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Term Definition

In Emma, Jane Austen apparently sought to portray a character who has no financial concerns but is bored, socially powerless, and often mistaken about both her own powers and the intentions of other people. It has sometimes been said that Emma is also somewhat unusual among Austen's array of female characters in that she seem more interest in the love lives of the people around her than in her own personal love life.

Emma's iconic romance

Emma is an 1815 romance novel by English author Jane Austen (1775-1817). Functioning as a comedy of manners, the novel follows a series of mostly misread romantic signals along the grapevine of a young, wealthy, unattached woman in Georgian England.

Emma Woodhouse is a witty twenty-year-old genteel of Surrey who finds herself overjoyed by the nuptials of a couple that she introduced to one another: Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston. Buoyed in her matchmaking skills, she attempts to pair her new friend, the young and gullible Harriet, with local vicar Mr. Elton. Emma pressures the 17-year-old to break off with her suitor, Robert Martin, for the vicar; the girl complies, but things go awry.

Two eligible newcomers—handsome Frank Churchill and prodigious but poor Jane Fairfax—land upon the village. Perturbed by Jane but charmed by Frank, Emma tests her chemistry for him, but ultimately recommends him to Harriet. When it's suggested that Jane might be courted by Emma's longtime friend Mr. Knightly, the matchmaker staunchly objects.

Turns out, Frank and Jane are lovers; they'd kept it a secret due to his disapproving but newly deceased aunt, who would have disinherited him. Harriet, meanwhile, says she's actually falling for Mr. Knightly. This brings Emma to the realization that she's actually been in love with her platonic male friend all along. Emma and Mr. Knightly reveal their mutual feelings for one another, Robert re-proposes to Harriet, and the story ends with everyone coupled and happy.

Setting the theme in women's literature

Like other Austen heroines—namely Anne Elliot and Elizabeth Bennet—Emma is a bright woman on the prime of life. What sets Emma apart is her privileged financial status, which spares her the need to marry up in the world. This stands in marked contrast to the female protagonists of other works by the author, where security through marriage is a foremost concern. But as was typical for women across the class spectrum in Georgian England, Emma is stuck in a familiar routine with few substantive activities to occupy her time. In some regards, her misplaced energy in the romantic lives of others could be viewed as a mannered revolt against the confines of life for wealthy, single, childless women of the time period.

Emma is further distinguished in the Austen world by her seeming lack of romantic desire. With every man she meets, she evaluates his potential as another woman's suitor, but never her own. Even when she tests the water with Frank, it appears to be merely a fickle curiosity rather than a true case of romantic lust. When it comes to setting up others, a lot of her reasoning seems based on social and monetary concerns, which betrays her lack of familiarity with love. It's only when Harriet reveals her feelings for Mr. Knightly that Emma experiences a romantic awakening.

Critical reception by the media

Emma was generally well received at the time of its publication, though some critics expressed concerns about what they saw as a lack of story in the novel. Nonetheless, the novel has achieved canonical fame with numerous stage, film, and TV adaptations. In recent decades, the story has been most famously adapted to the big screen by Miramax Films for the 1996 feature Emma, in which American actress Gwyneth Paltrow plays the titular character. That same year, English actress Kate Beckinsale starred in a made-for-television version that aired on Britain's ITV network.

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