The novel introduces us to the protagonist, Emma Woodhouse, a privileged young woman who lives near the village of Highbury and is blessed with good looks, cleverness, and wealth. She has not experienced any great hardships in life, and her only significant disadvantages in life are that she has been rather spoiled by those around her and thinks a little too highly of herself.
The importance of social class and gender is introduced immediately in the character of Emma, who is able to remain comfortably single as a woman because of her high social class and privileged situation. With these blessings, she avoids the stigma of spinsterhood and is instead regarded as a leading lady of high society.
Because Emma’s older sister, Isabella, is married and her mother died when she was still young, she is the mistress of her father’s house. Miss Taylor, her governess of sixteen years, presents less of an authority figure and behaves more like a sister and friend.
Because she lacks maternal correction, Emma is used to getting her way from an early age. She has encountered few people who either observe fault in her or are willing to correct her, inflating her vanity.
Today, Emma sadly contemplates the departure of Miss Taylor from the Woodhouse family estate at Hartfield. Miss Taylor has married Mr. Weston, a widower of good fortune and pleasant manners, depriving Emma of her constant companion. Her elderly father, Mr. Woodhouse, is even more distressed by Miss Taylor’s departure, as he hates change of every kind and cannot see her happiness beyond the unpleasantness of his discomfort.
Miss Taylor’s marriage preoccupies Emma’s mind, highlighting the centrality of marriage and gender in Austen’s novel. Because Miss Taylor has few financial resources, marriage provides an opportunity for her to escape her lower working class status as well as to achieve material security.
Mr. Knightley, a longtime, close family friend and Emma’s brother-in-law (he is the older brother of Isabella’s husband), visits in the evening. He chats pleasantly with the Woodhouses about Miss Taylor’s marriage. He celebrates the match, noting that Miss Taylor will now have her own home and be comfortably taken care of.
Mr. Knightley affirms the goodness of Miss Taylor’s match, contributing a practical and wise perspective to the privileged Woodhouses’ slightly self-absorbed distress over her departure.
When Emma takes credit for making the match, Mr. Knightley gently scolds her role in the affair and insists that she bears no responsibility for their marriage. He is one of the few people who can find any fault with Emma, and the only person who ever attempts to correct her.
Throughout the novel, Mr. Knightley provides an alternative perspective to Emma’s interpretation of events, one that often corrects her misperceptions; he plays an almost paternal role that is otherwise lacking in her life.
Mr. Woodhouse, who hates change so much he even dislikes marriage, begs Emma to put off with making such successful matches. Emma declares she will make one final match: she has determined to find Mr. Elton, their neighborhood rector, a wife.
Mr. Woodhouse blindly adopts Emma’s self-perception of her talents and believes in her perfection. Emma cannot resist exerting her self-acclaimed influence in her social circles.