What is Jane Austen's tone in Emma?

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The overall tone of Emma is ironic, but within that, it is also sympathetic and comic. At the end of the novel, the tone is romantic.

Emma is filled with situational irony (which is when events works out to be the opposite of what we expect), as well as dramatic irony (in which the audience knows what the characters in a story don't), and verbal irony (in which people say things that are the opposite of what they mean).

Emma shows events through the clueless Emma's eyes, so we have a good deal of situational irony. The chief example is Emma entirely missing the secret love between Jane and Frank, despite all the clues Austen sprinkles—and we as an audience are deceived as well. Ironically, Emma thinks Frank looks down on Jane, when the opposite is true.

Dramatic irony occurs when we know that Mr. Elton is after Emma as a bride, while she is convinced he is after Harriet. Verbal irony is sprinkled throughout the novel, but the opening provides a good example: Mr. Woodhouse mourns Miss Taylor, the governess, getting married, when really in that society, a governess making a good marriage was the equivalent of hitting the lottery.

Instances of verbal irony lead to much of the book's comedy. An audience of Austen's time would have been laughing, for example, at Mr. Woodhouse's pity of Miss Taylor's new state, just as we would laugh today at a character in a novel pitying a person who had a great stroke of good fortune.

Austen shows sympathy for all of her main female characters, with the exception of Mrs. Elton. She is sympathetic toward Harriet, Jane, Emma, and even Miss Bates, having Mr. Knightley chide Emma for making a cruel joke at her expense, After all, as Mr. Knightley points out, Miss Bates is a poor spinster who has lost social status.

The happy resolutions and pairings at the end lend a romantic and joyful tone to the novel's final chapters.

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The tone of the novel Emma is both ironic and sympathetic. There are many examples of the ironic tone in the novel. For example, Emma thinks herself to be an excellent matchmaker. She sets her eyes upon helping Harriet Smith. Harriet expresses to Emma that she has a romantic interest in Mr. Robert Martin, the farmer. Emma is adamant that Mr. Martin is below Harriet socially. Emma insists her new friend seek to marry someone above her in social standing. She tries to match Harriet with Mr. Elton, but Mr. Elton is interested in Emma, not Harriet. Emma is unaware of this. Emma tries to bring Harriet and Mr. Elton together, but all the while he is interested in the matchmaker herself. An example of this is when Emma creates a portrait of Harriet. Mr. Elton expresses his interest in the portrait. Emma thinks this is because he is interested in Harriet. Instead, it is because he is interested in Emma, the portrait's painter. The man Emma chose for her friend was interested in Emma herself.

The narrator is sympathetic in revealing Emma's character. Although Emma is often selfish and too focused on her own goals to see the truth, she is not portrayed as an unkind character. She is charitable to the poor, and in the end she even gives her blessing to Harriet to marry Mr. Martin. Mr. Knightley tells Emma about Harriet and Mr. Martin's plans to marry. Emma wishes them well. Mr. Knightley notes Emma has "materially changed since [they] talked on this subject before" (Emma, Chapter XVIII). Emma then admits she was foolish to discourage them. The narrator shows Emma sees the error of her ways and has changed for the better.

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