Study Guide

Emma Plot Analysis

By Jane Austen

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?