When the reader is first introduced to Emma, they discover that despite being a wealthy woman, belonging to a family that “all looked up to” (Austen 9) within their town of Highbury, she does not actually have many friends. The friends that she does have, like Mrs. Weston, her former governess, and Harriet Smith, she in a way makes into her own projects by playing “matchmaker.” While the friendship between Emma and Mrs. Weston is natural considering they lived in the same house for many years, it seems as though Emma’s friendship with Harriet Smith is for the sole purpose of Emma’s entertainment and benefit. Harriet, while not born into the privilege that Emma was born into, has a pretty settled life already with her position at Mrs. Goddard’s and a love interest in Mr. Martin. Emma attempts to change all of Harriet’s circumstances by making her into a good match for Mr. Elton, a member of the clergy.
Upon hearing of Mr. Martin and his profession, Emma says, “A young farmer, whether on horseback or on foot, is the very last sort of person to raise my curiosity” (Austen 29). She is very quick to judge Mr. Martin and believes that her friend, Harriet, can do better than him. Emma jumps to conclusions when Martin proposes to Harriet in a letter, assuming that Harriet wants to decline. She says, “Dear affectionate creature!—You banished to Abbey-Mill Farm!—You confined to the society of the illiterate and vulgar all your life! I wonder how the young man could have the assurance to ask it. He must have a pretty good opinion of himself” (Austen 53). Although it is obvious that Harriet has feelings for him, as she defends him as not being conceited, she ultimately declines. Do you think that Harriet decides to refuse Mr. Martin strictly because of Emma’s influence and opinions or do you think that she herself believes that she can marry someone of a higher social rank?
A short time following the refusal, Emma and a family friend, Knightley, have a conversation about Harriet and Mr. Martin. Knightley, being a friend of Mr. Martin, encouraged him to propose to Harriet and he is shocked and angry to learn that she refused him, with some help from Emma. Emma insists that the refusal occurred because Harriet and Mr. Martin were not equals. Knightley agrees, saying “No he is not her equal indeed, for he is as much her superior in sense as in situation. Emma, your infatuation about that girl blinds you…She is the natural daughter of nobody knows whom, with probable no settled provision at all, and certainly no respectable relations” (Austen 59-60). Do you agree with Knightley’s claim that Emma is blinded by her friendship with Harriet to see that she is in such a low social rank? Do you think Emma has a double standard, judging a man’s position in society more harshly than a woman’s position, or is she just too fixed on the idea that she wants Harriet to marry Mr. Elton? Do you think that Harriet’s lack of parents or her unknown family circumstances limits her options for moving up and into good society?