The narrator introduces Emma to us by emphasizing her good fortune: “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition,” Emma “had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” But, the narrator warns us, Emma possesses “the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.” Emma’s stubbornness and vanity produce many of the novel’s conflicts, as Emma struggles to develop emotionally.
Emma makes three major mistakes. First, she attempts to make Harriet into the wife of a gentleman, when Harriet’s social position dictates that she would be better suited to the farmer who loves her. Then, she flirts with Frank Churchill even though she does not care for him, making unfair comments about Jane Fairfax along the way. Most important, she does not realize that, rather than being committed to staying single (as she always claims), she is in love with and wants to marry Mr. Knightley. Though these mistakes seriously threaten Harriet’s happiness, cause Emma embarrassment, and create obstacles to Emma’s own achievement of true love, none of them has lasting consequences. Throughout the novel, Knightley corrects and guides Emma; in marrying Knightley, Emma signals that her judgment has aligned with his.
Austen predicted that Emma would be “a character whom no one but me will much like.” Though most of Austen’s readers have proven her wrong, her narration creates many ambiguities. The novel is narrated using free indirect discourse, which means that, although the all-knowing narrator speaks in the third person, she often relates things from Emma’s point of view and describes things in language we might imagine Emma using. This style of narration creates a complex mixture of sympathy with Emma and ironic judgment on her behavior. It is not always clear when we are to share Emma’s perceptions and when we are to see through them. Nor do we know how harshly Austen expects us to judge Emma’s behavior. Though this narrative strategy creates problems of interpretation for the reader, it makes Emma a richly multidimensional character.
Emma does not have one specific foil, but the implicit distinctions made between her and the other women in the novel offer us a context within which to evaluate her character. Jane is similar to Emma in most ways, but she does not have Emma’s financial independence, so her difficulties underscore Emma’s privileged nature. Mrs. Elton, like Emma, is independent and imposes her will upon her friends, but her crudeness and vanity reinforce our sense of Emma’s refinement and fundamentally good heart. Emma’s sister, Isabella, is stereo-typically feminine—soft-hearted, completely devoted to her family, dependent, and not terribly bright. The novel implicitly prefers Emma’s independence and cleverness to her sister’s more traditional deportment, although we are still faced with the paradox that though Emma is clever, she is almost always mistaken.
Mr. Knightley serves as the novel’s model of good sense. From his very first conversation with Emma and her father in Chapter 1, his purpose—to correct the excesses and missteps of those around him—is clear. He is unfailingly honest but tempers his honesty with tact and kindheartedness. Almost always, we can depend upon him to provide the correct evaluation of the other characters’ behavior and personal worth. He intuitively understands and kindly makes allowances for Mr. Woodhouse’s whims; he is sympathetic and protective of the women in the community, including Jane, Harriet, and Miss Bates; and, most of all, even though he frequently disapproves of her behavior, he dotes on Emma.
Knightley’s love for Emma—the one emotion he cannot govern fully—leads to his only lapses of judgment and self-control. Before even meeting Frank, Knightley decides that he does not like him. It gradually becomes clear that Knightley feels jealous—he does not welcome a rival. When Knightley believes Emma has become too attached to Frank, he acts with uncharacteristic impulsiveness in running away to London. His declaration of love on his return bursts out uncontrollably, unlike most of his prudent, well-planned actions. Yet Knightley’s loss of control humanizes him rather than making him seem like a failure.
Like Emma, Knightley stands out in comparison to his peers. His brother, Mr. John Knightley, shares his clear-sightedness but lacks his unfailing kindness and tact. Both Frank and Knightley are perceptive, warm-hearted, and dynamic; but whereas Frank uses his intelligence to conceal his real feelings and invent clever compliments to please those around him, Knightley uses his intelligence to discern right moral conduct. Knightley has little use for cleverness for its own sake; he rates propriety and concern for others more highly.
Frank epitomizes attractiveness in speech, manner, and appearance. He goes out of his way to please everyone, and, while the more perceptive characters question his seriousness, everyone except Knightley is charmed enough to be willing to indulge him. Frank is the character who most resembles Emma, a connection she points out at the novel’s close when she states that “destiny … connect[s] us with two characters so much superior to our own.” Like Emma, Frank develops over the course of the novel by trading a somewhat vain and superficial perspective on the world for the seriousness brought on by the experience of genuine suffering and love. He is a complex character because though we know we should judge him harshly in moral terms, we cannot help but like him more than he deserves to be liked.
Jane’s beauty and accomplishment immediately make her stand out, but we are likely to follow Emma’s lead at first and judge Jane uninteresting on account of her reserve. As Jane gradually betrays more personality and emotion, she indicates that she harbors some secret sorrow. Eventually, she and Emma push the cloudy confusion behind and become friends. The contrast between Jane’s delicate sense of propriety and morality and the passionate nature of her feelings is much more dramatic than any of the conflicts that Emma experiences. Jane’s situation too is much more dire than Emma’s: if Jane does not wed, she must become a governess, because she lacks any money of her own. The revelation of Jane’s secret engagement to Frank makes Jane seem more human, just as Knightley’s humanity is brought out by his love for Emma.