Rich, beautiful, and privileged Emma Woodhouse fancies herself to be an excellent matchmaker. When her governess marries the well-to-do widower Mr. Weston, a match that Emma views herself to have made, Emma befriends the lower class Harriet Smith and sets out to similarly assist her. She is convinced that her friend deserves a gentleman, though Harriet’s own parentage is unknown. She coaxes Harriet into rejecting Mr. Martin, a farmer whom Emma believes below Harriet, and she instead encourages her friend to admire Mr. Elton, the neighborhood vicar.
Mr. Knightley, a long-time friend and Emma’s brother-in-law, discourages Emma’s matchmaking efforts. It turns out that all the signs that Emma has been interpreting as evidence of Mr. Elton’s interest in Harriet were in fact intended for Emma herself. Harriet is heartbroken, and Emma mortified. Humiliated by Emma’s rejection of him and her attempt to pair him with Harriet, Mr. Elton retires to Bath. Emma realizes that personal pride in her judgment and her desires for Harriet blinded her to the real situation. She resolves to never play matchmaker in the future.
Meanwhile, Jane Fairfax, another accomplished and beautiful young woman, returns to Highbury to visit her aunt and grandmother, Miss Bates and Mrs. Bates. Orphaned at an early age, Jane has been educated by her father’s friends, the Campbells. She is expected to become a governess, as she has no independent fortune. Emma greets her arrival with mixed admiration and jealousy, as another favorite within their social circle. Emma also suspects Jane’s romantic involvement with her friend’s husband, Mr. Dixon.
Mr. Weston’s son, Frank Churchill is also expected to visit after many delays. He lives with his snobbish aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. Churchill, in London. Emma anticipates his arrival with pleasure and finds him charming. Mr. Knightley, on the other hand, immediately dislikes him as superficial and silly. Frank’s flattering attentions soon single Emma out as the object of his choice. Mr. Elton returns from Bath with his new bride, the self-important Mrs. Elton, who takes a liking to Jane and distaste for Emma.
Misperception abounds, as various characters speculate over developing romances. Word games, riddles, and letters provide fodder for mixed interpretations of who loves whom. Emma enjoys Frank’s attention, but ultimately decides he is not for her. Mrs. Weston suspects a match between Mr. Knightley and Jane, which Emma vehemently dismisses. Mr. Knightley saves Harriet from social humiliation, asking her to dance when Mr. Elton snubs her. Emma encourages what she believes to be Harriet’s developing interest in Frank, who long ago saved Harriet from the gypsies.
Everyone regards Frank and Emma as a match, but Mr. Knightley suspects Frank’s interest in Jane and warns Emma. Emma laughingly dismisses his warning, believing she knows the secrets of each character’s heart. When Mr. Knightley reprimands her for mocking the harmless Miss Bates, however, she feels great remorse and resolves to improve her behavior to the Bateses.
Mrs. Churchill dies, setting in motion the shocking revelation that Frank and Jane have been secretly engaged. Frank’s courtship of Emma was a cover to hide his true attachment, which his aunt opposed. Through a series of painful misunderstandings, Jane broke off their engagement and was about to take up a governess position. Frank frantically obtained his uncle’s approval to marry her, and the two reconciled.
Emma also misperceived Harriet’s interest in Frank, as Harriet reveals herself to be in love with Mr. Knightley. In turn, Emma’s distress over this revelation triggers her own realization that she, too, is in love with Mr. Knightley. Emma feels considerable anguish over her various misperceptions about Frank, Jane, Harriet, and herself. She reproves herself for being blinded by her own desires and self-interest.
Emma fears that Mr. Knightley will confess his love for Harriet, but to her surprise and delight, he declares his love for Emma. Emma happily accepts Mr. Knightley’s proposal, and she later has the opportunity of reflecting with Frank that, despite their many blunders, they have both been luckier than they deserve in their beloveds. Emma is further cheered upon learning that Harriet has accepted a second proposal from Mr. Martin. The novel concludes with three marriages: Harriet and Mr. Martin, Jane and Frank, and Emma and Mr. Knightley—the final match which is celebrated as a happy union of equals.