“Emma” is a book centered around a lot of annoying people who, for the most part, spew a bunch of nonsense. Sure, occasionally there is a meaningful conversation or relevant observation here and there, but for the most part, the most important conversations and situations in Jane Austen’s book are unspoken thoughts delivered/expressed through silent signals or actions.
There are tons of instances throughout the book, but I’ll just focus on the examples from volume 3, which are still plentiful.
The first significant example occurs at the ball at the Crown in chapter 2. After Mr. Elton rudely declines to dance with Harriet Smith, Emma notices Mr. Knightley, who hadn’t danced previously, walk over to Harriet and ask her to dance. “She (Emma) was all pleasure and gratitude; both for Harriet and herself, and longed to be thanking him; and though too distant for speech, her countenance said as much, as soon as she could catch his eye again” (P.226). A little while later, Emma once again silently invited Mr. Knightley over – “… “her (Emma) eyes invited him irresistibly to come to her and be thanked” (P.227). I feel that this scene was like a lightbulb going off in Emma’s head about her feeling towards Mr. Knightley. She would proceed to ask him to dance with her, which he gladly accepted.
In chapter 5 of volume 3, Mr. Knightley begins to suspect Frank Churchill of courting Jane Fairfax. “He (Mr. Knightley) was dining with the Randalls’ family. and Jane at the Eltons’; and he had seen a look, more than a single look, at Miss Fairfax, which, from the admirer of Miss Woodhouse, seemed somewhat out of place” (P.237). Mr. Knightley knew that there was a “private liking” or “private understanding between Frank Churchill and Jane” (P.237).
Shortly thereafter, Frank Churchill slips up when he makes a comment that only the Bates’ and Jane knew about. “Mr. Knightley’s eye had preceded Miss Bates’s in a glance at Jane. From Frank Churchill’s face, where he thought he saw confusion suppressed or laughed away, he had involuntarily turned to her’s… Mr. Knightley suspected in Frank Churchill the determination of catching her eye – he seemed watching her intently…” (P.239). Once inside, Frank Churchill insists that he and Emma play a game using a box of alphabet letters. He spells out ‘blunder,’ which made Jane blush. Mr. Knightley, once again, noticed the goings on. (P.240)
In chapter 9, after Emma rudely insult Miss Bates in the previous chapter and getting chastised by Mr. Knightley, it is revealed that Emma went over to apologize and pay her respects. “He (Mr. Knightley) looked at her with a glow of regard… He took her hand… pressed it, and certainly was on the point of carrying it to his lips – when, he suddenly let it go… He would have judged better, she thought, if he had not stopped” (P.266). Mr. Knightley and Emma’s fondness for each other tends to grow moreso through their non-verbal communication than their actual conversations.
There are many more examples of unspoken speech. For example, the most important messages are usually not spoken, but rather a written letter. Frank Churchill’s explanation of his hidden engagement to Jane Fairfax and Isabella and Mrs. Weston’s letters to Mr. Woodhouse on behalf of Mr. Knightley are two prime examples of this.
Emma’s thoughts allow her to be much more candid with herself as well. When she finds out that Harriet is interested in Mr. Knightley and not Frank Churchill, she thinks things to herself which she would never say aloud – that Harriet wasn’t good enough for Knightley and that they’d be mocked for being together since he’s much better than her.
Admittedly, I didn’t like the book at first. I found our class discussions much more enlightening and entertaining. However, as the book went on and we examined the depths of the characters and Jane Austen’s writing, I grew to appreciate it. The moments I cited were some of my favorite moments in the entire book.