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A study guide to Emma

The movie based on the novel by Jane Austen

Short Plot Summary

From Classic Notes at {note: as usual, the movie does not go into the amount of depth and detail that the novel does. However, the following summary of the novel is useful.

A slightly shorter summary with a few changes I made to accompany the plot changes in the movie is here

Jane Austen's Emma is a novel of courtship. Like all of Austen's novels, it centers around the marriage plot: who will marry whom? For what reasons will they marry? Love, practicality, or necessity? At the center of the story is the title character, Emma Woodhouse, a heiress who lives with her widowed father at their estate, Hartfield. At the beginning of the novel, she is a self-satisfied young woman who feels no particular need to marry, for she is in the rather unique condition of not needing a husband to supply her fortune.

At the beginning of the novel, Emma's governess, Miss Taylor, has just married Mr. Weston, a wealthy man who owns Randalls, a nearby estate. The Westons, the Woodhouses, and Mr. Knightly (who owns the estate Donwell Abbey) are at the top of Highbury society. Mr. Weston had been married earlier. When his previous wife died, he sent their one child (Frank Churchill) to be raised by her brother and his wife, for the now-wealthy Mr. Weston could not at that time provide for the boy.

Without Miss Taylor as a companion, Emma adopts the orphan Harriet Smith as a protégé. Harriet lives at a nearby boarding school where she was raised, and knows nothing of her parents. Emma advises the innocent Harriet in virtually all things, including the people with whom she should interact. She suggests that Harriet not spend time with the Martins, a local family of farmers whose son, Robert, is interested in Harriet. Instead, Emma plans to play matchmaker for Harriet and Mr. Elton, the vicar of the church in Highbury. Emma seems to have some success in her attempts to bring together Harriet Smith and Mr. Elton. The three spend a good deal of leisure time together and he seems receptive to all of Emma's suggestions.

The friendship between Emma and Harriet does little good for either of them, however. Harriet indulges Emma's worst qualities, giving her opportunity to meddle and serving only to flatter her. Emma in turn fills Harriet Smith with grand pretensions that do not suit her low situation in society. When Robert Martin proposes to Harriet, she rejects him based on Emma's advice, thinking that he is too common. Mr. Knightly criticizes Emma's matchmaking, since he thinks that the dependable Robert Martin is Harriet's superior, for while he is respectable, she is from uncertain origins.

Emma's sister, Isabella, and her husband, Mr. John Knightly, visit Highbury, and Emma uses their visit as an opportunity to reconcile with Mr. Knightly after their argument over Harriet.

The Westons hold a party on Christmas Eve for the members of Highbury society. Harriet Smith, however, becomes ill and cannot attend. During the party, Mr. Elton focuses his attention solely on Emma. When they travel home by carriage from the party, Mr. Elton professes his adoration for Emma, and dismisses the idea that he would ever marry Harriet Smith, whom he feels is too common for him. Mr. Elton obviously intends to move up in society, and is interested in Emma primarily for her social status and wealth. Shortly after Emma rejects Mr. Elton, he leaves Highbury for a stay in Bath. Emma breaks the bad news to Harriet Smith.

As of this time, Frank Churchill has not yet visited his father and his new wife at Randalls, which has caused some concern. Emma, without having met the young man, decides that he must certainly be a good suitor for her, since he is of appropriate age and breeding. Another character who occupies Emma's thoughts is Jane Fairfax, the granddaughter of Mrs. Bates, an impoverished widow whose husband was the former vicar, and the niece of Miss Bates, a chattering spinster who lives with her mother. Jane is equal to Emma in every respect (beauty, education, talents) except for status, and provokes some jealousy in Emma. Jane will soon visit her family in Highbury, for the wealthy family who brought her up after her parents had died has gone on vacation. There is some indication that Jane might be involved with Mr. Dixon, a married man, but this is only idle gossip.

Mr. Elton returns from Bath with news that he is engaged to a Miss Augusta Hawkins. This news, along with an awkward meeting with the Martins, greatly embarrasses poor Harriet Smith.

Frank Churchill finally visits the Westons, and Emma is pleased to find that he lives up to her expectations, even though Mr. Knightly disapproves of him. Emma and Frank begin to spend time together, yet he seems somewhat insubstantial and immature. He makes a day trip to London for no other reason than to get his hair cut. Soon afterward, Jane Fairfax receives a pianoforte from London, and Emma assumes that it was sent to her by Mr. Dixon. As Frank and Emma spend more time together, Mr. Knightly becomes somewhat jealous, while Emma in turn becomes jealous as she suspects that Mr. Knightly might be in love with her rival Jane Fairfax.

Frank Churchill must abruptly leave Randalls when he learns that his aunt is unwell. His aunt is an insufferable woman, proud and vain, and she exercises great authority over her nephew. Thinking that Frank was ready to profess his love for her, she convinces herself that she is in love with Frank, but is unsure how to tell that she actually loves him. Finally, she realizes that she must not be in love with him, for she is as happy with him absent as she is with him present.

Mr. Elton brings his new wife back to Highbury. She is a vapid name-dropper, who compares everything to the supposedly grand lifestyle of her relatives, the Sucklings and addresses her new peers in Highbury with a startling lack of formality. Emma takes an instant dislike to her, and upon realizing this, Mrs. Elton takes a dislike to Emma.

When Frank Churchill returns, he and Emma sponsor a ball at the Crown Inn. During this ball, Mr. Elton openly snubs Harriet Smith, but she is saved from his social slight by Mr. Knightly, who graciously dances with her. After the ball, when Harriet and her companions are walking home, they are assaulted by a group of gipsies, but Frank Churchill saves the girl, a situation which becomes the talk of Highbury. This leads Emma to believe that Frank Churchill, whom Emma is sure she does not love, would be a suitable match for Harriet. When discussing what happened the next morning, Harriet does admit that she has some feelings for the man who saved her the night before ­ yet she does not explicitly name Frank. Thanks to this new infatuation, Harriet finally gets over Mr. Elton. At an outing at Box Hill, Frank Churchill, whose recent behavior had been questionable, proposes a game for entertaining Emma, and during this game Emma makes a rude comment to Miss Bates. Afterwards, Mr. Knightly severely scolds Emma for doing so, since Miss Bates is a poor woman who deserves Emma's pity and compassion, and not her scorn and derision. When Emma goes to visit Miss Bates the next day to apologize, she learns that Jane Fairfax has taken ill. She was preparing to leave for Maple Grove to become a governess for a family, a situation that she earlier compared to the slave trade. Emma now begins to pity Jane Fairfax, for she realizes that the only reason that Jane must enter into a profession is her social status. Otherwise, she would be as highly regarded as Emma herself.

There is shocking news for Emma when Mrs. Churchill dies. Freed from his overbearing aunt, Frank reveals to the Westons that he has been secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax. Mr. Knightly begins to show a greater romantic interest in Emma, but when she attempts to break the bad news to Harriet Smith about Frank Churchill's engagement (the second heartbreak for Harriet), Emma learns that Harriet in fact had fallen for Mr. Knightly, who saved her socially at the Crown Inn ball. Emma now realizes that she is the only one who can marry Mr. Knightly, and that she has done Harriet a great disservice by making her think that she can aspire to such unreasonable heights.

Mr. Knightly soon professes his love for Emma, and they plan to marry. Yet there are two obstacles: first, if Emma were to marry she would have to leave her father, who dotes on her; second, she must break the news to Harriet Smith. Emma and Mr. Knightly decide that, when they marry, he should move to Hartfield, for Mr. Woodhouse cannot be left alone and would not bear moving to Donwell Abbey. Harriet takes the news about Mr. Knightly well, and soon after she reunites with Robert Martin. The wrongheaded aspirations that Emma instilled in Harriet are now gone, and she becomes engaged to her original and most appropriate suitor. She even learns of her parentage: her father is a respectable tradesman.

The novel concludes with marriage: between Robert Martin and Harriet Smith, Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, and between Mr. Knightly and Emma Woodhouse, who has grown to accept the possibility of submitting some degree of her independence to a husband.

Questions for the study of the movie

Themes include;

* the ironies of life

* the journey to maturity

* vanity

* romantic love

* humour

* social satire

* honesty and friendship

A scene by scene analysis


1. Describe what you see as the opening scene takes place
2. The movie begins at the wedding of Emma’s governess, Ms Taylor. She is married to Mr Weston. We meet the preacher, Mr Elton. What does Emma give to her governess?
3. How do you think Emma feels about the marriage? Why does she feel this way?


1. What does Mr Knightly ask through the window?
2. What is the name of Emma’s sister?
3. List some of the things that Emma will miss about her governess?
4. What does her father say about marriage?
5. What do men know ‘nothing about’ according to Emma?
6. Who does Emma intend to ‘help’ next?

Mr Elton’s Arrival

1. Who is new to Emma’s group?
2. What does she ask Mr Elton to do during the evening?
3. Describe the two women who arrive (their appearance and personalities)


1. How did Mr Weston’s last wife die?
2. Who raised his son Frank?
3. Who do the two women talk to about the letter?
4. As she leaves, what does Mrs Weston say she has to do?

The Next Day

1. Who does Ms Smith say has been her ‘true guardian’?
2. What colour is Emma’s parasol?
3. What type of fruit are on the trees?
4. What is Ms Smith trying to catch?
5. According to Ms Smith, what does Mr Martin read?
6. Who do the ladies meet on their walk?
7. What color dress is Ms Smith wearing?
8. What does Emma think of Mr Martin?


1. Who has ‘gentleman’ written across him according to Emma?
2. Who does Emma suggest they compare Mr Martin to?
3. What does Emma remind Ms Smith about Mr Martin?
4. Who does Emma say had said something nice about Ms Smith? Why do you think Emma said this?

The Portrait

1. What ‘idea’ does Mr Elton have?
2. What does Mr Elton say when he sees the canvas?
3. Who criticises the portrait? What does he say about it?
4. What does Emma’s father say about the portrait? What does he say it needs?

The Letter

1. What is Ms Smith excited about?
2. What does Emma say Ms Smith should do?
3. Do you think Emma influences Ms Smith? Why do you think Ms Smith depends so much on Emma’s advice?
4. Describe what you see taking place in the background of this scene?

Donwell Abbey

1. What does Mr Knightly ‘admit’?
2. What are Emma and Mr Knightly doing?
3. What does Mr Knightly say will happen to Ms Smith?
4. What is Mr Knightly’s reaction to knowing Ms Smith refused Robert Martin?
5. What do they argue about? What is Mr Knightly’s argument?
6. What does he ask Emma to try not to do?
7. Why does Emma suggest they stop?
8. What does Mr Knightly thinks of Emma’s plan to match Ms Smith and Mr Elton?

The Unveiling

1. What are hanging on the walls?
2. Who is standing near the fire place?
3. What words would you use to describe the setting?

Emma’s Visit to Ms Smith

1. What does Emma bring to Ms Smith?
2. Why do you think Emma wanted Mr Knightly to walk past and read the letter?
3. What is the riddle about?

Emma visits Mrs Clark

1. What colour is Emma’s shawl?
2. What does she bring Mrs Clark?
3. Describe the scene. How does this scene compare to the elaborate scenes in Emma’s house and the décor there?
4. Whose house do they pass?
5. What does Harriet ask Emma?
6. What does Emma say a woman of good fortune always is?
7. What excuse does Emma devise to make Harriet and Mr Elton go on ahead?
8. What does Mr Elton say he loves?

The Baby

1. What relation is Emma to the baby?
2. What age gap lies between Emma and Mr Knightly?
3. How do you think Mr Knightly felt seeing the baby in Emma’s arms?

The Weston’s Christmas Party

1. Who rides in Emma’s carriage?
2. Who could not attend? What is Mr Elton’s reaction to her not being there? What do you think this indicates about how he feels about her?
3. What does Mr Weston tell Emma at dinner?
4. What shock does Mr Elton give Emma as they ride home in the carriage?
5. Describe Mr Elton’s behaviour and Emma’s reaction to the news
6. How does Emma feel about what he had said?
7. Describe the music playing at the end of this scene. What do you think the music relfects?

Emma and Mrs Weston

1. What is the predominant ‘colour’ in this scene (look at the drapes behind the two women and the clothes they are wearing)?
2. Why do you think colours like this are used rather than bright colours which would stand out? What do you think the colours relect?

{to be continued...............}

Useful links for the study of Emma are located here.

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