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SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Emma by Jane Austen.
Emma is a novel by early nineteenth-century author Jane Austen. It was first published in 1815 but passed through several editions during and after the author’s life. One of the first works by a woman to be considered canonical in its own time, the novel concerns a female protagonist whose youthful exuberance imperils, but also expands, her romantic and social life. It takes place in a fictitious village called Highbury surrounded by Hartfield, Donwell Abbey, and Randalls, and concerns a number of relationships there. The novel is known for exploring the complexities of the lives of English genteel women and the norms they lived with involving marriage, gender, generational difference, and social status.
The novel begins by introducing the protagonist, Emma Woodhouse. She has just returned from the wedding of her friend, the governess Miss Taylor, to a man named Mr. Weston. Having introduced the pair, Emma internally takes credit for their successful relationship and decides she enjoys matchmaking. When she returns to Hartfield, she continues trying out these skills despite the protests of Mr. Knightley, her sister’s brother-in-law.
Her first subjects are the possible couple Harriet Smith and Mr. Elton, a vicar. Emma first tries to convince Harriet to reject the proposal of a well-respected and educated farmer named Robert Martin. After she does so, the vicar mistakenly thinks Emma is in love with him and proposes to her instead of Harriet. Angered, he leaves the city and comes back with a wife. Harriet is devastated, and Emma feels bad for leading her on.
Next, Mr. Weston’s son Frank arrives for a visit and makes a number of friends. Mr. Knightley tells Emma that though he is ostensibly interesting, he is a shallow man. Jane Fairfax, niece of Miss Bates, comes to visit as well. Emma does not like Jane much because she is jealous of her education, which elicits praise from everyone. Mrs. Elton offers to mentor Jane and find her a role as a governess. Emma begins to feel pity for Jane’s lack of freedom that results from being desirable.
Some time later, Emma perceives that Jane and Mr. Dixon, the new son-in-law of Colonel Campbell, are in love, which explains why Jane came home so early. She tells Frank about her hypothesis knowing that he had observed Jane before, and he agrees. Emma starts falling in love with Frank, but the feeling lasts only briefly.
Mr. Elton rejects Harriet at a ball put on by the Westons that May; Mr. Knightley steps in to ask for her dance. The next day, Frank brings Harriet to Hartfield. Meanwhile, Mrs. Weston begins to wonder if Mr. Knightley likes Emma. Emma refutes her hypothesis. Mr. Knightley, conversely, observes a bond between Frank and Jane, but Emma dismisses that as well. When he instead proposes that Emma and Frank have a bond, she denies it, suggesting that their relationship is one-sided.
A gathering happens in Donwell that June, and Jane limits her contact with Frank. The next day, at a beauty spot called Box Hill, Frank and Emma converse, and she jokingly insults Miss Bates. Mr. Knightley admonishes her; ashamed, Emma goes to apologize to Miss Bates, impressing him. During the apology visit, Emma learns that Jane has taken an offer to work as a governess for a friend of Mrs. Elton. Jane falls ill and refuses to talk to Emma or accept gifts. Frank goes off to visit his sick aunt, but she dies soon after his arrival. He and Jane tell the Westons that they are engaged, having agreed to marry the previous autumn. Frank hid the engagement, knowing that his aunt would be upset. The secret had caused much tension, causing the two to fight. In the end, Jane called off the engagement. Frank’s uncle announces his blessing for their marriage, causing it to become public. Emma is surprised to learn that her perception about their relationship had been incorrect.
Near the end of the book, Emma is confident that news of Frank’s engagement will upset Harriet. Again, she is surprised when Harriet informs her that she is in love with Mr. Knightley. Though she knows he is out of her league, Harriet thanks Emma for giving her the confidence to pursue a relationship. Emma suddenly realizes that she is also in love with Mr. Knightley.
Mr. Knightley visits to comfort Emma about Frank’s pending marriage to Jane, believing that she is upset about it. She admits her confusion, and he proposes to her. Emma accepts the engagement. Meanwhile, Robert Martin proposes to Harriet again, and she accepts as well. Jane and Emma make up. After the mourning period ends, Frank and Jane plan to marry.
The novel ends in late November, as Mr. Knightley and Emma are married. The narrator makes the ironic claim that they have finally achieved “perfect happiness.”
A tale about the distinction between emotional love and the transactional love enacted in marriage and made public for social gain, Emma explicitly highlights the economy that underlies public announcements of private relationships. The novel suggests that in reality, all individuals have both emotional and economic purposes behind their decisions to form unions.