Emma: Notes

Emma: Notes

Emma: Notes

Emma: Notes


The original CliffsNotes study guides offer expert commentary on major themes, plots, characters, literary devices, and historical background.


  • Life and Background of the Author
  • Introduction to the Novel
  • A Brief Synopsis
  • List of Characters
  • Critical Commentaries
  • Critical Essays
  • Essay Topics and Review Questions
  • Selected Bibliography

    Youthful Emma Woodhouse, whose long-time governess and friend Miss Taylor has just married Mr. Weston, takes some solace in being left alone with her aging father by claiming that she made the match herself. An old friend of the family, Mr. George Knightley, does not believe her, but in her certainty she decides that she must also marry off the young rector, Mr. Elton. Among her friends and acquaintances in the large and populous village of Highbury, she begins to notice young Harriet Smith, the pretty illegitimate seventeen-year-old who lives at Mrs. Goddard’s boarding school.

    Determining first to improve Harriet, Emma discourages her interest in worthy Robert Martin of AbbeyMill Farm, declares that Harriet must be from more genteel parents than his, and fixes upon Harriet as Mr. Elton’s future wife.

    In bringing the two together socially, Emma does a drawing of Harriet which Mr. Elton admires and takes off to London to be framed. This appears so promising to Emma that, when Harriet receives a letter of proposal from Robert Martin, Emma discredits him and actually helps Harriet write a letter of refusal in spite of the fact that Mr. Knightley has nothing but respect for Robert. Ensuing events convince Emma that Harriet and Mr. Elton are developing a mutual regard, and she takes pride in the apparent success of her endeavor, at the same time affirming that she herself will never marry.

    For the Christmas holidays Mr. and Mrs. John Knightley, respectively the brother of George Knightley and the sister of Emma, come from London with their five children to visit the Woodhouses. On December 24, which proves to be a bad day of snow, all of them, including George Knightley and Mr. Elton, go for a dinner with the Westons. There discussion turns to Frank Churchill, Weston’s handsome, polished son by a former marriage (Frank had taken his uncle’s name upon going to live with him) but a son who has never been seen in Highbury. John Knightley in particular thinks it oddly improper that Frank has not yet called on his newly remarried father, even though Frank lives some distance away in Yorkshire with the Churchills. There have been letters from him, of course, and a pleasant surprise of the dinner party is an announcement that a recent letter says that Frank will be coming for a visit within a fortnight, an announcement that reminds Emma that, if she were ever to marry, Frank would suit her in age, character, and condition.

    The snow increases to the point that the visitors feel that they must go if they are to reach home safely. To her consternation Emma finds herself alone with Mr. Elton in the second carriage. But she is disconcerted even more when he begins insistently to declare his love for her and when he is amazed to learn that she thought him in love with Harriet. Emma’s refusal of Mr. Elton’s offer is firm, but she is indeed worried that he has never thought seriously of Harriet. Her worry and self-criticism continue through the night, mixed with resentment at the impertinence of Mr. Elton’s aspirations toward herself. Fortunately for her, during the next few days everyone is confined to home by the weather. On the first good day, the John Knightleys return to London while Mr. Elton informs Mr. Woodhouse in a note that he is leaving for a visit to Bath: It is Emma’s unhappy duty to inform Harriet about Mr. Elton and to console her, inwardly blaming herself for being in error. In addition to this disappointment in her plans, she learns that Frank Churchill has once again had to defer his visit because Mrs. Churchill is ill, a condition that many of Highbury doubt. George Knightley in particular questions Frank’s real sense of duty toward Mr. Weston and, in a conversation with Emma, indicates that he does not share Highbury’s (and Emma’s) general tendency to think highly of the young man whom the town has never yet seen...

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