Study Guide

Emma Analysis

  • Tone

    Ironically Sympathetic (Or sympathetically ironic. Take your pick.)

    Austen’s tone and style are directly linked to her narrator’s voice (see "Point of View/Narrative Voice" above for more on this). As we said earlier, Austen’s narrator seems to truly love her characters, but she’s not above poking some fun at all their faults. As a famous old critic from the '40s once said, we learn to love characters for their bad manners; Austen’s tone gently mocks all the silly social conventions which characters take to heart. She gets the most fun out of showing us moments when good manners and a character’s own freaks of temperament collide. Take Mr. Woodhouse, for example: he’s determined to be a good host at all times – but he’s also certain that tasty food will kill his guests. Serving gruel to everyone who comes to his house seems like a nice way to resolve this tension, right?

  • Genre

    Satire, Comedy, Coming-of-Age, Romance

    Emma is a big mish-mash of funny stuff, love, funny stuff, growing up, and more funny stuff. We could call it high jinks with a good dose of heartbreak. In fact, we think we will. Watching Emma grow up and fall in love is only part of the fun of this novel – largely because it takes Emma such a very long time to figure out how misguided she’s been. Emma’s not the only misguided one, though – Austen seems to be suggesting that we’re all fools when it comes to love. We know, that’s a bit cliché – but in case you haven’t noticed, Austen tends to love clichés. At the very least, they’re funny. And they might even turn out to be true.

    So that covers why we think that this is a coming-of-age romance. Emma grows up a bit and she marries Mr. Knightley. But why a satire? Well, we’re glad you asked. Satires often offer detailed, witty criticisms of people, places, or social systems. Irony is usually a key component of satire – and it’s Jane Austen’s trademark, so that’s a good sign that we’re dealing with some form of satire here (see our discussion of this in "Tone"). But what (or who) is being satirized? Well, we could say Mrs. Elton. After all, she’s so over-the-top annoying that she gives pretty much all people with newly-acquired wealth a bad name. We could even argue that Austen directs her satirical wit at Emma – after all, it’s the fatal combination of Emma’s boredom, her wealth, and her intelligence which lands her in so many predicaments. A poor woman wouldn’t have time to plan matches. A less intelligent woman wouldn’t be able to argue her way out of tight spots. A busy woman wouldn’t have time to waste on Harriet. Added together, however, Austen’s handling of Emma’s faults could be seen as a critique of the upper classes, who cause trouble as a direct result of their lack of occupation.

    We could also argue that Austen’s satirizing English society as a whole. After all, as Emma often reflects, there are only so many occupations which a woman can undertake. She informs Harriet that she doesn’t need to marry, because nothing in her daily habits would really change. As she says, "Woman's usual occupations of hand and mind will be as open to me then as they are now; or with no important variation. If I draw less, I shall read more; if I give up music, I shall take to carpet-work." That sounds great, doesn’t it? Oh, wait, it doesn’t. And Austen doesn’t mean us to think it does. C’mon, Emma doing carpet-work? We already know that drawing and playing piano bore her.

    We’ve talked a lot about society’s opinions of, well, everything. This is a HUGE focus of Austen’s satire. Why is it that everybody gossips about everybody else? Why do people pay social calls on people they don’t even like? Why are manners so ridiculously important? Aren’t they really just ridiculous? Well, yes. Oftentimes they are.

    If Austen is ridiculing Highbury as a whole, then, is she always poking fun at her characters? Can we take anything she says seriously? Well, we honestly don’t know. She does seem to have some affection for her characters – she takes the time, for example, to show us how good Emma is to her father and to the poor. That doesn’t mean that Emma isn’t above criticism, just that she’s got some pretty good aspects to her character, as well. We like to think of satire as a sort of blazing fire: it burns away lots of the ridiculous stuff that cloaks characters, but that allows the truly human and respectable aspects of their roles to shine through. Also, it’s good for a laugh.

  • What’s Up With the Title?

    Naming a book after its main character makes it easy for us. If you’re asked what the book is about, the easy answer is, "Emma." Obviously. Naming a novel after a main character wasn’t really Austen’s style, though – most of her books bear titles which are also emotions (Pride and Prejudice, for example). So why Emma? Maybe Austen got tired of thinking up feelings for her characters – or maybe Emma’s too complex of a character to pin down easily. Either way, as soon as Austen names her novel after Emma, we expect everything to revolve around her. That’s lucky, because she does too.

  • What’s Up With the Ending?

    Well, Emma’s wedding isn’t really a big surprise, is it? Instead of spending the next few minutes blabbing about the nature of true love, then, let’s talk some trash about Mrs. Elton. It’s only fair. After all, Mrs. Elton steals the last few lines of Emma and she uses them to talk trash about Emma’s wedding. Here’s what she has to say: "Mrs. Elton, from the particulars detailed by her husband, thought it all extremely shabby, and very inferior to her own.—'Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business!—Selina would stare when she heard of it'" (55.11). Emma’s wedding itself gets eclipsed by a vengeful gossip’s critique of the ceremony. And, as it turns out, Mrs. Elton wasn’t even at the wedding. She has to get her account of it from her husband!

    Before we get too carried away with hating Mrs. Elton (and let’s face it, there’s a lot to hate), it seems like we should spend some time talking about why Jane Austen would allow the most hideous character in her novel to steal the show. So keep that whiny, high-pitched voice of Mrs. Elton’s in your mind. We’ll get back to it soon.

    Amazingly enough, Austen pans away from the main action of her tale frequently. Remember Harriet and the gypsies? If you’re frustrated by the missing love scene or the juicy attack by vagrant children, you’re in good company. What we do get, however, is a sense of how the main story – Harriet and the gypsies, or Emma and Mr. Knightley – gets re-worked and re-told by different members of their community. Mrs. Elton tells her sister all about the shabbiness of Emma’s wedding; Emma herself re-tells the story of a gypsy attack to her nephews. Stories, for Austen, aren’t meant to be lived – they’re meant to be told. Sort of like a novel.

    Back to Mrs. Elton, though. Why does she get the last word? We’re not totally sure. But we do have a few thoughts:

    1. Austen’s novels are never really just about what happens on the page. (What? What else could they be about?) OK, we’re being a little coy here. The only things we can know about what’s happening in Emma are the things that Austen chooses to tell us. But here’s the funny thing: Austen isn’t just concerned with the plot of the novel. She’s equally interested in what other characters think about the plot of the novel. In other words, Emma gets married. Great. But what does Jane think about this? Mr. Woodhouse? Mrs. Elton? As you’ve probably noticed, this novel is teeming with other characters’ opinions. Mrs. Elton’s just happens to be the one that Austen’s narrator picks to talk about the wedding.
    2. Austen hates happy endings. This seems a bit counter-intuitive, since Emma does get the guy she loves in the end. But Austen refuses to let us dwell on this, removing any possibility that readers could get sappy and sentimental by emphasizing the criticism which always seems to follow happy people in her novels. Emma’s not the only example of this: check out her early novel, Lady Susan, for a great not-happy ending. You could think of the novel as a balloon: Austen spends most of her time blowing it up into a nice, happy, floating bubble – and then, right at the end, she sticks a pin in it.
    3. Austen can’t help making fun of Mrs. Elton one last time. We know, we couldn’t help it, either.
    4. Setting

      Highbury, England. The first decades of the nineteenth century.

      Choosing a tiny, tiny little town as the setting of Emma is not a big stretch for Jane Austen. Come to think of it, Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility are all set in pretty rural areas. You could think of it as Smallville – except there’s no Superman. For Austen the use of small towns probably has something to do with the fact that there aren’t any superheroes. (OK, we don’t mean that totally literally, but stay with us for a second.) See, everybody in Highbury knows everything about everybody else. That means that all the little quirks and odd habits of each person in town are well and widely-known facts. There may not be any heroes – but because of this, Austen can show us how irritating, silly, and even lovable most ordinary people are.

      Hartfield, Emma and Mr. Woodhouse’s home, functions as the geographical center of the novel. Just about any excursions away from Hartfield become Momentous Occasions (in Mr. Woodhouse’s mind, at least). Mr. Knightley walks from Donwell Abbey to Hartfield just about everyday. It’s obviously not that far away. When the rest of the characters have to trek out to the Abbey, however, it’s a huge occasion – requiring planning, picnics, and even a donkey for Mrs. Elton. Check out our thoughts on Mr. Knightley’s decision to move to Hartfield at the end of the novel in his "Character Analysis." A man moving into his wife’s house? It’s just not done! But it does reinforce our main point: Hartfield is THE house in the novel.

      Oh – and a few quick notes about the nineteenth century: horses, not cars (that means travel is very, very slow); riddle books, not reality TV; balls, not shows. And no dating. At least not outside the view of every single busybody in town. Specifically, Emma takes place in a tiny decade known as the Regency. It’s named after the Prince Regent, George, who takes over for his crazy father – also named George. The Regency was a time of rollickin’ good fun for the rich folks – George liked to have a good time. It wasn’t quite that nice for the poor…but they’re not in our story, are they?

    5. Writing Style


      Austen’s sentences are short and sweet – but they sure do pack a wallop. She’s a master of ambiguous sentences which could be a character’s thoughts but could also be the narrator’s voice. The official term for this is "free indirect discourse," and Austen was one of the first authors to use it well. Check out moments when the narrator (or is it Emma?) is thinking about other characters in the novel. It’s hard to tell whether Emma is the one thinking these thoughts or the narrator – which is Austen’s point. Making the most of this ambiguity helps Austen to craft a pretty well-developed sense of irony about the social world she invents. She’s often in Emma’s head, but using free indirect discourse allows her to be ironic about Emma’s own thoughts, as well.

      Not everything is under control, though. Whenever Emma (or another character) gets worked up, Austen’s sentence structure changes. She uses lots of dashes to help generate a sense of confusion – like her characters can’t quite figure out how to form a sentence – because they’re so – so – so – confused. Check out the start of Mr. Knightley’s proposal for a great example of this:

      "As a friend!"—repeated Mr. Knightley.—"Emma, that I fear is a word—No, I have no wish—Stay, yes, why should I hesitate?— I have gone too far already for concealment.—Emma, I accept your offer— Extraordinary as it may seem, I accept it, and refer myself to you as a friend.—Tell me, then, have I no chance of ever succeeding?"

      Notice all the dashes and unfinished sentences? They indicate the hurried (and anxious) rush of feeling that Mr. Knightley is about to release. Can’t you almost see him struggling with himself over how (or if) he should tell Emma of his love? Austen may not allow her narrator to enter into Mr. Knightley’s head as often as she does Emma’s, but moments of broken dialogue like this one help to indirectly show us what characters are thinking.

      Of course, Austen’s also a master of dashes in other situations, as well. Take, for example, any extended speech by Miss Bates. We’ve included one of our favorite ones (from the party at the Crown):

      Ah! here's Miss Woodhouse.—Dear Miss Woodhouse, how do you do?— Very well I thank you, quite well. This is meeting quite in fairy-land!— Such a transformation!—Must not compliment, I know (eyeing Emma most complacently)—that would be rude—but upon my word, Miss Woodhouse, you do look—how do you like Jane's hair?—You are a judge.— She did it all herself. Quite wonderful how she does her hair!— No hairdresser from London I think could.—Ah! Dr. Hughes I declare—and Mrs. Hughes. Must go and speak to Dr. and Mrs. Hughes for a moment.—

      Whew! We’re getting dizzy just trying to follow it! Of course, it’s pretty easy to imagine that Emma has some things to say in between Miss Bates’ mile-a-minute speeches, but our narrator doesn’t allow us to see them – perhaps as a way of emphasizing the silliness and, well, irrelevance of everything Miss Bates says. In other words, we don’t hear Emma’s speech because Miss Bates probably doesn’t hear it herself. She’s already thinking ahead to the next interaction she can have with other people. It’s almost like a form of stream-of-consciousness – except that Austen uses it to prove that Miss Bates doesn’t have much consciousness to speak of.

    6. Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory


      Dances in Austen’s time were intricate group numbers (for a great rendition of dances in Austen’s time, we recommend that you check out the 2005 movie adaptation of Pride and Prejudice). Sure, you had a partner, but you had to dance together with lots and lots of couples. There are rules and a recognized order for all your movements. Moreover, your parents (and everyone else’s parents) are watching.

      OK, so this might not sound exactly like your homecoming dance – but it does echo the way the novel as a whole functions. Dating and marriage, like dancing, operate according to well-established rules of courtship. Mr. Elton even writes a riddle all about it. As Austen takes care to inform us, when Emma makes mistakes, someone else knows all about them. And, like dancing, marriage becomes a way of functioning as a little group (a couple) within a larger social network.

      Notice that Harriet gets slighted at a ball and on the love market. Coincidence? We think not.

      The Gypsies, the Chicken Thieves

      We’re lumping two groups of characters together here. We might be playing fast and loose with our symbols here, but it seems to us that these outsiders serve pretty much the same purpose in the novel. They’re vagrants. Thieves. Scary, dirty, probably smelly people. Terrorizing the townspeople seems to be their only purpose in life. The gypsies and the thieves help us to understand that Highbury is a social entity which needs to be protected from the dangers of the outside world. It’s lucky that there are big, bad men like Frank Churchill to fight the gypsies off with a walking stick.

      Wait a second, though, aren’t the gypsies just little kids? And isn’t it only Mr. Woodhouse who’s scared of the chicken thieves? Well, yes. You’ve got us there. As it turns out, the only people who seem to need protecting are actually pretty silly themselves. Harriet and Mr. Woodhouse might be justified in their fears of the gypsies and the thieves, respectively. Or they could just be melodramatic.

      Austen allows her descriptions of encounters with outsiders to hover on a knife’s edge: the gypsies could, after all, become a threat to society. They could also be perfectly harmless – which would mean that Harriet and Mr. Woodhouse’s fears (and, by extension, Highbury’s fears) are over-exaggerated. We’ll leave it up to you to decide.

    7. Narrator Point of View

      Third Person (Omniscient)

      Austen reserves the right to step into anyone’s mind, but she tends to confine her narrator’s perspective to Emma’s (and occasionally Knightley’s) thoughts. We don’t want you to get too comfortable, though – because Austen’s narrator also likes to throw out some zingers (carefully disguised, of course, as universal maxims or "observations"). Keep a close eye on beginnings of chapters – they’re prime spots for some meditative moments. For example, Emma argues that "where little minds belong to rich people in authority, […] they have a knack of swelling out, till they are quite as unmanageable as great ones. It’s true in the case of Mrs. Churchill, but it’s also true about the world at large. It’s even, we dare say, occasionally a pretty good description of Emma herself."

      Funnily enough, Austen’s narrator also offers some deep thoughts whenever a truly shallow or stupid character does something – well, shallow or stupid. After all, it’s Mr. Woodhouse who occasions the observation that "Matrimony, as the origin of change, was always disagreeable." How are we supposed to tell these two types of asides apart? We’re not sure. But the confusion that this causes is part of the fun.

      Moments of description also open up to give a sense of broader social consensus. Here’s Emma, thinking about Jane Fairfax: "Her height was pretty, just such as almost every body would think tall, and nobody could think very tall; her figure particularly graceful; her size a most becoming medium, between fat and thin, though a slight appearance of ill-health seemed to point out the likeliest evil of the two."

      Notice how Emma thinks in terms of what "every body" or "nobody" would think of Jane, not just of what Emma herself thinks? With some clever wordplay, Austen’s narrator manages to convey to us both Emma’s opinion of Jane and Emma’s opinion about what society as a whole considers to be beautiful. In other words, a character’s opinion in Emma is rarely just a private opinion. It’s also a chance for readers to triangulate that character’s opinions with those of Highbury society as a whole. Austen is remarkably insistent on these constant comparisons: in a way, they nudge us, as readers, into occupy places similar to those occupied by real characters. If you’re reading along and suddenly stop to think, "What would Mr. Knightley say about this?", congratulations. You’re exactly where Austen wants you to be.

      • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

        Twilight Stage

        Emma refuses to believe that she could fall in love; she also believes herself to be the center of Highbury society.

        Emma is a comedy for a few reasons. For one, it’s funny. For another, it revolves around the mischief that Emma inadvertently creates because she can’t figure out how she feels about her own feelings. Instead, she throws other people into love affairs (or tries to, at least). She’s in the dark about her own need to love. It’s a lot more complicated than that, of course, because Emma’s not the only person in the novel – and other characters have their own faults to overcome, as well.

        Revelation Stage

        Marriages all around.

        As Harriet confesses that she loves Mr. Knightley, Emma begins to understand how much trouble she’s really created. Without Emma’s help, Harriet would never have tried to cross class boundaries. Of course, for Austen, love is always linked to class, and Emma’s self-understanding comes with a new sense of what it means for her to be one of the centers of Highbury society.

        Happy Ending

        Marriages all around.

        Comedies have to have happy endings, right? And the best ending is always a wedding (unless you’ve been watching too many episodes of Bridezilla. In that case, we don’t know what to tell you). Frank marries Jane, Harriet marries Mr. Martin, and Emma marries Mr. Knightley.

      • Plot Analysis

        Initial Situation

        Emma enjoys setting up her friends.

        Explanation/Discussion: Harriet Smith, Emma’s new friend, seems to be a blank slate. No one knows where she came from or who her parents might be. For Emma, Harriet is a godsend. Emma attempts to re-make Harriet into a gentlewoman – and to find her a husband, to boot. Emma might be doing this out of the goodness of her heart, but it’s also pretty clear that she’s bored with her life. Match-making shakes up an otherwise ordinary social scene. And as long as Emma doesn’t attempt to arrange her own marriage, she’s sure that she can enjoy herself.


        Emma arranges several potential love-matches. None of them work out.

        Emma convinces Harriet to forget about her potential boyfriend, Robert Martin. She imagines a relationship between Harriet and Mr. Elton (the clergyman), and convinces Harriet to imagine the relationship, as well. Then she imagines a love match between Jane Fairfax and Mr. Dixon. Then she imagines a relationship between Frank Churchill and Harriet. Of course, all of these relationships are imaginary. Also (of course), none of them take Emma’s own feelings into account.


        Emma is confident she’ll never get married herself.

        Imagination may be Emma’s strong point, but she’s not used to imagining much for herself. And why should she? She’s got everything she needs, right? She already has a house which she runs. She’s got a father who loves her, and she’s got more than enough money to live a full and happy life. Ironically, Emma’s blindness to her own interests causes her to imagine an "appropriate" match for herself – Frank Churchill – and ignore her real love, Mr. Knightley.


        Emma realizes she loves Mr. Knightley.

        When Harriet confesses that she’s actually in love with Mr. Knightley (and not, as Emma believed, with Frank Churchill), Emma has a revelation. Harriet can’t be in love with Mr. Knightley – because Emma herself is! OK, we confess, there are actually several moments of self-revelation for Emma, but this one seems to be the most dramatic. And it sure makes Emma the most upset – so we’re betting that it’s probably a pretty good contender for the top climactic moment of the novel.


        Worried that Mr. Knightley might love Harriet, Emma begins to re-think all of her plans.

        Interestingly, all of the suspense in Emma seems to be part of Emma’s internal monologue. Will she reveal her love to Mr. Knightley? Will she get over her determination to never marry anyone? Will she allow her friendship with Harriet to get in the way of her true love? (The answers, by the way, are Yes, Yes, and No.) This is where we really begin to see Emma as a bildüngsroman (that’s a novel about a young character growing into maturity). Ironically, all of Emma’s growing happens in the last few pages of the novel. But hey, at least she’s learning. Better late than never, right?


        Mr. Knightley confesses that he loves Emma.

        Ah, true love. We’re not really sure how Mr. Knightley falls in love with Emma, but his confession sure does seem genuine. Why doesn’t Emma have to confess her love first? Well, we’re really not sure. But Mr. Knightley does do a pretty convincing job of declaring his love. So we’re not too concerned. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Austen’s novel depends largely on Emma realizing how mistaken her perceptions are – even when Mr. Knightley is about to articulate his love for her.


        Emma and Mr. Knightley get married.

        Of course, of course. Romances have happy endings. Austen makes sure that Mr. Knightley and Emma aren’t the only happy couple, however. Jane and Frank get married. So do Harriet and Robert Martin. Since the Westons are already married, the only happy ending left for them is to have a baby – and so they do. In other words, Austen is dishing out happy endings all around. Mrs. Churchill is maybe the only one to miss out on the fun – she dies. Oh, and Mrs. Elton remains as unhappy and snarky as ever. But that’s really her own fault. Why have so many happy endings? Well, did we mention that this is a romantic comedy?

      • Three Act Plot Analysis

        Act I

        Emma befriends Harriet Smith and decides to set her up with Mr. Elton. Elton proposes to Emma instead.

        Act II

        Frank Churchill, the dashing young son of Emma’s friend Mr. Weston, seems like the perfect match for Emma. She falls out of love with him, however – which is lucky, because he’s already engaged. Harriet declares that she loves Mr. Knightley.

        Act III

        Emma realizes the errors of her ways. She regrets her attempts to make marriages. Luckily, Mr. Knightley is in love with Emma. Everything gets sorted out in the end.