Literature / Emma

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"With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of every body's feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange everybody's destiny. She was proved to have been universally mistaken; and she had not quite done nothing for she had done mischief."

Written in 1815, Emma is a novel that takes a slightly different take on Jane Austen's typical novel of manners. Instead of a plucky but poor heroine who must face off with a Rich Bitch, the heroine herself is the Idle Rich girl who means well, but ends up making life harder for the people around her.

Emma Woodhouse, who has been spoiled ever since she was a small child, had always had a penchant for ordering the world as she sees fit. So when she meets the sweet and pretty but slightly slow young Harriet, she decides that she will set her up with a husband worthy of her feminine charms. Hilarity Ensues, with zany schemes, terrible misunderstandings, gossip gone awry and, of course, since this is a Jane Austen novel, Emma needs to sort out her love life before it's too late.

Notably adapted as the film Clueless and, in the current trend of Literary Mash-Ups, as Emma and the Werewolves. There are also several straight adaptations worth watching. A musical with songs by Paul Gordon was also produced in the last 2000s. Marvel Illustrated produced a Comic-Book Adaptation in 2011, script by Nancy Butler, art and covers by Janet Lee (Return of the Dapper Men). It has also received a Vlog Series Update in Emma Approved, in the vein of the other series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.

Not to be confused with the manga Victorian Romance Emma.


These tropes find their match in the novel:

  • Alliterative Name: Mrs. Elton's sister, Selina Suckling.
  • Always Someone Better: Jane, to Emma. Emma is an accomplished young lady, but she could have achieved much more had she been more diligent in her reading, painting or playing the piano and singing. Jane Fairfax knows she's destined to be a governess, so she works harder and accordingly, her performance in music is extraordinary.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Mr. Knightley and Emma. Emma loves crossing swords with Mr. Knightley, though she honours his opinions and it pains her when he gets angry to the point of not wanting to speak with her.
  • Beware the Silly Ones: Miss Bates. Her long monologues, apparently about nothing, often reveal secrets that no one realises because they don't pay her proper attention.
  • Big Fancy House:
    • Donwell Abbey is Mr. Knightley's family estate. It's very old, traditional, with gardens and orchards, a lime avenue, with farms and tenants renting the land. The house itself is huge and some of the rooms are furnished exquisitely.
    • Hartfield, a house which belongs to the Woodhouses. It's smaller than Donwell Abbey - just a "notch" in the estate - but it has a nice park, a farm attached and it's modern and elegant, decorated and furnished with Emma's taste.
  • Break the Haughty: Happens to Emma. She is a very endearing character — open, sweet, generous, witty, energetic, a loyal friend and a devoted daughter; she is also what by modern standards might fairly be called a snob. Mr. Knightley guides her and calls her on her bad behaviour sometimes and by the end of the novel she's much better.
  • Breakup Bonfire: After showing them to Emma, Harriet Smith throws her (pretty pathetic) mementos of Mr. Elton into a fire.
  • Bumbling Dad: Emma's father. Mostly because he's a very old gentleman, though it's implied he has always been domestic. His wife was a much stronger and more reasonable figure.
  • Cassandra Truth: Miss Bates has a tendency to provide valuable insight into what characters in the story are thinking, but most people don't care or notice because she rambles on and on and on. Even the readers usually ignore what she says.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: Emma and Mr. Knightley. They have known each other Emma's entire life.
  • Damned by Faint Praise: Emma really resents Mrs. Elton. Her close friends know about her opinion and they quite agree because Mrs. Elton is really obnoxious. However, Emma doesn't want other people to know about it, so she might mention that Mrs. Elton is "very pleasant and very elegantly dressed".
  • Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: Emma takes care of her father and is the mistress of Hartfield, but gets bored. Her purpose in life becomes attempting to matchmake in the village, which (nearly always) ends disastrously.
  • Discretion Shot: The Georgian novel version. In the scene where Mr Knightly confesses his love to Emma, Austen uses her narrative technique to tell us what Emma thinks of what he's saying, but without actually reporting the words. When it's time for Emma to speak in turn, we get this gem:
    What did she say? Just what she ought of course. A Lady always does.
  • Double In-Law Marriage: Sisters Isabella and Emma Woodhouse to brothers John and George Knightley.
  • Doting Parent:
    • Mr. Woodhouse adores his daughters, and is vastly troubled by the idea that anyone would think Emma less than perfect.
    • Mrs. Weston (formerly Miss Taylor) is Emma's childhood governess, and not much less inclined than Mr. Woodhouse to think her anything but flawless.
    • Isabella is shown to be a doting mother to her five children.
    • Miss Bates is a doting aunt to Jane Fairfax, always praising her and admiring her. She supposes her Jane is a favorite with everybody.
  • Elegant Classical Musician: Both Emma and Jane Fairfax play the piano and people find it attractive. It helps that they are also great beauties.
    • Emma is very talented, but she never bothered to practice regularly as a child. She's still more than just a decent pianist and she plays and sings very well, but whenever Jane visits her relatives in Highbury, Emma is vexed that she's no longer the best musician.
    • Jane Fairfax was brought up in London and had lessons with the best masters, fulfilling her potential. Everybody admires her dedication to music and urges her to play for them. Of course, unlike Emma, she may have to depend on her talents to ensure her survival as a governess in the future.
  • The Ending Changes Everything: Once you know exactly who feels what for who, much of the earlier dialogue in the novel takes on a very different tone.
  • Empathic Environment: The weather sometimes matches Emma's moods. It's especially obvious near the climax of the novel when the storm corresponds to Emma's emotional crisis.
  • Generation Xerox: In personality, at least, the narrative indicates that Isabella is exactly like the girls' father and Emma is just like their mother. (No hint is given as to how much of a physical resemblance there is.)
  • The Ghost: We read a lot about a few characters we never get to meet, most particularly Frank's aunt and uncle and Mrs. Elton's sister and brother-in-law.
  • Gold Digger: Mr. Elton. He wanted to marry well and knew he could, being a man with a respectable position and good income as a parson. Emma puts a spanner in his plans at first though.
  • Gratuitous Foreign Language: Mrs. Elton, who uses what was then a tired old Italian catchphrase to refer to her husband. She even gets the phrase wrong, showing herself to be not just small-minded and behind the times but also badly educated.
    • Though some critics instead believe the mispronunciation of the Italian phrase may be a mistake on the publisher's part rather than the character's. The argument is that Mr. Elton would have corrected his wife at the first opportunity after her misusing the phrase, and that she would have been too embarrassed to use the correct pronunciation.
  • Green-Eyed Epiphany: Spurs Emma's Love Epiphany.
  • Green-Eyed Monster:
    • When Emma actually attempts to be friendly to Jane Fairfax, she finds herself soundly rebuffed, and honestly doesn't know why. It turns out that Jane, who was secretly engaged to Frank Churchill all along, was deeply jealous of the attention he was paying to Emma as part of the cover-up. Jane later acknowledges that she was unreasonable about it, given that Emma had no idea.
    • Mr. Knightley takes a severe dislike to Frank Churchill for similar reasons.
    • When Harriet confides to Emma that she is in love with Mr. Knightley, it causes Emma to realise her own feelings for him.
  • Have a Gay Old Time:
    • Sure, every Jane Austen novel has characters engaging in "intercourse," but the scene everyone remembers is Mr. Elton "making violent love" to Emma in a carriage.
    • Emma is impressed with the Knightley brothers: "Those brothers had penetration". She means they are extremely perceptive, but...
  • Hypocritical Humor: Mrs. Elton says she much prefers old-fashioned politeness to "modern ease", even though her own manners go far beyond ease and well into over-familiarity. She's not exactly the most self-aware character though...
  • I Have This Friend: Mr. Elton shows Emma a poem that he claims a friend of his wrote for a girl he was in love with. Emma isn't fooled (at least not about who really wrote it, although she is wrong about who it was written for).
  • Ill Girl: Jane Fairfax's health is not robust. Jane Austen said to her family that she died of either tuberculosis or childbirth a few years after the end of the book.
  • I Love You Because I Can't Control You: Emma towards Mr. Knightley. Arguably, it goes the other way as well - Mr Knightley likes giving Emma advice, but ultimately enjoys the fact that she has her own mind and opinions.
  • Ironic Name: Frank Churchill. This guy is anything but frank, honest and sincere with everybody.
    • As the character who expresses the most desire to leave England, there's an added play on "Frank" = "French", to mark him out as untrustworthy.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Mr. Elton is a Gold Digger, an egotist and everything - bad but he's right, Emma did lead him on. Unintentionally, to be sure, but her willful blindness just makes it worse.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: John Knightley can be snarky and short-tempered with Mr. Woodhouse, but, well, Mr. Woodhouse IS annoying and John's very obvious love for his family (and his big-brotherly care of Emma) makes up for a lot. The narrative even notes that John's honestly very fond of his father-in-law, but there's only so long he can put up with some of Mr. Woodhouse's more irritating dialogue.
  • Last Name Basis: Everyone, pretty much, but particularly Mr. Knightley to Emma. She even says that after they get married, she won't ever be able to call him anything but Mr. Knightley.
  • Like Brother and Sister: Emma says that she and Mr. Knightley are not close enough to being brother and sister to make it improper for them to dance, and he agrees wholeheartedly. His heartache over Emma's suggestion can be easily perceived, while she - as ever - remains oblivious.
  • Love Dodecahedron: Emma ships Harriet and Mr. Elton, even though Mr. Elton wants to marry Emma and there is mutual attraction between Harriet and Robert Martin. Mr. Elton ends up marrying Augusta Hawkins. Emma finds herself attracted to Frank Churchill, even though he is secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax, and she is totally oblivious of the fact that Mr. Knightley is in love with her. She believes that Harriet also has feelings for Frank Churchill, but then realises that Harriet instead believes herself in love with Mr Knightley, prompting her own epiphany. Mrs. Weston, Mr. Cole, and others also suspect something is going on between Mr. Knightley and Jane Fairfax, while Emma suspects something between Jane Fairfax and her foster sister's current husband, Mr. Dixon. Nothing gets a Love Dodecahedron going like the out-of-control imaginations of matchmakers - although everything ends up fine in the end (remarkably).
  • Love Epiphany: Emma has one as the trigger of her quest to become a better person.
  • Love Letter Lunacy: Love riddle lunacy.
  • Love You and Everybody: Not romantically, but Mr. Weston has so many "close friends" that being his "close friend" doesn't seem to mean much, as Emma realises with some annoyance.
  • Manipulative Bastard:
    • Emma. Seriously, derailing a relationship by filling the poor girl's head with distractions because she doesn't like the man? Because he isn't genteel enough for Miss Woodhouse's friend? At least she realises this late in the novel.
    • Frank Churchill. Flirting with Emma in front of his financee, who has to keep their relationship hidden and play off the offers of a position of a Governess while waiting for him. He has no way of knowing how seriously - or not - Emma takes his flirting, but knowd perfectly well how much it must be hurting Jane. Unlike Emma (likely in part because we never see inside his head), he doesn't redeem himself much by the end of the novel.
  • Massive Numbered Siblings: John and Isabella's five children, in stark contrast to the two Woodhouse sisters and two Knightley brothers. And the couple is still very young, so they might have more.
  • The Matchmaker:
    • Emma, obviously, though her only known success story is the Westons.
    • Mrs. Weston also tries her hand with no more success.
  • Matchmaker Crush: The result of Emma's matchmaking of Mr. Elton and Harriet is Mr. Elton falling for Emma. He was more after her money and position than her as a person, though she's very intelligent and very beautiful.
  • Meaningful Look:
    • During the dinner party at the Coles, Frank Churchill casts a long look at Miss Fairfax. When Emma notices, he says Miss Fairfax has a strange hairdo and that he couldn't help himself and had to stare. However, it was a loving and longing look. They are secretly engaged.
    • Mr. Knightley noticed significant glances which Frank Churchill directed at Miss Fairfax while he dined with them and Emma was not present. He thought the looks were inappropriate because Frank Churchill seemed to court Emma. Mr. Knightley is the only one who correctly suspected that Franck Churchill and Jane Fairfax were in a relationship.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Well, he's not called Mr. Knightley for nothing.
    • The name Woodhouse suggests that the family is very wealthy. As well as that, the original "Emma Woodhouse" was the matriarch of the family of a famous Royalist martyr, signifying her as the prime example of British femininity.
    • Jane Fairfax is a Jane with a fair face. In contrast to Emma, her surname is the same as a famous English Civil War general - adding another dimension to their fraught relationship. Like Emma however, it places her as an ideal English woman.
    • "Frank" is anything but.
    • Everything is done well in Donwell Abbey.
    • Hartfield is a place where affairs of the heart are being formed.
    • Harriet's surname is "Smith" - like Emma and Jane she is very English but in contrast to them, almost anonymous (Smith being the most common surname in England).
  • Missing Mom: Mrs. Woodhouse died when Emma was very little. Luckily, Emma and Isabella had a wonderful mother figure in their governess, Miss Taylor.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Emma, close to the end of the book, realises she was basically wrong about everything and other people had paid for it (see page quote). Moreover, her Green-Eyed Epiphany is stimulated by a girl whom she has encouraged in the first place, making this a "Oh God! that I had never seen her" case.
    • Emma has this several times even before then: first when she realizes Mr. Elton was after her instead of Harriet (as she had been encouraging Harriet to think) and then again after she carelessly insults Miss Bates.
    • Frank Churchill has this reaction off-stage when he realizes that Jane intends to break off their engagement over his behavior.
  • Mystery Literature: Several readers, including BBC producer Sue Birtwistle and mystery novelist P D James, have argued that Emma is one of the first of these to exist, given the way Austen plants clues about relationships and plot resolution all throughout.
  • No Antagonist
  • No Hugging, No Kissing: The hottest scene in the book occurs when Mr. Knightley almost kisses Emma's hand.
  • Non-Idle Rich:
    • Surprisingly, Emma. We are not three chapters into the story until we are told that she assists the poor, has managed her Big Fancy House (since she was twelve), takes care of her hypochondriac father, and sends provisions and pays visits to her less well-off neighbours.
    • Mr. Knightley fits the trope perfectly. He's a magistrate and takes care of legal issues of the parish, he manages his estate exceptionally well and is extremely respected by everybody.
  • Oblivious to Love: Emma is oblivious to Mr. Knightley's feelings for her and her own feelings for him until (she believes) it might be too late.
  • Odd Friendship: Emma and Harriet. Partially Deconstructed in that Emma eventually realizes that her friendship with Harriet has only made Harriet's life more complicated and difficult than it needed to be, and by the end she resolves to draw back slightly and allow Harriet to make her own decisions.
  • Old Maid: Miss Bates.
  • Only Sane Man:
    • Mr. Knightley. He's a sharp observer and can analyse the relationships most accurately.
    • Mrs. Weston is very intelligent, useful and gentle, and she sees things as a reasonable woman. However, she's sometimes blinded by her affection for Emma or Frank.
  • Person as Verb: Jane Fairfax-ing. Mrs. Elton thinks she's the only person who can judge Miss Fairfax's talents properly, and protect her and assist her. Mrs. Elton's constantly repeating her name and the vulgarity of the situation disgust Emma so that she imagines this to be person-ing:
    Emma:: 'Jane Fairfax and Jane Fairfax.' Heavens! Let me not suppose that she dares go about, Emma Woodhouse-ing me!
  • Picnic Episode: Or more like Picnic Chapters:
    • The strawberry picking party at Donwell.
    • The summer trip to explore Box Hill. The day is too hot and Emma is at her worst when she carelessly insults Miss Bates.
  • Playing Cyrano:
    • Emma. She writes a reply to Robert Martin's letter for Harriet.
    • It's implied that Mr. Knightley is trying to do the same for Robert Martin.
  • Playing Sick:
    • Many characters presume that Frank's aunt is doing this to keep him at home as much as possible. Of course, then she dies...
    • Emma's father. It's hinted that the majority of the neighbourhood thinks he's a hypochondriac, but he's so kind-hearted and generous that they humour him. It's known that he died two years after Emma married Mr. Knightley.
  • Poor Communication Kills:
    • Especially in the riddle poem fiasco. Had the writer indicated clearly for whom and by whom it was written, much embarrassment could have been avoided.
    • Emma misunderstands Harriet's feelings when she talks about the man she is in love with (see Rescue Romance).
  • Preppy Name: The early 19th century equivalent. "Augusta" Elton is names after the wife of George III, and her sister "Selina" after a Countess. As the daughters of a Bristol merchant, these are pretentious names which demonstrate their own snobbish natures.
  • Rescue Romance: Emma believes Harriet has fallen for Frank Churchill after he had rescued her from the gypsies, but instead she falls for Mr. Knightley after he "rescues" her by asking her to dance when she is snubbed by Mr Elton.
  • Rich Bitch:
    • The main character is a subversion in that she is in the position to behave like one, but is actually a really good person who uses her wealth and power reasonably. Moments when she does come across badly generally aren't a result of her upbringing or wealth, as much as her thoughtlessness and naivety. Some actresses play her as being much more snobby than she ever was in the book.
    • Mrs. Elton, who ratchets the trope right Up to Eleven. She constantly boasts with her gowns, house, carriage, wealthy relatives and so on. And she snubs people who are of the same, if not higher, position in the society, but she fancies herself superior. For example, she wonders, aloud in front of Emma how surprised she was to find Mrs. Weston ladylike.
  • Secret Relationship: Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax are engaged the entire time, and nobody knows about it until his aunt dies.
  • Serious Business: Matchmaking is serious business. But you should know this already.
  • Sheep in Sheep's Clothing: Jane Fairfax, who is nothing more than a Shrinking Violet dealing with her lack of resources and her issues with Parental Abandonment. Until she meets a friend... who becomes more than a friend... but she can't say anything because his family isn't supportive... and he must cover it up so that no one ever guesses. A girl is on the scene who isn't interested in him too deeply and resents Jane for being the person everyone wants her to be: harmless cover, right? Until he starts being too flirty, using mean leads and Jane, instead of going Clingy Jealous Girl and snapping... elegantly steps back and politely asks him to give her every artifact of their romance back so she can burn it and move on.
  • Shipper on Deck:
    • Emma — first for her sister and John Knightley, then for Captain Weston and Miss Taylor, then for Harriet and Mr. Elton, then for Harriet and Frank. Only the first two work out.
    • People in town ship Mr. Knightley and Jane Fairfax. Mrs. Weston mentioned it first, and Mr. Knightley, very much annoyed, heard the gossip from Mr. Cole. Of course, he's desperately in love with Emma.
    • Many people - most notably Mr and Mrs Weston - seem to ship Emma and Frank.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Mr. Woodhouse is really fond of thin water gruel, as is his daughter Isabella. He recommends it to everyone and it's his Comfort Food.
  • Two First Names: Anyone in the Martin family: Robert Martin and Elizabeth Martin. Later on, Harriet Martin as well.
  • Walls of Text: A lot of Miss Bates' dialogue. What is interesting is that her gossip is harmless and often provides valuable insight, which other characters miss because they think she's just a batty old woman.
  • What Beautiful Eyes!:
    • Harriet's blue ones. Emma finds them particularly intriguing.
    • Mrs. Weston gushed about Emma's loveliness and her sparkling bright hazel eyes.
    • Jane Fairfax's deep grey eyes with dark eyelashes are acknowledged as very beautiful.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Mr. Knightley to Emma, especially after her manipulation of Harriet and her rudeness to Miss Bates.
    • Jane's reaction to Frank when she sees him openly flirting with Emma right in front of her. It almost leads to the end of their engagement.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Subtly done with Emma. She encourages Harriet in her reading of The Romance of the Forest, a Gothic novel by Ann Radcliffe, which stars a girl of obscure origins who is ultimately revealed to be Nobly Born. Emma clearly thinks Harriet belongs in a similar story, when in actuality Harriet is the bastard of a tradesman, who leaves her quite comfortably off economically but does nothing to raise her social status.
  • Wrong Guy First: Emma thinks she's in love with Frank Churchill, but when she discovers her true feelings for another she realises she never really loved Frank. Meanwhile, she persuades Harriet that her first love wasn't good enough for her, so Harriet sets her sights on various unattainable men before gratefully accepting her first love's proposal again.

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