Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

The Riddle

Also known as charades, riddles in the novel take the form of elaborate wordplay. They symbolize the pervasive subtexts that wait to be decoded in characters’ larger social interactions. In Chapter 9, Mr. Elton presents a riddle to Emma and Harriet. Emma decodes it immediately, as “courtship,” but she decodes it wrongly in the sense that she believes it is meant for Harriet rather than herself. This wordplay also makes an appearance during the Box Hill party, when Mr. Weston makes an acrostic for Emma.

The Word Game

Similar to the riddle, a word game is played in Chapter 41 between Emma, Frank, and Jane. It functions as a metaphor for the partial understandings and misunderstandings that exist among Emma, Frank, Jane, and Mr. Knightley. As Mr. Knightley looks on, Frank uses child’s blocks to create words for the ladies to decode, though these words mean different things to each of them. Frank makes the word “blunder,” which Jane understands as referring to a mistake he has just made, but whose meaning is opaque to Emma and Knightley. He then makes the word “Dixon,” which Emma understands as a joke on Jane, and which baffles Knightley. In truth, everyone “blunders” in different ways that evening, because no one possesses complete enough information to interpret correctly everything that is going on.

Tokens of Affection

A number of objects in the novel take on symbolic significance as tokens of affection. Mr. Elton frames Emma’s portrait of Harriet as a symbol of affection for her, though Emma misunderstands it as a symbol of affection for Harriet. Harriet keeps court plaster and a pencil stub as souvenirs of Mr. Elton. When the engagement between Jane and Frank is briefly called off, she returns his letters to symbolize her relinquishment of his affection.

Read more about the symbolism of tokens and gifts in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.