The novel begins with an introduction of its central protagonist, Emma Woodhouse, who enjoys ‘some of the best blessings of existence.’ She is beautiful, intelligent, wealthy, and comes from a good family. All of this leads her to think ‘a little too well of herself.’ Although Emma’s mother died during childbirth, Ms. Taylor has played a maternal role in her life. However, at the opening of the novel, Ms. Taylor has just left Hartfield (the estate on which Emma lives) to get married, and so the protagonist is left without a companion.
The village eagerly anticipates the arrival of Frank Churchill, the son from Mr Weston’s first marriage. Frank is visiting as it is his father whom Ms Taylor is marrying.
At a dinner party hosted by the Woodhouses, Emma admires the beauty of one of the guests, Harriet Smith. Emma is particularly impressed by the respect Harriet holds for her. She feels compelled to take Harriet under her wing, and to save her from marrying into the ‘inferior’ Martin family.
Step one of that plan is to highlight the differences between the Martins and the superior Mr Elton. She directs Harriet to pay attention to their manners. As Harriet observes, Emma decides that she will make it her mission to secure a match between Harriet and Mr Elton.
Others have noticed the seemingly random friendship between Emma and Harriet. Mr Knightley remarks that it might be dangerous, and that he does not like it. Mrs Weston however thinks that Emma’s influence will be good for Harriet, who needs ‘improving.’
Emma pushes Harriet to notice more and more details of Mr Elton that prove his sophistication. She considers whether Mr Elton is actually already in love with Harriet. Mr Elton notices improvements Emma has made to Harriet and supports her idea of having a portrait of Harriet done.
After the passage of some time, Harriet receives a letter from Mr Martin, in which he proposes to her. She seeks advice from Emma but is upset when Emma suggests she decline the proposal. Her spirits are lifted however when Emma reminds her of how much more impressive Mr Elton is.
Knightley reveals Emma Mr Martin consulted him about proposing to Harriet, and that he supported the match. Emma informs him that the proposal has already been rejected. She makes it clear to Knightley that Mr Martin is not Harriet’s equal.
Emma and Harriet have been collecting riddles in a scrapbook. When Mr Elton returns from London with the framed portrait of Harriet, he contributes a riddle, and the girls immediately set about trying to decode it. Emma convinces Harriet that the answer is ‘courtship,’ and that it is foreshadowing a proposal. Emma tells Mr Elton that they have solved the riddle, and he reacts emotionally.
On their way to visit a poor family in an act of charity, Harriet finally addresses the elephant in the room: why has Emma not married? Emma states her resolution to remain single. The girls’ attention is soon turned to Mr Elton, and in an attempt to facilitate their courtship Emma slows down as the trio walk, giving the other two time to speak. However, it is clear that Mr Elton has no interest in Harriet. Nonetheless, Emma determines not to give up.
The arrival of Mr Knightley and his wife at Hartfield occupies all of Emma’s attention.
During dinner at Hartfield, Mr Knightley and Emma agree to disagree about a match between Harriet and Mr Martin. Knightley reveals that Martin was disappointed to be rejected by Harriet.
As the Knightleys debate over where they should spend their Autumn, eventually John snaps and states that everyone else should mind their own business. He and Emma work to ease tensions afterwards.
The Woodhouses and Knightleys are invited to the Westons’ for Christmas Eve dinner, but Harriet falls ill with a sore throat so cannot go. Emma is pleased to see that Mr Elton has noticed Harriet’s illness and worries for her, but is confused when he rejects her idea that they all skip the party as Harriet will not be there. Mr Knightley witnesses the exchange, and offers an answer to the confusion Emma feels: Mr Elton has feelings for her, not Harriet. Emma initially laughs it off, but when she is riding in the carriage with Mr Elton, she is surprised when the concern he displayed for Harriet’s condition quickly gives way to excitement for the night ahead – providing evidence for Mr Knightley’s theory.
Emma’s worries are apparently further confirmed when, at the party, Mr Elton will not leave her alone. Mr Weston then announces that Frank Churchill will be visiting in January, which piques Emma’s interests as she has, in the past, briefly considered Frank to be a potential partner, but remains committed to staying single.
Mrs Weston reveals to Emma that she feels nervous about meeting Frank (her stepson), and both women fear that Mrs Churchill will do something to stop him from coming. They speculate what could lead a young man to rely so heavily on the impulses of his guardian.
Mr Elton irritates Emma by acting more concerned with her health than with Harriet’s. There is a commotion when Mr Knightley’s announcement that it has started snowing causes everyone to reassess their travel plans.
In the frenzy, Emma and Mr Elton end up in the same carriage together. He declares his love for her and proposes. Attempting to dodge the proposal, Emma suggests that it is Harriet whom Mr Elton truly loves, but Mr Elton makes it clear that he has never had feelings for her. Instead, he says, he is convinced that Emma has known of his intentions and encouraged them. Emma angrily rebukes him and refuses the proposal. They spend the rest of the journey in silence.
Emma realises that the Knightleys were right about Mr Elton, and that she was wrong. She briefly considers that ‘it was wrong, to take so active a part in bringing any two people together.’ She is especially despondent over the fact that Harriet’s feelings towards Mr Elton are largely the product of Emma’s influence over her. However, she decides not to give up on finding a partner for Harriet.
The Knightleys return to London, and Mr Elton writes to Mr Woodhouse to announce that he will spend the next few weeks in Bath.
Frank Churchill does not make his expected visit. While Mrs Weston is visibly disappointed, Emma is too occupied by other worries, but feels that she should at least try to look upset in order to avoid any questions about why she would not be.
She gets into an argument with Mr Knightley about Frank. Mr Knightley asks himself the same question Emma asked herself earlier: why would a young man allow the direction of his life to be completely subject to the impulses of his guardian? Emma expresses sympathy for Frank’s situation, and states that she believes he will be perfectly charming whenever he does arrive. Mr Knightley disagrees, and reckons that based on his apparent willingness to let other people decide his life for him, he will be insufferable. His prejudice surprises Emma.
During a walk, Emma attempts to redirect Harriet’s thoughts away from Mr Elton, but is largely unsuccessful. Emma settles to call on Mr and Mrs Bates, a duty that she usually neglects. During their visit, the Bates tell them of Mr Elton’s travels. They also tell them that their niece, Jane, plans to stay in Highbury while her parents attend a wedding in Ireland. Emma speculates that the reason for Jane’s missing the trip is that there is a romance between Jane and her guardians, the Campbell’s, daughter’s husband, Mr Dixon.
The story of Jane’s life is given. She was orphaned at a young age, and was taken in by the Campbells. Colonel Campbell ensured she was given the best opportunities growing up, but as she was not officially part of the family, he would not be able to give her an inheritance. So, it was decided that when she came of age she would become a governess. During this time, Jane became a valued member of the Campbell family, and got used to living in luxury in London. Her visit to Highbury will be her last taste of freedom.
It is announced that Mrs Elton is to marry Miss Hawkins. This catches Emma off-guard; her visible distress is noticed by Mr Knightley, and his looks suggest he knows something has happened between Emma and Mr Elton.
Mr Elton returns to Highbury to confirm to everyone that his fiancé is beautiful, intelligent and wealthy. Emma is hopeful that the marriage will ease the awkwardness that now exists. However, she cannot help but laugh to herself over Miss Hawkin’s inferior social status.
Emma takes Harriet to visit the Martins. It is agreed beforehand that Emma will retrieve Harriet after fifteen minutes, but when she goes to do exactly that, the Martins realise they have been snubbed because of their inferior social status. Emma is torn, but reminds herself that she is doing what is best for her friend.
Frank Churchill finally visits Highbury, and expresses great interest in everything to do with the town, much to the joy of Emma.
Emma’s initially warm opinion of Frank Churchill is dampened when he takes a day trip to London just to have his hair cut. Though Emma remains committed to staying single, she decides that she does not mind the prospect of other people associating her with Frank Churchill. However, Mr Knightley considers Frank to be immature and superficial, just as he suspected he would. An invitation to a party from the Coles arrives, and Emma accepts it, despite disliking them for being ‘new money.’
At the Coles’ party, it’s revealed that Jane Fairfax has received the mysterious gift of a piano. Emma tells Frank Churchill that she suspects Mr Dixon to be the sender. Jane appears embarrassed about the gift when she arrives. Emma is happy that Frank asks her, and not Jane, for a dance.
Still at the party, Harriet overhears conversation that Mr Martin dined with the Cox family, and there is a rumour that a Cox daughter wishes to marry him.
At the Bates’, Frank asks Jane if she has any idea of who could have sent her the piano. When she says she is unsure, he replies ‘True affection only could have prompted it.’ Emma interprets this as Frank teasing Jane, and whispers to him to stop. She regrets confiding in him that she thinks Mr Dixon and Jane are having an affair. Mr Knightley stops by the Bates’ to check up on Jane, but refuses to come in when he realises that Frank is there.
Frank and Emma plan a ball together, and Frank is successful in getting Emma to promise her first two dances to him.
Emma expresses worry at the prospect of Frank’s aunt, Mrs Churchill, interfering with their plans and demanding that he leave Hartfield. Surprised by her emotions, she decides that she must be ‘a little in love’ with Frank.
Emma has fantasies about a relationship with Frank, but they always end with her refusing him. The village turns its attention towards Mr Elton, who is soon to return for good with his new bride. Naturally, Harriet is worried about things being awkward.
Mr Elton visits with his new bride. Emma decides it would be prudent for her and Harriet to see them sooner rather than later, in order to show their support and quell any awkwardness.
Emma makes it clear that she does not like the new bride.
To fulfil her social obligations, Emma organises a dinner party to welcome Mrs Elton. An opportunity to invite Jane Fairfax arises when Harriet asks to be excused.
Mrs Elton insists on helping Jane find a governess position, but Jane states that her help will not be needed until after she sees the Campbells. It is revealed that Frank will be able to visit Hartfield more frequently.
Mr Knightley considers whether Emma’s growing social presence will put her interests at odds with his sons’. Emma replies that she is actually very domesticated, which makes George Knightley laugh.
Emma sees Frank again, and though he seems happy and friendly, their interaction only lasts for a short while, which makes Emma think that his feelings for her must have changed.
It is the day of the ball. Mr Weston invites Emma to arrive early, in order to get her opinion on the decorations and other preparations. Emma hopes to speak with Frank. Knightley admits that his opinion of Harriet has grown warmer, which pleases Emma.
At the ball, Frank appears suddenly. Harriet has fainted in his arms. This makes Emma consider whether Harriet and Frank are interested in each other.
Harriet reveals to Emma that she is no longer interested in Mr Elton. Curious, Emma asks Harriet if she has feelings for someone of a higher station in life. Harriet says that she does, but offers no further detail. Knightley suspects that there is something going on between Frank and Jane.
Knightley expands on his initial suspicion: he believes Frank and Jane are in a secret relationship. Emma finds this funny, and states that she knows the true reason for Frank acting so dismissive towards Jane. Knightley is irritated by Emma’s implication that she and Frank are confidants.
Emma enjoys a walk around Knightley’s house and grounds at Donwell Abbey. She overhears Jane turning down a governess position organised by Mrs Elton.
The Box Hill trip is a failure. Mrs and Mr Elton largely keep to themselves; Mr Knightley, Miss Bates and Jane secretly form a second party, and Emma stays with Harriet and Frank. During a game devised by Frank, Emma ridicules Miss Bates, and is reprimanded by Knightley. She cries the entire trip home.
Emma confronts the fact that the trip was a disaster. It is revealed that Jane has accepted the position of governess recommended by Mrs Elton. Emma expresses surprise and genuine concern for the unhappiness everyone must feel at Jane’s departure. News that Frank unexpectedly departed early for Richmond adds to Emma’s surprise.
Mrs Churchill has died. Emma sees the death as an opportunity for Harriet to get closer to Frank. Emma reaches out to Jane, offering to host her at Hartfield, but is hurt when she begins to suspect that Jane is deliberately avoiding her.
Frank reveals that he and Jane have been secretly engaged. Emma is shocked and embarrassed by the things she has said to Frank about Jane, and also worries about what Harriet will think.
Amid the frenzy of emotions and updates, Emma realises she is in love with Mr Knightley. This realisation is prompted by Harriet’s declaration of love for the same man. Harriet states that she was initially uninterested in Knightley, but it was ultimately Emma’s encouragement that led to the infatuation. Emma is frustrated that she may have caused the man she loves to marry someone else.
Emma regrets not being a better friend to Jane. She fears for a life without visits to Hartfield by Knightley.
Knightley tells Emma he does not want her friendship. Instead, he wants her love. They are engaged, and Knightley is surprised by how smoothly things went, as he was convinced that Emma had feelings for Frank.
Emma is excited, and the new couple join her father for tea. Her spirits are dampened however by her concern for Harriet and her father.
Emma forgives Frank. Emma and Knightley discuss their marriage father. It is agreed that Knightley will move to Hartfield, much to Emma’s excitement.
Emma resolves not to tell her father of her engagement until Mrs Weston has given birth.
Mrs Weston gives birth to a daughter. The senior Mr Knightley congratulates his son and Emma on their engagement, and states that the pairing came as no surprise to him. Emma then tells her father. He is uncertain at first, but gradually comes around to supporting the match.
It is revealed that Harriet will marry Robert Martin. Emma and Mr Knightley visit Randalls, where they find Jane and Frank. Things are initially awkward, but their long history of friendship wins over, and they reconcile.
Harriet has got over her interest in Knightley. She and Mr Martin are the first of the new couples to marry (in September). Though Emma wishes to marry in October, her father disapproves. When Mrs Weston’s chickens are stolen, Emma’s father agrees that Knightley should move in.
Emma was published by Jane Austen in 1815, during the Regency era, a time where everyday life was governed by strict codes of behaviour that were determined by an individual’s station in life. Manners in both public and private life, as well as a general deference to the upper classes, were particularly important, and any breach of spoken or unspoken social rules or norms would result in swift condemnation, and, depending on whether the person belonged to one of the upper classes, a form of excommunication for a period of time.
Regency England was deeply patriarchal in its structure; a woman’s identity was defined first by her father, and then by her husband (assuming she married). It follows that women were anxious to marry into a family that was of good social standing. That is, a family that was wealthy and respected. In Emma, the character of Miss Bates represents everything that a young woman of the time would have feared most: she is unattractive, poor and unmarried. And yet, she is well-liked by all. Indeed, this irony is an attempt by Austen to subtly critique the strict standards and expectations imposed by her society on women, and to send the message that it is not necessary to subscribe to those rules in order to find fulfilment. In spite of the criticisms she offers of her contemporary society, Austen still acknowledges the extent to which its values were so deeply entrenched. Indeed, the fact that the majority of the novel deals with exploring the undue pressure placed on women by such rules and the resultant deprivation of freedom, only to end with all of the women characters getting married is a reflection of just how effectively society worked to confine women, and to limit their imaginations.
Referring back to the rigidly hierarchical social structure of Regency England, every aspect of life was determined by wealth and social breeding. With regard to the issue of wealth, there were two forms of it: old money (families who had established fortunes long ago and had carved out a respected place in society because of it) and new money (people who had gained their wealth relatively recently by working for it). Although people of new money were accepted into the upper classes, they were generally considered with suspicion and even resentment by those with old money, as their more-established peers thought they lacked the sophistication to be their equals.
It is important to note how Austen uses parody, irony, free indirect speech and a degree of realism throughout Emma to both critique the shortcomings of her contemporary society with respect to the value of women, and to acknowledge the inescapability of the social order.