Ideas for Group Discussions

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Emma is admired by many readers for its vivid, complex characters, its artistry, its sense of play, and also a sense of the limits of play. Although Emma's machinations drive the plot, she is not Machiavellian— there is no apparent self-interest in her, but rather a misdirected desire to fix things. Her delight in arranging and rearranging other people's lives is checked not just by the external force of Mr. Knightley and her victims' own sense of who they really are, but her own innate sense of right and wrong. She harms Harriet Smith, but has not meant to, she hurts Miss Bates, but is very contrite. She stirs up feelings and trouble not just in others but in herself, becoming vulnerable to Frank Churchill and ultimately to her own feelings for Knightley.

Her manipulative nature makes her appear superficial, but she is not. She is diametrically opposed to Jane Fairfax not just because of their differing stations in life, but because she has the freedom to fail and recover from failures. She is the dynamic force against which other characters, even Knightley, measure themselves and their values. Provocative questions for discussion can center on Emma and the other female characters, on Emma's complex relationship to Knightley, and on the way her misdirected efforts expose problems in the social world she inhabits. Once again, the author's narrative skill and masterful use of irony should be examined for their role in the creation of such dynamic characters and the complex view of English society and human nature they afford, despite Austen's selective sampling of social classes.

1. Emma is perhaps unique among female heroines of her day at the outset of this novel in that she professes no desire to be married. What special advantages does this perspective afford her as a matchmaker? Are there any disadvantages? How does this professed renunciation of marriage figure in our view of her relationship to Knightley toward the end of the novel?

2. Characterize the kind of love that Emma and Knightley have. Does it change as the novel progresses?

3. In what ways is Jane Fairfax different from Emma? What good qualities does she have that Emma lacks? Why does Mr. Knightley not fall in love with Jane?

4. Consider Mr. Knightley and Frank Churchill as foils, especially in their pursuit of love. When does Knightley express his reservations about Churchill? Where does Churchill explain his reasons for the secret engagement to Jane?

5. Minor characters in novels are useful for showing up flaws and inconsistencies, as well as strengths, in the major characters. How does Miss Bates do this in Emma? How does Mrs. Elton function in this manner?

6. What characteristics does Mr. Elton in this novel share with Mr. Collins, also a clergyman, in Pride and Prejudice? How does Mr. Elton's pursuit of love resemble Frank Churchill's? Which man appears more sincere?

7. Harriet Smith is accosted by a band of Gypsies who presumably want to rob her, and we learn at the end of the novel that turkeys have been stolen from Mr. Woodhouse, making him even more anxious and afraid. How do these seemingly small incidents qualify your view of English country life in the novel?

8. Harriet Smith, who is illegitimate, shares a background of relative poverty with Jane Fairfax, who is an orphan. Jane is without parents but has responsible guardians in the Campbells, and Harriet has living parents who do not acknowledge her. How do the circumstances of each of these characters effect a critique of the social customs of the day. What...

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is amusing and ironic about the author's statement, "Harriet Smith was the daughter of somebody" (Chapter 3, Volume 1).

9. What do you make of Knightley's decision to live with Emma and Mr. Woodhouse at Highbury? What problem does it resolve for Emma? For Mr. Woodhouse? Claudia Johnson has argued that staying at Highbury allows Emma to maintain a certain amount of autonomy within her marriage. Will she? Or will she just have a double obligation to two men instead of one?

10. Peruse Chapter 7 of Volume 3, the famous Box Hill episode. Why does Mrs. Elton grow angry at Emma? Why is Frank Churchill flirting so openly with Emma? Why is Mr. Knightley offended and what decision does he make as a result of Emma's behavior here? What decision does Jane Fairfax make as a result? Why would Austen have chosen an outing such as this to reveal tensions formerly held in check?


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