Sometimes claimed to be the culmination of Jane Austen's genius, Emma was Austen's fourth novel--published first in 1816. The novel stands as a classic romantic comedy full of wit and irony that characterize Jane Austen, who masterfully combined romantic sensibilities with the Augustan satire.
Emma has a character-driven plot. The twenty-one-year old eponymous heroine is a well-off young lady who thinks of herself as a prodigious matchmaker, while she remains immune to the charms of the opposite sex. One-by-one, the matchmaking ideas of Emma Woodhouse are foiled.
She singles out a young gentleman, Frank Churchill, as the best match for herself. But, she sticks to her resolution never to marry. It turns out that Frank's affections have been secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax, a poor but well-mannered and well-educated girl. And then, to her surprise, Emma finally discovers her love for Mr. George Knightely, brother-in-law to Emma's elder sister, Isabella, who is Emma's most frequent critic. The story ends in their happy marriage.
Emma's character overwhelms the novel's meaning and theme. She is a self-deceiving young woman of class whose confidence stands on the fact that she is free from the burden of marrying for fortune. As she says: "a single woman of good fortune is always respectable." What undermines her confidence is her lack of common sense. She says: "But with common sense, I am afraid I have had little to do."
Emma's jealousy of Jane Fairfax is another instance of her diffidence in matters of social respect.
A Flawed Heroine: Emma
By taking on a heroine like Emma--who is given to misjudgment--Jane Austen has provided readers with a mask of personality to check their own attributes. Mr. Knightley makes a significant observation about Emma early in the novel. He thinks Emma only approves of a match and does little to make it possible. The chasm between tossing suggestions in conversation and working to fulfill them has been touched on in a subtle way. The resolutions of rich women of class are airy as we see in Emma's marriage with Mr. Knightley.
To assume importance, however, the shift in resolutions is justified by rationalization. Emma's cleverness is well up for this job. Each failure of her matchmaking plans switches her to another presumption and then every one of them collapses. Still, Emma Woodhouse becomes happily wed to her most ardent critic, which adds a fair bit of irony to the novel's concept of love and matchmaking misinterpretations.
Harriet too is a fool for love, but she lacks Emma's cleverness and the confidence to decide for herself. Her life is partly in Emma's control and partly driven by social responses to her expressions. She considers one man after another for possible marriage--in a confused, almost-haphazard manner. Harriet is a young woman without a core personality--until she breaks from Emma and marries Mr. Martin of her own choice, following a long-term, secret affection. Her secret love for Mr. Martin--and her ultimate commitment--stands in start contrast to Emma's free-flung, sudden avowals--upon Mr. Knightley's declaration of love.
The Light-Hearted Way: Emma
The plot, tone, and mode of Emma makes the work the most light-hearted of Jane Austen's novels. The motivation of women to get married is rather stress-free; more based on follies of love rather than concern for a fortune. On the whole, Emma is a magnificent attempt at exploring the self-contained lives of young women.