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Emma Woodhouse, pretty and intelligent, is the protagonist of the novel, as indicated by the title. She deceives herself into believing that she is good at matchmaking and is disillusioned when Elton proposes to her and not to Harriet Smith, whom she wanted Elton to marry. She makes a second disastrous mistake by imagining herself being loved and wooed by Frank Churchill; when she realizes she is not in love with Frank, she tries to match him with Harriet. Fortunately, Emma comes to her senses, realizes her foolishness, and marries Knightley.
Emma's antagonist is herself, for she lives in a world of self-delusion. Frank Churchill exploits Emma's delusions to keep his engagement to Jane Fairfax a secret in Highbury. Although intelligent, Emma is given to fantasizing and fails to see through his flippant manners and double standards. Knightley kindly points out Emma's weaknesses to her, which makes her face up to her shortcomings.
The climax occurs after a picnic at Box Hill. During the party, Frank Churchill encourages Emma to imagine herself a goddess, seated on top of a hill, and he himself a devotee of that goddess. As her pretended devotee, he asks others to say something very entertaining in prose or verse to please Emma. This mock drama pleases Emma so much that she really pretends to be a goddess and rudely snubs Miss Bates for her silly, rambling talk. Driving Emma home in his carriage, Knightley points out to Emma her moral lapse and inelegant behavior. Emma silently weeps over her behavior and feels mortified and grieved, fearing she has lost Knightley's good opinion of her. From this point forward in the novel, the reader sees a changed and maturing Emma.
The novel ends in comedy for Emma, for she awakens to the reality of her own self-delusion and realizes her love of Knightley. After helping Emma to see her own weaknesses, Knightley proposes to her, and she readily accepts. Since Knightley appreciates Emma's concern for her old father, he agrees to stay at Hartfield after their marriage.
Because true comedies have all situations presented in a novel end in happiness, Emma ends with the marriage of Harriet and Martin and Jane and Frank, as well as Emma and Knightley.