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PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS
While a story relates events in order of sequence, a plot shows the interaction between characters and events in the light of the writer's unifying theme. Emma shows that Jane Austen is a good storyteller as well as skilled constructor of plot. The story narrates the tale of Emma as a scheming matchmaker and self-deluded weaver of imaginative fantasies. She takes Harriet under her care to mold her into a proper wife for a husband of Emma's choosing. At first, Emma tries to involve Harriet with Elton, but she is rejected. Then Emma tries to have Harriet fall in love with Frank, who is already secretly engaged. Ironically, as Emma meddles and manipulates, Harriet becomes attracted to Knightley. When she reveals her infatuation to her friend, Emma is forced to realize that she herself love Knightley. The rest of the story sorts out the complications. Knightley proposes to Emma, Frank announces his engagement to Jane to everyone, and Harriet accepts a proposal of marriage from Martin. During the course of the novel, Jane Austen makes a skillful use of conventional means of surprise and suspense to make the story interesting.
The plot of Emma is one of comedy, dealing with the follies and stupidities of humanity as social beings. In comedy, however, the characters overcome their foolish ways to develop happy and healthy human relations. Comedy is, therefore, a kind of social corrective, and the author of comedy becomes a social critic. The plot of Emma aims at correcting the vanity and self-delusion of the heroine, Emma Woodhouse. The main character to teach her about her follies is Knightley, who points out that Emma's behavior is rude, foolish, and socially unacceptable at any level, and particularly to the upper class. Emma listens to, learns from, and falls in love with this teacher. At the end of the plot, Emma is a totally changed character, considerate of others and humble. The plot of Emma is thus developed as a moral fable on the subject of self-deception vs. perception and controlled reason vs. emotional response (or the head vs. the heart).
The first eighteen chapters are basically introductory, presenting the main characters, describing the setting, and setting up the plot structure. For the most part, these chapters contain the exposition about self-deception, with its roots in Emma's imagining herself the perfect matchmaker. The plot proceeds after this exposition in a slow series of rising actions through the next twenty-five chapters. Emma's meddling and machinations, driven by romantic fancy and self-delusion, are described, along with the often upsetting results.
After the Box Hill picnic, Knightley forces Emma into self-analysis, and she realizes that she has made a mess of things and behaved very poorly. The plot from the forty-fourth chapter forward attempts, through the falling action, to resolve the entanglements that Emma's misguided efforts have caused. The conclusion presents the happy picture of three couples who have been able to come together and plan to marry
The three stages of the plot illustrate the folly of self-deception. Because Emma misjudges people, like Elton, Frank Churchill, Jane Fairfax, and Harriet Smith, she almost creates disaster. The moral of Emma's self-deception is to show the demerits of romantic fancy. Jane Austen, an enemy of romanticism, is in favor of emotion controlled by reason. During the course of the novel, Emma has been educated to balance emotion and reason and thus understand that social values cannot be separated from a set of moral values.