The real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself….
The narrator opens the novel by introducing us to Emma Woodhouse, a girl endowed with “some of the best blessings of existence,” including good looks, intelligence, riches, and an affectionate father. Emma’s only disadvantages are that she is slightly spoiled and that she thinks “a little too well of herself.” Emma’s mother died before Emma could form many memories of her, but her gentle governess, Miss Taylor, provided a motherly love. After Emma’s older sister, Isabella, was married and moved to London, Miss Taylor and Emma became best friends.
As the novel begins, Miss Taylor has just left Hartfield, the estate of Emma and Mr. Woodhouse, to marry a widower named Mr. Weston, and Emma is left without a companion. She attempts to comfort her despondent father, who hates change, with the thought that they will see the new Mrs. Weston often, but Emma only partially succeeds in comforting herself. At this moment, neighborhood resident Mr. Knightley, the brother of Isabella’s husband, pays a visit, having returned from visiting their mutual relations in London. He affirms the appropriateness of the match between Mr. Weston and Miss Taylor and gently chides Emma when she claims credit. Emma declares that she will repeat her matchmaking success by finding a wife for Mr. Elton, the village rector.
The narrator recounts Mr. Weston’s history. His first marriage was to a woman named Miss Churchill, who came from a higher class than his. They had a son, named Frank, but the marriage was overshadowed by the disapproval of Mrs. Weston’s brother and sister-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Churchill. When Mrs. Weston died after three years of marriage, Frank was essentially adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Churchill and made their heir. Mr. Weston, left impoverished by the expectations of his first wife, spent the next twenty years of his life rebuilding his fortune. He eventually purchased Randalls, the small estate where he lives with the second Mrs. Weston.
The village has always been curious to see Frank Churchill, who writes a kind letter to Mrs. Weston indicating that he will pay a visit to his father and stepmother.
The Woodhouses give a small dinner party, to which they invite other members of their social circle: the widow Mrs. Bates; her single, middle-aged daughter, Miss Bates; and Mrs. Goddard, the mistress of the local boarding school. Mrs. Goddard brings one of her boarders, Harriet Smith, a girl whose parentage is unknown. Emma admires Harriet for her beauty and for her respect of Emma and Hartfield. She resolves to pursue friendship with Harriet, and to improve the naïve girl by detaching her from the inferior acquaintance of the farming Martin family. She plans to introduce Harriet to higher society.
The narration of these opening chapters creates a complicated portrait of Emma as a young, beautiful, clever, and confident character who exercises her influence in a constricted and complex environment and has much to learn about friendship, love, and the ways of the world. Emma’s affection for Miss Taylor and her kindness to her foolish and somewhat tiresome father reveal Emma’s capacity for true warmth and generosity. But, at the same time, the narrator quickly alerts us to the ways in which Emma is spoiled by her advantages and blinded by her own self-regard. Most explicitly, we are told at the novel’s beginning:
The real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather 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. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her.
The novel’s plot concerns Emma’s education, as she gradually perceives the dangers that her own self-satisfaction presents.
The narrator also portrays Emma’s weaknesses in more subtle ways, such as through irony. For example, the narrator hints that although Emma’s friendship with Miss Taylor is clearly a pleasure to them both, a stricter and more authoritative governess might have been better for Emma’s moral education. Emma’s tendency to be self-serving in her choice of friends is shown contemptibly in her attraction to Harriet Smith. Emma likes Harriet for a purely superficial reason—her good looks—while recognizing that Harriet is not particularly intelligent. Most of all, she likes Harriet for being impressed with her, which she takes as evidence of Harriet’s “good sense.”
The question of Austen’s loyalty to her protagonist is not easily resolved. Emma’s independent fortune and unquestioned status within her village community are advantages that were unavailable to Austen herself, so it is easy to imagine Austen writing about Emma’s self-important freedom with a certain amount of resentment. At the same time, however, the novel takes place mostly from Emma’s point of view—if we disliked Emma, the novel would be unreadable. The narrative structure of the novel complicates things further—the narrator is omniscient, qualified to pass judgment on Emma with commentary that is often tinged with irony, but the narrator also frequently takes up Emma’s point of view, sometimes almost merging the two.
When the narrator explains Emma’s commitment to Harriet’s betterment, commenting that the project “would be an interesting, and certainly a very kind undertaking; highly becoming [Emma’s] own situation in life, her leisure, and powers,” she uses a narrative technique called free indirect discourse, for which Austen is well known. When using free indirect discourse, the narrator steps into and out of characters’ thoughts, using language that sounds just like what the character would say, except that the narrator does not place it in quotation marks. The narrator’s use of free indirect discourse creates irony, as it becomes difficult to tell when the seemingly approving narrator is actually pointing to flaws in her characters. For instance, in the preceding quote, the narrator seems to express approval of Emma’s decision to take on Harriet as a project. Yet, because the words are expressed in Emma’s language, not the narrator’s, it seems that we are meant to view the statement with skepticism and to note that Emma’s seeming selflessness stems from the desire to make herself look good, to fill her spare time, and to exercise power.
The confined, limited nature of Emma’s existence makes her a sympathetic character. There are few other residents who would be suitable company for the Woodhouses, the dominant family in the village. With Miss Taylor’s departure, Emma is left with the prospect of spending most evenings without a companion other than her father. When she puts a party together, it is small, limited to Knightley, Mr. Elton, the Westons, the Bateses (noted for their dullness and predictability), and Mrs. Goddard. The excitement produced by the prospect of Frank Churchill’s visit and Emma’s immediate attachment to Harriet show how desperate she is for new acquaintances and experiences. The book focuses not only on Emma as an individual character but as a more general phenomenon: a young, intelligent, and active woman seeking to exercise her talents and abilities within her narrow scope of opportunity.