Austen’s greatest achievement may lie in her innovative explorations of human psychology and human consciousness. In Emma (1815), Austen is clearly concerned with the process of psychological development.
The opening paragraphs of Emma are among the most famous in all of literature, and they provide a basis for everything that happens in later chapters of the novel. Here is the first sentence: Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
As the next chapters play out, we see that Emma’s judgment is clouded by vanity and self-delusion. Her efforts at matchmaking prove disastrous and nearly spoil her own chance at happiness. By the end, those clouds have parted; Emma has seen the light and learned the truth about herself and her world. She ends the novel married to Mr. Knightley, the wealthiest and most intelligent man in her neighbourhood.
At particular points in Emma, Austen also provides a vivid image of the mind in action. Over the course of a single scene, Emma might wrestle with a number of different emotions. As she gathers new impressions and takes in more information, she is often forced to reconsider her judgments—sometimes revising them, sometimes not. The result is not a summary of her mental deliberations but an exciting dramatization of them.