Summary and Analysis
Volume 1: Chapters III-IV
Mr. Woodhouse is fond of society among his intimates who "visit him on his own terms," especially for evening parties: George Knightley, the Westons, Mr. Elton, Mrs. Goddard, and Mrs. and Miss Bates. A happy woman, Miss Bates is known for her "universal good-will and contented temper" and for being "a great talker upon little matters." Mrs. Goddard runs an honest, old-fashioned, and respectable boarding school; and she delights Emma when she asks to be allowed one evening to bring Harriet Smith, a pretty seventeen-year-old who is "the natural daughter of somebody." After Harriet proves to be engaging, proper, and deferential, Emma decides to "improve her" and spends a pleasant evening in forming schemes for doing so, at the same time seeing that the guests get generous portions of food, in spite of Mr. Woodhouse's concern that they partake of only a little because of health. The evening ends with Harriet in absolute happiness at the attention she has received from "so great a personage in Highbury" as Miss Woodhouse.
Harriet becomes such a good walking companion that Emma is confirmed in her kind designs, recognizing that, though Harriet is not clever, she is sweet and grateful and needs only guidance. Unable to learn from Harriet who her parents are, since she does not know, Emma encourages her to talk and learns that she is well acquainted with the Martins of Abbey-Mill Farm, where she had spent two months. From what Harriet says, Emma is sure that Mrs. Martin is successfully trying to interest Harriet in her son Robert. Emma's tactic is to say that she is sure that Harriet would not take notice of anyone Robert would marry, one reason being that there is "no doubt of your being a gentleman's daughter."
When they accidentally meet Robert the next day, Harriet steps over to talk with him and Emma observes him from a distance. He looks both neat and sensible, but shortly afterward Emma remarks that he is plain and entirely lacking in gentility and leads Harriet to compare him unfavorably with George Knightley, Mr. Weston, and Mr. Elton, particularly the latter. Whereas Robert reads little and lets business make him forget to procure a book that Harriet has recommended, Mr. Elton (according to Emma) is educated, has superior manners, and is in fine a model for any young man. After such an encomium Emma repeats some warm personal praise of Harriet which Emma herself has drawn from Mr. Elton. Emma has, of course, fixed upon Harriet as Mr. Elton's future mate, deluding herself that others must have already seen it as a perfect match but that only she could have planned it so precisely.
In these chapters the self-deception of Emma takes positive shape and unfortunately involves others. She, like others around her, obviously believes in the propriety of social stratification and exemplifies it when she leads the believing Harriet to compare Robert Martin with the other gentlemen. However, it is worth remembering that when Emma says, "The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do," she is not being snobbish in the modern sense. Though it may not be admirable by today's standards, her social conscience is that of the eighteenth century; and it is significant that her very next remarks, coming without pause, are these: "A degree or two lower and a creditable appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or other. But a farmer can need none of my help, and is therefore in one sense as much above my notice as in every other he is below it." In light of the world around her, Emma's only serious mistake, socially and humanly speaking, is in letting her willful wish and imagination convince her that Harriet, who is so pretty and amiable, must come from gentility.
In the first of these two chapters, Miss Austen introduces the reader to two important new characters, Harriet and Miss Bates. Harriet will be a mere pretty counter to be maneuvered by Emma and the plot of the novel, but Miss Bates is to be the object of ruthlessly gentle satire and, through her relation to Jane Fairfax (introduced later), an important sideline element in the total plot of the novel. Mr. Elton's future use for satire is indicated in the present description of him as "a young man living alone without liking it."