Emma Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Emma

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 created one of her most memorable heroines, a willful, headstrong, yet fundamentally well-intentioned young woman whose intelligence and energy need the tempering of experience before she can be judged truly mature. She gains this experience through her relationship with Harriet when her manipulations backfire and she finds that Harriet believes herself to be in love with Mr. Knightley. With the force of a revelation, the truth of what she has done comes to Emma, along with the realization that she loves Knightley herself. As Austen writes, “Her own conduct, as well as her own heart, was before her in the same few minutes.” Seeing herself and her actions clearly for the first time, Emma is forced into difficult but necessary self-doubt and self-examination, a new but ultimately valuable experience for a young woman who has never before had cause to doubt her own judgment.

That Emma will learn from her mistakes is clear, and her happiness with Knightley, who has known and admired her since childhood, seems assured. Emma is Austen’s commentary on how little anyone knows about the workings of another’s heart and affections, and her heroine’s painful lesson is evidence of her creator’s wisdom.

Emma Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 arrival, the Westons receive a letter from Frank that sets another date for his visit. This time he actually appears, and Emma finds him a handsome, well-bred young man. He frequently calls on the Woodhouses and also on the Bates family, because of a prior acquaintance with Jane. Emma, rather than Jane, is the recipient of Frank’s gallantries, however, and Emma can see that the Westons are hoping that the romance will prosper.

About this time, Jane receives the handsome but anonymous gift of a pianoforte. It is presumed to have come from wealthy friends with whom Jane, who is an orphan, has lived, but Jane seems embarrassed at the present and refuses to discuss it. After Mrs. Weston points out to Emma that Knightley seems to show great preference and concern for Jane, Emma begins to wonder if the gift has come from him. Emma cannot bear to think of Knightley’s marrying Jane; after observing them together, she concludes to her own satisfaction that he is motivated by friendship, not love.

It is now time for Frank to end his visit, and he departs with seeming reluctance. During his last call at Hartfield, he appears desirous of telling Emma something of a serious nature; but she, believing him to be on the verge of a declaration of love, does not encourage him because in her daydreams she always sees herself refusing him and their love ending in quiet friendship.

Elton returns to the village with a hastily wooed and wedded bride, a lady of small fortune, extremely bad manners, and great pretensions to elegance. Harriet, who had been talked into love by Emma, cannot be so easily talked out of it. What Emma has failed to accomplish, however, Elton’s marriage does, and Harriet at last begins to recover. Her recovery is aided by Elton’s rudeness to her at a ball. When he refuses to dance with her, Knightley, who rarely dances, offers himself as a partner, and Harriet, without Emma’s knowledge, begins to think of him instead of Elton. Emma has actually begun to think of Frank as a husband for Harriet, but she resolves to do nothing to promote the match. Through a series of misinterpretations, Emma thinks Harriet was praising Frank when she was really referring to Knightley.

The romantic entanglement is further complicated because Mrs. Weston continues to believe that Knightley is becoming attached to Jane. In his turn, Knightley sees signs of some secret agreement between Jane and Frank. His suspicions are finally justified when Frank confesses to Mr. and Mrs. Weston that he and Jane have been secretly engaged since October. The Westons’ first thought is for Emma, for they fear that their stepson’s attentions to her might have had their effect. Emma assures Mrs. Weston that she had at one time felt some slight attachment to Frank, but that time is now safely past. Her chief concerns now are that she has said things about Jane to Frank that she would not have said had she known of their engagement, and also that she has, as she believes, encouraged Harriet in another fruitless attachment.

When she goes to break the news of Frank’s engagement gently to Harriet, however, Emma finds her quite unperturbed by it; after a few minutes of talking at cross-purposes, Emma learns that it is not Frank but Knightley upon whom Harriet has now bestowed her affections. When she tells Emma that she has reasons to believe that Knightley returns her sentiments, Emma suddenly realizes the state of her own heart; she herself loves Knightley. She now wishes she had never seen Harriet. Aside from wanting to marry Knightley herself, she knows a match between him and Harriet would be an unequal one, hardly likely to bring happiness to either.

Emma’s worry over this state of affairs ends when Knightley asks her to marry him. Her complete happiness is marred only by her knowing that the marriage will upset her father, who dislikes change of any kind; she is also aware that she has unknowingly prepared Harriet for another disappointment. The first problem is solved when Emma and Knightley decide to reside at Hartfield with Mr. Woodhouse as long as he lives. Harriet’s situation remains problematic; when Knightley was paying attention to her, he was really trying to determine the real state of her affections for his young farm tenant. Consequently, Knightley is able to announce one morning that Robert Martin has again offered himself to Harriet and has been accepted. Emma is overjoyed that Harriet’s future is now assured. She can reflect that all parties concerned have married according to their stations, a prerequisite for their true happiness.

Emma Summary

Emma begins at Hartfield estate on the day Emma Wood¬house’s former governess, Miss Taylor, marries Mr. Weston. Emma claims she...

(The entire section is 574 words.)

Emma Chapter Summary and Analysis

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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

Summary
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

New Characters:
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

Summary
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

New Characters:
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

Summary
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

Summary
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

New Characters:
Isabella Knightley: Emma’s sister

John Knightley: Emma’s brother-in-law

Summary
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

Summary
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

Summary
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

New Character:
Jane Fairfax: niece of Mrs. Bates; cousin of Miss Bates

Summary
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

New Characters:
Augusta Hawkins: Mr. Elton’s fiancée

Frank Churchill: Mr. Weston’s son and Mrs. Weston’s stepson

Summary
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

New Characters:
Mr. and Mrs. Cole: tradespeople of Highbury

Summary
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

Summary
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

Summary
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

Summary
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

Summary
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

Summary
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

Summary
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

Summary
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

Summary
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

Summary
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

Summary
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

Summary
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.)