Jane Austen's Emma: Summary, Analysis & Quiz
In Jane Austen's novel, 'Emma,' we are 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
It is about this time that Emma acts badly toward Miss Bates at a picnic. Miss Bates, humble and homely, tends to self-deprecate, and she prattles on about saying something dull. Emma replies that it may be difficult for Miss Bates to limit herself to saying just three dull things. When Mr. Knightly reprimands her later, his words pierce her heart. He says:
'It was badly done, indeed! You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour, to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her - and before her niece, too - and before others, many of whom (certainly some) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her' (Chapter 43). Emma weeps, knowing he is right. The one person in her life who cares enough to confront her is Mr. Knightley.
Sorting Things Out
As the story comes to a conclusion, Frank Churchill's aunt dies, freeing him up to announce his engagement to Jane Fairfax. Initially, Emma feels stung because he led her on. Then, to Emma's great joy, Mr. Knightley unexpectedly reveals his love for her. They agree to stay on at Hartfield so as not to abandon her father. But Emma must reveal this to Harriet, who is heartbroken because she formed an attachment to Mr. Knightley at the ball.
However, Harriet soon realizes that she has really loved Mr. Martin all along. Mr. Martin has bided his time, patiently pursuing Harriet until she says 'yes' to his proposal. Emma ruefully admits that she is not such a good matchmaker, after all, and gladly gives up that occupation for a new one - being the wife of her dearest friend and love, Mr. Knightley.
Throughout the novel, Emma grows in humility and wisdom. She learns that the happiness in her life is a gift, and that not everyone enjoys the privileges she does. She sees that some people act badly, and that she can, too, if she is not careful. Best of all, she finds in her own heart the ability to love her best friend, Mr. Knightley.
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