Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The forces that shape the dramatic action in Emma are described by Austen in the book’s opening paragraphs; they are the qualities possessed by Emma Woodhouse herself. In this novel, Austen turns her satiric talents to a portrait of a wealthy young woman with “a disposition to think a little too well of herself,” who has yet to acquire the sensitivity to realize that the emotional lives of her companions are not toys for her own amusement.
With an adoring, widowed father and an indulgent companion, Emma has reached early adulthood secure in the belief that she knows what is best for those around her. When her companion marries, Emma replaces her with Harriet Smith, an impressionable young girl from a local school, and quickly decides that the girl’s fiancé, a farmer, is beneath her. Persuading Harriet to break off the engagement, despite the misgivings of Emma’s admiring friend, Mr. Knightley, Emma sets in motion a chain of romantic misunderstandings that will come close to ruining Harriet’s chances for happiness. After playing with the romantic futures of several of her acquaintances, Emma at last recognizes the dangers of her interference and realizes that her own chance for happiness has existed within her grasp for some time in the person of Mr. Knightley.
Emma is one of Austen’s best novels, with some critics holding it in higher regard than Pride and Prejudice. In Emma Woodhouse, Austen has...
(The entire section is 441 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Emma Woodhouse, a rich, clever, and beautiful young woman, has just seen her friend, companion, and former governess, Miss Taylor, married to a neighboring widower, Mr. Weston. While the match is suitable in every way, Emma cannot help sighing over her loss, for now only she and her father are left at Hartfield. Mr. Woodhouse is too old and too fond of worrying about trivialities to be a sufficient companion for his daughter.
The Woodhouses are the great family in the village of Highbury. In their small circle of friends, there are enough middle-age ladies to make up card tables for Mr. Woodhouse, but there is no young lady to be a friend and confidant to Emma. Lonely for her beloved Miss Taylor, now Mrs. Weston, Emma takes under her wing Harriet Smith, the parlor boarder at a nearby boarding school. Although not in the least brilliant, Harriet is a pretty seventeen-year-old girl with pleasing, unassuming manners and a gratifying habit of looking up to Emma as a paragon.
Harriet is the natural daughter of some unknown person; Emma, believing that the girl might be of noble family, persuades her that the society in which she has moved is not good enough for her. She encourages Harriet to give up her acquaintance with the Martin family, respectable farmers of some substance though of no fashion. Instead of thinking of Robert Martin as a husband for Harriet, Emma influences the girl to aspire to the Reverend Philip Elton, the young rector.
Emma believes from Elton’s manner that he is beginning to fall in love with Harriet, and she flatters herself on her matchmaking schemes. Her landowner neighbor George Knightley, the brother of a London lawyer married to Emma’s older sister and one of the few people who can see Emma’s faults, is concerned about her intimacy with Harriet. He warns her that no good can come of it for either Harriet or herself, and he is particularly upset when he learns that Emma has influenced Harriet to turn down Martin’s proposal of marriage. Emma herself suffers from no such qualms, for she is certain that Elton is as much in love with Harriet as Harriet—through Emma’s encouragement—is with him. Emma suffers a rude awakening when Elton, finding her alone, asks her to marry him. She suddenly realizes that what she had taken for gallantries to Harriet had been meant for herself. Elton has taken what Emma had intended as encouragement to his pursuit of Harriet as encouragement to aspire for her own hand. His presumption is bad enough, but the task of breaking the news to Harriet is much worse.
Another disappointment occurs in Emma’s circle. Frank Churchill, who has promised for months to come to see his father and new stepmother, again puts off his visit. Frank, Mr. Weston’s son by a first marriage, has taken the name of his mother’s family. Knightley believes that the young man now feels superior to his father. Emma argues with Knightley, but she finds herself secretly agreeing with him. Although the Hartfield circle is denied Frank’s company, it does acquire an addition in the person of Jane Fairfax, a niece of the garrulous Miss Bates. Jane rivals Emma in beauty and accomplishment; this is one reason why, as Knightley hints, Emma has never been friendly with her. Emma blames Jane’s reserve for their somewhat cool relationship.
Soon after Jane’s...
(The entire section is 1368 words.)
Chapter Summary and Analysis
Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis
New Characters: Emma Woodhouse: the protagonist of the novel
Mr. Woodhouse: Emma’s father
Mr. Knightley: neighbor and welcome visitor
Emma Woodhouse and her father dine at their estate of Hartfield without Emma’s former governess, Miss Taylor, whom this very day married Mr. Weston and moved half a mile down the road. Mr. Knightley pays a call. While Mr. Woodhouse grieves over the marriage that he views as an unfortunate change, Emma points out its positive benefits and claims to have arranged it. Mr. Knightley doubts her claim, suggesting the two parties were drawn to each other naturally. Emma remains convinced of her match-making and tells them she is going to do...
(The entire section is 165 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary and Analysis
Mr. Weston: husband of Emma’s former governess
Mrs. Weston: Emma’s former governess
Mr. and Mrs. Churchill: brother and wife of Mr. Weston’s first wife
Frank Churchill: son of Mr. Weston
Mr. Perry: local apothecary, also serving as Mr. Woodhouse’s doctor
We are given the backgrounds of five new characters. Mr. Weston, formerly Captain Weston of the militia, first married into the prominent Churchill family and was scorned by his wife’s brother and the controlling Mrs. Churchill, who thought him beneath their social class and disinherited their sister. The Westons had a son, Frank, and he was brought up by the...
(The entire section is 339 words.)
Chapters 3-5 Summary and Analysis
Mr. Elton: vicar of Highbury and a bachelor
Mrs. and Miss Bates: widow and daughter of the former vicar
Mrs. Goddard: headmistress of a boarding school
Harriet Smith: student of Mrs. Goddard
Mr. Robert Martin: tenant farmer of Abbey Mill
The Woodhouse’s inner circle of friends includes the Westons, Mr. Knightley, and Mr. Elton. The outer circle includes Mrs. and Miss Bates and Mrs. Goddard. Miss Bates is a spinster occupied with the care of her elderly mother. Mrs. Goddard is a motherly woman who, like the others, would gladly leave the comfort of her home to spend an evening at the Woodhouse’s gossiping, playing cards,...
(The entire section is 718 words.)
Chapters 6-8 Summary and Analysis
Emma encourages Harriet’s admiration of Mr. Elton. When he compliments Emma on Harriet’s improved manners, Emma points to Harriet’s natural charms, claiming that she had only to draw them out. She proposes Harriet sit for a portrait that she will paint and shows her portfolio, which Mr. Elton and Harriet view with unreserved praise.
While Harriet poses for her portrait, Mr. Elton hovers over Emma admiring every stroke. It is decided that in order to have it framed, Mr. Elton will take it to London—a commission he accepts with gusto. He is so pleased to be doing this chore that Emma questions his eagerness. Is it for Harriet or her?
The next day, Harriet tells Emma that Mr. Martin...
(The entire section is 490 words.)
Chapters 9-11 Summary and Analysis
Isabella Knightley: Emma’s sister
John Knightley: Emma’s brother-in-law
Emma begins composing riddles while Harriet writes them down. Mr. Elton is asked to come up with one. When he does, it is credited to a “friend” and written to Emma, but she interprets it as being meant for Harriet and congratulates her on her new alliance. Harriet cannot believe a man as popular and well-placed as Mr. Elton wants to marry her, but she takes Emma’s word for it.
Mr. Woodhouse comes in and prattles on about the impending visit from his daughter Isabella and her family just before Mr. Elton pays a call. Before he leaves, Emma picks up the riddle...
(The entire section is 454 words.)
Chapters 12-15 Summary and Analysis
When Mr. Knightley comes to dine with the family, Emma decides it is time to make up with him. She declares they were both right, and they pass a tolerable evening together. Mr. Woodhouse complains of how he will miss Isabella and of London not being a healthy place for her or anyone.
While Mr. Knightley discusses putting in a new path on his farm with his brother, Mr. Woodhouse chides Isabella for taking the children to the wrong part of the seaside. He tells her she should have consulted Mr. Perry, his doctor, because he knows the right part of the seaside where the air is healthier. John Knightley shouts his displeasure with Mr. Perry’s ideas, and the only thing that can console Mr. Woodhouse...
(The entire section is 594 words.)
Chapters 16-18 Summary and Analysis
Emma is miserable and confused. She cannot comprehend how she could have misread Mr. Elton so completely. Failing to make sense of it, she accuses Mr. Elton of seeking her affections to better establish his own position in the world. She goes to bed convinced she blundered everything.
When she wakes up Christmas morning, she is relieved to see the ground covered with snow. Confinement at home means that she won’t have to go out and face anyone, make excuses for Mr. Elton’s absence, or explain anything to Harriet.
On the day that John Knightley returns to London, a letter arrives from Mr. Elton announcing that he is off to Bath for a three-week visit. Emma turns her attention to...
(The entire section is 411 words.)
Chapters 19-21 Summary and Analysis
Jane Fairfax: niece of Mrs. Bates; cousin of Miss Bates
In an attempt to divert Harriet’s attention away from Mr. Elton, Emma calls on Mrs. and Miss Bates. They have just received a letter from their niece, Jane Fairfax. Emma attempts to coax Miss Bates into talking about the letter so she won’t have to actually hear it read. She learns that Jane Fairfax is coming to the house for a visit instead of going to Ireland with her adoptive parents.
Emma is curious about why Jane should come to Highbury instead of Ireland, but Miss Bates offers only bland assurance that Jane wants to visit. By the time Miss Bates gets around to actually reading the letter, Emma...
(The entire section is 558 words.)
Chapters 22-24 Summary and Analysis
Augusta Hawkins: Mr. Elton’s fiancée
Frank Churchill: Mr. Weston’s son and Mrs. Weston’s stepson
Miss Augusta Hawkins, the intended bride of Mr. Elton, is the focus of Highbury gossip. Townspeople learn that she has money and beauty and feel her well-suited to be the wife of their vicar. Emma cannot hear about either of them without feeling a pain. She considers their coupling a lesson in humility for her and turns her attentions to Harriet.
Though Emma has talked Harriet into being in love, she is having difficulty talking her out of it. The chance encounter with the Martin family and Mr. Elton’s engagement have put Harriet into a flurry...
(The entire section is 729 words.)
Chapters 25-26 Summary and Analysis
Mr. and Mrs. Cole: tradespeople of Highbury
Frank travels sixteen miles to get his hair cut, leaving himself open to criticism for his extravagance. Emma tries to keep his vanity in proportion, thinking it a small barrier to the love affair she is sure will blossom between them.
The Coles plan a party that will include the society of Highbury into which they are quickly rising. Emma is determined to decline their invitation, but when it comes it is so considerate and respectful that she asks the Westons for advice, hoping they will give her encouragement. When they do, she hastily accepts and makes arrangements for her father to be taken care of when she is...
(The entire section is 810 words.)
Chapters 27-29 Summary and Analysis
The next day, Emma has pangs of regret that she gossiped about Jane Fairfax, but her deeper regret is that she doesn’t play or sing as well as Jane does. Determined to improve, she sits down and practices until Harriet comes in full of flattery for Emma’s superior playing. When Harriet goes off to Ford’s shop, Emma goes with her, thinking to steer her away from any possible run in with Robert Martin.
At Ford’s shop, Harriet dawdles over her purchases while Emma looks down the road to see Mrs. Weston and Frank coming toward them. Mrs. Weston announces that they are on their way to the Bates’ house to hear the new pianoforte. When Frank sees Emma, he makes it plain that he prefers to stay...
(The entire section is 882 words.)
Chapters 30-31 Summary and Analysis
Preparations for the ball dictate that it be held later than Frank Churchill has been permitted to stay. When he requests an extended leave in order to attend, Mr. and Mrs. Churchill grudgingly give their consent. Thinking the matter settled, Emma is again thwarted by Mr. Knightley, who remains unmoved by the prospect of a ball despite her attempts to excite him about it. Two days later, a letter arrives from the Churchills urging their son to return home as his mother is unwell.
When he comes to say good-bye to Emma, she cannot help but feel touched by his display of dejection and loss at having to leave Highbury. She learns that he has stopped at the Bates’ house to say good-bye before coming to...
(The entire section is 759 words.)
Chapters 32-33 Summary and Analysis
Emma pays a courtesy call to the new Mrs. Elton and brings Harriet along. So distracted is Emma by her memories of the failed match between Harriet and Elton, she doesn’t form any immediate impression of his new bride. Eager to know Emma’s opinion of her, Harriet compliments her beauty only to be corrected by Emma’s scathing assessment. She proclaims that Mrs. Elton married to increase her status and fortune and that she threw herself at Mr. Elton because he was likely to be her only prospect.
Harriet wishes them happiness and tells Emma that she is over Mr. Elton now that he is happily married. Alone later, Emma sums up the new Mrs. Elton. She finds her vain, self-satisfied, pert, and limited...
(The entire section is 869 words.)
Chapters 34-36 Summary and Analysis
Emma plans a dinner party for the Eltons. She does not wish to be thought of as overlooking them and thinks people will talk if she doesn’t invite them. Just when everything is set, John Knightley appears with his two sons for a visit with their grandpa, Mr. Woodhouse. Their arrival throws Emma’s seating arrangement into disarray. She must plan to sit across from her brother-in-law whom she knows to be a reluctant conversationalist.
John Knightley surprises her by engaging in a lively conversation with Jane Fairfax. He tells her, and everyone at the table, that he saw her that morning, in the rain, on her way to the post office. Mr. Woodhouse chimes in that rain is unhealthy, and Mrs. Elton adds...
(The entire section is 735 words.)
Chapters 37-39 Summary and Analysis
When Frank Churchill returns, he pays a brief call on Emma and hurries away to Highbury to make other visits. From the beginning of their visit Emma senses that he is less in love with her than he had been during his former visit. Though he is as outwardly friendly and lively as ever regarding small matters, she detects an indifference toward her. Frank does not visit her again for the next ten days.
Emma learns that Frank’s aunt, Mrs. Churchill, cannot endure London and is moving the family to Richmond, nine miles from Highbury. Frank writes that he is happy with the move, as it situates him even closer to Highbury and more frequent visits. Plans are resumed to hold the ball at the Crown Inn....
(The entire section is 829 words.)
Chapters 40-42 Summary and Analysis
Harriet shows Emma the contents of a small parcel. It contains a small ceramic box with a piece of court plaister inside. Not long ago, Harriet had wrapped Mr. Elton’s cut finger with it. Along with the plaister is the head of a pencil. Harriet recounts that Mr. Elton once used the pencil to write in his notebook. Harriet resolves to throw both keepsakes into the fireplace. She does so proclaiming that this act spells the end of her feelings for Mr. Elton. Then Harriet says she will never marry.
Emma suggests Harriet’s vow means that she must be currently attracted to someone of superior rank. Harriet replies that this someone is so superior she can only content herself to admire him from a...
(The entire section is 1186 words.)
Chapters 43-45 Summary and Analysis
Although the party at Box Hill appears pleasant, Emma feels the gaiety is forced. People are separating into rigid groups, and Emma is growing restless. Frank acts listless and has nothing lively to say until he sits next to her. He initiates a flirtation which the others observe in silence.
To rouse them, Frank suggests a game. He announces that Emma has directed them to speak out what they are thinking. Though Miss Bates seizes the opportunity, Mrs. Elton acts offended that Emma should be in charge of the game. Mr. Knightley questions Emma directly, and Frank changes the game. Now the guests are to say one very clever thing, two moderately clever ones,
or three dull ones. Miss Bates offers...
(The entire section is 869 words.)
Chapters 46-47 Summary and Analysis
Ten days later, Mr. Weston shows up to take Emma to Randalls where Mrs. Weston informs her that Jane Fairfax and Frank are engaged and have been since the fall. Mrs. Weston is disappointed, but Emma is livid. She questions how he could have shown so much attention to her when he loved Jane instead. She says his actions go beyond impropriety and that he has sunk very low in her regard.
Mrs. Weston tells Emma that Mr. Churchill gave his ready consent to the match. When Emma inquires if the Campbells or the Dixons knew anything, Mrs. Weston assures her the engagement had been a closely-guarded secret between Frank and Jane. Emma grows angry again as she thinks of them in league with each other and how...
(The entire section is 830 words.)
Chapters 48-49 Summary and Analysis
Now that she is threatened with losing him, Emma is struck by how much her happiness has always depended on Mr. Knightley’s approval. She reviews their family ties, their visits, and their quarrels. Hope for any future with him seems doubtful because Harriet is in love with him, and Emma can’t be sure to whom Mr. Knightley will give his affection. She reasons that Harriet has proof that Mr. Knightley favors her, but Emma doesn’t.
Emma hopes Harriet is overrating Mr. Knightley’s interest in her. She reflects that since she has promised her father never to marry, the only situation that will bring her peace is if she were to discover that Mr. Knightley wants to remain single. Harriet’s...
(The entire section is 986 words.)
Chapters 50-52 Summary and Analysis
During the night, Emma suffers pangs of guilt about her father and Harriet. She resolves never to leave her father. As long as he is alive, she can only be engaged to Mr. Knightley. She ponders how to spare Harriet from pain. In an attempt to stave off the day when she must tell Harriet the truth, Emma plots to get an invitation for Harriet from her sister to come and visit them in London.
A letter arrives with a note of introduction from Mrs. Weston followed by a lengthy letter from Frank Churchill. It is a letter of explanation and apology addressed to his stepmother. Frank asks her forgiveness for not making his obligatory visit to her sooner. He confesses to coming to Highbury for the sole...
(The entire section is 1086 words.)
Chapters 53-55 Summary and Analysis
Mrs. Weston gives birth to a girl. Emma rejoices that she will have a girl child to educate. Mr. Knightley posits that she will have a girl child to spoil, just as she did Emma, but allows that he has lost all his bitterness toward spoiled children since finding happiness with Emma.
The two review highlights of the years leading up to their romance. Mr. Knightley reveals his long-standing affection for her, despite her impertinence. Emma owns that she had been a willful girl with a saucy manner. Emma silently reflects that she and Harriet do not correspond much. She feels the pain of concealing the true state of their relationship to Mr. Knightley.
A letter from Isabella gives a good...
(The entire section is 1165 words.)