Like Jane Austen’s other novels, Emma can be considered a novel of manners, a book that focuses primarily on its characters’ subtle behaviors (or “manners”) that signal their particular positions in a social hierarchy. Between Mrs. Elton deciding that she and not Emma will dance the first dance at a ball (because of her higher social standing) and Emma telling Harriet that Mr. Martin is beneath her because of his position as a farmer, characters consistently make decisions based on their particular social positions.
Emma is also a social comedy in that it uses irony, satire, and humor to highlight some of the contradictions and absurdities of the social hierarchy. For example, though Mrs. Elton expects to dance the first dance with Frank at the ball, she is forced to dance with his father (Mr. Weston) instead, because technically he has the higher social standing. The contradictions of the social hierarchy also lead Knightley to tell Emma that he believes Mr. Martin is the one who is too good for Harriet, given that she was seemingly born out of wedlock and has no money to her name. Austen’s intention is to show that while there are seemingly stiff social rules in their society, they are actually quite inconsistent and should therefore be played with and lightly mocked.
Finally, Emma is a coming-of-age novel as well. This becomes clear over the course of the story, as 21-year-old Emma grows from a naïve and prideful young woman dependent on her father to a mature and self-reflective young woman who is engaged and ready to come into her own. As her various attempts to meddle in other people's love lives go awry, she confronts her childish patterns, takes responsibility, and ends with strong relationships and an even stronger sense of self.