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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

For other uses, see Emma (disambiguation).

Emma is a comic novel by Jane Austen, first published in 1816, about the perils of misconstrued romance. The main character, Emma Woodhouse, is described in the opening paragraph as "handsome, clever, and rich" but is also rather spoiled. Prior to starting the novel, Austen wrote, "I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like."

Plot summary

Emma Woodhouse is a young woman in Regency England. She lives with her father, a confirmed hypochondriac whose main topic of conversation is the virtues of gruel. Emma's best friend and only critic is the gentlemanly Mr. Knightley, her neighbor 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. 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 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 protegée 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 21. 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, a neighbor aged about 37, is one of the only 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 and 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 unknown parents, 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's. She is slighted by Emma for being ridiculous. Emma is later confronted by Mr. Knightley about it and tries to make amends.

Film and television adaptations

Emma has been the subject of many adaptations [1]:

  • 1996: Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma.
  • 1996: Emma, starring Kate Beckinsale as Emma.
  • 1995: Clueless (a modernized version), starring Alicia Silverstone as Cher Horowitz (Emma).
  • 1972: Emma, starring Doran Godwin as Emma.

The plot of the 1995 film Clueless was a loose modern adaptation of Emma.

Criticism and themes

Emma Woodhouse is the first Jane Austen heroine with no financial concerns, which, she declares to the naïve Miss Smith, is the reason that she has no inducement to marry. This is a great departure from Austen's other novels where the quest for marriage is the main focus and theme of the story. Emma's ample financial resources are one of the factors that make this novel so much lighter than Austen's earlier works, such as Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Jane Fairfax's prospects, in contrast, are bleak.

Emma also proves surprisingly immune to romantic attraction and sexual desire. In contrast to Austen heroines like Elizabeth Bennet and Marianne Dashwood, who are attracted to the wrong man before they settle on the right one, Emma shows no romantic interest in the men she meets. She is genuinely surprised and somewhat disgusted when Mr. Elton declares his love for her. Her fancy for Frank Churchill represents more of a longing for a little drama in her life than a longing for romantic love. Notably, too, Emma utterly fails to understand Harriet Smith and Robert Martin's budding affection for each other; she interprets the prospective match solely in terms of financial settlements and social ambition. Only after Harriet Smith reveals her interest in Mr. Knightley does Emma realize her own feelings for him.

While Emma differs strikingly from Austen's other heroines in these two respects, she resembles Elizabeth Bennet and Anne Elliot, among others, in another respect: she is an intelligent young woman with too little to do and no ability to change her location or everyday routine. Though her family is loving and her economic circumstances comfortable, her everyday life is dull indeed, and she has few companions of her own age when the novel begins. Emma's determined and inept matchmaking may represent a muted protest against the narrow scope of a wealthy woman's life, especially that of a woman who is single and childless. Her name speaks beauty.

Further reading

  • Emma (New Casebooks) by David Monaghan ISBN 0-312-07908-7

External links

Wikisource has original text related to this article:
Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
  • An examination of Emma's theme and its slavery subtext
  • Chronology/Calendar for Emma

The text is now in the public domain.

  • Emma, available freely at Project Gutenberg
  • Emma, online at Ye Olde Library
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