(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

As in Austen's other work, the marriage plot predominates, but the central themes are found in the characters' interactions with each other and the degree of intelligence, humanity, capacity for growth, and kindness they bring to their inherited social positions. Emma, who has so many gifts, abuses them for much of the novel by trying to rearrange other people's lives—she manipulates Harriet Smith's emotions, hurts those of Miss Bates, all the while not knowing where her own feelings really lie. It is her discovery, guided by Knightley, both of her shortcomings and her real feelings that in a sense earn her betrothal to Knightley. Yet Emma's machinations, reprehensible as they may be, serve not just to expose her moral shortcomings, but the failings of others and of the social system itself. This exposure is particularly evident in the secret engagement between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax—subterfuge forced upon the couple by superficial considerations about money and propriety, and made especially painful for Jane when Churchill flirts with other women in her presence and then ignores her, all to conceal the engagement. Indeed, an encounter between Emma and Churchill toward the end of the novel (Chapter 18 of Volume 3) shows each admitting to the other the manipulative nature they share.

Adding to the sense of complexity of the social system is the capricious ease with which some characters fall into personal happiness and prosperity without themselves suffering very much, while others achieve happiness only after long and patient struggle. Jane suffers far more than Frank in the course of their secret union, and Knightley is overtly jealous of the twenty-three-year-old Frank Churchill being handed a fortune and marrying Jane, while he is to marry Emma, whom he has known since she was a child, only after a long, careful vigil (Chapter 13, Volume 3). Churchill, in a slight way, is socially stigmatized by his own passions in arranging the secret engagement (which Jane at one point calls off), but yet his youthful rashness is...

(The entire section is 838 words.)