Introduction | Characters | Character of Life


Emma Woodhouse is a young woman in Regency England. She lives with her father, a hypochondriac who is principally characterized by excessive concern for the health and safety of his loved ones. Emma's friend and only critic is the gentlemanly Mr. Knightley, her "neighbour" and brother-in-law (brother of her sister's husband). As the novel opens, Emma has just attended the marriage of Miss Taylor, her old governess and best friend. Having introduced Miss Taylor to her future husband Mr. Weston, Emma smugly takes credit for their marriage, and decides that she rather likes matchmaking.

Against Knightley's advice, she next tries to match her new friend, Harriet Smith (a sweet but none-too-bright girl of seventeen, described as "the natural (i.e. illegitimate) daughter of somebody") to the local vicar, Mr. Elton, first persuading her to refuse an advantageous marriage proposal from a respectable young farmer, Mr. Martin. Her matchmaking scheme goes awry when it turns out that Mr. Elton, a social climber, wants to marry Emma herself- not, as she had hoped, the poor and socially inferior Harriet. After Emma rejects his proposals, Mr. Elton goes on holiday. Harriet fancies herself heartbroken, though Emma does her best to convince her that Mr. Elton (who will reveal himself to be more and more arrogant and pompous as the story continues) is beneath them both.

An interesting development for Emma is the arrival in the neighbourhood of Frank Churchill, Mrs. Weston's stepson, whom she has never met but in whom she has a long-standing interest. Mr. Elton returns with another newcomer--a vulgar wife who becomes part of Emma's social circle, even though the two women loathe each other. A third new character is Jane Fairfax, the reserved but beautiful niece of Emma's impoverished neighbour, the loquacious Miss Bates (another comical character who serves to lighten the scene). Jane, who is very accomplished musically, is Miss Bates's pride and joy; Emma, however, envies her talent and somewhat dislikes her. Jane had lived with Miss Bates until she was nine, but Colonel Campbell, a friend indebted to her father for seeing him through a life-threatening illness, then welcomed her into his own home, where she became fast friends with his daughter and received a first-rate education. On the marriage of Miss Campbell, Jane returned to her relations to prepare (with dread) to earn her living as a governess.

In her eagerness to find some sort of fault with Jane - and also to find something to amuse her in her pleasant but dull village - Emma indulges in the fantasy invented by Frank that Jane fancied Miss Campbell's husband, Mr. Dixon, and that it is for this reason she has returned home, rather than going to Ireland to visit them. This suspicion is further fuelled by the arrival of a piano for Jane from a mysterious, anonymous benefactor.

The plot becomes quite complex as Emma tries to make herself fall in love with Frank simply because everyone says they make a handsome couple. Emma ultimately decides, however, that he would suit Harriet better after an episode where Frank saves her protégée from a band of Gypsies. During this time, Mrs. Weston wonders if Emma's old friend Mr. Knightley might have taken a fancy to Jane. Emma promptly decides that she does not want him to marry anyone, but rather than further exploring these feelings, she claims that she wants her nephew Henry to inherit the family property. When Mr. Knightley scolds Emma for a thoughtless insult to Miss Bates, she finally recognises her own shortcomings, and tries to atone. Around this time, Emma is further discomfited when she learns that Jane and Frank have been secretly engaged for almost a year. When Harriet confides that she thinks Mr. Knightley is in love with her, jealousy forces Emma to realize that she loves him herself. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Knightley proposes to Emma, Harriet reconciles with her young farmer, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Principal characters

Emma Woodhouse, the protagonist of the story, is a pretty, high-spirited, intellectual, and slightly spoiled woman of 20. Though vowing she will never marry, she delights in making matches for others. It is only at the end of the novel that Emma realizes that she is in love with her longtime friend and connection, George Knightley.

Mr. George Knightley, Emma's brother-in-law aged about 37, is among the very few people to find any fault with Emma. Knightley is highly respected and considered very much a gentleman, and there is a no-nonsense air about him. He is the standard against which all the men in Emma's life are measured. He is constantly disputing with Mrs. Weston about Emma's spoiled upbringing because of his long and deep-seated affection for her.

Mr. Frank Churchill, an amiable man who manages to be liked by everyone except for Mr. Knightley, who considers him quite immature. Frank thoroughly enjoys dancing and music and likes to live life to the fullest. Frank may be viewed as a less villainous version of characters from other Austen novels, such as Mr. Wickham from Pride & Prejudice or Willoughby from Sense and Sensibility.

Jane Fairfax, an orphan whose only family consists of an aunt, Miss Bates, and a grandmother, Mrs. Bates. She is regarded as a very elegant woman with the best of manners and is also very well educated and exceptionally talented in singing and playing the piano; in fact, she is the sole person that Emma envies.

Harriet Smith, a young friend of Emma's, is a very pretty girl who is too easily led by others, especially Emma. The illegitimate daughter of initially unknown parents (she is nonetheless revealed in the last chapter to be the daughter of a fairly rich and decent tradesman, although not a "gentleman"), Harriet has been educated at a nearby school; Emma takes her under her wing early in the novel, and she becomes the subject of some of Emma's misguided matchmaking attempts. Harriet initially rebuffs a marriage proposal from farmer Robert Martin because of Emma's belief that he is beneath her, despite Harriet's own humble origins. Ultimately, Harriet and Mr. Martin are wed despite Emma's meddling.

Philip Elton is the good-looking and ambitious young vicar. Emma wants him to marry Harriet; he wants to marry Emma. Mr. Elton displays his mercenary nature by quickly marrying another woman of means after Emma's rejection.

Augusta Elton is Mr. Elton's monied but abrasive wife. She is portrayed to be a very pretentious woman who always likes to be the center of attention and is generally disliked by Emma and her circle. She patronizes Jane, which earns Jane the sympathy of others.

Mrs. Weston, formerly Miss Taylor, was Emma's governess for sixteen years and remains her closest friend and confidante after she marries Mr. Weston in the opening chapter. Mrs. Weston acts as a surrogate mother to Emma and, occasionally, as a voice of moderation and reason.

Miss Bates, an old maid whose mother is a friend of Mr. Woodhouse. She is slighted by Emma for being ridiculous. Emma is later confronted by Mr. Knightley about it and tries to make amends.

Life Response

Howard Roark of the Fountainhead is a man true to Himself which attracted life to him. Emma's meddlesomeness created an endless series of disasters -- i.e. negative life responses, observable even at the gross/material level, that had the character of returning the opposite of her intention, leading to her own confusion and severe anguish. In this way Emma is the inverse of Roark. She is not self, venturing out to try to influence other selves, when her own being is incomplete.

However, through a series of blows -- where every scheme, arrangement, and strongly held perception of reality proves to be false, coming back to haunt her as lovers come together in their own pattern, not as she intended -- she comes to see her own false ways. Her change in attitude and consciousness enables her to shed her interfering nature, attracting the very man, Mr. Knightley, who repeatedly warned her about the merit of her false intentions and actions. It is he, her best friend, whom she in the end falls in love with and marries.

Love itself is a life response to shedding of her need to help others find love and husbands. It takes the form of Emma's sudden and unexpected love for Knightley, and his sudden revelation of love for her. (It was subconscious for both all along.) Knightley's unexpected love coming to her is the response of the reversal of her meddlesomeness towards others. When she saw the falsehood and shed the latter, the former came.

One must find love in one's self before one can find love for others.

At the end, her priorities were in the right order.

Still one wonders if her qualities would rise again later on in this marriage. Fortunately she has a husband who is strong, at least in his willingness to bring her faults out into the open, which could keep the marriage in order. If not, it could fall back to friendship or worse. These are mere speculations.

Emma is a very enjoyable story. Very humorous. This work of Austen was exceptionally sharp and brilliant. A great character study.

It relates very much to the idea that close friendship could blossom into love and marriage. It seems rare and precious. Perhaps, as this episode indicates, it requires a real change for one or both parties. Then it can move to the next level.