What is the role of gossip in Emma and how does it drive the plot of the novel?

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Gossip in Jane Austen’sEmma is how information is circulated and how perceptions are constructed throughout the novel. Austen provides ample entertainment by satirizing a social circle of landed gentry in the Georgian/Regency England of the early nineteenth century. Gossip becomes a way for Austen to socially critique gender...

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Gossip in Jane Austen’s Emma is how information is circulated and how perceptions are constructed throughout the novel. Austen provides ample entertainment by satirizing a social circle of landed gentry in the Georgian/Regency England of the early nineteenth century. Gossip becomes a way for Austen to socially critique gender dynamics and social class; gossip also becomes that which completely alters Emma’s disposition by the end of the novel, as she discovers that this ready belief in gossip can also circulate (mis)information and suspicion, and eventually lead to false assumptions and emotionally upsetting results.

Emma’s relationships to other characters in Highbury shape her perception of relationships. She frequently uses her social standing to influence characters around her. She persuades Harriet to pursue a relationship with Mr. Elton and, as she muses in her own head, for Mr. Elton and Harriet “to meet in a charitable scheme.” The phrase “charitable scheme” here represents Emma’s drive throughout the novel to play meddle in others' lives, as with Harriet. While she views herself as someone with generous intentions, these intentions are often put into schemes involving gossip.

Emma eventually must reconcile her schemes and spreading of gossip when she develops feelings for Frank Churchill, which only leads to misinterpretations of Jane Fairfax’s feelings by both Emma and Frank. Emma offers an overview of Jane at the beginning of volume 2, chapter 2. She circulates information that Jane has “engaged the affections of Mr. Dixon,” Colonel Campbell’s son-in-law. Emma and Frank both suspect that Jane has feelings for Mr. Dixon, and Emma assumes Frank also has feelings for her, but what she discovers is that, despite her circulating the rumor, Mr. Dixon and Jane are not together. Eventually, Emma thinks that Harriet is in love with Frank when they come to Hartfield together, but she misreads this entire situation and discovers this when she finds that Jane and Frank are actually engaged to be married. This completely makes her reassess her interpretation of relationships, as well as the rumors she circulates and internalizes about all the relationships in Highbury.

Works Cited:

Austen, Jane. Emma. Vintage Books, 2007.

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Emma depicts small-town life in the town of Highbury, a place where gossip travels fast. Gossip is one form of misinformation (as well as information) in this novel. Little is as it initially seems in Highbury because we view life through Emma's often clueless eyes.

Gossip, especially the hints and encouragements of the Westons, helps Emma to believe that Frank Churchill is interested in marrying her. This perception blinds her to the romance between Frank and Jane Fairfax going on. More cruelly, Frank encourages Emma to gossip about Jane, a woman who rebuffs Emma's attempts at intimacy and whom she therefore cannot feel good about. Frank pretends to agree with Emma's assessments of Jane and reinforces her idea that Jane's piano was a gift from Mr. Dixon.

Because of the way gossip misinforms the clueless Emma, we as readers end up as surprised as she is that Jane and Frank were secretly engaged all along.

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