Emma | Study Guide

Jane Austen

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the symbols in Jane Austen's novel Emma.

Emma | Symbols



Parties and social gatherings are symbols of community members coming together. Several parties in Emma allow people to meet and check out possible marriage partners. For example, Frank Churchill is keen on hosting a ball with Emma and Mrs. Weston, two pillars of the community. For him, this party is a sort of official "baptism," through which he will be accepted as a member of local society. Another example is the picnic at Box Hill. Unlike the ball, the picnic is not a success; Frank and Jane are hiding their secret, and unresolved feelings exist between the Eltons, Emma, and Harriet. During this gathering, the community's shared values are sidelined, and it is not surprising that Emma breaks a cardinal social rule by cruelly insulting Miss Bates.


Carriages are enclosures that symbolize the desire of the upper classes to reinforce class boundaries and keep themselves apart from what is unpleasant or not to their liking. A carriage gives the person inside the ability to greet or not greet those on foot and also allows the rider to know what is going on in the community without having to put themselves out. Not surprisingly, Mr. Woodhouse always takes a carriage, while Mr. Knightley prefers to walk or ride horseback.


A woman's ability to play an instrument and sing, as well as a man or woman's ability to dance, are factors in courting rituals and, as such, symbolize courtship and marriage. In Emma, women take the opportunity to perform in the drawing room to show off their talents and charms and possibly attract a suitor. Both Emma and Jane play the piano and sing at the Coles' party, and Frank sings with both women. At the ball, Mr. Elton refuses to dance with Harriet, even though he is now married. Mr. Knightley then dances with Harriet to save her from humiliation, and Emma notices that he is an excellent dancer.

Charades and Word Puzzles

Charades and word puzzles, common parlor games in the Regency era, are used in Emma to symbolize misunderstandings, both deliberate and unintended, among the characters. For example, Mr. Elton writes a riddle for Emma, which is a love poem. She mistakenly believes that he intends it for Harriet. Later on, Frank plays a word game to create misunderstanding. These games are used to highlight the emotional and mental games that the characters are playing.

Questions for Symbols

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