Some generalization should be kept in mind when one considers the plot of Emma. Perhaps first should be a reminder of the seeming leisureliness with which Miss Austen puts her story together. Practically none of the material is, in the usual sense, exciting — that is, there is little external climactic action, and there is no adventurous action. Primarily the reasons are that it is a satirical novel about social manners and mores and that the satire comes more from the effects of emotion than from emotion itself. However, the novel will appear leisurely written only on one's first reading. Once the reader knows the outcome of events and repeats the novel, he will find that it is one of the most tightly knit works ever done. For, since much of the book is plotted for purposes of irony (which shows the difference between intention and performance or the difference between what a character knows and what others, including the reader at times, know), the repeating reader can relish the minuteness with which Miss Austen has prepared for and then exploits to the full the misunderstandings and the foibles of the people in her provincial community, especially those of Emma. For instance, all that Frank Churchill does and says on the party to Box Hill takes on the meaning of double entendre for the re-reader, who now discovers that it is leisurely only in appearance. Similarly, one can sense the irony in how Emma misconstrues Mr. Elton's gallantry or Harriet's attachment for Mr. Knightley simply because the characters are too mannered to speak directly.
The plot structure of the novel is regulated in part by division into three volumes: In Volume One Emma deceives herself about Mr. Elton and that deception reaches its climax in his declaration in the carriage; Volume Two shows her deceiving herself about Frank Churchill and getting over it in a much less climactic fashion; Volume Three continues her self-deception about people but reaches its major climax in the ultimate revelation about herself and George Knightley. Obviously many other developing facets are involved, but in brief outline these are the three rising and falling stages of action in the novel. Only the last one, however, is final, for Emma throughout is more and more self-deceived, though at the same time she is also moving toward self-knowledge which will let her come to terms with herself and her situation.
This is only the skeletal plot structure, and it is fleshed out in many ways. To comprehend this fleshing out, the reader should remember that the motive force for plot in fiction is generally one or more of three kinds of conflict: man against man, man against environment, or man against himself. The force of man-against-man is incidental but important to the overall satire of the novel and can be seen in the social maneuverings of various characters. The force of man-against-environment is seen primarily in terms of Emma versus her social milieu: She goes against the accepted manners and social ranks in trying to manipulate Harriet either from or into the social and personal lives of others. But the most consistent plot force in the novel is man-against-himself: Emma is constantly deceiving herself and is thus in conflict with herself. All three motive forces for plot, then, are found in Emma, but the last two predominate and are in essence the same, for Emma is ironically against herself because she is against her environment. She has accepted the code of her society but at the same time, due to her imbalance of imagination and reason, she wants to go against it; both the code and her opposing willfulness are important to her — hence conflict.
The overall pattern of plot movement is rather classic. Emma's conflict begins when her willful imagination is released by the loss of Miss Taylor; her situation is like a vacuum to be filled — and fulfilled — in accordance with her nature. The result is a continuous rising interest for the reader as Emma's self-deception realizes and manifests itself. The major climax, the highest point of reader interest, comes in Chapters XI, XII, and XIII in the final volume, followed by an unraveling denouement. This movement designed to increase reader interest can be charted like the rising, peaking, and falling on a graph.
Finally, another major plot pattern used in the novel is that of contrast. Plot manipulation not only arranges to juxtapose significantly different characters (Frank and George, for instance) but also often develops a special rhythm by placing introspective scene or chapter next to one of social interaction.
Thus the plot is quite complex, with more than one element often working at once. Composed of classic pattern, contrast, and planned general social satire, all facets are based upon conflict. Though not as obvious as the others, even the last-mentioned element (which is man-against-man) stems from the conflict between social intention and performance. Underlying all of these conflicts is the motive of comic irony.