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Emma | Discussion Questions 1 - 10

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Why does Emma choose a suitor who is "one of the few people who could see" her faults?

Emma has been spoiled all her life by both her governess, who is still her dear friend, and her father. Mr. Knightley has known Emma since she was a child and feels free to correct her when he feels she is losing her moral compass. Of all her suitors, he is the only one who is completely truthful with her; the others are trying to use her to their own advantage. As she gains in self-awareness through the events in the novel, Emma learns to value Mr. Knightley's good judgment and advice and finally realizes she is in love with him.

Throughout the novel Emma, why does the narrator refer to Mr. Woodhouse as a valetudinarian, and what is the narrator's attitude toward him?

A valetudinarian is another name for a hypochondriac, or a person who is continually concerned with his or her health. Mr. Woodhouse is so concerned about getting ill that he does not like to leave his house. Further, he does not like to eat rich food and prefers gruel. The narrator makes fun of Mr. Woodhouse by using a tongue-in-cheek tone when describing his peculiarities. Mr. Woodhouse has other difficulties besides his fear of illness. He is fearful of change in general.

In the novel Emma, what does the narrator mean when she says that Harriet is "the natural daughter of somebody," and how does Harriet's parentage affect her status?

In Chapter 3, the reader learns that Harriet Smith is a parlor boarder at Mrs. Goddard's school, which means her benefactor—the person paying for her education—pays more so that she can eat and socialize with the headmistress's family. Harriet is the "natural daughter of somebody," meaning that she is illegitimate. Many men would be reluctant to marry her, not only because of the stigma of being born out of wedlock, but also because it was important for marital partners to know each other's lineage. Her benefactor hopes to provide Harriet with the breeding (i.e., the manners and carriage) of a lady by paying for her to socialize with Mrs. Goddard's middle-class family. Thus, even though she is illegitimate, her good looks and breeding will help her make a good match. In Chapter 55, Robert Martin has learned that his fiancé is the daughter of a tradesman "decent enough to have always wished for concealment." Thus, the match between Mr. Martin and Harriet is suitable.

Why is class an important factor in how Emma and others view themselves?

Class status was of paramount importance in the Regency period in England, which is the novel's setting. In Emma, class governs occupation and status. The landed gentry, people who have land and make money from it through agriculture, are the most esteemed among the upper-middle classes, a step below aristocrats. Emma's father, Mr. Woodhouse, is a member of the landed gentry, as is Mr. Knightley, who owns far more land than Mr. Woodhouse does. People who are in trade may work their way into the gentry if they purchase property, like the Coles have done. In the lower-middle classes are educated gentlemen and gentlewomen who might have a profession (such as the vicar, Mr. Elton) or could be poor (like Mrs. and Miss Bates). Yeoman farmers who rent land, like the Martins, would be considered lower-middle class or working class.

In the novel Emma, why was Frank Churchill not raised by his natural father, Mr. Weston, and what effect does his upbringing have on him?

Frank Churchill's father, the dashing Captain Weston, married Miss Churchill, a woman from a great Yorkshire family, and her parents disowned her as a result. The couple had been married only three years when Frank's mother died. The death softened her family, and the former Miss Churchill's brother offered to raise little Frank as his own son. The Churchills had no children of their own, which meant Frank would inherit their property. This would allow Mr. Weston's son a higher position in society and a more comfortable lifestyle. Mr. Weston agreed and, as a result, was able to engage in trade in London and eventually "secure the purchase of a little estate adjoining Highbury, which he had always longed for." When Frank came of age, he took his uncle's name. Mr. Weston saw his son in London every year as the boy was growing up, but otherwise Frank belonged to the Churchills. The effect is that Frank is completely governed by the whims of his aunt and is not free to openly pursue his engagement with Jane Fairfax.

How has Mrs. Weston's permissive upbringing of Emma affected her character?

Emma's mother died when she was five, and she was reared by her governess, a mild-tempered woman who allowed Emma to do just what she liked. The narrator says that while she highly esteems her governess's judgment, Emma is also rather egotistical. Emma's high regard for herself means that she cannot foresee the results of some of her actions, particularly regarding her treatment of Harriet Smith.

In Chapter 1, why does Emma call matchmaking "the greatest amusement in the world," and how does the novel show this statement to be both true and false?

The one successful match for which Emma takes credit, between Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston, takes place before the events of the novel, so readers cannot know whether or not she really facilitated the union. In the novel, readers see that Emma receives satisfaction from her matchmaking only when she is deluding herself. This is especially true when she is trying to make a match between Harriet Smith and Mr. Elton, the vicar. Her matchmaking attempts blind her to the fact that Mr. Elton is planning to propose not to Harriet but to Emma herself, and the consequences are disastrous. At the same time, her matchmaking is richly amusing to readers.

Why does Emma decide to befriend Harriet Smith?

Seventeen-year-old Harriet Smith accompanies Mrs. Goddard to Hartfield (Emma's home) for dinner, and Emma is enchanted by Harriet's beauty. Her manners are pleasing, and Emma decides that all she needs to be perfect is a little more polishing. Emma takes Harriet under her wing with the idea that, with Emma's notice and instruction, Harriet can improve her standing in society. Emma's decision to befriend Harriet, however, may be because she feels a tremendous absence now that her governess and friend has left Hartfield. Emma wants another female companion and enjoys the idea of being a matchmaker.

Why does Emma feel that yeoman farmer Mr. Robert Martin is beneath her notice and not good enough to marry her friend Harriet?

Emma considers Mr. Robert Martin to be below her notice because of his social class. She thinks he and his family are coarse and uneducated because he is a tenant farmer on Mr. Knightley's land. Emma is determined to raise Harriet's status in society, and she believes that Harriet, by considering Mr. Martin's marriage proposal, is looking in the wrong direction. Emma considers Harriet to be above Mr. Martin in class, although because Harriet's parentage is unknown, there is no certainty of this. Rather, Emma would have Harriet set her sights on Mr. Elton, the village vicar, who lives in the vicarage as a condition of his employment but, unlike Mr. Martin, has some wealth of his own.

Why does Mr. Knightley believe that a friendship between Harriet and Emma is bad for both of them?

Mr. Knightley has known Emma since she was a child. He is like a big brother to Emma and looks out for her interests. He is concerned that Harriet is not a fit companion for Emma because Harriet is neither her intellectual nor social equal. Mr. Knightley also believes that Harriet may be harmed by the friendship. He is concerned that Emma will give Harriet a false sense of superiority, which will cause Harriet to have trouble associating with members of her own class.

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