Foil

Emma

by

Jane Austen

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Emma can help.
Chapter 4
Explanation and Analysis—Emma and Harriet:

Through her close friendship with Emma and overlapping romantic entanglements (with Mr. Elton and Knightley), Harriet becomes a foil to Emma, meaning that her presence reveals more about Emma as the main character. While Emma is “handsome, clever, and rich” (and confident), Harriet is only somewhat attractive, not very bright, and poor.

Rather than existing merely to bolster Emma as a character, Harriet’s friendship actually highlights Emma’s pride and manipulative behaviors. While Harriet might not be as beautiful as—or intellectually equal to—Emma, she is kind and open-hearted; as the narrator describes:

Harriet certainly was not clever, but she had a sweet, docile, grateful disposition; was totally free from conceit; and only desiring to be guided by any one she looked up to. Her early attachment to herself was very amiable; and her inclination for good company, and power of appreciating what was elegant and clever, shewed that there was no want of taste, though strength of understanding must not be expected.

While Harriet is “totally free from conceit,” Emma enjoys the power she has in her relationship with Harriet and uses it to make herself feel better (as characters like Knightley point out to her). For example, when Harriet considers saying yes to the farmer Mr. Martin’s marriage proposal, Emma talks her out of it, thinking (incorrectly) that she would easily be able to find Harriet a partner with more wealth and prestige.

It is only through reckoning with her pride later in the novel that Emma is finally able to see Harriet for who she is (separate from what she can offer Emma) and ends up giving her blessing for Harriet’s her eventual union with Mr. Martin.

Chapter 10
Explanation and Analysis—Emma and Jane:

Jane Fairfax acts a foil for Emma throughout the novel, meaning that her presence illuminates certain aspects of Emma's character. While Emma is agreeable and outgoing, Jane is reserved and humble. While Emma is physically robust, Jane is smaller and somewhat sickly. Emma has also been stuck in Highbury her whole life, while Jane has traveled and become quite accomplished for her age.

That Jane is so beloved in their community irks Emma, which she makes clear in a conversation with Harriet in Chapter 10:

“One is sick of the very name of Jane Fairfax […] her compliments to all friends go round and round again […] I wish Jane Fairfax very well; but she tires me to death.”

Emma and Jane are also pitted against each other as potential love interests for both Frank and Knightley, at least in Emma’s mind and the minds of other gossiping characters.

As Emma matures and gets over her pride—and as the truth about Frank and Jane’s engagement comes out—Emma is able to appreciate Jane rather than envy or dislike her, as evident in this passage from Chapter 48:

She bitterly regretted not having sought a closer acquaintance with her, and blushed for the envious feelings which had certainly been, in some measure, the cause. Had she followed Mr. Knightley’s known wishes, in paying that attention to Miss Fairfax, which was every way her due; had she tried to know her better; had she done her part towards intimacy; had she endeavoured to find a friend there instead of in Harriet Smith; she must, in all probability, have been spared from every pain which pressed on her now.

This moment in the novel shows how Emma has grown up and can appreciate Jane rather than feel competitive toward her.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Chapter 48
Explanation and Analysis—Emma and Jane:

Jane Fairfax acts a foil for Emma throughout the novel, meaning that her presence illuminates certain aspects of Emma's character. While Emma is agreeable and outgoing, Jane is reserved and humble. While Emma is physically robust, Jane is smaller and somewhat sickly. Emma has also been stuck in Highbury her whole life, while Jane has traveled and become quite accomplished for her age.

That Jane is so beloved in their community irks Emma, which she makes clear in a conversation with Harriet in Chapter 10:

“One is sick of the very name of Jane Fairfax […] her compliments to all friends go round and round again […] I wish Jane Fairfax very well; but she tires me to death.”

Emma and Jane are also pitted against each other as potential love interests for both Frank and Knightley, at least in Emma’s mind and the minds of other gossiping characters.

As Emma matures and gets over her pride—and as the truth about Frank and Jane’s engagement comes out—Emma is able to appreciate Jane rather than envy or dislike her, as evident in this passage from Chapter 48:

She bitterly regretted not having sought a closer acquaintance with her, and blushed for the envious feelings which had certainly been, in some measure, the cause. Had she followed Mr. Knightley’s known wishes, in paying that attention to Miss Fairfax, which was every way her due; had she tried to know her better; had she done her part towards intimacy; had she endeavoured to find a friend there instead of in Harriet Smith; she must, in all probability, have been spared from every pain which pressed on her now.

This moment in the novel shows how Emma has grown up and can appreciate Jane rather than feel competitive toward her.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Chapter 51
Explanation and Analysis—Frank and Knightley:

As Emma’s two romantic interests in the novel, Frank and Knightley become foils for each other, meaning their juxtaposition reveals truths about each character. Knightley is 37 years old, an esteemed gentleman, and someone Emma has known since she was born. Frank, on the other hand, is 23 years old, a playful flirt, and new to town.

While Frank’s jovial temperament at first makes Knightley appear dull or uptight in Emma’s eyes, after Frank’s secret engagement to Jane is revealed, Emma finds his previously fun and flirty behavior inappropriate and inconsiderate. This is the moment that it becomes clear (to both readers and Emma) that Knightley is mature and wise, while Frank is immature, re-establishing him as superior in Emma’s eyes.

Knightley’s reaction as he reads Frank’s letter to Emma explaining his behavior highlights the difference in maturity between them. Here he reflects on Frank’s decision to anonymously send Jane a pianoforte during their secret engagement (leading to much gossip and an overly full living room):

He […] stopt again to say, “the pianoforté! Ah! That was the act of a very, very young man, one too young to consider whether the inconvenience of it might not very much exceed the pleasure. A boyish scheme, indeed!”

In the end, that Emma elects to be with Knightley instead of Frank shows that she, too, has matured over the course of the novel, letting go of her misperceptions about Knightley and seeing Frank for the "boyish" man that he is.

Unlock with LitCharts A+