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					Themes in Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’



                                  Class
Key Points to Consider

       The concept of social class in the context of Jane Austen‟s time. How
        does this differ to our perception of class and class boundaries?
        What are the key differences and similarities? Does it remain
        relevant in the 21st Century?
    Austen‟s personal attitudes concerning social class. Are they
        illustrated through her writing? If so, how?
    Is Class the same thing as good manners? Or are the two directly
        linked? Could “A Comedy of Manners” (a label often given to
        Austen‟s writings) be also written as “A Comedy of Class”?
    The way that social class is presented in „Emma‟. It is a key thread
        that runs throughout the novel. What techniques does the author use
        to illustrate differences in class?
   (i)      Humour – satire/parody/irony/caricature. Relevant to
            presentation of both lower and upper class. Miss Bates is a very
            comic character, but is she humorous in terms of class? It are
            more her exaggerated good manners, and the inappropriateness
            of her comments that are prone to be ridiculed. As an old maid, is
            she part of a derogatory class of her own? Mrs Elton on the other
            hand, is satirised very directly for being a „social climber‟ with
            vulgar manners and an exaggerated belief in her own self
            importance. It is however, important to balance this with the
            humour associated with Mr Woodhouse and even Emma herself.
            Mr Woodhouse is similar to Miss Bates – a comic character,
            known for his excessively good manners in spite of class
            boundaries. He is kind to all regardless of class, but unable to
            see any other point of view than his own. Is this a gentle dig at the
            upper classes of society who have had a lifetime to become self
            obsessed? Emma is also gently parodied, her own self
            importance and snobbery and condescension is made fun of by
            the author throughout the book.
   (ii)     Dialogue – conversation is a key element to Austen‟s novels.
            Through her characters she is able to convey social class very
            effectively. Consider the flattering tones of Harriet Smith, whose
            ignorance and naivety show her own lack of class compared to
            Emma‟s decisive and derisive statements illustrative of the self
            assurance of wealth. Mrs Elton‟s loud voice often cuts people
            dead in their tracks, as do her constant assurances
            (reassurances?) of her social importance substantiated via her
            influence at “Maple Grove”. Jane Fairfax speaks quietly and
            properly at all times – often not saying much, able to counter the
            flapping of her aunt and the bossiness of her „friend‟. This must
            be seen as a sign of her „real‟ social standing, a sad contrast as
            we are consistently told by other characters to her proposed fate
Themes in Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’


           as a governess. Similarly to Jane, Mrs Weston is a kind, good
           natured soul, influenced too much by the self assurance and
           social standing of Emma yet willing to think the best of everyone
           – a sign maybe of her own rank as an ex governess of noble
           birth. Consider also, the dialogue of Mr Knightly, Mr Elton, Mr
           Weston and the Coles as examples of presentation of social class.
           And of course, Miss Bates.
   (iii)   Omniscient Narrator – the presence of an omniscient narrator
           in any novel is an idea method to present something so vague
           and big an idea as Class. By showing the reader what the
           narrator wants to make clear class is constantly highlighted
           throughout Emma. Consider for example Emma‟s dinner she
           gives in honour of Mrs Elton. We see here the manners of Mr
           Woodhouse, Jane Fairfax and Mr Knightly compared harshly with
           Mrs Elton.
   (iv)    Plot – by structuring the story of the novel to include big social
           gatherings Austen is able to illustrate class on – what is to the
           reader – a wider scale. By allowing the Woodhouses to mix with
           the Coles, Coxes and other „lesser‟ families of the district, the
           microcosm of Hertfield society is magnified without the „lesser‟
           families uttering a word. It also provides a good arena to
           emphasise the class divides and distinctions between the main
           characters. The Eltons being the obvious example, but Austen
           also uses the occasion to highlight the subtle differences
           between the upper classes. Mr Weston/Mr Knightly being an
           example of this – Mr W for all his genial benevolence and good
           manners is not so much of a gentleman as Mr K. Think about how
           Austen makes us aware of this?
   (v)     An upper class heroine? – the very fact that Austen chooses a
           heroine who is of the highest distinction in her community, rich,
           intelligent and as we are told “with very little in the world to
           distress or vex her” immediately lets the reader know that his
           novel is going to be concerned with class. Emma is an unlikely
           heroine, especially when contrasted with the other heroines of
           Austen‟s novels. Elizabeth Bennett, Eleanor and Marianne
           Dashwood, Catherine Morland are all poor girls with many
           problems that will prevent them from progressing. Emma does
           not have these. Consider therefore why the idea of an upper
           class heroine may be important to Austen? Does it show the
           inequalities between men and women? That Emma is
           fundamentally bored because her class and sex do not allow her
           any other occupations and therefore turns to matchmaking as the
           only way of keeping herself amused. Mr K and Mr Woodhouse
           are constantly tending to matters of business. Does it illustrate to
           the reader that a journey of self discovery and self realisation is
           just as important whatever your class? That the rich and adored
           (an 18th century form of celebrity?) are not necessarily to be
           envied. This is a really interesting question and would be useful
Themes in Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’


          to consider, and a point to pursue in any exam question
          concerning Emma‟s journey of self discovery.
           Interestingly, Emma is constantly trying to match Harriet, an
               illegitimate shop keeper‟s daughter with men far above her
               own class. What does this tell you about her attitude towards
               class? She, who is snobby in the extreme in any other situation
               in the book. Does it show Emma to advantage because her
               feelings of friendship transcend her own class prejudices? Or
               is it merely another case of Emma taking a fancy to something
               and wanting to get her own way. (Something Mr K indicates
               early on in the book that has happened before) Is this another
               way Austen satirises the class tradition?
           Marriage is a theme that runs parallel to class in „Emma‟.
               Many of the characters try/or are pushed to marry outside
               their class. Mr Elton proposes to Emma to aggrandise himself
               and get his grubby paws on her money. Emma attempts to
               romanticise Harriet and shift her up the class ladder to
               become a vicar‟s wife, and later to become Frank Churchill‟s
               beloved. Many characters wish Emma and Frank Churchill to
               marry, even Emma to begin with, although reasonably early
               on she realises that he is not quite of the same class as her.
               (He is a bit of a dandy, a rake and although good to flirt with,
               he is perhaps not of the same rank…) However by the
               conclusion of ‘Emma’, all these characters have gone back to
               their own sphere (or roundabout); Emma herself marries the
               only man in the area who is of her own class. Jane Fairfax is
               perhaps the only character who marries outside her rank,
               however we are consistently told that actually Jane Fairfax is
               the only equal to Emma in Highbury so she is the only
               character suitable enough to marry a Frank Churchill. Even
               Harriet‟s inequalities of class are brushed aside when Mr
               Knightly decides that she is better than Mrs Elton, and now
               therefore perfectly on a par with Robert Martin. Moreover, we
               are assured that everyone is far more happy with this state of
               affairs than if Harriet had managed to marry Mr Knightly – as
               she at one point believes she is more than equal too. (“it
               would be not so very wonderful after all”) Emma (and the
               reader) realise that attempting to move Harriet up the social
               ladder could have terrible consequences for all. Taking all of
               this into account – what social comments can be gauged from
               the conclusion of ‘Emma’?
           Consider importance of rich relations/benefactors – being
               attached to people of class a burden? Frank/Jane/Harriet
           Key points/threads in the novel where the importance of
               „class‟ is illustrated.
          (i)       Emma/Harriet relationship
          (ii)      Mr Knightly/Emma argument re: HS/RM
          (iii) Mr Elton‟s proposal
          (iv) Jane Fairfax
Themes in Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’


          (v)   Mrs Elton
          (vi)  Gathering at the Coles/Ball at the Crown
          (vii) Strawberry picking at Donwell
          (viii)Emma‟s rudeness to Miss Bates at Box Hill. Turning point in
                Emma‟s development.
          (ix) Mrs Churchill‟s death – secret engagement Frank/Jane
          (x)   Harriet/Mr Knightly
          (xi) Mr Knightly/Emmaa‟s engagement
          Can you think of any others?


      What quotes can you find that are particularly relevant when dealing
       with this theme? Why?

				
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posted:8/23/2011
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