Although the story of Jane Austen’s Emma is centralised around the journey of her heroine who grows to maturity as she gains insight into her human follies, there are many other important themes and concepts which underlie the novel. Through this novel Austen provides an examination and insight into the class system of her era and challenges the preconceived attitudes of the conventions of society. Through her satire and irony Austen criticizes and mocks the manner in which high class society operates. Her intention was to create a microcosm of her own society by presenting the novel in her perspective within the small community of Highbury, by concentrating on this one small community Austen is able to focus and gain insight of her characters which she depends on as a driving force for the novel. It is through the actions and mannerisms of her characters that enables Jane Austen to criticize her own society, thus forcing the responders to question the significance of the issues found within her society.
The main story underlying the novel follows the journey of a young woman as she matures as a result of the consequences of her human follies. Emma begins as a na?e young woman whose vanity, over bearing confidence and arrogance blind her from the truth; “Better be without sense, than misapply it as you [Emma] do? However, through her errors, misjudgments and inability to judge others Emma learns to recognise these faults and reforms her character accordingly. She gains insight from her follies and ultimately, with the aid of Mr. Knightley, she increases her awareness to others and learns the importance of insight and compassion.
Emma’s arrogance and snobbery are established within the opening paragraphs of the novel; “lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress of vex her?and with the statement; “the real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way and a disposition to think a little too well of herself?Jane Austen establishes the main underlying concept of her novel. Here Emma does not perceive the follies in her mannerisms and thus establishes the arrogant, snobbish character whom, even Jane Austen ventures to admit; “no one but myself will much like? However, Emma’s arrogance and over confidence is shown to stem from the way in which she is treated within society, especially through her father’s ideology of her. Mr. Woodhouse was an indulgent father who could not find any faults within Emma; “Mr. Knightley, in fact was one of the few people who could see faults in Emma…and though this was not particularly agreeable to Emma herself, she knew it would be much less so to her father, that she would not have him really suspect such a circumstance as her not being thought perfect by everybody? As a result of Mr. Woodhouse’s ideology of her he fuels Emma’s confidence and arrogance by offering no criticism of her character, he saw Emma as having no faults, thus relieving his necessity to reprimand her behaviour. And so it is the combination of her wealth, status among the society of Highbury and her father’s unyielding belief of her perfection, which become the core of Emma’s vanity, arrogance and snobbery.
Thus Jane Austen establishes that Emma is not entirely at fault for her conduct, because it was the society she lived in and her upbringing, which shaped her character; she did not perceive or comprehend the extent of her follies because the majority of the community was not at the position to criticize a person of Emma’s status, and so the only person who did criticize her was Mr. Knightley. However, Emma’s lack of insight and pride prevent her from seeing the wisdom within his criticisms which only delay her growing process. It is not until the Box Hill incident, when Mr. Knightley reprimands Emma’s behaviour that she really notices the truth in his criticisms, previously Emma had taken his judgments with a flippant attitude and either diverted away from the conversation or senselessly argued against his comments. This is depicted within chapter 8 when Mr. Knightley and Emma discuss the situation regarding Robert Martin’s proposal to Harriet. Emma, arrogantly assumes that Harriet is the daughter of a gentleman and is therefore higher in status than Mr. Martin; “Mr. Martin is a very respectable young man, but I cannot admit him to be Harriet’s equal; and am rather surprised indeed that he should have ventured to address her? However, Mr. Knightley opposes Emma’s theory and goes on to state that Mr. Martin is “much her superior in sense and situation? Unlike Emma, Knightley recognises the reality of the situation; “Your infatuation with the girl blinds you? he realises that Emma’s matchmaking scheme will falter because he acknowledges that Mr. Elton is “not at all likely to make an imprudent match? and in marrying an illegitimate “daughter of somebody?it would certainly degrade Mr. Elton’s position. The blindness presented by Emma here, is indicative of the result of her follies; her arrogance blinds her from the truth and her obstinacy prevents her from accepting Mr. Knightley’s points of criticism.
Emma’s growth and transition in character lies mainly in the transformation of her attitude towards others and towards herself. The change in Emma’s attitude is seen most clearly through her treatment and judgment of the Bates? Because of Emma’s situation within Highbury she was expected to visit the less fortunate members of society, and although Emma did visit the Bates?her attitude towards them suggested that her visits were an obligation; “none were equal to counteract the persuasion of its being very disagreeable- a waste of time ?tiresome women- and all the horror of being in danger of falling in with the second rate and third rate of Highbury? With this comment, Emma shows her lack of compassion and snobbery towards these people who were so much less fortunate than she was; “She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and if she live to old age, must probably sink more?
It is this flaw in Emma which degrades the reader’s perception of her; Emma had the wealth and the status and just by visiting the Bates?she gave them great joy; “I am sure there is nobody’s praise that could give us so much pleasure as Miss Woodhouse’s? However, Emma does present a genuine interest in the Bates when she comments about “the distresses of the poor were as sure of relief from her personal attention and kindness, her counsel and her patience, as from her purse…always gave assistance with as much intelligence as good-will? but it is not the fact that Emma does not care about the less fortunate, it is the depth in which she cares for them which shows a shallow attitude towards the underprivileged. At this point Emma shows her superficiality in her care for the poor when her concerns quickly revert from the less fortunate; “These are the sights, Harriet to do one good. How trifling they make everything else appear!? to the situation concerning the matchmaking of Harriet and Mr. Elton. Emma’s lack of consideration and respect towards the Bates is shown when she arrogantly mocks Miss Bates by stating; “Ah! Ma’am, but there may be great difficulty. Pardon me- but you will be limited as to number- only three at once? However, once again, it is not until Mr. Knightley directs Emma to her follies does she realise the extent of her insolence; “How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?? but rather than flippantly disregarding Mr. Knightley’s remonstration it is here that Emma begins to turn away from her arrogance and pretentiousness towards a deeper understanding of respect and worth.
It is the incident at Box Hill which catalyses Emma’s transformation in attitude and character. By reflecting upon her errors she gains insight from her past follies; acknowledging her past errors and misjudgments and finally recognizing the flaws in her character. With her new found compassion, Emma revisits the Bates out of the desire of wanting to go, rather than being obliged to go; “In the warmth of true condition, she would call upon her the very next morning, and it should be the beginning, on her side, of a regular, equal, kindly intercourse? By acquiring this deeper knowledge of humility Emma, redeems herself for her past follies and misjudgments, thus elevating her character in the eyes of the reponders.
Although superficially Jane Austen’s novel seems only a satirical and humorous novel which follows Emma’s transition from the arrogant, vain and controlling young woman, to the compassionate and tolerant person she becomes by learning from her errors and altering her character in an attempt to gain humility and compassion. However, also presented by Austen is the importance of social values and structure. Austen criticizes the class system through the character of Emma by establishing the manner in which she behaves within society and the way in which she is perceived within that society. Most of the irony within the novel is caused by Emma’s lack of insight. Her inability to see the truth of her own and other people’s situation creates the ironic tone of the novel, this is done mainly through the many misjudgments and errors made by Emma as a result of her interference with no insight into the situation. As a consequence of Emma’s arrogance and assurance of her virtuosity, she manipulates situations and incidents to suit her whims. This is shown through Emma’s manipulation of the situation with Mr. Elton, despite the warnings from Mr. Knightley that Mr. Elton will not make an imprudent match, Emma still attempts to match Harriet and Mr. Elton; “She thought it would be an excellent match; and only too palpably desirable, natural, and probable, for her to have much merit in planning it? However, Emma’s attempts prove to be in vain when it becomes apparent that Mr. Elton’s affections are towards Emma; “he seems to have a great deal of good-will towards you?but as Emma’s arrogance continues to blind her she ironically muses “of the blunders which often arise from a partial knowledge of circumstances, of the mistakes which people of high pretensions to judgment are forever falling into?
The character of Emma, herself, is a criticism of the high-class people of Austen’s era, Emma’s arrogance, pride and ignorance present a superficial quality of the people in Jane Austen’s time. And although Austen provides a flippant and humorous tone throughout the novel, her intentions were to ridicule the existing conventions of her society, especially the social values and structure of the community.
Within Emma, Austen creates a world, which is very much influenced by wealth and status, reflecting the relative importance of wealth and status during her time of existence. In Emma, wealth was so important that it affected the relationships between people, this is inextricably shown through Mr. Elton’s choice to marry Augusta because she had 10, 000 pounds, rather than Harriet whom even Mr. Knightley admits “has some first rate qualities, which Mrs. Elton is totally without? Austen creates a society where wealth and material possessions dictates status and class, and ultimately their respectability in other people’s point of view. The elite upper classes of society were determined by property ownership, prestige was governed by heritage and inheritance, with the family name determining stature within society. This is shown through the depiction of the Coles who, despite having wealth, do not maintain a high stature within the society of Highbury; “The Coles were very respectable in their way, but they ought to be taught that it was not for them to arrange the terms on which the superior families would visit them?
Austen establishes the behavior between these different classes through Emma’s treatment of Mr. Robert Martin, where, throughout the novel she treats him with little respect or compassion simply because of his position within society; “A degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance might interest me…But a farmer can need none of my help, and is therefore in one sense as much above by notice as in every other he is below it? Social behaviour and etiquette are valued as an indication of status and prestige, family wealth and background are depicted as an essential requirement for a prominent position in the social hierarchy. However not all characters ascribe to the same social standings as many of the society. Mr. Knightley, although acutely aware of his material circumstances and the situation of others, shows a modest amount of concern to adhere to the conventions of high society, his friendship with Robert Martin and his high regard for him demonstrate his lack of concern in falling to the ranks of “second or third rate?society. Austen ends the novel with a notion depicting the strength of social values over personal integrity, when Emma states that “The intimacy between her [Harriet] and Emma must sink; their friendship must change into a calmer sort of good will; and unfortunately, what ought to be, and must be, seemed already beginning, and in the most gradual and natural manner?it shows that the power of social values is not easily over run; the elite must remain among the elite and the lower society must remain below those of high society. By placing emphasis on wealth and social values and mocking those who belong within it, Austen points out that material worth should not be the highest priority within society and urges the responder to look beyond the superficiality of wealth and status.
Thus Jane Austen’s novel Emma, not only follows the journey of a young woman as she grows to maturity, but it compels the responders to look beyond the material aspects of existence in order to uncover the important issues within society. Austen comments on the consequences of the human follies of arrogance, vanity and self-deception through the character of Emma by showing her growth to maturity by gaining insight into these follies. As a result of her errors and misjudgments Emma progresses towards self-knowledge and an understanding of the importance of sincerity and respect towards others. Austen aims to illustrate that compassion and forbearance towards others is important and that sincerity is always associated with consideration and respect for other people despite their status within society.
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