Signet Essay Contest 2012
The underlying theme that gives unity and meaning to Emma is found in Emma Woodhouse’s three
awakenings (or epiphanatic moments of truth). This underlying theme cannot be fully appreciated unless we
understand the cumulative meaning of Emma’s three awakenings. For the purpose of understanding the
awakenings, Emma can be split into two distinct but parallel stories and a conclusion. Both the stories and the
conclusion end in one of Emma’s three awakenings.
In the first story Emma decides to make a match between Mr. Elton and her friend, Harriet Smith. She
believes that Elton is “good-humored, cheerful, obliging, and gentle.” Influenced by her desires, she soon
becomes “quite convinced of Elton’s being in the fairest way of falling in love, if not in love already.” At around
the same time she dismisses Harriet’s preference for a farmer, convincing her that the superior Elton loves her.
Emma actively promotes the match and eventually decides that Elton is on the point of proposing to Harriet.
Her brother&ndah;in–law advises her that Elton has intentions toward her, Emma, not Harriet. She refuses to believe it.
Elton proposes to her that same day. She rejects him, shocked and bewildered at her own unperceptiveness.
In the second story, Emma meets Frank Churchill. She quickly and unjustifiably forms a “very good opinion”
of him. After a couple weeks she decides that he is in love with her. For a time she believes that she is in love
with him. However, before long “the conclusion of every imaginary declaration on his side was that she refused
him”. Almost immediately thereafter it occurs to her that “His recollection of Harriet…suggested to her the idea
of Harriet’s succeeding her in his affections.’ From then on she seeks to promote a match between them,
although not as blatantly as she had with Elton. Her new attempt at matchmaking is wishful thinking, because
everyone but Emma herself notices Churchill’s marked preference for her and her only. At one point Knightley
warns her that she misunderstands Frank Churchill’s intentions. She refuses to believe it. It comes out a little
later that Frank Churchill was using his supposed preference for Emma as a cover for his secret engagement with
Jane Fairfax. Emma is thunderstruck at her own blindness.
The two stories summarized above are quite similar. In both stories she has an unjustifiably good opinion of
the man she is dealing with. In both stories she tries to make a match between Harriet and the man. In both
stories she totally mistakes the intentions of the man involved, despite advice. Both stories culminate in an
epiphany. Also in both stories Emma evaluates the man, finds him less than ideal, and tries to match him with
Harriet. This is clear cut in the second story. Emma decides against Frank Churchill, and later that same day
thinks of a match between Frank and Harriet. It is not so clear cut in the first story. Emma never has a personal
interest in Elton. Or does she? She doesn’t in the novel, certainly. However, this passage offers a hint of what
happened before the novel started: “He was reckoned very handsome; his person much admired in general,
though not by her, there being a want of elegance of feature which she could not dispense with…” She had
evaluated Elton. This, taken with other similarities, is evidence enough to infer that she had previously decided
Elton was not her ideal.
The principle involved in Emma’s parallel stories is one of repetition. If Emma fails to learn her lesson
thoroughly the first time she will have to go through the process again. That is why the situations differ only in
the ending. In the first story Emma learns very little. She slightly modifies her behavior, but she is fundamentally
unchanged. That is why she must face the same situation again, on a larger scale. In the second story, Emma
really gets it. She finally understands that she cannot play God to others. Her own words illustrate this well.
After her first awakening Emma says “Oh that I had been satisfied with persuading her not to accept young
Martin. There I was quite right…”. She believes that her mistake is one of degree, not principle. After her second
the narrator says “she was afraid she had done her nothing but disservice.” Emma now understands that she was
So far we have only looked at two of Emma’s three moments of truth. These two are the surface of the story,
while the third is both the culmination of the theme of the first two and the unmasking of Emma’s undercurrent.
In this last moment of truth, Emma gets what she deserves for her manipulation of Harriet, and the Knightley
and Emma undercurrent that permeates the story rises to the surface.
Emma benevolently manipulates Harriet throughout the novel. It is a constant theme that climaxes with her
own manipulation coming back to bite her. In the middle of the novel Emma and Harriet have a discussion about
Harriet’s preference for Knightley. However, the terms they both use are so vague that Emma gets the impression
Harriet is speaking of Frank Churchill. Emma encourages Harriet in her preference because it is just what she
had planned. The mistake is not discovered until Harriet thinks Knightley reciprocates her affection, and tells
Emma of it. Emma realizes for reasons addressed in the next paragraphs that “Mr. Knightley must marry no one
but herself”. She is faced with the bleak prospect of losing Knightley due to her own misfired manipulation. The
punishment is transient. Emma ultimately has a happy ending, while Harriet is right back at square one:
Marriage to Robert Martin. As Knightley says, Emma does Harriet no good.
Throughout the novel Emma has a dormant love for Knightley. This is hidden until the end of the novel.
Reality peeps through occasionally, as in her reaction to Mrs. Weston’s opinion that there is a “probability” of a
match between Knightley and Jane Fairfax. Emma opposes the idea with a vigor that is unwarranted. Later,
when Harriet tells her of her own plans for Knightley, “It darted through her with the speed of an arrow that Mr.
Knightley must marry no one but herself!” Why is it that Emma realizes her love later and not earlier? After all,
Mrs. Weston is far more likely to guess Mr. Knightley’s mind than the weak–willed Harriet. To understand that
we need to look collectively at Emma’s three realizations of truth.
Everything that happens in the novel previous to Emma’s realization of Frank Churchill’s duplicity represents
her personal journey away from being a self–centered young woman who tries to control people. Her realization
climaxes the story, and marks the beginning of her change of heart. Up until this point she was repeatedly blind
to the world because she was constantly blind to herself. She saw what she wanted to see in others because in her
heart she saw herself as God. She assumed that she was infallible and had a right to control others for their own
good. Her illusion was fed and perhaps created by her position at the top of the social circles she moved in. Her
illusion is shattered by this last moment of truth. The last awakening, unlike its predecessor, lasts more than a
moment. She finally brings herself to see her own pride for what it is.
Why is Emma often in conflict with Knightley before she awakens to the truth about Frank Churchill?
Because Knightley is the one person in her life who tells her the truth about herself, and who criticizes her when
she is wrong. She cannot take that as long as she is playing God. We get a hint of this when Knightley says of
Emma that she is not vain about her appearance, but that “Her vanity lies in another direction.” Emma spars with
Knightley because of her fundamental attitude. It is only after this attitude changes that a man who tells her the
unflattering truth can be desirable. Emma is unable to realize her love for Knightley until she has
changed. The happy ending is only made possible after Emma learns to know herself. This is the heart of what
For information on the 2012-2013 Signet Classics Essay Contest, click here.