Summary and Analysis
Volume 3: Chapter XIX
The party comes from London, and an hour alone with Harriet proves to Emma that "Robert Martin had thoroughly supplanted Mr. Knightley." Harriet's father is learned to be a well-to-do tradesman, who treats Robert liberally; and in becoming acquainted with Robert, Emma finds him a man of sense and worth.
The first of the three engagements to reach the altar is that of Robert and Harriet in September. In November Jane and Frank are to be married. Emma and George fix upon October, but Mr. Wood-house cannot be induced to consent. As long as he is unhappy about it, Emma feels that she cannot proceed. Fortunately for the betrothed, Mrs. Weston's poultry house is robbed one night of all its turkeys and other poultry yards suffer the same fate. This is tantamount to housebreaking with Mr. Woodhouse, who feels safe only with the male Knightleys, and John must soon return to London! The result is that, with more cheerful consent from her father than Emma could have hoped, the wedding takes place and all hopes and wishes of friends are "fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union."
The good-natured satire on marriage is obvious here, containing, as it does, the irony of how unequal events are related. It is noteworthy, however, that before the "happy ending" the standing social order is fully reasserted: The intimacy between Harriet and Emma "must sink; their friendship must change into a calmer sort of good-will; and, fortunately, what ought to be, and must be, seemed already beginning, and in the most gradual, natural manner." The degree to which Emma now accepts this social order is given rather tongue-in-cheek when she learns of Harriet's parentage and reflects upon her possibly being matched with George or Frank or even Mr. Elton: "The stain of illegitimacy, unbleached by nobility or wealth, would have been a stain indeed."
Emma has come a long way to self-recognition and self-knowledge; the social aberration that resulted from her willful imagination, having failed to mature, is safely past; and the social order of the provincial community settles back to normal. Actually, the reader can see, when he looks back at Miss Austen's characterizations and plot structuring, that neither of the three men would have married Harriet any more than Emma would have had Mr. Elton. Consequently, the supreme irony of the story may be that, though a few characters were for a while upset or in doubt about events, there was never any danger at all of the community social order being subverted. Each couple is paired off in the novel in terms of being of similar social rank and in terms of natural equality — even the Eltons. The ending, then, is "happy" as an ideal union of the social and the natural.