for the cultural context of emma
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Emma is structured around a number of marriages recently consummated or anticipated, and, in each case, the match solidifies the participant’s social status. In Austen’s time, social status was determined by a combination of family background, reputation, and wealth—marriage was one of the main ways in which one could raise one’s social status. This method of social advancement was especially crucial to women, who were denied the possibility of improving their status through hard work or personal achievement.
Yet, the novel suggests, marrying too far above oneself leads to strife. Mr. Weston’s first marriage to Miss Churchill had ostensibly been a good move for him, because she came from a wealthy and well-connected family (Mr. Weston is a tradesman), but the inequality of the relationship caused hardship to both. He marries Mrs. Weston just prior to the novel’s opening, and this second marriage is happier because their social statuses are more equal—Mrs. Weston is a governess, and thus very fortunate to be rescued from her need to work by her marriage. Emma’s attempt to match Harriet with Mr. Elton is also shunned by the other characters as inappropriate. Since Harriet’s parentage is unknown, Emma believes that Harriet may have noble blood and encourages her to reject what turns out to be a more appropriate match with Robert Martin. By the time it is revealed that Harriet is the daughter of a tradesman, Emma admits that Mr. Martin is more suitable for her friend.
The relationship between marriage and social status creates hardship for other characters. Frank Churchill must keep his engagement to the orphan Jane Fairfax secret because his wealthy aunt would disapprove. Jane, in the absence of a good match, is forced to consider taking the position of a governess. The unmarried Miss Bates is threatened with increasing poverty without a husband to take care of her and her mother. Finally, the match between Emma and Mr. Knightley is considered a good one not only because they are well matched in temperament but also because they are well matched in social class.
The Confined Nature of Women’s Existence
The novel’s limited, almost claustrophobic scope of action gives us a strong sense of the confined nature of a woman’s existence in early-nineteenth-century rural England. Emma possesses a great deal of intelligence and energy, but the best use she can make of these is to attempt to guide the marital destinies of her friends, a project that gets her into trouble. The alternative pastimes depicted in the book—social visits, charity visits, music, artistic endeavors—seem relatively trivial, at times even monotonous. Isabella is the only mother focused on in the story, and her portrayal suggests that a mother’s life offers a woman little use of her intellect. Yet, when Jane compares the governess profession to the slave trade, she makes it clear that the life of a working woman is in no way preferable to the idleness of a woman of fortune. The novel focuses on marriage because marriage offers women a chance to exert their power, if only for a brief time, and to affect their own destinies without adopting the labors or efforts of the working class. Participating in the rituals of courtship and accepting or rejecting proposals is perhaps the most active role that women are permitted to play in Emma’s world.
Gender roles seem to blur in everyday life: men gossip as much – if not more – than women, women run the social and political networks of the community as much as their male counterparts do, and everybody vies to be the perfect host/hostess. Women, however, have fewer options than men. They can get married, or they can live with their families. Without options, they become defined by a very different set of expectations and images then men do. Men still marry for looks or money (or a combination of the two); the women who choose to ignore or change the ways the marriage market works run into lots and lots of trouble.