Summary: Chapter 31

Emma imagines the course that her and Frank’s love affair will run. In her mind, her fantasy always ends with her refusing Frank. She believes she loves him, but not so much that her happiness depends upon him, and that he loves her, but that his feelings are probably changeable. She reads his first letter to Mrs. Weston after returning to Enscombe and admires the genuineness of the warm feelings Frank expresses for Highbury. His brief mention of Harriet makes Emma speculate that Harriet could replace her in his affections, but she reaffirms her resolution to cease matchmaking.

Village gossip turns to Mr. Elton, who will soon arrive in Highbury with his new bride. Harriet is flustered by the prospect of Elton’s return, and Emma suggests that if Harriet will not forget Elton for her own sake, she should do so for Emma’s, for Harriet’s persistent attachment is a reminder of Emma’s guilt. Harriet repents, and Emma is moved by the warmth of Harriet’s love for her. Emma concludes that tenderness of heart, which Harriet possesses and which Emma believes she herself lacks, is tremendously valuable.

Summary: Chapter 32

Mr. Elton returns with his bride, and Emma decides that she and Harriet should visit the newlyweds early on in order to reestablish normal social relations. In this first meeting and shortly thereafter Emma reserves judgment on Mrs. Elton, and attributes Mr. Elton’s lack of ease to the awkwardness of the situation. When the couple returns the visit and comes to Hartfield, Emma is able to observe Mrs. Elton at greater length, and Emma is horrified by the over-familiarity of her manners. Mrs. Elton is attached to superficial tokens of wealth, such as her sister and brother-in-law’s “barouche-landau” (carriage); she presumes to take Emma under her social wing; and she prides herself on the inner “resources” of self-worth and foresight that she clearly lacks. Mr. Woodhouse, never particularly discerning, considers the new bride pleasant enough and expresses guilt that he has not visited her. He cannot understand Emma’s consternation when he suggests that “[a] bride, you know, my dear, is always the first in company,” and that a bride receives the utmost in politeness and good manners.

Summary: Chapter 33

Emma continues to dislike Mrs. Elton, who, noting Emma’s reserve, begins to return the sentiment. Emma assumes that Mr. Elton has told his wife something of the unfortunate episode with her and Harriet, to whom the Eltons are especially rude. Mrs. Elton takes on Jane Fairfax as her project, attempting to bring her out socially. Emma is puzzled that Jane refuses another invitation to join Mr. and Mrs. Campbell and Mr. and Mrs. Dixon in Ireland. She is also puzzled that Jane accepts Mrs. Elton’s attentions, and she discusses Jane’s actions with Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley. Mr. Knightley defends Jane’s acceptance of Mrs. Elton’s attentions, and Emma takes the opportunity to probe Mr. Knightley on his feelings for Jane, telling him, “The extent of your admiration may take you by surprise one day or other.” Knightley seems flustered, uneasy, and embarrassed and wonders whether Emma has been playing matchmaker for him. She assures him that she has not, and he insists her that he is not in love with Jane—for one thing, Jane is too reserved. Emma is satisfied that she has been right about Knightley’s feelings for Jane and that Mrs. Weston has been wrong, but Mrs. Weston wonders if his eagerness in denying it indicates otherwise.

Analysis: Chapters 31–33

In these chapters, Emma’s imaginative preoccupations again shift their focus from meddling in others’ lives to understanding the intrigue in her own. Earlier in the novel, Emma occupies herself by envisaging Jane Fairfax’s supposed affair with Mr. Dixon, but Jane’s reserve and Emma’s growing compassion for her have made this line of speculation less worthwhile for Emma; now, for the first time in the novel, Emma imagines herself as the heroine of her own plot. Even so, her sentiments for Frank Churchill are no more real than the feelings that she wrongly attributes to Mr. Elton, Jane, and Mr. Knightley. Notably, her feelings for Frank flourish only in his absence, which leaves Emma not unhappy but “busy and cheerful.” She relishes the chance to envision her and Frank’s courtship, picturing “a thousand amusing schemes for the progress and close of their attachment, fancying interesting dialogues, and inventing elegant letters.” She does not seem to relish the prospect of a courtship itself.

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Meanwhile, Mrs. Elton seems like a crude parody of the earlier Emma, exhibiting Emma’s mistakes in an exaggerated form. Mrs. Elton is constantly in search of young women to whom she can attach herself and introduce into her society, and she holds matchmaking an important goal. Emma immediately resents Mrs. Elton’s presumptuousness in thinking she can make matches between strangers, and Mrs. Elton’s blunt, outspoken nature makes us share Emma’s resentment. Still, no great difference exists between Mrs. Elton’s behavior toward Jane and Emma’s behavior toward Harriet, though Emma herself cannot recognize the similarity. Both Emma and Mrs. Elton are guilty of presumption.

The conversation Emma and Mrs. Weston have with Knightley presents another example of a dialogue with a subtext that can be understood only upon a second reading of the novel. Knightley is obviously uncomfortable when Emma suggests that he has feelings for Jane, and his uneasy reaction could be interpreted a number of ways. Knightley may flush simply because he resents personal questions, or because, as Mrs. Weston suspects, he is fighting or concealing his feelings for Jane. We suspect that he flushes because he is displeased that Emma so blithely imagines him with someone else, and he seems relieved when she assures him that this has not been the case. Mrs. Weston’s willingness to read between the lines and have faith in Knightley’s refutation at the end of the chapter reinforces the novel’s message that seeking subtexts can alert one to a hidden truth but can just as easily lead one into error.

Read more about the motif of conversational subtext.