In what sense is Jane Austen's novel Emma an education of its heroine, Emma Woodhouse?

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Emma by Jane Austen is a book almost entirely focused on the education or maturation of Emma Woodhouse, its eponymous heroine. At the beginning of the novel, Emma is portrayed as a clever and beautiful young woman with generally good intentions. However, she is lacking in empathy and often overestimates her own abilities and judgment and often tends to see what she wants to see rather than what is actually the case. Also, she often accepts her immediate surface impressions and can be superficial in her estimates of people and values. She also can tend to interfere with the lives of those around her without understanding the consequences.

Over the course of the novel, Emma learns greater modesty, humility, and self-restraint, and her eventual marriage to Knightley suggests that she will grow in moral stature and understanding, having learned from her unfortunate attempts at matchmaking a degree of wisdom and humility.

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Jamie Wheeler | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Emma, like many young people, thinks that she knows everything, especially what is best for the important people in her life.  Sometimes Emma's motivations are altruistic, that is, she wants what is best for another with no regard for herself.  Unfortunately, Emma frequently moves people around like chess-pieces, pawns in the game of matchmaking, staged for her amusement.  Emma claims early success in creating a "good match" for her governess, Miss Taylor to Mr. Weston.  Like a gambler, Emma gets a certain high from her victory with the pair and wants the adrenaline to continue.

Her plans are messed up when she attempts to match her friend Harriet, who (in Emma's opinion!) has had the audacity to select her own mate; and, to make matters worse, a man Emma does not approve of. 

Emma's plan to turn Harriet instead to the charming Mr. Knightly backfires when the plan works, for now Emma herself has fallen in love with Knightly.  And so has Harriet. 

Emma grows because she learns that people are not pawns, that she is not in control, and that she can give up the "addiction" and learn to live with less manipulation of others (even if she is not totally cured.)  This is the "education" of Emma.