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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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