The Power of "Ought": A Close Reading of Perspectives and Obligations in 'Emma' College

Societal expectations motivate the characters of Jane Austen’s Emma. Because societal perception plays such a large role in the lives of these characters, many concern themselves with how they should behave; a fact which Austen underscores by utilizing the word “ought” to subtly express the views of society and propriety. However, “ought” also carries with it the ability to choose to go against the moral and societal expectations that judge actions. Through Emma’s use of the word “ought,” the audience can see her mature from a manipulative girl into a caring woman.

As essentially the highest ranking member of Highbury society, Emma often voices her opinion in “ought” statements, carrying the weight of moral and societal expectation. The audience sees this when Emma tells Harriet that “she certainly ought to refuse [Mr. Martin],” as she feels that Harriet ranks too far above Mr. Martin to even consider his marriage proposal (Austen 33). This indignation on her friend’s behalf says more about Emma than it does about Harriet’s societal worth. Emma believes that because she has taken Harriet under her wing, Harriet should be considered of nearly the highest social class. She entirely disregards the fact that Harriet has no family...

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