Throughout the novel, Emma paints portraits of the people in her life—including her father, Mrs. Weston, Knightley’s brother, and Harriet—forming a motif. The way Emma paints the various characters underlines the book's theme of misperception, in that she paints them to match how she views them rather than how they really are.
Emma’s portrait of Harriet is a good example of this, as she intentionally changes Harriet’s appearance to look more desirable. As the narrator describes:
There was no want of likeness, she had been fortunate in the attitude, and as she meant to throw in a little improvement to the figure, to give a little more height, and considerably more elegance, she had great confidence of its being in every way a pretty drawing at last, and of its filling its destined place with credit to them both.
Emma believes there is “a likeness” between the real Harriet and the one in her portrait and simultaneously admits that she made some changes in order to make her seem more beautiful. This demonstrates how strong Emma’s misperceptions are—she starts to believe the stories she tells herself about people despite the lack of evidence.
Meanwhile, Knightley—who is a more pragmatic and grounded character—is able to see through Emma’s misperceptions and, upon seeing the portrait of Harriet for the first time, simply says, “‘You have made her too tall, Emma.” That Emma eventually ends up married to Knightley shows how she has matured over the course of the novel, allying herself with someone who is committed to telling the truth.
Near the beginning of the book, Emma admits that she has never left the small town of Highbury. As male characters come and go, and as Emma herself finally starts to venture out, traveling becomes a motif of the novel.
Emma has spent all her time in Highbury because her father does not want her to be away from him and, as she’s unmarried, she has to do as he says—one example of the type of gender limitations that Emma experiences. In a particularly vulnerable moment, Emma implores her sister and brother-in-law not to tell her about their travels because it makes her jealous:
“Come, come,” cried Emma, feeling this to be an unsafe subject, “I must beg you not to talk of the sea. It makes me envious and miserable;—I who have never seen it!”
While Emma longs to explore the world, male characters like Frank and Knightley are allowed to come and go as they please, traveling frequently, and leaving Emma behind. It isn’t until Emma is married to Knightley that she is able to make plans to visit the sea.
Still, partway through the novel she takes a trip to Box Hill, the farthest she’s ever been from home, and it is an important moment. When she returns home, she begins to reckon with her vanity (having insulted Miss Bates while on the trip) and starts to mature as a person.
Social dances were very common in 19th-century England (where Emma is set), so it makes sense that balls and dancing show up as a motif in the novel. The way characters engage in dance throughout the novel mirrors social class dynamics in society as well as courtship patterns, hinting at who may make a good pair in marriage. When Emma and Frank dance, for example, they are seen as a good match for each other in terms of social standing, yet Emma does not feel particularly romantic feelings toward him, hinting that he is not the one for her.
The scene in which Knightley “saves” Harriet by asking her to dance when no one else has shows his good character—he is much higher in the social hierarchy and yet makes the decision to ask her to dance solely for her benefit. Emma’s reaction to this in the moment highlights her surprise and also captures her growing admiration for—and connection to—Knightley (hinting at their romantic relationship to come):
In another moment a happier sight caught her;—Mr. Knightley leading Harriet to the set!—Never had she been more surprised, seldom more delighted, than at that instant. She 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 much, as soon as she could catch his eye again.
Emma does not need to thank Knightley or catch his eye but, as someone who also cares for Harriet despite the difference in their class positions, she wants to acknowledge his kindness. This, again, highlights Emma and Knightley's compatibility.
Throughout the novel, characters constantly gossip about one another and often get the details quite wrong. All these moments contribute to gossiping as a motif in Emma, and this motif adds to the theme of misperception. That is to say, much of the gossip in the novel is based on misperceptions and misunderstandings (primarily on Emma’s part) that occasionally lead to serious repercussions.
For example, Emma and Frank gossip about Jane’s potential affair with her friend’s husband (Mr.Dixon), which turns out to be untrue, as Frank and Jane had been engaged all along. Emma and Mrs. Weston also gossip about Knightley’s feelings for Jane when, in reality, he was very much in love with Emma. Perhaps the person most hurt by gossip based on misperceptions is Harriet, who Emma assures will end up with Mr. Elton (though he, too, turns out to desire Emma as a wife).
The novel even ends with gossip between Mr. and Mrs. Elton about Emma and Knightley’s wedding:
The wedding was very much like other weddings, where the parties have no taste for finery or parade; and Mrs. Elton, from the particulars detailed by her husband, thought it all extremely shabby, and very inferior to her own.—“Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business!—Selina would stare when she heard of it.”
The fact that Emma ends with meaningless gossip underlines it as a strong motif throughout the story and shows that although Emma has matured and let go of her vain presumptions about others, others (like Mr. and Mrs. Elton) have not.