80 pages 2 hours read


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1815

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Summary and Study Guide


Emma is a fiction novel published in 1815 by the English author Jane Austen. The book centers on the character development of its eponymous protagonist, a genteel young woman on a country estate who meddles in the love lives of friends and neighbors. Jane Austen was conscious that Emma’s snobbery, vanity, and meddling might make her a “heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” (Austen-Leigh, James Edward. A Memoir of Jane Austen. London: Richard Bentley & Sons. 1882). However, despite her flaws audiences throughout the years have found Emma interesting and relatable, and numerous cinematic adaptations have reinterpreted her character for new generations. These include Douglas McGrath’s 1996 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 film starring Anya Taylor-Joy. Other adaptations such as Amy Heckerling’s 1995 movie Clueless have taken the themes and basic storyline of Emma and set them in a contemporary context.

This study guide refers to the 1882 edition published by Richard Bentley & Son.

Plot Summary

Emma begins by asserting that the eponymous protagonist has every advantage that an early 19th-century young lady could wish for. Emma Woodhouse, who lives in the fictional town of Highbury in Southern England has good looks, intelligence, and a 30,000-pound fortune which means she never has to leave Hartfield, the home where she lives with her doting father Mr. Woodhouse. When her governess Miss Taylor leaves Hartfield to marry Mr. Weston, Emma is left with ample leisure time. As she has no inducement to marry, she decides that she will occupy herself by making a match for her new friend, the unsophisticated but beautiful Harriet Smith. She urges Harriet to reject the proposal of young farmer Robert Martin in favor of pursuing Highbury’s handsome vicar, Mr. Elton. When Emma’s longstanding family friend and brother-in-law Mr. Knightley learns of her interference in Harriet’s love-life, he criticizes her, warning that she is so deluded by Harriet’s beauty that she overlooks the stigma of her lower social status, which will deter higher-born suitors such as Mr. Elton. When Emma sees that Mr. Elton is a willing participant in her schemes to get him close to Harriet, she thinks that Mr. Knightley will be proven wrong. However, when she learns that she is the true object of Mr. Elton’s intentions, Emma is humbled and resolves to do no more matchmaking.

The New Year brings some new arrivals to Highbury. These include Mr. Elton’s new wife, the overbearing Mrs. Elton; Jane Fairfax, the accomplished, attractive niece of Emma’s tiresome neighbors; and Frank Churchill, Mr. Weston’s son from his first marriage to the high-born Miss Churchill. Frank claims that he had to keep putting off his visit to Highbury owing to the interventions of his aunt Mrs. Churchill, who disapproved of his parents’ marriage. For Emma, Frank is the most eagerly anticipated of these arrivals, as he is reportedly a handsome young man of about her age and she is eager to be romantically attached to him, even if she does not wish to marry. While Frank’s is undoubtedly attractiveness, he and Emma fall into an easy friendship, as he entertains her unfounded notion that cold, reserved Jane Fairfax is passionately in love with her brother-in-law Mr. Dixon. Although Emma understands that she ought to pity Jane Fairfax, who will have to leave her comfortable life with the family who raised her to become a governess, she cannot help disliking Jane because the latter’s talents make her feel inferior. Guided by her dislike of Jane and by Frank’s affirmations that he finds Jane unattractive, Emma overlooks the clues which indicate a secret attachment between Frank and Jane.

Meanwhile, tensions rise between the Eltons and Emma as Mr. Elton resents that Emma judged him only worthy of marrying her lower status friend. Moreover, Mrs. Elton covets Emma’s centrality in Highbury’s social scene. The Eltons take out their frustrations with Emma on Harriet, especially when Mr. Elton publicly snubs her at a ball by refusing to dance with her. Mr. Knightley comes to Harriet’s rescue, and soon after Harriet confesses to Emma that she has an anonymous new love interest. Emma, who has just witnessed the romantic incident of Harriet’s rescue by Frank from a band of itinerant individuals who threaten her, imagines that Frank is the new love interest. Later, when Emma learns that Frank and Jane have been secretly engaged and breaks this news to an indifferent Harriet, Harriet delivers the blow that the object of her affections is Mr. Knightley. A horrified Emma realizes that she does not want Mr. Knightley to marry anyone but herself. She puts purposeful distance between herself and Harriet, fearing that she has lost Mr. Knightley forever. However, Mr. Knightley confesses his love for Emma, and they get married. Harriet, meanwhile, through a chance encounter, finds her way back to Robert Martin. As they have married into different social classes, Emma and Harriet must be more acquaintances than friends.

Related Titles

By Jane Austen