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Emma Woodhouse, the protagonist of the novel, undergoes significant change in the book. At the beginning she is ruled by self-delusion, romantic fancies, and intellectual vanity. As a result, she makes many errors of judgement. She convinces Harriet that Martin is not good enough for her and involves her with Elton, believing he will marry Harriet. Elton wants no part of Harriet, for he is only interested in a marriage that improves his social standing; as a result, he foolishly proposes to Emma and quickly marries Augusta for her large dowry. Emma also makes many mistakes in judgement related to Frank and Jane. At first she is convinced that Frank is in love with her and that Jane is having an affair with Mr. Dixon. Even when Knightley tells her that there is an obvious relationship between Frank and Jane, she refuses to believe it and begins to imagine that Harriet and Frank will marry.
In the beginning of the book, Emma is intellectually vain, believing that she can manage the affairs of others and performing perfect matchmaking. She takes Harriet under her patronage and forces her to acquire sophisticated manners so that she can get a gentleman for a husband. She does succeed in refining Harriet's manners, but not her mind. In the process, Emma almost destroys Harriet, who is rejected by Elton, Frank, and Knightley within a few months.
In spite of her interest in the love affairs of others, Emma refuses to be romantically involved herself because of her strong attachment to her father. She never goes out unless she makes some arrangement for somebody to keep her father company. She does not arrange large or late parties at Hartfield because her father dislikes them. Knightley realizes that Emma's love for her father is an obstacle to her emotional development and a significant contributing factor to her romantic fantasies and self-delusion.
Emma's romantic self-delusion gets her in to lots of trouble. She imagines herself in love with Frank Churchill even before he arrives in Highbury. When Frank does appear on the scene and deceitfully flirts with her, Emma is too deluded to realize Frank's shallowness and falseness. At the Box Hill picnic, she allows herself to be humiliated by Frank and makes a fool of herself to Jane and Miss Bates. When she realizes she has no interest in Frank, she begins to imagine that Frank cares for Harriet. In the process of these imaginary fantasies, she demeans herself, crushes Harriet, and almost destroys the genuine love between Jane and Frank.
When Emma insults Miss Bates and Knightley criticizes her, Emma is forced into self-introspection. She realizes the folly of her ways and regrets her rude behavior. She genuinely wants to change and successfully leaves behind her romantic and meddling ways, largely through the help land advice of Knightley. He recognizes the changes that occur in Emma and wants to make her his wife. Emma, now more mature and understanding her own need for love and companionship, gladly accepts Knightley's proposal for marriage. In the end, she recognizes that her future husband is morally superior to her.
George Knightley is the hero of the book. He is Jane Austen's ideal gentleman, who by the conduct he shows to others, particularly Emma, that a correct social code must be based on a set of moral values. He is often shocked and disappointed by Emma's behavior, and as a family friend, always criticizes her in an effort to improve her. He sees that Emma is ruled by emotion, untempered by reason, and he tries to guide her into self-analysis and maturity. When she is rude to Miss Bates at the Box Hill picnic, he harshly tells her that cruel behavior to the elderly or needy is totally unacceptable and makes her see that she has made a fool of herself. Knightley's patience with Emma proves his love for her; it also allows him to wait for her until she becomes a mature and caring person. When he sees her changes first-hand, he proposes and looks forward to having her as the mistress of Donwell. He is thoughtful, loving, and unselfish enough, however, to sacrifice his personal comfort and independence and live at Hartfield with Emma so she can continue to care for her father. Knightley is truly a noble character.
Frank Churchill is drawn as the anti-hero or villain in the book. He is depicted as vain, shallow, arrogant, deceitful, and uncaring. Although he is attractive and spirited, he does much damage to Emma and Jane in the course of the novel. He offers Jane a secret engagement, which she eagerly accepts to escape becoming a governess; but because she has to hide her love, she grows physically sick with quickly deteriorating health. Frank sees the change in her, but does nothing about it. In face, in a selfish effort to hide the engagement from his families (the Churchills and the Westons), he flirts with Emma in a deceitful way, hurting Jane and making a fool of Emma. When Jane criticizes him for his behavior, he blames it on Jane, saying she is too cold and reserved. His callous behavior causes Jane to accept a job as a governess and break the engagement. Fortunately, Frank comes to his senses and finally asks Mr. Churchill for permission to marry Jane. At the end of the novel, he is humble enough to ask for forgiveness from the Westons, from Emma, and from Jane. He also acknowledges that Jane is a perfect angel, a much superior character to himself. Frank realizes he is a child of true fortune.
Harriet Smith has an important role in the plot since she is befriended by Emma to satisfy her own passion of matchmaking. Harriet can be easily influenced and led by Emma because she is a simple woman and an illegitimate child with no knowledge of the social graces. Because Harriet is pretty and sweet-tempered, Emma feels certain that she can mold her into a suitable wife for a gentleman of the landed gentry or upper class. She foolishly convinces Harriet that Robert Martin, a perfect match for her, is socially beneath her. In his place, she involves Harriet with Elton, who has no interest in this plain, poor girl. When Elton rejects Harriet, Emma pushes her towards Frank Churchill. Ironically, it is really Knightley to whom Harriet is attracted. Her involvement with him is the spurring factor that causes Emma to analyze her own feelings for Knightley. Once again Harriet is left out in the cold. Fortunately, Martin is sincere and persevering enough in his love that he waits for Harriet and successfully proposes to her as soon as possible, after Harriet is out of Emma's clutches.
Miss Bates is a comic character. Her non-stop, rambling talk in which her thoughts and feelings are mixed up and are spoken out almost in a breathless manner is always humorous. She is given to gossip and always seems to know what is going on in Highbury. Although not intelligent, she proves to be a better judge of character at times than Emma. She realizes in her simple way, though Emma does not, that Mr. Elton is an ambitious, respectable young clergyman who would never marry a woman like Harriet. Miss Bates is also a loved and loving character. She is very fond of her niece, Jane Fairfax, and tries to nurse her back to good health. When the people in Highbury are kind and considerate to her, she returns their kindness by expressing her gratitude and offering to help. Although she is a humorous character that often causes laughter, Miss Bates is no fool. When Emma insults her at the Box Hill picnic, her feelings are hurt; but Miss Bates is gracious enough to forgive Emma and to accept her, while Jane Fairfax hides away and rejects all offers made by Emma.