characters’ larger social interactions.
In Chapter 9, Mr. Elton presents a riddle
to Emma and Harriet. Emma decodes it immediately, as “courtship,”
but she decodes it wrongly in the sense that she believes it is
meant for Harriet rather than herself. This wordplay also makes
an appearance during the Box Hill party, when Mr. Weston makes an
acrostic for Emma.
Similar to the riddle, a word game is played in Chapter 41 between Emma,
Frank, and Jane. It functions as a metaphor for the partial understandings
and misunderstandings that exist among Emma, Frank, Jane, and Mr.
Knightley. As Mr. Knightley looks on, Frank uses child’s blocks
to create words for the ladies to decode, though these words mean
different things to each of them. Frank makes the word “blunder,”
which Jane understands as referring to a mistake he has just made,
but whose meaning is opaque to Emma and Knightley. He then makes
the word “Dixon,” which Emma understands as a joke on Jane, and
which baffles Knightley. In truth, everyone “blunders” in different
ways that evening, because no one possesses complete enough information
to interpret correctly everything that is going on.
A number of objects in the novel take on symbolic significance
as tokens of affection. Mr. Elton frames Emma’s portrait of Harriet
as a symbol of affection for her, though Emma misunderstands it
as a symbol of affection for Harriet. Harriet keeps court plaster
and a pencil stub as souvenirs of Mr. Elton. When the engagement between
Jane and Frank is briefly called off, she returns his letters to symbolize
her relinquishment of his affection.