Literary Tales Literature

Literary Summary: Jane Austen’s “Emma”

Finally, we come to Emma Woodhouse and Emma. Of all the stories of social scheming, Emma is the one novel where it is brought to the fore—from the very onset of the story. Emma is a beautiful and wealthy wannabe matchmaker. Thinking herself immune to love, she has fallen in love—pardon the pun—with the idea of herself as Venus, the thunderbolt of love socially arranging the love of others. She is an intimate participant in social scheming, not much different than Philip Elton or Frank Churchill.

While it is true that Elton and Churchill scheme to the point of flirtatious seduction and instrumental commodification, the purpose of their instrumental abuse and disregard for the soul is for social advancement. They scheme and want to make the most of their prospective marriage match. Emma, in a gentler manner, partakes in the same process. Emma’s veil of helping Harriet isn’t that of good friendship—as George Knightley says to Emma—but of satiating Emma’s own twisted yearnings for playing matchmaker. Emma feeds her own ego, rather than have genuine concern for her friends. At least initially.

Emma is a book about character and character transformation. Austen is bluntly criticizing the idea that wealth and social standing make good characters. While some persons of high wealth and standing may be good and virtuous souls, this is not universally true. Not even a profession as a cleric necessarily makes you virtuous. Philip Elton is anything but a virtuous soul. And his nouveau-riche wife isn’t a virtuous lady either. She even scoffs at Emma’s wedding party, ‘Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business. Selina would stare when she heard of it.’” But again, white satin and lace veils do not a lady or gentleman make.

Although Emma is our heroine, she is troubled. Austen doesn’t sugarcoat this problem for us, “The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having too much her own way and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments.” Emma has an internalized and psychological pride that must be broken over the course of the novel. Furthermore, in “think[ing] a little too well of herself,” she also isolates herself from those who depend on her—like Harriet. Only in Harriet’s initial heartbreak, having been led away from the humble but virtuous farmer Robert Martin, does Emma begin to feel remorse for others instead of pride for herself.

Emma takes Harriet under her wing with the veil of guidance and protection. In reality, Emma isn’t looking after Harriet but is only interested in her own grandiose schemes and dreams of herself. It takes the virtuous George Knightley, much Emma’s elder and with greater world experience on the things that matter in life, to break Emma’s blindness.

Emma does begin to grieve with Harriet and tries to be a better friend to her. Through Emma’s side-by-side friendship with Harriet, her immunity to love begins to break. Slowly, Emma is brought low—so to speak—out of the realm of superiority and into the realm of loving messiness. She begins to feel love but also tries to keep it at a distance. She continues to play matchmaker, but with a gentler hand and heart than before—God forbid she feel guilty over Harriet’s broken heart once more.

In the swirling maelstrom of Highbury, the balls, dances, and conversations—not to mention obvious flirting and social climbing—Emma is scandalized by the revelation of Frank Churchill’s actions. George Knightley, however, had been able to see through his immature and selfish mask from the beginning. Emma rushes to Harriet in her moment of apotheosis. She is now a friend deeply concerned for Harriet’s well-being. The stuffy and prideful woman we met at the beginning of the novel has become an empathetic soul, one concerned with the happiness of other souls instead of her own. Emma is, of course, relieved to know that Harriet hadn’t fallen for Churchill’s selfish sexual flirtations and partying. At this moment, Emma recognizes how much of a “fool” she has been—blinded by her own grand visions of herself and others.

In Emma, Austen deconstructs the myth of the virtuous upperclass and putrid underclass. Our two underclass heroes, Harriet and Robert Martin, have been among the most virtuous souls in the book. Likewise, it takes the virtuous soul of George Knightley—through his love and kindness—to begin the transfiguration of Emma. Against the virtuous souls stand the selfish, immature, and conceited. The Eltons. Churchill. Even Emma when we are first introduced to her. The main difference between Emma and Mr. and Mrs. Elton, and Frank Churchill, is she realizes the errors of her ways and reforms herself becoming a better friend and person in the process. Emma sheds those “real evils” that had afflicted her earlier in the story.

It may have taken a long and arduous journey, one of many shocks, twists, tears, and turns, but Emma realizes that the love which has purified her was always right in front of her: George Knightley. She also learns that virtue transcends social classes. Harriet and Robert marry and are happy together, and, more importantly, Emma is happy for them. Emma has learned, at long last, to will the happiness—love—of others rather than herself. Emma and Knightley also marry and, in the presence of their true friends, enjoy the love and happiness that has brought them together and made Emma a better person.

*This reflection on Emma was part of a larger essay on Jane Austen, first published at VoegelinView, 10 May 2021.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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