Intentions Destined for Misinterpretation: Emma by Jane Austen

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In a novel overflowing with misconstrued romance, “Emma” by Jane Austen succeeds in misleading the readers, as well as the actual characters on the matter of who is really in love with whom. Although it is teeming with romantic dialogue, the characters have a tendency to misunderstand confessions of love, as well as comments made in passing concerning the secret feelings of others. Through forms of narration and dialogue, Jane Austen forces the reader to interpret these subtexts and draw conclusions concerning the actual romantic intensions of her complex characters, while also deceiving readers on an adventure of romantic deception.

One of the main relationships that becomes misconstrued is the “romance” between Harriet Smith and Mr. Elton. As Emma fancies herself to be a matchmaker, she derives the idea of setting up the mismatched couple and misinterprets Mr. Elton’s feelings for Harriet. These misunderstandings are introduced in the first paragraph of Chapter 6, as the narrator refers to Mr. Elton’s actions through Emma’s point of view, “He talked of Harriet; and praised her so warmly that she could not suppose anything wanting which a little time would not add. ” (Pg. 3) This narration observes Emma’s thoughts on the topic, which can be very misleading to the reader. The narrator is sometimes assumed by the audience to be an omniscient character, and although the narrator is simply construing Emma’s thought patterns and concerns, it encourages the reader to assume it’s the truth at first glance. By writing in this manner, Austen gave the reader a subconscious option of accepting Emma’s thoughts and feelings as truth, or looking deeper into the text and using evidence to determine the true intentions of the other characters.

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This relationship is continually drawn out in Chapter 6 when Mr. Elton is observing Emma paint a portrait of Harriet. He makes the comment, “No husbands and wives in the case, at present indeed, as you observe. Exactly so. No husbands and wives. ” (Pg. 37) He emphasized the words “at present” in making reference to his wish to marry Emma. With that being indicated, Austen’s narration directly following the previous text states, “…with so interesting of a consciousness, Emma began to consider if she had better not leave them alone at once. ” (Pg. 7) Here the reader is led to believe that Mr. Elton had been referring to Harriet Smith, and not Emma. This also serves as a device for foreshadowing the events that occur later on in the novel, as well as other textual evidence that supports the claims that Mr. Elton chooses to propose to Emma, instead of Harriet. In the same chapter, Mr. Elton decides to take the portrait of Harriet to London, which sets off another wide array of misconstrued fantasies. Austen frequently uses Mr. Elton’s dialogue to throw the reader off the trail that he cares for Emma and not Harriet.

For example, Mr. Elton compliments the portrait fiercely as he states, “…the naivete of Miss Smith’s manners- and altogether-oh, it is most admirable! I cannot keep my eyes from it! I never saw such a likeness. ” (Pg. 39) This particular dialogue causes the reader to believe that Mr. Elton is complimenting Harriet’s beauty, and not the actual portrait of her that Emma has created. Another example of text where this type of dialogue is presented appears on the next page, in which Mr. Elton comments that the portrait of Harriet is a “precious deposit. This reiterates the effect that Austen has created by using Mr. Elton’s dialogue to consistently praise Harriet, thus further masking Mr. Elton’s true desire for Emma from the reader. Austen begins challenging readers to start drawing their own conclusions of the text through the narration in Chapter 9, in which the riddle from Mr. Elton is introduced. Mr. Elton presents the letter to Emma saying, “Being my friend’s, I have no right to expose it in any degree to the public eye, but perhaps you may not dislike looking at it. ” (Pg. 0)

Since Mr. Elton does not intend for Harriet to use the riddle and instead gives it directly to Emma, Austen is hinting to the reader that there may be something more to the gesture than one would usually assume. The issue is also addressed in the narration following the dialogue, in which this small hint by Austen is further masked with, “There was a deep consciousness about him, and he found it easier to meet her eye than her friend’s. ” (Pg. 60) This statement of narration contradicts any suspicion the reader may have of Mr. Elton’s trange gesture toward Emma, and forces the reader to form their own opinion of the character’s true feelings. It also is an example of Emma’s ignorance in general, as she excuses the gesture just to be an act of shyness from Mr. Elton toward Harriet. Austen further develops this scene in the subsequent paragraphs of Chapter 9, when the reader is exposed to the answer of the riddle: courtship. During this passage, the reader is challenged further to predict the outcome of the relationship with the knowledge that the letter was not given directly to Harriet and may not have ever been intended for her to see.

Austen continues the deception by incuding Emma’s narration as she dissects the riddle. For the line, “May its approval beam in that soft’eye! ” Emma thinks to herself, “Harriet exactly. Soft is the very word for her eye- of all epithets, the justest could be given. ” (Pg. 61) This particular narration of Emma’s observations plays into Austen’s scheme to confuse the reader’s opinion on the meaning of the riddle, but also allows the readers to form their own interpretation if correlated with other text. If this text is compared to a comment made by Mr. Elton in Chapter 6, in which he describes the shape of Harriet’s eye as “peculiar” (Pg. 39), then a reader could further conclude that Mr. Elton might not have been referring to Harriet in the riddle. The final unveiling of Mr. Elton’s true feelings for Emma and disregard for Harriet is slowly unfolded in Chapter 13. Emma and Mr. Elton are on their way to the Weston’s party, and Harriet cannot attend because she has fallen ill. Upon the news, Mr. Elton shows more concern for Emma than Harriet, as he states, “I hope not of a putrid infectious sort… Indeed, you should care of yourself as well as your friend.

Let me entreat you to run no risks. ” (Pg. 94) This blatant statement shows a deeper concern for Emma’s health, and only mentions Harriet’s ill state in regards to possibly causing harm to Emma. Austen further instigates these thoughts into the reader’s minds as she expounds in the chapter about how Mr. Elton fails to inquire more about Harriet, and still goes out to the party without her or a second thought. Textually, this is supported by Emma’s narration, as she is shown thinking it strange that Mr. Elton would leave Harriet behind.

Accompanied by the thought, is an after thought of Emma’s where she excuses a single man like Mr. Elton’s blatant disregard for Harriet by thinking, “… such a passion for dining out; a dinner engagement is so high in the class of their pleasures… that everything gives way to it- and this must be the case with Mr. Elton- very much in love with Harriet…” (Pg. 95) This thinking process by Emma allows the reader to understand that Emma is missing the bigger picture and has been misreading Mr. Elton’s social gestures with her own blissful ignorance.

To further sway the reader on the debate, Emma and John Knightley have a discussion concerning the possibility that Mr. Elton may be fond of Emma in Chapter 13. It is the first time it is verbally suggested in the novel that Mr. Elton loves Emma when John Knightley says, “Such an imagination has crossed me, I own, Emma; and if it never occurred to you before, you may as well take it into consideration now. ” (Pg. 96) Following this statement, Emma denies the preposterous suggestion, but the reader is left with the flagrant idea and partially confirmed suspicion that Mr.

Elton loves Emma and not Harriet Smith. Austen confirms the reader’s suspicions, as well as Emma’s newfound ones in Chapter 15, when Emma is forced to ride in a carriage alone with Mr. Elton. The profession of love is expected at this point, as even Emma’s narration reflects anxiousness toward her recent uncertainties concerning Mr. Elton’s feelings. The narrator states, “It would not have been the awkwardness of a moment, it would have been rather a pleasure, previous to the suspicions of this very day; she could have talked to him of Harriet…” (Pg. 11) This statement fully reveals that Emma has realized how Mr. Elton feels about her, and that she is only dreading the moment that he voices his feelings to her. Although Emma’s matchmaking went awry when trying to make Harriet and Mr. Elton fall in love, Austen created a different relationship that is meticulously concealed from the readers, but employs the same strategy of covering one’s true feelings by making everyone think they love another. This secret is kept up by Austen until the very end of the novel and does not involve Emma’s expertise of matchmaking.

She chose to disguise the secret engagement and love affair of Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill by having Emma be the object of Mr. Churchill’s flirtation, giving readers only subtle hints in the text to draw real conclusions from. Austen begins the charade of concealing Jane and Mr. Churchill’s engagement the during a conversation in Chapter 24 between Emma and Mr. Churchill concerning Jane’s reserved personality. Mr. Churchill makes the comment, “There is safety in reserve, but no attraction. One cannot love a reserved person. ” (Pg. 74) By saying that no one could love a reserved person, Mr. Churchill is deliberately saying that he could never love Jane Fairfax. This causes the reader’s first impression of the relationship between Jane and Mr. Churchill to be unfathomable. This pretense is continued in Chapter 26, as another conversation between Emma and Mr. Churchill prompts gossip concerning Jane Fairfax.

As Jane receives a grand pianoforte by an anonymous patron, Mr. Churchill suggests to Emma that the gift was actually from Mr. Dixon, as he insinuates, “I do not mean to reflect upon the good intentions of either Mr. Dixon or Miss Fairfax; but I cannot help but suspecting either that, after making proposals to her friend, he had the misfortune to fall in love with her…” (Pg. 185)

Mr. Churchill gossiping about Jane as if she is a distant acquaintance contributes to the reader’s assumption that there are not romantic feelings between the two. It also turns the reader’s attention to another plot that could involve a secret love affair between Mr. Dixon and Jane. Although Austen employs techniques to conceal the relationship, she also offers readers subtle hints that there is something romantic between Mr. Churchill and Jane. In Chapter 33 on a group outing to Box Hill, Emma describes Mr. Churchill as “silent and stupid,” right before the narrator also notes, “He said nothing worth hearing- looked without seeing- admired without intelligence- listened without knowing what she said. ” (Pg. 317) He is described as such because the text mentions that he is paired off with Emma and Harriet to take a walk, and is separated from Jane at this time. When without Jane or anyone in company, he acts dull and does not care to act out a flirtatious conversation with Emma.

To strengthen and confirm this elusive foreshadowing, Austen provides a latter description of Mr. Churchill’s sudden contrasting behavior toward Emma after they rejoin the whole group, “When they all sat down it was better– for Frank Churchill grew talkative and gay, making her his first object. ” (Pg. 318) Mr. Churchill’s behavior changed so drastically toward Emma because Jane, as well as the Eltons and company were present.

Austen used this subtle hint to give the reader an opportunity to uncover the concealed relationship between Jane and Mr. Churchill. Similar to a majority of Jane Austen’s novels, most of the characters of this story found love and happiness in the end, even after the character’s true romantic intentions were unveiled. Austen slowly disbanded these masked feelings for the readers using third-person narration and dialogue. Through Emma’s clever association concealment and refined foreshadowing, Austen misleads readers, as well as encourages them to draw their own conclusions and opinions about each character’s own personal objectives.

Works Cited
Austen, Jane. Emma. Chawton: John Murray, 1816.

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Intentions Destined for Misinterpretation: Emma by Jane Austen. (2017, Jan 09). Retrieved from

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