Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 838
As in Austen's other work, the marriage plot predominates, but the central themes are found in the characters' interactions with each other and the degree of intelligence, humanity, capacity for growth, and kindness they bring to their inherited social positions. Emma, who has so many gifts, abuses them for much of the novel by trying to rearrange other people's lives—she manipulates Harriet Smith's emotions, hurts those of Miss Bates, all the while not knowing where her own feelings really lie. It is her discovery, guided by Knightley, both of her shortcomings and her real feelings that in a sense earn her betrothal to Knightley. Yet Emma's machinations, reprehensible as they may be, serve not just to expose her moral shortcomings, but the failings of others and of the social system itself. This exposure is particularly evident in the secret engagement between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax—subterfuge forced upon the couple by superficial considerations about money and propriety, and made especially painful for Jane when Churchill flirts with other women in her presence and then ignores her, all to conceal the engagement. Indeed, an encounter between Emma and Churchill toward the end of the novel (Chapter 18 of Volume 3) shows each admitting to the other the manipulative nature they share.
Adding to the sense of complexity of the social system is the capricious ease with which some characters fall into personal happiness and prosperity without themselves suffering very much, while others achieve happiness only after long and patient struggle. Jane suffers far more than Frank in the course of their secret union, and Knightley is overtly jealous of the twenty-three-year-old Frank Churchill being handed a fortune and marrying Jane, while he is to marry Emma, whom he has known since she was a child, only after a long, careful vigil (Chapter 13, Volume 3). Churchill, in a slight way, is socially stigmatized by his own passions in arranging the secret engagement (which Jane at one point calls off), but yet his youthful rashness is ultimately rewarded. The coincidental death of Mrs. Churchill, his aunt, has also played right into his hands: She would have opposed the marriage and refused any financial backing.
Breaches of propriety and abuses of language find expression here as in Austen's other novels, most dramatically in the famous Box Hill outing, reminding one of Austen's pervasive concern with propriety and decorum for the sake of human dignity and happiness. In addition to Churchill's blatant flirting with Emma and its repercussions on Knightley and Jane Fairfax, there is Emma's abuse of Miss Bates and the events that lead up to it. After annoying Mrs. Elton, the self-proclaimed chaperon of the party, by preempting a leadership role—a perhaps forgivable breach—Emma starts a conversation game in which each person may contribute "one thing very clever, ... or two things moderately clever—or three things very dull indeed." Miss Bates takes the bait and offers "three things very dull indeed." Emma quips back, "Pardon me, but you will be limited as to number—only three at once." Miss Bates is very hurt, and apologizes about her loquacity to Mr. Knightley, yet she also notes Emma's rudeness. Later, Knightley confronts Emma with her cruelty, reaffirming the imperative that well-placed, intelligent people need to behave in a caring manner towards others, regardless of their perceived lack of intelligence. The Box Hill sequence suggests how polite behavior can mask many complex passions and motives, but also that, as often as not, there is a reason for masking them.
Gossip is a breach of decorum and abuse of language that apparently only becomes so when it is revealed to its subjects, but characters who gossip sink in the author's, the reader's, and magnanimous characters' estimations. Frank Church gossips about the Eltons having married on slight acquaintance right after they are out of earshot, preparing for a discussion of capricious vs. steady marriages, and Jane Fairfax counters that people of strong character pull away from any "unfortunate acquaintance," anticipating her own breaking of their engagement, and underscoring hers and Churchill's divergent ratings on Austen's character scale. (Still, there remains the ever-present possibility of Churchill's own moral growth as the husband of Jane Fairfax.) Knightley, by contrast to Churchill, is a man of few words—his summary of Frank Churchill's life is one of the few times he speaks at all negatively about another. The banter at Box Hill, and the flirtation between Churchill and Emma leave Knightley so upset that he leaves. The episode leaves him very conscious about how the language of love can be abused and this awareness makes it almost impossible for him to propose to Emma. Ironically, it is both his knowledge of Churchill's engagement to Jane as well as a visit to his brother's family that remind him of his own feelings for Emma. In the end, "perfect happiness," in the form of a decidedly modest wedding between Emma and Knightley, prevails. It is as though ceremonies, like language, must be kept appropriately in check to validate the expression.