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Jane Austen's Emma: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:00 Character of Emma
  • 0:38 Plot Summary of Emma
  • 3:47 Analysis of Emma
  • 5:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Catherina McElroy
In Jane Austen's novel, 'Emma,' we're introduced to a wealthy young woman who prides herself in being a matchmaker. Although Emma has had some success, she doesn't always choose wise matches for her friends, but she unexpectedly finds the love of her life along the way.

Character of Emma

In Emma, Jane Austen writes about a woman who has everything that a lady of means in Victorian Britain could want. Emma is rich, pretty, smart, and if anything, is perhaps a bit too self-confident. However, she has to make some pretty big adjustments to her life as a result of the story. In this lesson, we will not only look at the story of Emma, but also see how Emma's character changes throughout the book. Finally, we'll look to see what Austen was trying to say as well as how the book inspired one of the most iconic films of the '90s.

Plot Summary of Emma

When we meet Emma, she has just realized that she is quite good at playing matchmaker. She convinces her governess and friend, Ms. Taylor, to marry Mr. Weston. From this, she thinks that she is gifted as a matchmaker, soon turning her talents to others that she knows. A great deal of this is out of boredom. After all, without Ms. Taylor around, it is just Emma and her father, who spends most of his time in a melancholy mood about the progress of his life. Emma tries to find him a new wife, even if it means having to hear from Ms. Bates about her niece Jane Fairfax, who Emma has a great deal of disdain for. Of course there is also Mr. Knightley, the brother of Emma's sister Isabella's husband, but more on him soon.

Emma also meets Harriet Smith, whom she describes as being, 'certainly was not clever, but had a sweet, docile, grateful disposition; was totally free from conceit; and only desiring to be guided by any one she looked up to.' In other words, Emma has a new project of finding someone for Harriet. Harriet is an orphan, so she doesn't have the social gravitas of Emma and is initially attracted to a farmer named Mr. Martin. Emma doesn't like this match, preferring instead a smooth-talking preacher, named Mr. Elton, who would advance Harriet's place in society. It turns out that he's a jerk who was just trying to marry Emma and runs off to get married to a woman who is thrilled with her new place in society.

Soon after, there's a party at which the Eltons are rude to Harriet and in comes Mr. Knightley offering to dancing with her. Harriet falls hard for him. Harriet is smitten, but on her way home is accosted by a group of thugs. Frank Churchill runs to the rescue, and when Emma talks to Harriet, Harriet says that she has fallen in love, even if the man is well above her social rank. Of course, Harriet is talking about Mr. Knightley, while Emma thinks that she is talking about Churchill. Emma thinks herself worthy of being pursued by Churchill and makes a great deal more out of some flirting than she should have.

Unknown to both of them, Churchill is engaged to Jane Fairfax. When Emma sees Jane's aunt, Ms. Bates, at a picnic, she insults her, wanting to knock her down a peg or two. Only one person will call Emma out on this, Mr. Knightley. Being criticized by him leaves her in tears as she realizes that she loves him. This change hits Emma hard. She realizes that she loves Mr. Knightley just as Churchill publicly announces his engagement and wonders how Mr. Knightley does not hold her in high regard.

Just as she's feeling despondent, Mr. Knightley states that he does love her. Now there is the only the issue of Harriet to be addressed. Harriet is upset, but realizes that she had loved Mr. Martin no matter what. Finally, the two couples agree that they will wed, but not before Jane and Emma realize that their vendetta was rather silly.

Analysis of Emma

You may think that all of this starts to sound a bit like high school drama after awhile. Emma realizes that she is in love with Mr. Knightley only after Harriet mentions that she is, while Harriet is not with Robert Martin because Emma convinced her that he was not the best choice for her. In fact, the 1995 movie Clueless is largely based on the story of Emma.

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