Emma Summary and Analysis of Chapters 50-55

Chapter Fifty: Emma now has two obstacles to a marriage with Mr. Knightley: her father and Harriet Smith. Emma cannot marry Mr. Knightley while her father lives, for any marriage would greatly inconvenience him. Moreover, she does not know how to break the news to Harriet. She attempts to get Harriet invited to stay with Isabella in London, where she could be distracted. Frank Churchill writes a letter to Mrs. Weston, which expresses regret for his deception and clarifies some of his behavior. He writes that Emma is a young woman unlikely ever to be attached, for she is so complete in herself, and that he was often tempted to let her know about Jane.

Analysis: This chapter serves mostly to clarify earlier inconsistencies in Frank Churchill's behavior, as well as imminent obstacles that Emma and Mr. Knightley must face. The letter from Frank Churchill also solves some of the plot's mysteries: he was the one who sent the piano to Jane Fairfax, and he ordered it when he was in London ostensibly getting his hair cut. When he left Emma to return to the Churchills and seemed to be on the verge of admitting something, he was considering telling her the secret of his engagement. Finally, when Jane Fairfax was miserable and ready to accept the job as a governess, it was because she was so ashamed of her secretive behavior she broke off the engagement.

The letter also once again returns to the issue of manners and unspoken emotions. Frank Churchill's assumptions contrast directly with Mr. Knightley's. While Mr. Knightley assumed that Emma believed herself to be the object of Frank Churchill's affections, Frank Churchill assumed that Emma realized that Frank and Jane were secretly in love. Because Emma's great propriety left so much unspoken, both men made equally invalid assumptions about what she believed.

Chapter Fifty-one: Mr. Knightley and Emma discuss Frank Churchill's letter come to the same conclusion: Frank Churchill did not behave well, but he was partially justified, especially since there has been no final harm. They also onsider the various options to deal with Emma’s father. Mr. Knightley suggests moving him to Donwell Abbey with Emma, but Emma is concerned that it will cause the old man great discomfort. Finally they decide that Mr. Knightley will move to Hartfield instead.

Analysis: This chapter makes very clear that Mr. Woodhouse is more than just a harmless curmudgeon who takes pleasure in his complaints. He is an intractable obstacle for Emma, too concerned with his own comfort to allow his own daughter to marry. In this manner he parallels Mrs. Churchill: both characters use appearances of frailty and ill health to demand obedience from children they raised.

Austen also returns to the theme that Emma Woodhouse has the societal power of a man, rather than a single young woman. In this way, the relationship between Emma and Mr. Knightley reverses traditional gender roles. Mr. Knightley is the one who makes sacrifices and must modify his customs and behavior. It is he who must give up his home to move elsewhere upon marriage.

The considerations that the two of them make about their marriage reinforce the social dynamic in Highbury. A marriage between Mr. Knightley and Emma affects more than just those two. It affects Mr. Woodhouse, who might lose the daughter who cares for him. It affects Isabella's son, Henry, who now might lose his place as the inheritor of Donwell Abbey if Emma and Mr. Knightley produce an heir. This particular situation also affects Harriet Smith, who once again must bear the pain of rejection from a man who is too socially superior for her to rightfully consider.

Chapter Fifty-two: Harriet finally learns about Emma and Mr. Knightley and bears the news well enough. Emma visits the Bates in order to see Jane Fairfax. Mrs. Elton is also there and tells Emma that she knows the good news about her and Mr. Knightley. Emma learns that Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax will marry soon, after an appropriate period of mourning for Mrs. Churchill.

Analysis: With Harriet gone from Highbury, Emma is free to enjoy Mr. Knightley's presence. This chapter emphasizes the inappropriateness of Emma's friendship with Harriet Smith. Harriet is a burden to Emma with her consistent heartbreaks and fragile nature, but in this case she bears the news about Mr. Knightley well. Austen gives the sense that Harriet’s disappointment is necessary and even appropriate in order to force her to settle on a man who has an equal status. Unlike her situation with Mr. Elton, Harriet is entirely to blame for any pain she has suffered because of her feelings for Mr. Knightley. Since Mr. Knightley did not mislead her, Harriet's belief that he might love her is entirely a product of her developing vanity.

The chapter also reinforces the earlier theme that marriage does not simply affect the prospective husband and wife. Just as Emma and Mr. Knightley have to think about others' desires and emotions, Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill must show the proper respect to others. Marrying so soon after Mrs. Churchill died would be an affront to her memory, since it would indicate how the ill-tempered old woman prevented Frank from doing as he pleased.

Chapter Fifty-three: Mrs. Weston gives birth to a little girl, Anna, and begins discussing the possibility of marrying her to one of Isabella’s sons. Emma and Mr. Knightley publicly share the news of their engagement. Mr. Woodhouse dislikes the idea of Emma marrying Mr. Knightley because it would force him to change his habits. Still, he inevitably assents to the marriage, and Emma hopes that time and reassurance will inevitably soften the old man. Emma tells Mr. Knightley that she cannot call him by his first name but promises to call him George after they are married.

Analysis: Austen explores the dynamics of marriage and courtship in this chapter with the reminder that elite parents immediately plan for their child's marriage. Just barely after she has been delivered, Anna Weston already seems a possible match for Henry Knightley. Also, the birth of Anna Weston gives additional light on the role of the governess. Emma notes that Miss Weston will be performing essentially the same job for her daughter that she did when she taught Emma at Hartfield.

Other details of the formality of courtship emerge. To Emma, her fiancé will be Mr. Knightley until they marry, and only then will she call him George. She still considers it improper to use his first name, even though they are engaged. Also, there is proper etiquette for revealing news of the marriage that Emma and Mr. Knightley must follow. Mr. Woodhouse, the most difficult case, must know almost immediately, and it is also proper form to tell the Westons. However, there are few members of Highbury society who can be ignored; it would even be impolite not to tell Jane Fairfax and Miss Bates the news.

Chapter Fifty-four: Harriet Smith is to be married to Robert Martin. Emma is somewhat disappointed by Harriet’s decision, as Mr. Knightley suspects, but he reminds her that Harriet will be happy and secure. When Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax visit Highbury, Emma realizes that Mr. Knightley was the most suitable choice for her.

Analysis: This chapter concludes Harriet Smith's romantic pursuits, as she agrees to marry the man whom she was originally meant to marry. She has given up the pretensions that Emma instilled in her and finally accepted her devoted suitor. This emphasizes the negative effect that Emma had on the young woman. If not for Emma's interventions, Harriet would have married Robert Martin sooner and been immediately content. By taking Harriet under her wing and giving her a sense of vanity, Emma postponed Harriet’s happiness with a succession of heartbreaks.

It is important to note how Emma has changed in this chapter. She is a bit disappointed by Harriet’s engagement, for she still harbors some wish that Harriet could find a more highborn husband, but comes to realize that Harriet's connections are worse than Robert Martin's and that Harriet can only benefit from the match. Emma has come to agree with Mr. Knightley's earlier view that Harriet’s marriage to Robert Martin is the most sensible choice.

The similarity between Emma Woodhouse and Frank Churchill becomes more evident in this chapter. Both require spouses who will bring out their best qualities while subduing their worst. Frank Churchill and Emma indulge each other's vanity and immaturity, but with the influence of Jane Fairfax and Mr. Knightley, respectively, Frank and Emma become more sensible and decent persons. It becomes clear that they would ultimately have been unsuitable for one another.

In the novel, the relationships that work best are those in which the spouses complement each other but do not necessarily resemble one another ­ Mr. and Mrs. Elton share a vulgar attention to social status and an utter lack of consideration for others' feelings. But Jane Fairfax counters Frank's insubstantial character with a reserved demeanor, Robert Martin is sensible where Harriet Smith is foolish and gullible, and Mr. Knightley is perceptive where Emma misjudges situations.

Chapter Fifty-five: Harriet writes to Emma about Robert Martin and admits that she was silly to consider Mr. Knightley. Harriet has learned the truth about her parents: her father was a respectable tradesman who could provide for her stay at Mrs. Goddard's school. Emma meets Robert Martin and becomes convinced that Harriet will be happy with him. Harriet marries Robert Martin, Frank Churchill marries Jane Fairfax, and later, after Mr. Woodhouse is placated, Emma marries Mr. Knightley.

Analysis: Everything is set right in this chapter: Harriet becomes a respectable member of society when she learns of her family connections and finds happiness with Robert Martin. She is, as Emma had hoped, from a decent family and can now enter society without any undue suspicion.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Woodhouse becomes supportive of his daughter's marriage when he realizes that it will benefit his own comfort. He agrees to the marriage after a string of robberies because he thinks that Mr. Knightley's presence at Hartfield will keep him safe.

Emma herself finally fulfills Austen’s expectations and is married to Mr. Knightley. Upon her marriage, she is set to leave Highbury for a vacation to the ocean, the first instance in the novel in which she leaves her home. If Emma has conceded some of her independence to Mr. Knightley and allowed herself to be less than the center of attention, she has opened herself to new experiences and the possibility of a life in which things remain acceptably beyond her control.