Emma: Novel by Jane Austen - Summary & Analysis

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      Emma, has two interconnecting plots. The ‘outward plot’ is concerned with the comings and goings, advances and reverses of a small circle of moderately well-born people in a provincial town, Highbury. The ‘inward’ plot is concerned with the mind of the novel’s heroine, Emma Woodhouse. The outward plot tells the love stories of three couples, whose weddings are the culmination of the novel. Emma herself and Mr. Knightley, Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, Harriet Smith and Robert Martin. The inward plot traces the development of Emma’s mind from ill-founded self-satisfaction, through several humiliations, to self-knowledge and good sense. The two plots are very closely linked, partly because almost all the action takes place around Emma, but principally because much of it is initiated by her. Her manipulation of the characters around her affects their stories, and also demonstrates her state of mind: her ‘fancy’, or imaginary perception of what a situation is or might be, leads her and them into many false positions.

      The characters whom we first meet around Emma are her indulgent but demanding father; her former governess Mrs. Weston and her new husband and Mr. George Knightley, a neighbouring landowner. We later meet her sister Isabella and her husband John, who is Mr. Knightley’s brother and other neighbours, including Mrs. and Miss Bates and Mr. and Mrs. Cole. Emma determines to find a wife for Mr. Elton, the vicar. When she meets Harriet Smith who is pretty but not very intelligent and socially inferior to herself she decides to befriend her, ‘to bring her on’ and to marry her to Mr. Elton.

      Despite Mr. Knightley’s warnings, Emma brings them together a great deal at her house, Hartfield. She makes Harriet refuse the proposal of marriage she receives from Robert Martin, a tenant farmer on Mr. Knightley’s estate, whom she does not think grand enough for her protegee. Mr. Knightley who thinks the two ideally matched in rank and education, angrily criticises Emma for interfering, and tells her that Mr. Elton will never marry Harriet, who has neither wealth nor rank. They quarrel.

      Emma believes her scheme is successful. Mr. Elton’s constant visits to them, his interest in a portrait she paints of Harriet, the charade or puzzle-poem that he brings them, all make her think that he admires Harriet—though he does not propose marriage when Emma contrives to leave them alone together. Emma and Mr. Knightley make up their quarrel, but she still justifies herself for turning Harriet away from Robert Martin. At a party given by the Westons at their house, Randalls, Mr. John Knightley warns Emma that Mr. Elton is interested in her, and that her manner towards him is too encouraging. She says he is quite mistaken: Her own opinion of Mr. Elton is that he is ridiculous and pretentious.

      Snow cuts the party short, and Emma finds herself returning in a carriage alone with Mr. Elton who surprises and distresses her by declaring that he loves her, and cares nothing for Harriet. When she repeatedly repulses him he accuses her of having led him on; both are furious. This scene induces Emma’s first period of humiliation; her first inkling that she may have been wrong, that she has misread all the signs, that she has misled Harriet. She despises Mr. Elton for his proposal, which she puts down to her wealth and position, but acknowledges that she has appeared too encouraging. She resolves never to match-make again, and feels great shame for having raised Harriet’s expectations, though she still feels that she was right to make her refuse Robert Martin’s proposal. Mr. Elton goes to Bath. Emma has to tell Harriet what has happened and destroy the hopes that she has built, though she cannot destroy Harriet’s admiration for Mr. Elton.

      Jane Fairfax, an orphaned granddaughter of Mrs. Bates, comes to stay with the Bateses. She has been brought up by a Colonel and Mrs. Campbell with their own daughter, now Mrs. Dixon. Emma admires her elegance and her accomplished piano-playing and singing, but does not seek her friendship as Mr. Knightley thinks she should. Emma is repelled by Miss Fairfax’s cold, reserved manner and her tedious relations; Mr. Knightley sees that the two young women are of equal education and rank, although Emma is rich and Miss Fairfax is poor. Emma begins to speculate about Jane Fairfax’s relationship with the Campbell’s son-in-law, Mr. Dixon.

      News comes that Mr. Elton is to be married to a well-to-do lady he has met at Bath. Harriet’s shock is blunted by her agitation at meeting Robert Martin and his sisters, who invite her to visit them: Emma ensures that the visit is as short as possible by calling for Harriet herself.

      Everyone in Highbury has heard a great deal about Mr. Weston’s son by his first marriage, now called Frank Churchill, who has been brought up by his uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. Churchill. His letters are admired; a visit has been promised and postponed many times. At last, he arrives; Emma finds him pleasant and charming, and as they walk and talk she feels they have established an instant rapport. It has already crossed her mind that they might be a suitable match for each other. He visits all his father’s friends, including Jane Fairfax, whom he has met some months before at Weymouth with the Campbells. Emma questions him closely about Mr. Dixon.

      Her suspicions about Mr. Dixon are increased when an unknown admirer sends Jane Fairfax a piano. Mrs. Weston, however, suspects that the sender is Mr. Knightley, and that he might marry Miss Fairfax, a prospect which displeases Emma. Frank Churchill criticises Jane Fairfax to Emma, who tells him her suspicions about Mr. Dixon; the next day she feels that she has done wrong in gossiping to him. Frank Churchill, who often visits the Bateses, not only encourages Emma in her suspicions but hints about them to Miss Fairfax. He suggests that a ball be held in Highbury, and plans are made, but it is postponed when he has to leave because Mrs. Churchill is ill. Before he goes Emma thinks he is on the point of proposing marriage to her: she avoids what she thinks is to be the declaration, and reflects afterwards that he is very much in love with her, but that she is not much in love with him. She now conceives the idea that he should marry Harriet.

      Mr. Elton returns with his bride, who is treated with all the ceremony attendants upon a newly married woman. She is extremely vulgar, boastful and opinionated. Mr. Knightley, on Emma’s enquiry, makes it clear that he does not intend to marry Jane Fairfax, but he points out that Emma should have become her friend, and not left her at the mercy of the over-familiar Mrs. Elton. Because of her poverty, Jane Fairfax will eventually have to become a governess; Mrs. Elton is officiously determined to find her a position immediately. Emma’s suspicions about Jane Fairfax are heightened when she hears that she has been seen walking in the rain to the post office. Emma concludes that she has been receiving letters from Mr. Dixon.

      The long-awaited ball takes place. Frank Churchill is extremely attentive to Emma. Mr. Elton openly refuses to dance with Harriet Smith, and Mr. Knightley saves her from embarrassment by dancing with her. Emma compares Mr. Knightley’s manner and appearance favourably with those of all the other men present, and they dance and talk spiritedly together.

      The next day, Harriet is set upon by gipsies, and is rescued by Frank Churchill. Emma, seeing them thrown together in this way, thinks how splendid it would be if they married. This time, she resolves not to interfere. Harriet burns her mementoes of Mr. Elton. She confesses that she admires someone else whom Emma takes to be Frank Churchill: Emma encourages her to think that she can marry somebody who is her social superior.

      Mr. Knightley comes to the conclusion that there is a ‘private understanding’ between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, and that the latter is therefore double-dealing by paying attentions to Emma. He warns Emma of this but she ridicules and denies the possibility. While playing a game with letters, Frank Churchill makes words with private meanings for both Jane Fairfax and Emma. Mrs. Elton forces Mr. Knightley to invite everyone to his house, Donwell, for the strawberry-picking; while there she presses Jane Fairfax to accept a position as governess which she has found for her. Jane leaves early, distressed and agitated; Frank Churchill arrives late, hot and cross.

      At a picnic party at Box Hill, Frank Churchill is dull at first, then becomes animated, and flirts and jokes with Emma. Their banter gets more and more high-spirited, until Emma is thoughtlessly rude to Miss Bates. Mr. Knightley makes her realise that she has offended against all her social duties. Another interval of humiliated reflection upon her own conduct follows as she thinks of how badly she has behaved, how cruel she has been to Miss Bates. She pays a penitent visit to the Bateses. Jane Fairfax will not see her; she is going to take the position as governess, and is not well. She continues to refuse all invitations and offers of help from Emma, who now pities her wretched future as a governess, and wishes she had been friendly to her. Mr. Knightley is softened by the news that Emma has visited the Bateses.

      The unexpected death of Mrs. Churchill prevents Frank Churchill from visiting Highbury, so Emma cannot further her plans for him and Harriet, which are still very much in her mind. Then, to her amazement, the Westons receive a letter in which he reveals that he has been secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax since they were at Weymouth, before either came to Highbury. Emnja is not upset for herself as had been feared by the Westons, who like, everyone else, had thought that she was the object of Frank Churchill’s affections. But in another passage of tormented self-reproach, she considers how she has led Harriet into yet another hopeless and ungrounded love. She is even more distressed when she discovers that she and Harriet have been talking at cross-purposes: it is Mr. Knightley’s love that Harriet thinks Emma has been encouraging her to hope for. Emma’s shock at this news, and her pain when Harriet says that Mr. Knightley shows signs of returning her love, make Emma realise that she herself loves Mr. Knightley — she could not bear him to marry anyone else. She blames herself for raising Harriet above her station. Just when she thinks that she has lost Mr. Knightley to Harriet, he arrives unexpectedly from London and sympathetically asks her feelings about Frank Churchill’s engagement to Jane Fairfax. When he finds she is not at all hurt by it, he declares his own love for her. She returns it, and both are elated. Emma dreads the task of telling Harriet and dashing her hopes again. She asks Isabella to invite her to London.

      Emma and Jane Fairfax are reconciled. Mr. Knightley plans to live at Hartfield to spare Emma’s father from being separated from her, or from having to move to Donwell, but Mr. Woodhouse is reluctant to accept any change. Mr. Knightley announces that Harriet and Robert Martin have met in London and are to be married. Emma is relieved of her distress and finds it a suitable match after all. Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax return. At last, Mr. Woodhouse is resigned to the idea of Emma’s marriage, and all three couples in sequence get married.

Critical Analysis

      Theme and Structure: Emma the central character embodies both the theme and structure of the novel. She is introduced at the start of the novel as a handsome, rich girl who has her way too often. She is conceited and deluded by her own whims and fancies. The structure of the novel leads from a demonstration of how her faults bring her into difficulties. The theme is Emma’s progress from self-delusion to self-knowledge so that she learns to see life without being blinded by her own whims and fancies or wilful imagination.

      The Plot: The plot of Emma can be said to have an ‘inward’ and an ‘outward’ movement. The inward deals with Emma’s self-deception with what she thinks is happening while the outward deals with what actually is happening and this brings to light her mistakes. It is through a series of humiliations and agony of self-reproach that Emma finally awakens to self-knowledge. The reader’s enjoyment stems from an awareness that Emma is wrong. From chapters 1 to 15, Emma thinks that Mr. Elton is in love with Harriet only to discover to her horror that Elton loves her. From Chapter 18 to 30, Emma thinks herself to be in love with Frank and Jane Fairfax to be associated with Mr. Dixon. From Chapters 31-46, Emma is convinced that Harriet and Frank Churchill are interested in one another. Towards the end of the novel, from Chapter 46, Emma’s theories about Frank Churchill and Harriet and about Jane Fairfax and Dixon are destroyed and she has to face the possibility of Mr. Knightley being in love with Harriet. It is only after Knightley’s proposal in the shrubbery that ‘what is happening’ and ‘what Emma thinks is happening’ converge and Emma’s progress from self-delusion to knowledge is complete.

      A story of self-deception: Emma then is a story of self-deception much the same way as Pride and Prejudice - The problem of each heroine - Emma and Elizabeth Bennet is to undeceive herself. But Elizabeth Bennet is normally very discerning and it is only under a set of doubtful circumstances that she is self-deceived about people who are very close to her — Charlotte Lucas, George Wickham, Fitzwilliam Darcy. Elizabeth Bennet is under no delusion the moment she is in possession of all facts. On the other hand, Emma is totally self-deceived and even when in possession of facts she misinterprets or refashions them to suit her own whims and fancies. She can be checked only by a personality as positive as her own—someone like Mr. Knightley; And finally it is only when she discovers her love for him and is in some doubt of his love for her that through a series of agonized soul-searching, she is able to undeceive herself.

      The Heroine - Emma: Jane Austen herself spoke of Emma as a “heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” And Emma has many unpleasant characteristics. She is high handed, snobbish and likes to manage the lives of others but yet she appeals to the reader. For all her failings, she has many good traits too. She is a dutiful daughter and a good friend and lacks vanity as to her personal beauty. Besides, she has the redeeming feature of being able to admit her faults once she recognizes them and is eager to make amends. With all her faults, Emma is full of vitality and warmth, something which Fanny Price in all her goodness lacks. Important to note here is that Emma is likeable because though she commits follies there are no serious moral vices in her. To Jane Austen folly was pardonable; not vice. Elizabeth Bennet in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ admits that ‘follies and nonsense’ divert her and in 'Mansfield Park’ Julia’s elopement with Yates is considered only a folly and hence she is allowed to marry and remain acceptable, while Maria’s affair and elopement with Henry Crawford is a vice, which condemns her to isolation with Mrs. Norris. Emma, thus a victim of her whims and fancies and errors of judgement soon sees her follies and is eventually united in happy marriage with Mr. Knightley having undergone a process of education and enlightenment.

      Emma - the focal point of the novel: The novel revolves entirely around the heroine, her delusions and her progress to self-knowledge. There is no division of two personality traits between two characters as in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (Darcy and Elizabeth) or in ‘Sense and Sensibility ‘(Elinor and Marianne Dashwood) Therefore, plot too is undivided and Emma the heroine is the sole interest. Even Jane Fairfax and her relationship with Frank Churchill are only a secondary aspect of the plot and serve to illustrate Emma’s own delusions and lack of judgement.

      Conclusion: ‘Emma’ is a contrast to ‘Mansfield Park’ just as ‘Mansfield Park’ is a contrast to ‘Pride and Prejudice’ It is an ironical comedy and the heroine is as different as possible from Fanny Price. The atmosphere is pleasant and comfortable with much wit, irony and light laughter and with none of the self-justification or morality which is so evident in ‘Mansfield Park.’ The comic irony arises from having a heroine who is deluded. The work takes on something of the interest of the detective story - The reader is given the same clues as the heroine as to what is going on and his enjoyment increases as he sees that his own suspicions, and not Emma’s fancy, were right.

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