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.