Representation of Women in ‘Emma’ by Jane Austen Free Essay Example

April 18, 2022 by Essay Writer

Within Emma by Jane Austen, it can be said that the class system in the society of Highbury is depicted as a realistic portrait of the society which Austen lived in (Society in ‘Emma,’ CUNY Brooklyn). The text depicts the societal culture of the upper classes and its ideals through the interrelationships between characters and the social reception and perception of their actions within the text – more specifically, towards their ideas and actions towards marriage as a social institution. These ideals can be said to be dependent of the class in which the characters have said to be born into.

Characters such as Emma Woodhouse and Harriet Smith reflect Austen’s ideas about class and society through their social statuses. The importance of social class within their society and the difference between the upper and middle classes in the society in terms of the responsibilities of the two female characters reflects the inequality of the social system of Austen’s time.

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A major component of Emma Woodhouse’s characterization within the text is the way in which her social class is described, reflecting ideas about the class system in Austen’s time period; the upper class and its ideologies in particular.

For example, Emma being described in the first sentence as ‘handsome, clever, and rich,’ shows the importance of being rich within Austen’s society, so much so that it is depicted in the first description of the character. In Austen’s society, the upper class were seen as being snobbish towards the lower class.

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This can be seen to reflect the values in which Emma, as upper class and rich, would be expected by readers to uphold, such as ignorance towards lower classes; upper class ideas which she maintains until her encounter with Harriet.

The character of Harriet can be said to complement the characterization of Emma, as Harriet is extremely submissive towards Emma and listens to her wholeheartedly. This therefore can be said to reinforce Emma’s sense of superiority as well as her values within society, as Harriet is seen to be of unidentifiable class and Emma of higher class, therefore allowing ‘power-play’ within the two characters, in that Harriet respects Emma’s superiority within the class and submits towards this.

This may be attributed to the societal context in which Austen wrote this in, which is described as ‘an age when “democratic” was regarded as an insult, social subordination was the organizing principle of many interactions, both public and private’ (Rank and Status, Christopher Brooke). These values can be further read into through Harriet and Emma’s relationship.

It would not be seen as socially viable for Emma to approach a person of such a class difference and would be perceived as either charity or ironic – this is observed in Mr Knightley’s response to their friendship; “How can Emma imagine she has anything to learn herself, while Harriet is presenting such a delightful inferiority? “, showing that he understands the class system around him as well as Emma’s superiority, particularly to Harriet, within it; these values are brought out into the Highbury society through Emma’s snobbishness in relation to the class that she was born into.

The character of Harriet represents what is considered as the unidentified class, and can be said to have different demeanours and dialogues than the upper class, as represented by the character of Emma, because of the difference in class. Harriet is of a significantly lower class than the majority of characters within the text, as ‘she is the natural daughter of nobody knows whom, with probably no settled provision at all, and certainly no respectable relations. ‘ She is characterized as, ‘… not clever, but she had a sweet, docile, grateful disposition,’ however, this is not enough to get her married to someone of the upper class.

Because of her ‘uncertain social position’ (Masterplots II: Women’s Literature Series; March 1995, p1-3) in the ‘day and age when aristocracy was highly esteemed,’ and when marriage ‘indeed often meant the difference between security and starvation’ (Bloom’s BioCritiques: Jane Austen; Bloom’s BioCritiques; 2002), this shows the importance of her socializing with the upper class in order to secure her position within the class system, and may be the reason why she is so submissive towards Emma and her opinions: ‘Oh! o, I am sure you are a great deal too kind to-but if you would just advise me what I had best do-No, no, I do not mean that-As you say, one’s mind ought to be quite made up-One should not be hesitating-It is a very serious thing. -It will be safer to say “No” perhaps. -Do you think I had better say “No? “‘ In this, the nature of Harriet’s relationship with Emma can be seen – Harriet submitting to the classical ideology of the ‘upper class knowing better,’ emphasizing the importance of class within everyday life in the time period.

This is perceived socially as acceptable, in that Emma actually approaches Harriet instead of the other way around, thus allowing her as being seen as ‘special’ since Emma has picked her out of the unknown/lower classed, instead of the many others out there – this has therefore given her opportunities that she would not normally be exposed to, thus allowing her to increase her class, which may have been a seen as a plea of desperation from her, reflecting the importance of the class system within society.

Class struggles can also be said to be portrayed within the plot of Emma through the feminine expectation of Harriet to marry up, since she has an ‘uncertain social position and undecided future’ (Masterplots II: Women’s Literature Series; March 1995) and lack of known family, putting her on a ‘social borderline’ (Jane Austen – Magill’s Literary Annual 1989), thus making it harder for her to marry since the definition of her class is so unstable.

Within the Highbury society, Harriet’s marriage would ultimately stabilize her social and financial position, allowing her to become a ‘lady of leisure’ and therefore live the ‘optimum life for a female at the time’ (Masterplots II: Women’s Literature Series; March 1995. This, in turn, can be seen to reflect the social priorities, especially for women, within Austen’s society in that marriage was seen as a source of financial and social relief as opposed to the religious sacrament it was originally created to be; marriage, from this example, can be seen as a path to both financial and social security, this being prioritized instead of ‘being in love,’ which, in modern society, can be said to be the main function of marriage.

Harriet’s enthusiasm to make connections through Emma and therefore marry, as can be seen within the text, reflects the class system and its importance within the social system in Highbury because of her need and desire to be married. This, in turn, has resulted in a lack of consideration between the other variables in marriage, which can be contrasted through Emma’s view towards marriage.

Within the class system, the class system existed to ‘determine both the community’s membership and how it works in the lives of its members’ (Masterplots, Fourth Edition; November 2010), creating inequalities between different members which can be seen in their differing opinions towards marriage. Members of the upper class such as Emma, however, had no need for marriage because they were insured with thousands of pounds to sustain their lifestyle. I never have been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall’ shows the difference in opinion towards marriage for Emma, as opposed to Harriet; Harriet’s main reason for wanting to get married is to achieve a social expectation, securing financial and social status, whereas Emma has both of these firmly secured by her father and birth-ranking, therefore seeing marriage interweaved with love more than anything else. Further discussions of the differences in priorities and opinions towards marriage can be said to strengthen the differences between the two classes.

The basis of the plot that Emma achieves fun by matchmaking others to marry may also signify that she, herself, does not need to marry, but does ‘acts of charity’ to ensure that other people of lower class to her, such as her governess, Ms Weston, as well as Harriet, do get married and fulfil this social expectation, thus reinforcing the beliefs of the class system further about the class system and its differences. Emma by Jane Austen can be read to reflect the values of the class system of Austen’s time period, showing the differences in the priorities of the different classes; as shown in this essay through their opinions towards marriage.

In the era in which Austen lived, class and marriage could be seen to be interrelated in that the importance of marriage for the person in question depends significantly upon the class in which they were born into. These can be seen through the above examples, which, in turn, has lead to the difference in the intentions of marriage for both Emma Woodhouse and Harriet Smith, showing the difference in their upbringing and opinions about themselves, most of which their class is based on.

These interactions between the characters can be said to further reinforce the instilled values of society and the differences between the upper and unidentifiable classes in the society within the actual characters, such as Emma’s socialisation with Harriet, in terms of responsibilities and general demeanours, reflecting the social system of Austen’s time and the inequalities within this. This, in turn, reflects the understandings brought upon the reader and the characters’ expected duties and roles within the text.


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