Emma

Major Themes

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Courtship and marriage

As in all of Austen’s novels, courtship and marriage play major roles in “Emma.” The entire novel is structured around various courtships and romantic connections, from Harriet and Robert Martin to Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill to Emma and Mr. Knightley. All of the conflicts in the novel also revolve around this topic, particularly in terms of characters striving to find appropriate matches. In this way, Austen presents marriage as a fundamental aspect of society during the time period. While marriage promotes families and serves romantic purposes, it also upholds the class structure of the community by ensuring that individuals marry appropriately (such as Harriet and Robert Martin, who are in the same class). At the same time, Austen also uses marriage to highlight the social limitations faced by Emma and other characters: in their small village, marriage and courtship are the sole catalysts of excitement or conflict.

Social class

Austen highlights the theme of social class throughout the novel, particularly in terms of Emma’s relationship with Harriet Smith. As a member of the wealthiest family in Highbury, Emma holds the highest social position in the community. While she interacts with other characters at an equal level (such as Mr. Knightley), she also has social responsibilities to less fortunate individuals, such as Miss Bates, Harriet Smith, and the poor families who live on her estate. Yes, while Austen encourages compassion and charity in members of the higher classes, she also maintains the importance of class distinctions. One of Emma’s biggest mistakes is taking the lower-class Harriet Smith and bringing her to an almost equal social level. While Harriet is a benevolent character, Austen asserts that she is not an appropriate member of high society and, in fact, would never be accepted if it were not for Emma’s influence. As a result of this confusion of classes, Harriet develops inappropriate expectations for marriage and her future and thus risks being rejected from her own peers, such as the Martin family. Austen also uses Mr. Weston’s first marriage as an example of this: because Mr. Weston’s first wife was from a higher social class, she was unable to adjust to his lower standard of living, and the marriage was ultimately an unhappy one.

Oppression of women

As a heroine, Emma possesses beauty, wealth, intelligence, high social standing, and financial independence. However, Austen makes it clear that Emma is unique in her position; most of the women in the novel lack Emma’s financial independence and, as a result, have much more limited options for their futures. This speaks to the ingrained oppression of women in British society at the time. Most occupations were deemed inappropriate for women (akin to prostitution), which left women almost incapable of supporting themselves independently. Jane Fairfax is presented as an example of this ingrained oppression of women. Although she possesses all of the same personal qualities as Emma, she lacks the wealth that could give her financial and social security. The only options available for her are marriage or becoming a governess. Most of the other female characters in the novel are faced with a similar choice: Harriet Smith can either marry or continue to work at Mrs. Goddard’s school; Mrs. Weston only marries Mr. Weston after working as Emma’s governess. Although Emma is luckier than most, even she has limited options for her future: she can either marry or become a wealthy spinster. Ironically, Austen herself had to submit to this ingrained oppression: because she never married and could not publicly claim her novels, she was dependent on her family for support.

Miscommunication

Many of the major conflicts in the novel are a direct result of miscommunication between characters. One primary example is Mr. Elton’s misguided courtship of Emma during which Emma assumes that Mr. Elton is actually courting Harriet Smith. This misconception is perpetuated when Mr. Elton presents Emma with a riddle for Harriet’s book. Because there is no real communication between the three characters, the revelation of Mr. Elton’s true feelings is much more problematic. Similar problems arise because of miscommunication between Frank Churchill and Emma. While Emma initially views Frank Churchill as her future husband, Frank is secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax and manipulates Emma into promoting the façade. Even Mr. Knightley engages in miscommunication by failing to reveal his true feelings for Emma until the very end of the novel. As such, Emma assumes that Harriet and Mr. Knightley are in love with each other. In each of these cases, the required formality of social interactions ends up causing nothing but confusion and hurt feelings. However, in the end, all of these social mishaps are resolved, and each character is ultimately matched up with an appropriate partner.

Moral relativism

For the majority of the novel, Emma operates under the assumption that she knows what is best for those around her. A prime example of this is Emma’s relationship with Harriet Smith, in which Emma assumes that she has the right to determine Harriet’s choice of husband and future happiness. She even takes responsibility for Harriet’s personality: taking it upon herself to “improve” Harriet. Emma indulges in similarly condescending behavior with many other characters in the novel, including Mr. and Mrs. Weston, her sister and father, Mr. Elton, and Frank Churchill. Emma’s belief in her own infallibility is undermined by her behavior toward Miss Bates at the picnic at Box Hill. Although Emma had made mistakes with Harriet and Mr. Elton, this is the first time that Emma is blatantly wrong in her behavior. This forces her to acknowledge that her seeming infallibility regarding those around her is nothing more than ego and arrogance.

Love

For the majority of the novel, Emma considers herself to be immune to romantic love. Although she considers the possibility of marriage to Frank Churchill, she acknowledges that she does not actually love him, as she is just as happy during his absence as she is during his presence. This ability to exist without love relates to the larger theme of marriage that permeates the narrative. Austen makes it clear that love is not a requirement for marriage and can actually be a detriment to the relationship (as with Mr. Weston’s first marriage). An individual must first consider social position, fortune, and other logical qualities when determining an appropriate match. However, because of Emma’s financial independence, these logical considerations are superfluous: she is in the unique position to be able to marry solely for love. Ironically, while Emma’s ultimate choice is made out of love, Mr. Knightley also combines all of the logical qualities of wealth, social status, and breeding that make a good husband. In the end, Austen also ensures that Harriet Smith and Jane Fairfax are able to marry for love, though their marriages also serve the important purpose of providing them with financial and social security.

Social conduct

Because “Emma” focuses so much on social interaction and society, conduct plays an extremely important role. Austen uses it as a way to measure worth in her characters, as well as establish which characters have behaved inappropriately. Although Emma is oblivious about her own faults for much of the novel, she is always very aware of appropriate conduct and manners in herself. She is also quick to recognize bad conduct in those around her, such as Mr. Elton, Mrs. Elton, Frank Churchill, and her own brother-in-law. Significantly, it is Emma’s realization of her bad conduct in insulting Miss Bates at the picnic at Box Hill that serves as a catalyst to her self-improvement toward the end of the novel. As a result of Frank Churchill’s influence, Emma had abandoned proper social conduct and symbolically lowered her status. She is forced to make amends to Miss Bates directly and, even then, is overcome with guilt. By the end of the novel, however, Emma is able to regain her sense of appropriate conduct and marries the only other character with equal awareness of manners and breeding: Mr. Knightley.