Emma Summary and Analysis of Chapters 15-21

Chapter Fifteen: Mr. Elton asks Emma about Harriet Smith's illness, but it seems as if he were more concerned that Emma might possibly fall sick. By the end of the visit with the Westons, Mr. Woodhouse is in an ill temper. It has started to snow, and Mr. Woodhouse fears that they will be unable to leave Randalls. The snow, however, subsidesm and carriages are brought to take the guests home. Emma finds herself in the same carriage as Mr. Elton, who professes his love for her. When Emma brings up Harriet Smith, he disparages her for her low social status and reminds Emma that he only spent time with Harriet when Emma was near and claims that Emma gave him encouragement. Emma is appalled by this revelation and promptly rejects Mr. Elton.

Analysis: This chapter contains some sharp insights into the social life in Austen's England. A light snow is enough to keep the guests of the Westons from possibly leaving, and to walk in such weather, as Isabella suggests that she could do, is unthinkable. Travel, even between two relatively close estates, can be arduous if conditions are not perfect.

Mr. Elton reveals himself to be far less sympathetic than before. When he contrives to be in the same carriage with Emma, he arranges a very private encounter with her outside of normally accepted social space. This is the first instance in the novel in which Emma is alone with a man (whenever Mr. Knightley visits, her father is always nearby), and the enclosed space of the carriage heightens the intimacy of the encounter. His protestations to Emma show that he deliberately feigned an interest in Harriet to be close to Emma, and his quick dismissal of Harriet as not of his rank shows a petty snobbery.

However, his quick dismissal of Harriet Smith for her status recalls similar objections that Emma herself made in regards to Harriet and Robert Martin. What Emma finds acceptable behavior for Harriet, she finds unacceptable for Mr. Elton. This turn of events is a perfect ironic retribution for Emma's earlier actions. The concern for status and breeding that Emma used as a weapon for Harriet Smith against Robert Martin she now finds used against her.

Chapter Sixteen: The next day, Emma is miserable that she was so deceived by Mr. Elton that she failed to recognize his true motives. She realizes that the situation is entirely her fault because she tried to meddle in Harriet's and Mr. Elton's affairs. Mr. Knightley, despite the inclement weather, visits Hartfield that Christmas day.

Analysis: Emma is upset about Mr. Elton's behavior towards her for several reasons. The first and most obvious reason is that it humiliates Harriet, and Emma has the burden of telling Harriet that Mr. Elton never had the slightest interest in her. The second relates to Mr. Elton's motives for pursuing Emma. Among Emma’s objections to Mr. Elton is the fact that his devotion to her is largely fiscal. He so desperately wants to move up in society and perceives marriage to Emma as the ideal opportunity.

Emma is also insulted that a person of Mr. Elton’s social status would consider himself fit for her. This demonstrates some arrogance, for Mr. Elton is too low for Emma but good enough for her close friend. She dismisses Mr. Elton because he does not come from a reputable family, the same reason that he rejects Harriet Smith. Also, the qualities that Emma finds objectionable in Mr. Elton ­ he is "proud, assuming, conceited; very full of his own claims" ­ are the very qualities that she instills in Harriet.

Still, even Austen makes some distinction between what Mr. Elton does and what Emma attempts to do for Harriet. Mr. Elton uses Harriet's attentions to get to Emma and behaves with no sense of polite manners (as when he expresses his feelings in the carriage). Emma, Harriet and Mr. Elton may have the same reasons for pursuing and rejecting suitors, but the two women behave with tact, while Mr. Elton is manipulative and rude.

Yet another reason why Emma is upset is that her plans go awry. Emma wishes everything to be orderly, and in this situation nothing has gone as she planned. Nevertheless, she shows some newfound signs of maturity. She accepts the blame for the situation and realizes that she erred. She also concedes that both Mr. Knightley and his brother were correct in their appraisal of the situation.

Chapter Seventeen: Mr. and Mrs. John Knightley soon leave Highbury, as does Mr. Elton, who, to Emma's great relief, travels to Bath. Emma resolves to tell Harriet Smith about Mr. Elton's behavior. Harriet bears the news well, blaming nobody. Emma realizes that Harriet is superior to her in some ways because she is artless and sincere in her emotions. She also discovers that Harriet was more resolutely in love with Mr. Elton than she had foreseen.

Analysis: In this chapter, Jane Austen contrasts Emma and Harriet in a different manner than she has at early points in the novel. The earlier distinction between the two is that, while Emma has fortune, wit and talents, Harriet is gullible and foolish. Yet in this situation, Austen makes clear that Harriet Smith is unspoiled and has a sincere and pure heart. This relates back to Mr. Knightley's earlier warnings about Emma's influence on Harriet. Might Emma cause Harriet to lose those qualities that make her, in some small way, Emma's equal? The contrast between Emma and Harriet causes Emma to question her own value. This is not a minor point: for the first time Emma begins to realize that she may lack some quality.

It is also notable that Mr. Elton leaves Highbury so soon after Emma rejects him. There are a number of possible motives for this, including embarrassment. However, his claim that he will visit friends during his absence leads back to an earlier comment by Mr. Knightley, who suspected that Mr. Elton already had a romantic attachment to a young lady who lived elsewhere. The purpose of the trip may be to secure that relationship.

Chapter Eighteen: The Westons are disappointed that Frank Churchill has not come to Highbury, and once again postponed his visit once. Mr. Knightley suspects that the Churchills are to blame for Frank's absence, but notes that Frank is nevertheless a grown, independent man who can do as he wishes. He feels that Frank Churchill is more interested in leisure activities. Emma argues with Mr. Knightley, by asserting that going against the Churchills' wishes would be impractical. Emma defends Frank Churchill at nearly every opportunity, while Mr. Knightley predicts that Frank Churchill will turn out to be insufferable.

Analysis: Without having met Frank Churchill, Emma has already decided that he is a wonderful person. When she quarrels with Mr. Knightley about Frank, she automatically assumes that Frank has good intentions and is perfectly honorable. Mr. Knightley, in contrast, suspects Frank Churchill to be lazy and dishonorable. Since Mr. Knightley tends to echo Austen's own views and predict character flaws, his objections must raise some doubt about Frank Churchill. Whatever influence that the Churchills have on Frank, he is still a grown man and can make decisions for himself; the Churchills can only do so much to prevent him from visiting his father.

Once again, the issues of social status and decorum are important considerations. Mr. Knightley assumes that one of the Churchills' great mistakes with Frank is making him believe that he is above his actual connections: he is too proud, luxurious, and selfish for his status in society. Frank Churchill therefore joins Harriet Smith and Mr. Elton as characters chastised for not knowing their proper place in society. In addition, Mr. Knightley claims that Frank Churchill may lead a disreputable life dedicated only to the pursuit of pleasure. In other words, he does not behave with the sense of honor and decency that a man of his situation should.

Chapter Nineteen: Emma and Harriet call upon Mrs. and Miss Bates. Miss Bates speaks incessantly and pointlessly, but Emma behaves with exemplary manners, even asking about Jane Fairfax when Miss Bates mentions her. Miss Bates received a letter from Jane, who intends to visit next week. She will be sent by the Campbells, who paid for her education. Emma begins to suspect that Jane Fairfax might be involved with a married man with Mr. Dixon.

Analysis: Emma's mistakes with regard to Harriet Smith have led her to greater self-examination. For the first time, Emma begins to consider her own faults and attempts to improve them. When she visits the Bates, this is an attempt to correct one of these faults: she acknowledges that she is negligent towards Mrs. and Miss Bates, who depend on the compassion of the higher members of Highbury society. Once again, it is Mr. Knightley who has pointed out this flaw in Emma. He is certainly the only one who has both the status and temperament to challenge her.

Miss Bates resembles Harriet Smith in a number of respects. Both are limited in wit and imagination and have positions at the fringes of society. However, with her grating, incessant chatter, Miss Bates is primarily comic relief. Whatever pity Austen has for Miss Bates is abstract and relates only to her social status: one should pity Miss Bates because she is a spinster with little income, not because of any intrinsic qualities. Harriet Smith, in contrast, is a more rounded character with greater shadings. Austen grants her some dignity, as when Emma remarks about how Harriet is superior for her sincerity.

Once again, the mention of Jane Fairfax reminds the readers of Emma's vanity. To satisfy Emma's jealousy towards Jane, she invents the idea that Jane may be involved with some illicit affair with a married man. This is not a well-supported notion, but it does instill the idea that Jane Fairfax may be involved in some secretive arrangement.

Chapter Twenty: This chapter tells the story of Jane Fairfax, the granddaughter of Mrs. Bates, whose mother died when Jane was a small child. Jane was brought up by the Campbells, for Colonel Campbell had served in the army with Jane's late father, and the young girl had been well educated on his behalf. Emma is sorry to have Jane Fairfax visit, although her dislike is truly unfounded. When Jane visits, Emma is polite to her, despite her jealousy, and she even gains some minor information about Frank Churchill from Jane, who has met him.

Analysis: Jane Fairfax is an exemplar of the self-made woman, whose high regard in society comes not from her familial connections but from her talents and charm. Except for status, she equals Emma in every respect, and it is Emma's competitive nature that causes her to dislike Jane, assuming negative qualities where none may actually exist. Yet in their respective fates, Emma and Jane Fairfax differ considerably. Because of her lack of fortune, Jane Fairfax must enter a profession as a governess, a condition that requires her to sacrifice all of the pleasures of her life, while Emma will retain her life of leisure and luxury under all but the most extreme circumstances.

One of the major functions that Jane Fairfax serves in the novel is as a juxtaposition against the other characters. Although equal to Emma in all regards, she lacks status. This serves as a reminder that it is not Emma's sharp intelligence or talents that ultimately make her the head of Highbury society, but instead her family and fortune. And while her lack of a solid familial standing gives her a similar status to Harriet Smith, Jane Fairfax is poised, talented and refined. It is she who deserves to marry higher in society and to be Emma's closest companion, yet Emma's inability to be anything less than the center of attention makes this impossible.

Also notable are the parallels between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, which Austen reinforces when Jane says that she has met the elusive Frank. Both are somewhat mysterious visitors connected to Highbury society through familial connections, but were raised outside of it by more elite families after their mothers had died. They share the ambiguity of belonging to one social group by birth but residing within a higher one by breeding.

Chapter Twenty-One: Mr. Knightley compliments Emma on how well she treated Jane Fairfax when they dined together. As Mr. Knightley tells Emma that he has news for her, Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax interrupt them. Jane thanks Emma for the hind-quarter of pork that she had sent to her, and tells Emma that Mr. Elton is to be married to a Miss Hawkins from Bath. Emma assumes that Mr. Elton's acquaintance with Miss Hawkins must not be very long. Later, Harriet comes to Highbury in the rain, with news that she saw Robert Martin and his sister while shopping at the Highbury linen shop. They were polite to each other, but Harriet was extremely embarrassed. Emma is relieved that Harriet has little opportunity for contact with the Martins.

Analysis: This chapter continues to develop the contrast between Mr. Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley in terms of their interactions with Emma. While the former has an incredibly idealized picture of Emma, even going as far as to praise her for deep kindness towards Jane Fairfax, the latter is realistic and perceptive. Although he compliments Emma for treating Jane Fairfax kindly when they dined together, he indicates that he is aware of Emma's true jealousy towards Jane Fairfax. Yet again, Emma has demonstrated great tact and manners toward a person she dislikes.

In this chapter, both of Harriet Smith's prospective suitors return to some prominence in the plot, and each one makes Harriet ill at ease. Mr. Elton's imminent marriage to Miss Hawkins demonstrates the true reason for his vacation from Highbury and confirms what Mr. Knightley had suspected was true. He did have a prospective marriage possibility elsewhere, and immediately set upon this prospect once he realized that he could not have Emma. Harriet must now realize how badly Mr. Elton treated her and how badly she treated Robert Martin, yet there is a crucial difference. The supposedly coarse Martins remain kind and cordial, honorable where Mr. Elton is cruel and deceptive. Nevertheless, despite how kind the Martins remain to Harriet Smith, Emma has not moved past her prejudice against them and is relieved that they are unlikely to have much contact with Harriet.