Chapter One: The first chapter introduces the novel's title character and protagonist, Emma Woodhouse, a twenty-one year old heiress and the youngest of two daughters. Emma’s mother died long ago, leaving Emma to be brought up by Miss Taylor, a governess who “fell little short of a mother in affection.” However, at the novel's beginning Miss Taylor has just married Mr. Weston, leaving Emma contemplative and lonely. After the wedding, Emma is alone playing backgammon with her father, a hypochondriac who tends to overindulge his daughter. They are joined by Mr. George Knightley, a wealthy neighbor whose brother had married Emma's elder sister. They discuss Miss Weston’s marriage and confirm that Emma will miss her friend. Only Mr. Woodhouse pities Miss Taylor, absurdly thinking that she must be unhappy to be married and thus separated from the Woodhouse household. Emma tries to take credit for the marriage, claiming that she matched Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston.
Analysis: Within the first few paragraphs of the book, Austen gives the reader a clear sense of Emma’s character. While she is "handsome, clever and rich," she is also spoiled and self-centered, less concerned with Miss Taylor's new happiness than her own loss of a companion. Austen also identifies the main problem of the book and the arc of Emma’s development: Emma must learn to be a better person with greater respect for others. Mr. Woodhouse is presented as partially to blame for Emma’s self-absorbed nature: his constant complaints and focus on what he perceives to be his numerous burdens has given him a narrow view of the world that Emma has come to share.
Here we find a view of Emma's world. It is one of leisure, in which she spends time drawing, visiting with friends, or playing games, but more importantly, Emma's world is static and orderly. There is little change in her life, and what changes occur, in this case the marriage of Miss Taylor, greatly disturb her. When Emma desires change (as when she suggests that Mr. Elton should be married), it is to set things in greater order.
Emma's viewpoint predominates the novel, and Austen gives her perspective on nearly every event, but it is not the only perspective. The novel is told from the third person, which gives Austen the ability to critique Emma's own behavior. The character Mr. Knightley serves this same purpose, acting as the voice of sound judgment in the novel and pointing out where Emma is faulty in thought or action. This chapter clearly juxtaposes Mr. Knightley with Mr. Woodhouse, with Mr. Knightley representing a sensible view of the world in contrast to Mr. Woodhouse’s unduly occupation with his own feeling and comforts.
Chapter Two: This chapter begins with the background of Mr. Weston, who was first married to a Miss Churchill during his youth. Miss Churchill was of a higher social status and lived a life beyond what the couple could afford, a fact that contributed to their unhappy marriage. She died only a few years after their marriage but left a child to be raised by Mr. Weston. Lacking the financial stability to care for a child, Mr. Weston sent the boy to be raised by his late wife’s relative. The child, now grown and having adopted the name of those who raised him (Frank Churchill), keeps in contact with Mr. Weston and is considered a curiosity to those in Highbury.
Analysis: An important consideration in Emma and, Jane Austen's novels in general, is social status, particularly when it concerns marriage. Part of the reason that Mr. Weston's first marriage failed is that he married a woman who was accustomed to a different life style. Although the marriage benefited Mr. Weston socially, he suffered from his wife's inability to lower herself to his level. The story also details some peculiar aspects of marriage and courtship during the time period: in this case, Miss Churchill’s parents took offense to her choice of partner and promptly cut her off without any inheritance. This severe decision foreshadows some of the problems that Frank Churchill will encounter from his family when he decides to marry, especially if he chooses a woman who is not deemed to be his equal.
Another recurring theme in the novel is the relationship between profession and social status. Mr. Weston is below only the Woodhouses and Mr. Knightley in terms of social rank in Highbury, but this was not always the case. Mr. Weston had to climb the social hierarchy, moving from the military up to trade and then finally establishing himself as the owner of an estate. Other than the nobility, the highest members of British society were people who had owned property and did not have an actual profession. Working, whether as a clergyman or governess or merchant, denotes a lower social rank.
Chapter Three: This chapter introduces a number of minor characters, including the impoverished Mrs. Bates and her daughter, Miss Bates; Mr. Elton, a local clergyman; Mrs. Goddard, the mistress of a boarding school; and most importantly Harriet Smith, a young girl whom Emma takes under her wing. Emma takes it upon herself to improve Harriet, starting with an adjustment of her choice of acquaintances, specifically the Martin family.
Analysis: The best and worst of Emma Woodhouse is revealed in her attempts to improve Harriet Smith. She has good intentions toward Harriet and genuinely wishes to help the young lady by introducing her into society and finding her a suitor, but Emma is also meddlesome and condescending. She assumes that she is the most appropriate person to “improve” her friend and has no qualms in persuading Harriet to go against her personal feelings. Emma immediately assumes that the Martins are inappropriate friends for Harriet, solely based on their social status and common upbringing. Mr. Knightley, however, thinks very highly of the family, despite their profession.
The chapter also clarifies the social hierarchy of Highbury society. The Woodhouses, the Westons and Mr. Knightley are at the top, since they own the largest estates. Below them in status is Mr. Elton, who is important in Highbury not because of wealth but because of his position as the vicar. Mrs. Bates, as the widow of the former vicar, also retains some status, though she has little money. At the lowest rung of society are single women such as Harriet Smith and Miss Bates. Miss Bates takes part in social functions because of her mother, but Harriet is only allowed among the better persons of Highbury because of her connection to Emma. Parentage is crucial for determining a character’s social status, and Harriet does not know who her parents are. Emma assumes that Harriet’s father must be a gentleman, and, because of her own social status, she can determine who is included.
Chapter Four: Emma introduces Harriet Smith into her social circle, using her as a companion to replace Mrs. Weston. Harriet is unable to tell Emma anything about her parents as Mrs. Goddard given her little information, but Emma is easily persuaded that Harriet’s father was, in fact, a gentleman. Emma grows increasingly concerned about Harriet’s connection to the Martin family when she discovers that Robert Martin, the son, may have romantic interest in Harriet. In conversation with Harriet, Emma attempts to belittle Robert Martin as uneducated, not handsome, and too young to marry. After Emma briefly meets Mr. Martin, she promptly informs Harriet that he is plain and clownish. She encourages Harriet to compare Robert to better men such as Mr. Weston or Mr. Elton and privately wonders if Mr. Elton might be a more appropriate match. After all, although he does not have low social connections, he does not have a family who would object to Harriet's doubtful birth.
Analysis: Harriet Smith reveals herself to be the perfect case for Emma: she impressionable and naïve and dotes upon Emma. She serves as a replacement for Mrs. Weston as a companion, but unlike Mrs. Weston, she does criticize Emma or attempt to improve her in any way. Instead, she flatters Emma in every way. Significantly, it is because of Harriet’s dissimilarities from Mrs. Weston that Emma selects her to be a friend. Since she cannot find a suitable replacement for Mrs. Weston, she decides to find a different sort of relationship. Instead of finding another teacher, Emma finds a student of her own.
The reason that Emma gives to dissuade Harriet Smith from a romance with Robert Martin is significant. He lacks proper manners, with his "awkward look," "abrupt manner" and "uncouthness of a voice." She does this through contrast: Robert Martin lacks the grace and breeding of Mr. Knightley, Mr. Weston, and Mr. Elton. But for Emma, “manners” actually mean status. She disapproves of Robert Martin before she has even met him, simply because he is not a gentleman.
Emma’s judgmental decision about Robert Martin brings up a recurring theme in the book: the relationship between status and manners. She emphasizes the fact that Mr. Knightley and Mr. Elton have manners that befit their social situation. Each place in society has manners that are proper to it: behavior that might be acceptable to a woman such as Emma might not be appropriate for a woman such as Harriet Smith.
Chapter Five: Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston discuss Emma's new friendship with Harriet Smith. Mrs. Weston approves of the friendship, believing that it will be beneficial to both. Mr. Knightley, on the other hand, believes that Harriet will do nothing to stimulate Emma on an intellectual level. More over, Harriet will do nothing but flatter her, something with which Emma is already well-acquainted. Mrs. Weston’s position as a governess was ideal preparation, Mr. Knightley argues, because it trained her to think of others and often submit her own will. Still, he praises Emma for her beauty when Mrs. Weston presses him.
Analysis: More than any other character in the novel, Mr. Knightley expressed the author's views on each character. While other characters are overwhelmed by social status and wealth, Mr. Knightley is able to recognize personality traits and the truth of each character. In this chapter, Mr. Knightley takes the opportunity to point out Emma's flaws, an action that he will repeat consistently throughout the novel. Not only does this criticism contrast sharply with the way that Emma is treated by everyone else in the novel, but it suggests that Mr. Knightley may have deeper feelings for Emma. He is greatly concerned with Emma’s behavior and worries that she has been misguided by those around her.
Therefore, when Mr. Knightley tells Mrs. Weston that Harriet Smith is not an appropriate friend for Emma, this must be taken as foreshadowing. The harm in the friendship is that Harriet will flatter Emma and indulge her worst qualities, while Emma will teach Harriet to be so refined that she will not fit among her true social equals. Again, status is significant: Harriet, given her suspicious birth and upbringing, must know her lower place in society. A friendship with the woman at the center of Highbury society will only be confusing and even damaging.
Mr. Knightley makes an important comment about how Emma prepared Mrs. Weston for marriage by making her submit to another’s wishes. This highlights the role of a wife in marriage as completely subservient to the husband and indicates how exceptional Emma is in her circumstances. Emma, because of her fortune and status, has the power of a married man and must submit to no one's wishes. If she did marry, she would have to give up a great deal of her independence.
Chapter Six: Emma starts working to develop a romantic match between Mr. Elton and Harriet. She speaks to Mr. Elton about Harriet Smith, but for every compliment he gives Harriet, Mr. Elton gives Emma the credit. Emma decides to draw a portrait of Harriet Smith for Mr. Elton, even though he seems more interested in having a picture by Emma Woodhouse than of Harriet Smith. When Emma completes the picture of Harriet Smith, Mr. Weston and Mr. Knightley note how Emma has improved Harriet's appearance, giving her better features and making her taller. Mr. Elton gallantly offers to take the picture to London so that it can be framed.
Analysis: This chapter rests on situational irony. Harriet Smith is interested in Mr. Elton, but Mr. Elton is interested in Emma, the woman who is attempting to set up the two. It also creates a number of ambiguities. Mr. Elton gladly accepts the portrait, but is not clear whether or not he cherishes it for the subject (Harriet) or the artist (Emma). Certain qualities in both Emma and Harriet Smith allow this delusion to continue. Emma has idealized both Harriet and Mr. Elton in her attempts to play matchmaker, and she cannot presume that her plans would ever go awry. Harriet, in turn, is so trusting that she cannot see the signals that Mr. Elton gives. At this point it is unclear whether or not Mr. Elton is aware of the circumstances, but that point is critical. He does know that he is in their company for the purpose of courtship. But, if he knows that Emma intends him for Harriet and not herself, then he is deliberately and cruelly manipulating Harriet Smith.
The chapter also reinforces the life of leisure that Emma Woodhouse lives. She spends her days working on a portrait of Harriet Smith. Yet also interesting is that the others also have a similar life of leisure, even though Harriet does not have Emma's resources, and Mr. Elton actually has a career. Austen never shows Mr. Elton actually at work or considering his duties at the parish.
Chapter Seven: Mr. Martin sends letter to Harriet in which he proposes marriage. Although Emma admits that the letter is better than she expected, she still speaks ill of the letter to Harriet (claiming that one of his sisters must have written it). Emma ultimately dissuades Harriet from accepting the proposal, claiming that a woman should always say no if there is even the slightest doubt. Harriet is disappointed to reject Mr. Martin, but she cedes to Emma's wishes. Emma encourages her to rid herself of thoughts of Mr. Martin and instead think of Mr. Elton getting her portrait framed in London.
Analysis: Emma continues to disparage Robert Martin because of his lack of manners, but considering evidence to the contrary (his well-written letter), she still reinforces the idea that he is uncouth to Harriet. The idea that one of his sisters wrote the letter is absurd (in Austen's England, it is highly unlikely that a woman of the Martin's status would receive an education greater than her brother), and Emma promoting the idea is borderline malicious. Emma's interest is not in Robert Martin's manners, but his status.
The chapter also reinforces the dynamics of Emma's relationship with Harriet Smith. Harriet depends on Emma for all of her opinions and decisions and cannot decide whether or not to marry Robert Martin without first getting Emma’s approval. They have a friendship, but it is not one between equals. It is particularly important that Harriet Smith asks Emma for her opinion even though Harriet obviously has her own concrete opinion on the matter. She may have some doubt but is clearly disappointed when Emma advises her to reject Robert Martin. Still, Harriet does not have the strength to go against Emma's opinion.