Emma is rich, beautiful, and clever, with time on her hands to devote to remaking the lives of others whom she regards as less fortunate and less clever. When her companion and former governess, Miss Taylor, marries a neighboring widower, Emma finds herself even more restless than usual. She takes under her wing young Harriet Smith, a pretty girl who admires Emma as a paragon of sophistication.
Emma sets her sights on marrying Harriet to a snobbish young rector, Mr. Elton, but he misunderstands her attentions and proposes marriage to her, instead. This defeat does not diminish Emma’s matchmaking ambitions, which are given added encouragement when another young man, Frank Churchill, and a young woman, Jane Fairfax, appear in the small community. Emma’s friend Mr. Knightly, the brother of her sister’s husband scolds her for playing with other people’s lives, but she refuses to listen to him.
In the end, the various couples are sorted out, according to social class and emotional inclination, and Emma discovers that she actually loves Mr. Knightly. She was wise enough, finally, to see the errors of her ways, and to reform. No longer will she consider the villagers as puppets for her amusement.
This witty, entertaining novel is also the most profound of Jane Austen’s works. Written with complete technical control, it resonates with a deep understanding of human nature. Austen never blinked at the foibles that plague human beings, but she did not despise the men and women of her books because they were imperfect. She had that rare ability to portray the foolishness in a person without a loss of sympathy.
Austen, Jane. Emma: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Reviews, and Criticism. Edited by Stephen M. Parrish. New York: W. W. Norton, 1972. An excellent beginning for the student first reading Emma, this collection brings together the definitive text, the background materials that Austen may have used, and important critical articles. A selected bibliography is included.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Jane Austen’s “Emma.” New York: Chelsea, 1987. In this representative selection of criticism, Austen scholars focus on aspects such as Emma’s imagination and Austen’s power of understatement. Also includes consideration of Emma in terms of feminist literary criticism. Index and bibliography.
Burrows, J. F. Jane Austen’s “Emma.” Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1968. A detailed study of the novel considering important critical interpretations and the use of language and comic style. A selected bibliography is included.
Dwyer, June. Jane Austen. New York: Continuum, 1989. A good basic reference for the general reader. The chapter on Emma gives a reading of the novel and discusses the novel’s focus on the problems that life poses for someone like the title character. Includes a bibliography.
Kirkham, Margaret. Jane Austen, Feminism and Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1986. Kirkham asserts that Austen’s viewpoint on such topics as the status of women, female education, marriage and authority, and women in literature is strikingly similar to that of eighteenth century English feminists. Includes a twenty-page chapter on Emma.
Lascelles, Mary. Jane Austen and Her Art. London: Oxford University Press, 1963. A classic study of Austen’s life and fiction, with emphasis on how she developed her literary taste and style. Refers to specific novels to show her evolving art and her mastery of the novel form.
Lauber, John. Jane Austen. New York: Twayne, 1993. The chapter on Emma gives a reading of the novel with special attention to the title character. It also discusses the novel’s place in Austen’s canon. The novel is also considered in the chapter “Austen and Her Critics.” Includes a chronology, annotated bibliography, and index.
Lodge, David, ed. Jane Austen: “Emma.” 1968. Rev. ed. London: Macmillan, 1991. Part of a highly regarded series of critical studies on well-known authors and their works. Includes reviews and critical readings by Austen contemporaries and more recent writers that were collected from books and journals. For the seriously interested reader.
Monaghan, David. Jane Austen: Structure and Social Vision. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1980. This critical work examines the moral ideas presented in Austen’s novels and considers their sources in the traditional social values and the new individualistic ethics of her time.
Sherry, Norman. Jane Austen. New York: ARCO, 1969. A general introduction to Austen’s works, this critical review offers a balanced approach to her work, covering background, themes, characterization, style, and tone.
Watt, Ian, ed. Jane Austen: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1963. A collection of critical, interpretive essays on Austen and her works, focusing on her style and themes with reference to broader human values and conditions.