The first volume of Jane Austens’ Emma has a dramatic conclusion in which Mr Elton proposes to Emma. Emma’s wild imagination is the source of all the confusion in the novel, as she attempts to match-make the local vicar, Mr Elton and her friend Harriet Smith, who is of a lower social class, with uncertain parentage, (living in a time when status and class were of the utmost importance). During the first volume of the novel the objective narrative stance contains much dramatic irony; the reader is allowed to observe Mr Elton’s increasing attachment to Emma with growing pleasure whilst she remains completely oblivious of his infatuation and continues to misconstrue every sign of affection to herself as further indication of his affection to Harriet.
The first time the reader hears about Emma’s intentions to match-make Mr Elton is at the end of the first chapter- “Only one more, papa; only for Mr Elton. Poor Mr Elton!” Mr Knightley warns Emma that meddling in the affairs of others can bring nothing but trouble. Mr Knightley is realistic and practical and he often gives Emma good advice, which she is too single-minded to listen to, however he is nearly always right and therefore tension is built up for the reader as we know what mistakes Emma is going to make before she does. Harriet Smith is introduced to the reader and to Emma in chapter three as “the natural daughter of somebody.” Emma creates a new project for herself to fill her time now that Miss Taylor has married and takes it upon herself to befriend Harriet and make her a lady.
It is evident that Harriet is Emma’s object of desire for Mr Elton and the sweet, simple, stupid girl is slowly, manipulated by Emma. Of course it is only in Emma’s wild imagination that this idea is possible because Harriet’s doubtful birth immediately rules her out as a suitable match for the conceited Mr Elton. Emma begins to lay her plans after a chance meeting with Robert Martin. She is very critical of the young farmer, the brother of friends of Harriet and forces Harriet to compare him with “say…Mr Elton.” Emma only needs to make this one suggestion before Harriet convinces herself she is in love; this shows us the extent of Emma’s power over Harriet. “Mr Elton was the very person fixed on by Emma to drive the young farmer out of Harriet’s head.”
There is a great deal of ambiguity in the novel which shows the reader how Emma interprets Mr Elton so wrongly and how Mr Elton could misunderstand Emma’s friendliness towards him:
“She was a beautiful creature when she came to you, but, in my opinion,
the attractions you have added are infinitely superior to what she received
Mr Elton is praising Emma for improving Harriet; however Emma simply assumes that he is complimenting Harriet because this is what she wants him to do. There is much irony and suspense because the reader can see that Mr Elton’s affection lies with Emma. Her naivety is one of the main factors which contribute to the mess she creates; she is so wrapped up in her implausible plans that she does not notice how her actions may be causing Mr Elton to form an attachment to her. “No husbands and wives in the case at present…” Elton repeats and Emma, so exceedingly ignorant to Mr Elton’s hints of his affections to her, considers “whether she had not better leave them together at once”. Austen uses ambiguity to create suspense and anticipation.
It is ironic because Emma prides herself on her judgement but she always gets it so wrong; she experiences momentary concern over the extent of the compliments Mr Elton pays her; “I come in for a pretty good share as second.” She declares, “But it is his gratitude on Harriet’s account,” she reassures herself.
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Tension is increased after Emma cunningly (but good- heartedly) manipulates Harriet into refusing Mr Robert Martin’s proposal- the reader knows Mr Martin is a good suitor for Harriet but has to watch as Emma’s snobbery compels her to influence the subservient Harriet. Mr Knightley visits Emma to tell her Mr Martin intends to propose to Harriet, unaware the event has already occurred; “…I have good reason to believe your little friend will soon hear of something to her advantage.” The reader experiences anticipation because we already know what has a happened. Mr Knightley is very angry at Emma’s interference and guesses her plans for Harriet and Mr Elton and warns her against them,
“Elton will not do.”
Emma is made uneasy by her quarrel with Mr Knightley but once again ignores his good advice, which infuriates the reader. Austen makes us aware of Mr Knightley’s astute judgement throughout the novel, this helps to build the mounting tension.
The event of the charade is full of ambivalence and the situation is almost hilarious. Mr Elton provides a riddle of love for the two girls’ book. It is clearly written as a statement of love for Emma, and as she is so delighted when she tells him that she wrote it in their book, he perceives it as a sign of encouragement. Ironically, however, Emma is quick to work out the meaning of the riddle, but still manages to misinterpret it as blind love for her friend. The riddle could be a metaphor for the situation between Emma, Harriet and Mr Elton: an obvious answer to a puzzle waiting to be revealed.
In chapter ten there is an amusing episode in which Emma goes to ridiculous lengths to get Harriet and Elton together; “Mr Elton was speaking with animation, Harriet listening with a very pleased attention” at this point the reader can justify why Emma might misread this situation. However, we later find out that Mr Elton was actually talking about what he ate at a party, not about their budding romance.
The readers are kept in suspense as Emma is warned about Mr Elton, this time from a different Knightley, her sisters husband, Mr John Knightley; “I think your manners to him encouraging” he says, Emma retorts, “Mr Elton in love with me! – What an idea!” Emma experiences some confusion when Harriet is too ill to attend a party, because Mr Elton is not concerned about Harriet, but is worried Emma may become infected if she visits her. “Well…this is most strange!” she says to herself. Emma manages to get Mr Elton talking about Harriet’s illness, but is dismayed “when only half a minute afterwards he began to speak of other things” the tension increases because there are so many obvious signs that Mr Elton does not care in the slightest for Harriet.
“Can it be possible for this man to be beginning to transfer his affections from Harriet to me?”
Emma begins to think Mr Elton is transferring his love to herself from Harriet; this causes such great frustration to the reader because we know he has always loved her and never Harriet. Emma finally begins to realise the truth of the situation, albeit slowly in chapter fifteen, “It did appear – there was no concealing it – exactly like the pretence of being in love with her, instead of Harriet” When Mr Elton makes his proposal Emma and he are alone in a carriage together which would not have happened in the period the novel was written in but Austen justifies it because of the snow and the haste the party were in. Emma has already been finding Mr Elton irritating all evening but now that she has suspicions of his attachment to her she is not at all pleased at the idea of the “tï¿½te-ï¿½-tï¿½te drive.”
The reader is kept in suspense as Emma prepares herself to talk about the weather, but the declaration of love is sudden, dramatic and short, “- her hand seized- her attention demanded, and Mr Elton actually making violent love to her.” However, even after this Emma still keeps us anticipating her much awaited comprehension, initially assuming he is drunk; “Mr Elton, the lover of Harriet, was professing himself her lover.” Mr Elton is oblivious to Emma’s dismay, shock and anger and continues his declaration in earnest and it takes Emma a long time to convey her refusal. Mr Elton protests that he never thought of Miss Smith in any other way than her friend, and that all his attentions had been towards her, that he believed himself to have been encouraged by Emma. The conversation grows more heated as Mr Elton insists he could never consider marrying at the ‘level’ of Harriet’s social status. “I have no thoughts of matrimony at present” Emma bluntly refuses him and “He was too angry to say another word”, an outraged silence ensues until the carriage reaches the vicarage and he makes his escape.
Austen uses many techniques to create tension and suspense in the lead up to the dramatic and powerful conclusion of the Emma/ Harriet/ Mr Elton situation, including a lot of ambiguity and ambivalence and much irony from the narrative voice. I think Mr Knightley is also a useful tool because he tries to warn her with the truth and we know he is correct and have confidence his opinion, but Emma is so stubborn and determined that she ignores him.