Monday, October 24, 2011


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Jane Austens Emma is a novel of courtship. Like all of Austens novels, it centers around the marriage

plot who will marry whom? For what reasons will they marry? Love, practicality, or necessity? At the

center of the story is the title character, Emma Woodhouse, a heiress who lives with her widowed father

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at their estate, Hartfield. At the beginning of the novel, she is a self-satisfied young woman who feels no

particular need to marry, for she is in the rather unique condition of not needing a husband to supply

her fortune. At the beginning of the novel, Emmas governess, Miss Taylor, has just married Mr.

Weston, a wealthy man who owns Randalls, a nearby estate. The Westons, the Woodhouses, and Mr.

Knightly (who owns the estate Donwell Abbey) are at the top of Highbury society. Mr. Weston had

been married earlier. When his previous wife died, he sent their one child (Frank Churchill) to be raised

by her brother and his wife, for the now-wealthy Mr. Weston could not at that time provide for the

boy. Without Miss Taylor as a companion, Emma adopts the orphan Harriet Smith as a prot�g�. Harriet

lives at a nearby boarding school where she was raised, and knows nothing of her parents. Emma

advises the innocent Harriet in virtually all things, including the people with whom she should interact.

She suggests that Harriet not spend time with the Martins, a local family of farmers whose son, Robert, is

interested in Harriet. Instead, Emma plans to play matchmaker for Harriet and Mr. Elton, the vicar of the

church in Highbury. Emma seems to have some success in her attempts to bring together Harriet Smith

and Mr. Elton. The three spend a good deal of leisure time together and he seems receptive to all of

Emmas suggestions. The friendship between Emma and Harriet does little good for either of them,

however. Harriet indulges Emmas worst qualities, giving her opportunity to meddle and serving only to

flatter her. Emma in turn fills Harriet Smith with grand pretensions that do not suit her low situation in

society. When Robert Martin proposes to Harriet, she rejects him based on Emmas advice, thinking that

he is too common. Mr. Knightly criticizes Emmas matchmaking, since he thinks that the dependable

Robert Martin is Harriets superior, for while he is respectable, she is from uncertain origins. Emmas

sister, Isabella, and her husband, Mr. John Knightly, visit Highbury, and Emma uses their visit as an

opportunity to reconcile with Mr. Knightly after their argument over Harriet. The Westons hold a party

on Christmas Eve for the members of Highbury society. Harriet Smith, however, becomes ill and cannot

attend. During the party, Mr. Elton focuses his attention solely on Emma. When they travel home by

carriage from the party, Mr. Elton professes his adoration for Emma, and dismisses the idea that he

would ever marry Harriet Smith, whom he feels is too common for him. Mr. Elton obviously intends to

move up in society, and is interested in Emma primarily for her social status and wealth. Shortly after

Emma rejects Mr. Elton, he leaves Highbury for a stay in Bath. Emma breaks the bad news to Harriet

Smith. As of this time, Frank Churchill has not yet visited his father and his new wife at Randalls, which

has caused some concern. Emma, without having met the young man, decides that he must certainly be

a good suitor for her, since he is of appropriate age and breeding. Another character who occupies

Emmas thoughts is Jane Fairfax, the granddaughter of Mrs. Bates, an impoverished widow whose

husband was the former vicar, and the niece of Miss Bates, a chattering spinster who lives with her

mother. Jane is equal to Emma in every respect (beauty, education, talents) except for status, and

provokes some jealousy in Emma. Jane will soon visit her family in Highbury, for the wealthy family

who brought her up after her parents had died has gone on vacation. There is some indication that

Jane might be involved with Mr. Dixon, a married man, but this is only idle gossip. Mr. Elton returns

from Bath with news that he is engaged to a Miss Augusta Hawkins. This news, along with an awkward

meeting with the Martins, greatly embarrasses poor Harriet Smith. Frank Churchill finally visits the

Westons, and Emma is pleased to find that he lives up to her expectations, even though Mr. Knightly

disapproves of him. Emma and Frank begin to spend time together, yet he seems somewhat

insubstantial and immature. He makes a day trip to London for no other reason than to get his hair cut.

Soon afterward, Jane Fairfax receives a pianoforte from London, and Emma assumes that it was sent to

her by Mr. Dixon. As Frank and Emma spend more time together, Mr. Knightly becomes somewhat

jealous, while Emma in turn becomes jealous as she suspects that Mr. Knightly might be in love with her

rival Jane Fairfax. Frank Churchill must abruptly leave Randalls when he learns that his aunt is unwell.

His aunt is an insufferable woman, proud and vain, and she exercises great authority over her nephew.

Thinking that Frank was ready to profess his love for her, she convinces herself that she is in love with

Frank, but is unsure how to tell that she actually loves him. Finally, she realizes that she must not be in

love with him, for she is as happy with him absent as she is with him present. Mr. Elton brings his new

wife back to Highbury. She is a vapid name-dropper, who compares everything to the supposedly

grand lifestyle of her relatives, the Sucklings and addresses her new peers in Highbury with a startling

lack of formality. Emma takes an instant dislike to her, and upon realizing this, Mrs. Elton takes a dislike

to Emma. When Frank Churchill returns, he and Emma sponsor a ball at the Crown Inn. During this

ball, Mr. Elton openly snubs Harriet Smith, but she is saved from his social slight by Mr. Knightly, who

graciously dances with her. After the ball, when Harriet and her companions are walking home, they

are assaulted by a group of gipsies, but Frank Churchill saves the girl, a situation which becomes the

talk of Highbury. This leads Emma to believe that Frank Churchill, whom Emma is sure she does not

love, would be a suitable match for Harriet. When discussing what happened the next morning, Harriet

does admit that she has some feelings for the man who saved her the night before ­ yet she does not

explicitly name Frank. Thanks to this new infatuation, Harriet finally gets over Mr. Elton. At an outing at

Box Hill, Frank Churchill, whose recent behavior had been questionable, proposes a game for

entertaining Emma, and during this game Emma makes a rude comment to Miss Bates. Afterwards, Mr.

Knightly severely scolds Emma for doing so, since Miss Bates is a poor woman who deserves Emmas

pity and compassion, and not her scorn and derision. When Emma goes to visit Miss Bates the next day

to apologize, she learns that Jane Fairfax has taken ill. She was preparing to leave for Maple Grove to

become a governess for a family, a situation that she earlier compared to the slave trade. Emma now

begins to pity Jane Fairfax, for she realizes that the only reason that Jane must enter into a profession is

her social status. Otherwise, she would be as highly regarded as Emma herself. There is shocking news

for Emma when Mrs. Churchill dies. Freed from his overbearing aunt, Frank reveals to the Westons that

he has been secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax. Mr. Knightly begins to show a greater romantic interest in

Emma, but when she attempts to break the bad news to Harriet Smith about Frank Churchills

engagement (the second heartbreak for Harriet), Emma learns that Harriet in fact had fallen for Mr.

Knightly, who saved her socially at the Crown Inn ball. Emma now realizes that she is the only one who

can marry Mr. Knightly, and that she has done Harriet a great disservice by making her think that she

can aspire to such unreasonable heights. Mr. Knightly soon professes his love for Emma, and they plan

to marry. Yet there are two obstacles first, if Emma were to marry she would have to leave her father,

who dotes on her; second, she must break the news to Harriet Smith. Emma and Mr. Knightly decide

that, when they marry, he should move to Hartfield, for Mr. Woodhouse cannot be left alone and

would not bear moving to Donwell Abbey. Harriet takes the news about Mr. Knightly well, and soon

after she reunites with Robert Martin. The wrongheaded aspirations that Emma instilled in Harriet are

now gone, and she becomes engaged to her original and most appropriate suitor. She even learns of

her parentage her father is a respectable tradesman. The novel concludes with marriage between

Robert Martin and Harriet Smith, Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, and between Mr. Knightly and

Emma Woodhouse, who has grown to accept the possibility of submitting some degree of her

independence to a husband.

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