The Importance of Unspoken Speech in “Emma”

“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 feelings 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 about Mr. Perry that only the Miss Bates, Mrs. Bates and Jane knew about, making it obvious that Jane had told him. “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 insults Miss Bates and gets 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. She even finally admits to herself that she has feelings for Mr. Knightley.

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.

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6 thoughts on “The Importance of Unspoken Speech in “Emma”

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  2. davidginsberg Post author

    Clemence: What you said – “The characters, when they cannot speak up their mind, have to turn to unspoken speech, which is the only way they can be understood, and only by who want to be understood” is of key importance. These silent cues are the characters at their most expressive, and, what might even be more important, is which characters have these moments. Emma, Mr. Knightley, Jane, and Frank Churchill – the love interests – are the ones that have these unspoken bonds.

    Angela: I missed a lot of Jane Austen’s meaning along the way as well. The class discussions helped immensely and by the last volume, I feel that I was able to figure it out on my own.

    Ali: I agree about Frank’s letter. Like you said, it’s written verbatim unlike any other letter in the book. I think it highlights the importance of it and brings Frank Churchill into a new light for us. There was more below the surface of Frank Churchill than anyone, including the reader, realized. I also think that without the narrator’s hints, we’d be even further in the dark than Emma often is.

    Professor: Wood and Flavin’s claims about f.i.s in fiction leads me to believe that it does influence what the reader is thinking but I’ll share the rest of my thoughts in class.

    See you all tonight. Thanks for the comments.

  3. Jason Tougaw

    Your quotations make it really clear how crucial “unspoken thought” is to the novel’s plot–and to Austen’s commentary on the social expectations of her time. Austen’s use of free indirect speech (or style or discourse) is key to revealing various character’s unspoken thoughts. I’ll be curious to hear your responses to James Wood’s and Louise Flavin’s claims about how free indirect speech works in fiction. Does it control our responses? Does it blend the consciousness of narrator, character, and reader? How does it create irony? Does it help Austen critique the social expectations of her time, or does it make her position ambiguous? We should talk about these questions in class.

  4. Ali Troiano

    I think you highlight a really important point about communication in this novel. I agree with Clemence that this reliance on unspoken speech most likely reflects the constraints of the time. I also think your point about the written letter is interesting. I wonder why this was the only letter that was literally written in to the text. The other letters within the text are merely summarized or quoted. This letter is also the first time we are exposed to the true Frank (one that is not hiding behind the facade of his secret engagement). In this way, the letter portrays a clearer picture of the character than all the other instances in the novel.

    It is also interesting to think about how the narration relates to the points you make about unspoken language. The omniscient narrator allows us to see beyond these unspoken signals and better understand the communication that lies beneath the surface. Without the narrator’s hints throughout the text, the reader might be left in the dark (much like Emma most of the time).

  5. Angela

    David, your interpretation of the unspoken speech in “Emma” was excellently captured. The passages in the book that you referenced clearly demonstrate Austen’s ability to send a message somewhat masked. Because of this style of writing, there were many times that I, as the reader, missed the meaning, and as you commented, was grateful for our class discussions. The classroom discussions changed my opinion of this novel as well.

  6. clemence

    I totally agree with you on the importance of unspoken speech. This is, as we were saying last week, mostly due to the fences of the language in the society at that time. The characters, when they cannot speak up their mind, have to turn to unspoken speech, which is the only way they can be understood, and only by who want to be understood. The language in Emma sometimes seems powerless, and I agree when you say we often find a “bunch of nonsense”, because the characters conversations are mostly baised on generalities.

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