Emma

Jane Austen's novels are pretty well known and Emma (1815) is probably one of her most famous. The novel has been adapted into a BBC series, a few movies, and become a part of modern pop culture. Although period novels are not usually viewed as progressive, Austen is often considered to have been an early adopter of the literary movement that focused on realism. Emma is a satirical novel that documents the day-to-day life of an English Regency-era fictional village.

Emma Emma

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Table of contents

    Emma: Jane Austen and Literary Realism

    Jane Austen wrote novels about relatively mundane day to day life during an era when popular novels were quite extravagant in plot and language. At the time, reading was just starting to become a widespread hobby in England. The best selling novels of Austen's generation leaned towards the outlandish and spectacular.

    Compare titles like Anna: or Memoirs of a Welch Heiress: interspersed with Anecdotes of a Nabob (1785) by Anna Maria Bennett to Austen's more simple, Emma. Austen wrote about her immediate surroundings more realistically by focusing on the comparatively banal everyday existence of English people rather than improbable plots and florid language.

    Jane Austen is credited with being a pioneer of the Literary Realism movement that emerged in the 19th century.1

    Literary Realism is a movement that started in the 19th century as a reaction against the Romantic era. Moving away from emotion, subjectivity and irrationality, the focus became the day to day lives of ordinary people, accurate dialect and more mundane settings.

    This movement was later developed on an international scale by authors like Leo Tolstoy, Gustav Flaubert and John Steinbeck. Virginia Woolf said that if Austen had lived long enough to write more novels:

    She would have been the forerunner of Henry James and Proust.2

    Emma, A pile of Jane Austen's books, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Jane Austen's Emma has seen renewed interest since the 2020 film adaptation came out.

    Austen has also been criticised for being a limited novelist who did not address big subjects but focused on a small subset of English people, small towns, and trivial matters.3 Her works have been described as psychologically shallow and socially narrow. Emma is set in one rural English village, for example.

    Do you think that this is a valid criticism? Or do you agree with some other critics who say that she used the minutiae of everyday life to address themes that were larger in scope?

    In terms of approach, the novel Emma is generally accepted as not fitting into the style of the Romantic movement era in which it was written. This movement was characterised by the promotion of emotion over reason and senses over intellect. Still, far from being a Realism purist, Austen mixes elements of irony, satire, comedy, and 'happy ending' type romance with keen observations on the social realities of her time.

    Emma: novel overview

    Overview: Emma

    Author of EmmaJane Austen
    GenreComedy of manners, romance novel
    Literary PeriodRomanticism
    First published1815
    Brief summary of Emma
    • Upon discovering her new-found skills in matchmaking, Emma Woodhouse resolves to match her friend Harriet Smith to the local vicar, Mr. Elton. However, Harriet is interested in Robert Martin. Emma's meddling leads to a series of misunderstandings and temporary heartbreaks within the community around Highbury.
    List of main charactersEmma Woodhouse, George Knightley, Frank Churchill, Harriet Smith, Jane Fairfax, and Robert Martin
    ThemesSocial class, marriage, and women's role in society
    SettingThe early nineteenth century in Highbury, England
    AnalysisThe novel warns against people meddling in people's love lives. Emma also satirically examines the culture of marriage in the Regency era by exploring the value of letting love develop on its own, instead of manipulating or forcing it to provide an advantageous social match.

    Emma: summary

    In summary, the novel centres around the misadventures of the protagonist, Emma Woodhouse, who fancies herself as talented in matchmaking.

    Emma, Jane Austen’s fourth novel, was released anonymously in three volumes between 1815 and 1816. Set during the Regency period in an English country village called Highbury, it is a comedy of manners. The novel often ironically depicts the period's approach to social class, gender roles, and marriage.

    A comedy of manners is a form of realistic and satirical comedy that mocks artificially constructed social conventions.

    Relayed through an anonymous narrator, the novel explores how Emma meddles in the love lives of those around her, even though she is not interested in marriage herself. The focus of her effort is largely centred on her impressionable friend, Harriet Smith.

    Emma’s matchmaking efforts involving Harriet and Mr Elton, the local Vicar, do not end well, as Mr Elton is only interested in Emma. Oblivious to the reality of the situation, she offends him by trying to engineer a relationship between him and Harriet. She also convinces Harriet to reject a proposal from Robert Martin, a local farmer. Emma's misguided efforts are frequently criticised by her brother-in-law, Mr Knightley, who is supportive of Robert and Harriet getting married.

    Two new characters arrive in Highbury and add to the village's dynamic. Jane Fairfax is the reserved, orphaned niece of Mrs Bates, whom Emma takes an instant disliking to. It is implied by the narrator that Emma is jealous of Jane's talents. The other new arrival is Frank Churchill, Mr Weston’s son by another marriage. Frank has never visited before despite his family connections to the village. Much speculation ensues after their arrival, mostly created by Emma.

    Mr Knightley distrusts Frank, but Mr and Mrs Weston would like to make a match between him and Emma. Emma swings between thinking she is in love with Frank to thinking she would refuse him if he asked her to marry him. After Frank rescues Harriet, Emma begins to think that he is actually in love with Harriet. She also believes that Harriet is in love with Frank after Harriet mentions that she is interested in someone ‘above her station.'

    The secret engagement between Frank and Jane, long suspected by Mr Knightley, becomes public after the death of Frank’s aunt. Emma discovers that Harriet is interested in George Knightley and suddenly realises that she is in love with him herself. After he returns from a business trip, Knightley learns of Frank’s engagement and attempts to console Emma. This leads to his proposing to her when they discover their mutual attraction.

    After some delaying tactics by her father, Mr Woodhouse, the two are married, as are Harriet and Robert, who proposes a second time.

    The main characters in Emma

    Let's have a look at the characters in Emma:

    The narrator

    The narration style in Emma is third-person omniscient, but the narrator also occasionally reads into the events or makes inferences about the characters, their motives, and emotions.

    Third-person omniscient is a type of narration style where the narrator may speak with the 'voice' of the author and appear 'all knowing'. This narrator is often used to highlight the character's inner thoughts and plot events hidden from the characters themselves.

    Emma Woodhouse

    Emma is the main protagonist, a good looking woman of twenty who is part of the Regency era landed gentry. Her mother died when she was a child, and she is left to look after her ageing and unwell father. She is usually portrayed as well-intentioned but misguided. Her meddling in the lives of others also indicates a level of obliviousness.

    George Knightley

    Mr Knightley is Emma’s older neighbour, her main critic and good friend. He is a calm, rational character who is depicted as demonstrating kindness and wisdom.

    Frank Churchill

    Frank is Mr Weston’s son by a previous marriage who grew up with his wealthy aunt and uncle, the Churchills. He is secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax as he thinks that his aunt would disapprove of her relatively humble background and the fact that she is an orphan. He manipulates other characters and situations to cover up his engagement until his aunt dies.

    Harriet Smith

    Harriet is a girl of seventeen who is befriended by Emma. She is illegitimate (born outside of marriage) and had previously been placed as a boarder at a nearby school where she met the sisters of Robert Martin. She is the subject of much of Emma’s matchmaking efforts, and she is easily influenced by Emma’s opinions.

    Jane Fairfax

    The orphan niece of Miss Bates, Jane is secretly engaged to Frank Churchill. Raised and educated by a friend of her deceased father, Jane is talented, beautiful and the subject of Emma’s envy. Without the marriage to Frank, her fate would be to become a governess.

    Robert Martin

    Mr Martin is a local farmer who lives on a farm owned by Mr Knightley. He is well respected and proposes to Harriet twice.

    Emma: themes

    The main themes of Emma are marriage, love, social class, and women's role in society.

    Themes are literary devices that explore underlying meaning or subtexts. These can be communicated through a combination of characters, setting, plot, dialogue, and style.

    Marriage

    By taking a realistic yet satirical approach to her representation of the Regent era society of rural England, Jane Austen highlights the absurdity of the commonly accepted conventions of that time.

    For many of Austen's characters, marriage is the only way to secure financial stability and respectability. This was a social reality that few authors of the time addressed with any sense of irony or satire. This limiting situation did not apply to Emma as an independently wealthy woman from a respected family.

    In Emma, Austen uses the everyday institution of marriage to create a subtext that satirises Regency social class, gender norms, and some of the most generally accepted social conventions.

    Women’s role in society

    The limited scope of Emma’s location is a device used to help convey the restrictions placed on women by the society of the time. Set almost exclusively in the homes of one English village, the novel is a microcosm of a section of the rural society at the time. The plot is structured around the trivial concerns of many of the characters and the banal day to day realities of life in the village.

    Think about what microcosms are. Do you agree that larger insights on bigger themes can be drawn from observing smaller groups of people going about their daily lives? If not, why not?

    Austen highlights gender inequality frequently in Emma.

    For example, Jane, who is well-educated but without any finances, would have had to work as a governess unless she managed to find a husband. In contrast, both educated and uneducated men of this era could choose from a variety of occupations.

    Social class

    Emma focuses mostly on the minutiae of the lives of the landed gentry and middle classes of a part of rural England. This narrow view is used as a tool, in conjunction with dialogue and events, to create a satirical view of the Regency era class system. The novel highlights the limited chance of social mobility and the rigid rules around acceptable behaviour. Themes of morality and ethics versus etiquette are also explored.

    For example, Mr Knightley supports the marriage of Harriet and Robert, even though illegitimate Harriet is not on the same 'social level' as Robert, who is a tenant farmer.

    Emma - Key takeaways

    • Emma is a canonical novel that combines early literary realism with elements of satire, comedy, and romance.

    • Jane Austen satirises Regency period society and some commonly accepted norms of the time. These include gender inequalities and social class divides, as well as the inhibited communication and misunderstandings that these conventions can create.

    • The novel Emma is considered a comedy of manners.

    • Key themes include gender roles, social class, and marriage.

    • The main characters include Emma, Mr Knightley, Harriet Smith, Frank Churchill, Jane Fairfax and Robert Martin.


    1 Pam Morris, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and Worldly Realism, Edinburgh University Press, 2017.

    2 Virginia Woolf, 'Virginia Woolf on Jane Austen.' The New Statesman, 1924.

    3 Ian P Watt, Jane Austen, Prentice Hall, 1963.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Emma

    What are some famous quotes from Jane Austen’s Emma?

    Some famous quotes from Emma include: 'It was foolish, it was wrong, to take such an active part in bringing any two people together.'

    and

    'Seldom, very seldom does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken; but where, as in this case, though the conduct is mistaken, the feelings are not, it may not be very material.'


    When was Emma published?

    Jane Austen’s Emma was published in three volumes between 1815 and 1816.

    What are the main themes in Emma?

    Emma has many themes but the main ones include social class, social conventions, gender norms, and marriage.

    Who did Emma marry at the end of the novel?

    Emma marries her friend and neighbour, Mr Knightley.

    Is the novel Emma like Pride and Prejudice?

    Emma and Pride and Prejudice are both Regency era social comedies with elements of realism, romance and satire. 

    When is Emma set? 

    The novel Emma is set around the early nineteenth-century in Highbury, England.

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