Forgoing the obvious differences of physical qualities and deductive, intelligent thought, the human animal separates itself decisively from its quadruped brethren. Throughout history a variety of different attributes pronounced themselves as one of these differing qualities; domestication, ritual and religion, and technology to name a few. In fact, many of the things thought to differ us further from the animal kingdom relate to social structures and hierarchies. Of course, to say that rigid social structures do no exist in the wild would be absurd. What most connects us with the great beasts of Africa or a roaming pack of wolves are those very social constructs. One might argue intimately on the instinctual process of dividing and placing societies into categories and hierarchies. However, in the process of the growing consciousness of human intellect, the importance of interaction within society grew as well. In this it evolves to a point very much so human, the construct of interaction manifest in language, written word, and conversation. Upon entering the realm of conversation there arises the quandary of our novel Emma, miscommunication.
Volume one’s predicament rests on a simple, yet profoundly affecting misunderstanding by Emma of the situation she has created between herself, Mr. Elton, and Harriet. Too many of the actions in the novel rely on a tacit understanding that in most cases does not exist. Conversations end midway purposefully and words are reserved to create a false impression. In many of these cases the character reserving speech expects their position to be understood. In as such the structure of the novel requires volume three to exist. Because of a bevy of unclear intentions and misunderstandings – many of which we remain in the dark on until we’ve read further – volume three opens with a veiled rift between most every character. The social situation as it exists requires that these situations not end in such mutual confusion though, and because they do, problems arise and tranquility cannot return until full truths are revealed and each character’s intentions are manifested in full.
In approaching the final volume of the novel’s resolutions, it’s important in my opinion to step back and discuss the manner in which the complex web of problems arises in this volume. Reverting back to a much simpler portion of the text in volume one, the blueprint for failed social interaction appears. Emma’s contrivance of events with Harriet and Mr. Elton is a simple, match-making proposition. The results of her machinations surprise her greatly, but less so the reader or anyone else within the text, save Harriet. Her failure acts as a turning point in her own outlook, though it isn’t complete, not just because she passes blame. Mr. Elton himself fails on a certain level. While it becomes more or less clear to the reader what his intentions are, Emma’s miscalculations in regards to the class differences between herself and Harriet create a situation in which he fails to clarify his intentions. Were he to view Emma in more than a predatory, courtesan manner he may well have realized how Emma saw Harriet. Instead he never bothers to acknowledge that Harriet’s presence affects his actions while with the two ladies. He may sigh sentimentally, as if in love, but Emma notes for us that it’s near impossible to discern the object of his sighs. The escalation of anger in the carriage between the two arises as much from what is not said as what is. Elton states, “Allow me to interpret this interesting silence. It confesses that you have long understood me” (I.xv, 124). He assumes he made himself clear to Emma, and in doing so, assumes she accepted his presumptions and should therefore be open to his declarations. As we know and are witness to in her vehement denial, this is not the case. A rift exists between Mr. Elton and Emma, one in which the truth lays, but in which neither dares tread, only speculates upon. In this rift all the gestures, allusions, and sighs accumulate until one or the other can walk across and realize the vast misunderstanding. Herein lays the blueprint for the interactions that create conflict throughout, and ultimately allow resolution volume three.
As a pattern, the preceding scene manifests numerous times in the course of the remainder of the novel. The easiest instance to discuss – one that informs much of Volume Three – is that of Frank’s outward display toward Emma. It establishes itself in Volume Two and pervades the remainder of the novel. Frank’s intentions only manifest clearly towards the very end when he can reveal the engagement, and more than once his actions, lacking a clear purpose or explanation create situations that need not exist. Frank acts on an assumption stemming from a situation that ends in what both parties assume to be an ‘understanding’. The scene in question – that of Frank’s leave taking in volume two, chapter twelve – becomes a trove of misunderstandings to reread upon finishing the novel. Upon initial reading, Frank’s reticence easily fits within Emma’s assumptions of his love for her. Yet, upon the revelation of Frank and Jane’s engagement more than one aspect of the conversation strikes a faulty note. Not only does Frank fail to even broach the topic, he assumes that Emma knows to what he alludes. He states, “‘In short’…’perhaps Miss Woodhouse-I think you can hardly be quite without suspicion” – (II, xii, 242). Following this “He looked at her, as if wanting to read her thoughts” (II, xii, 242). The breaks in speech and reliance by each character on an ability to read their partner’s feelings fail them both miserably, the result being a tacit understanding between the reader and Emma that Frank is quite in love with her. Not only does he leave the novel for a time as well at this point, he never clarifies his statements to Emma and assumes she did in fact understand.
Turning to volume three and Frank’s return, the results of this failed communication appear. He continues to flirt with her, assuming she knows of his secret. Not only does he anger Jane, he manages to estrange Emma completely, who begins to imagine the results of his attentions in the minds of others:
[His attentions] now, in her estimation, meant nothing, thought in the judgment of most people looking on, it must have had such an appearance as no English word but flirtation could very well describe. “Mr. Frank Churchill and Miss Woodhouse flirted together excessively.” They were laying themselves open to that very phrase…” (III.vii, 345).
Another example of an ample gap in conversation is Emma’s misunderstanding of Harriet’s love interest and subsequent drive to push Harriet towards a match with Frank, because she once again focused upon what she believed to be the truth rather than questioning and receiving the truth from her friend. The truth then, is the vital link that must be attained in each of these misunderstandings. If Emma had accepted the truth of Harriet’s standing, she would not have tried to match her with Mr. Elton and none of the critical events of volume one would have transpired, nor would the situation at the ball where Mr. Knightley becomes the object of Harriet’s infatuation. If Frank clearly stated his purpose to Emma for acting as he does, the results of his flirting would be negated, Jane’s anger at Emma would not exist, nor would Emma have thought to match Harriet to Frank. The tranquility of these situations demands that the social interaction is open and forthright, that neither party attempts to discern the meaning of the other; rather that both sides display their intentions clearly.
The culmination of the novel in this regard is in Chapter 49. Nearly ever sentence exchanged between Emma and Mr. Knightley in the garden is misunderstood. Emma believes Mr. Knightley to be speaking of Harriet, and Mr. Knightley believes Emma to speak of Frank, both situations a result of the preceding breakdowns in communication. Mr. Knightley finally emerges from behind the screen of words and volunteers to speak what plagues him and Emma vehemently protests, “Oh! Then, don’t speak it, don’t speak it,’…’Take a little time, consider, do not commit yourself” (III, xiii, 402). The cycle reaches a peak in an open refusal to hear Mr. Knightley’s truth. Thankfully, she realizes the fault in this decision and rescinds her refusal to hear him out, “as a friend, indeed, you may command me.-I will hear whatever you like. I will tell you exactly what I think” (III, xiii, 402). Herein this moment, the cycle is broken, as Emma finally shucks her nearly selfish proclivity to disallow another to finish their thoughts and to imagine them herself. She places her imagination aside and Mr. Knightley reveals that which they both desire to share, a mutual love.
A situation dangerously close to beginning anew the cycle of misinterpretations instead breaks the pattern of the novel and allows for a conclusion. The cycle in question is what fuels and antagonizes the novel throughout, creating situation after situation in which simple communication could easily have solved a simple predicament. Instead, a character’s decision – most often by Emma herself – to make conclusions in conversation rather than simply hear them from his or her partner, leads to more than one overblown misunderstanding. When the protagonist learns to stop and listen openly as a friend, the cycle breaks and Mr. Knightley, her reward, presents himself to her. The novel can end.