Jane Austen's Emma: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Debbie Notari
In Jane Austen's novel, Emma, we're introduced to a wealthy young woman who prides herself in being a matchmaker. Although Emma has some success, she doesn't always choose wise matches for her friends, but she unexpectedly finds the love of her life along the way.


The Beginning

The setting of Emma is a country estate called Hartfield, located sixteen miles from London in the small town of Highbury. Hartfield is a large home, with only two occupants - 21-year-old Emma and her elderly father.

When the novel opens, Emma has recently experienced the loss of her beloved governess, Miss Taylor, who was really more of a friend than a governess. She had been with the family for 16 years, following the death of Emma's mother. Miss Taylor has left to get married to Mr. Weston, a man she met with the assistance of Emma's matchmaking skills.

As the story opens, Emma feels a bit at sea, and somewhat lonely. She does, however, have a few close friends. One is Mr. Knightley, who is in his late 30s and lives about a mile from Hartfield. His brother is married to Emma's sister Isabella, so he is practically family. Emma also has a new friend in Harriet Smith, an orphan who lives at Mrs. Goddard's school for girls.

Emma's Character

The novel opens with these lines: 'Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her' (Chapter One). Emma seems to have it all: beauty, brains, money, happiness and few worries. But through the course of the novel, Emma learns humility and gains maturity.

Emma's Father

As mentioned previously, Emma's father is elderly and a tad melancholy. He greatly misses his eldest daughter, Isabella, and feels sorry for her though she is happily married. When Miss Taylor leaves after her own wedding, his sadness increases. To Emma's credit, she tries to be cheerful and often brings a few local elderly, single women to visit him: Mrs. Bates, Miss Bates, and Mrs. Goddard.

Emma and Miss Smith

Harriet Smith and Emma become acquainted at one of the visits Emma hosts for her father, and soon become good friends. 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' (Chapter Four). Emma and Harriet are opposites in many ways. Emma is confident, established and wealthy; Harriet is unsure of herself, an orphan, and fairly poor. Harriet admires Emma so much that she forms her own opinions to match Emma's, and Emma loves this admiration.

Harriet has spent two months with a family, the Martins, who live at Abbey-Mill-Farm, and she loves them very much. It soon becomes apparent that Harriet is quite interested in Mr. Martin, a good-hearted young man who pursues her and performs kind deeds like going out of his way to bring her walnuts. However, Emma wants a loftier match for her friend.

Emma as Matchmaker

Because of her success in uniting Miss Taylor and Mr. Woodhouse, Emma feels she is an expert matchmaker. She decides to discourage Harriet Smith from forming a relationship with Mr. Martin, but instead encourages her to focus on Mr. Elton, the village vicar.

Mr. Elton is self-absorbed, and flatters himself to think that it is Emma who likes him, not Harriet. Emma does not suspect the misunderstanding at first, and is appalled when Mr. Elton reveals his love for her. Mr. Elton is humiliated by Emma's refusal, and scorns the idea that he could possibly be interested in Harriet. He leaves Highbury and finds a wife in Bath who is much like himself, pompous and tactless.

Soon afterward, Mr. and Mrs. Elton attend the local ball, and both are rude to Harriet. Mr. Knightley observes their behavior and asks Harriet to dance, much to Emma's delight. Little does Emma realize that this act of kindness on Mr. Knightley's part causes Harriet to fall in love with him.

Frank Churchill

A few days later, poor Harriet walks home only to be attacked by a group of gypsy thugs. Frank Churchill, the son of Mr. Weston, is coming to Highbury to visit his father and his secret love, Jane Fairfax. He notices the thugs and rescues Harriet. When Harriet mentions, cryptically, that she has fallen for someone above her station, Emma assumes she means she is in love with Frank Churchill.

Frank Churchill intrigues Emma. She enjoys his flirtations, and feels flattered in his pretended interest in her. She even tries to talk herself into caring for him, and those around the couple feel there may be something developing between them. However, Frank Churchill is secretly engaged to the beautiful niece of Miss Bates, Jane Fairfax. Emma is a bit jealous of Jane, who is beautiful and accomplished, just not wealthy.

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