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Emma | Chapters 1–3 (Volume 1, Chapters 1–3) | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 1

As Emma opens, readers learn that Emma Woodhouse has recently lost her governess, companion, and mother figure, Miss Taylor, to matrimony. Emma's remaining parent (her mother died when she was five) is her elderly, hypochondriac father. Both Emma and her father, Mr. Woodhouse, are feeling sad about the loss of Miss Taylor's companionship. This is typical for Mr. Woodhouse, who "hates change of every kind."

Following the wedding, Emma and her father receive a visit from Mr. George Knightley, an intimate family friend. He is recently back from London, where he has been visiting his brother's family. His younger brother, John Knightley, is married to Emma's older sister, Isabella. Mr. George Knightley owns a large estate, Donwell Abbey, about a mile from Highbury, where the Woodhouses live. Mr. Knightley and Emma exchange friendly banter after Emma claims credit for Miss Taylor's recent marriage. Emma announces that she now intends to find a mate for the handsome vicar, Mr. Elton, who has been in town for about a year.

Chapter 2

Miss Taylor's new spouse, Mr. Weston, is a gentleman of Highbury. The narrator relates that as a young captain in the army, Mr. Weston married a woman from the great Churchill family of Yorkshire. She was disinherited as a result and died three years later, leaving behind a young son. The boy's maternal uncle and his wife, who had no children, offered to adopt the child and raise him as a Churchill, and Mr. Weston agreed. Mr. Weston has improved himself financially over the years through trade and purchased his own small estate, Randalls, adjoining Highbury. Although Mr. Weston sees his son, Frank, once a year in London, the young man has yet to visit his father in the country. Frank has introduced himself to his stepmother by letter, and the letter has been passed around.

Chapter 3

Emma has a dinner party at Hartfield and invites Mrs. and Miss Bates, the widow of the former vicar and her spinster daughter; Mrs. Goddard, the headmistress of the local girls' boarding school; and Harriet Smith, "the natural daughter of somebody," meaning that she is illegitimate. Harriet is Mrs. Goddard's pupil and a parlor boarder, which means she socializes with Mrs. Goddard's family. Emma is quite taken with the beautiful Harriet and decides to mentor the 17-year-old and introduce her to society. At the dinner party, Emma learns that Harriet has been socializing with the Martins, a family that rents a farm from Mr. Knightley. She imagines they are unfit companions for a girl who needs "only a little more knowledge and elegance to be quite perfect." Emma determines to "improve" Harriet and get her away from her "bad acquaintance."

Analysis

From the first paragraphs of the novel, the narrator informs the reader that Emma has been spoiled by her overindulgent and narcissistic father and mild-mannered female caretaker with the "nominal office of governess." This form of attention has allowed Emma to do what she likes from an early age. The only one to oppose Emma's opinions is Mr. Knightley, a family friend who has known her since she was a baby and is now somewhat related by marriage. His discouragement of Emma when she pumps herself up as Miss Taylor's matchmaker, as well as Emma's disregard of his mild reprimand, foreshadows her future disastrous attempts at real matchmaking. Emma's concerns with marriage reflect its importance as a theme in the novel.

The opening lines of the novel say that Emma "seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence," but a few paragraphs later the narrator adds that "the real evils indeed of Emma's situation were the power of having rather too much of her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself." Emma's excess of self-assurance is at the root of her various blunders that set the plot in motion, and her pride and snobbery at times reveal her in an unflattering light. But in judging Emma, the reader must balance her youth, inexperience, and what amounts to an inept upbringing when considering her character flaws.

The motif of bad parenting runs through the novel as Austen highlights the result of bad or neglectful mothers and fathers. For example, Mr. Weston's backstory includes his relinquishing of his two-year-old son. While a young widower would have difficulty raising a child, perhaps a less drastic solution could have been found for young Frank. A third neglected child is introduced in Chapter 3. Harriet Smith, the product of an illicit tryst, was dumped by some wealthy father at Mrs. Goddard's boarding school and not even allowed to know who her parents are. As the story progresses, the poor choices that young people make and the comic (but still serious) scrapes they get up to may be, at least in part, laid at the doors of their less than perfect fathers and mothers.

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