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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas
explored in a literary work.
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 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.
The novel offers sharply critical illustrations of the
ways in which personal biases or desires blind objective judgment.
Emma cannot understand the motives that guide Mr. Elton’s behavior
because she imagines that he is in love with Harriet. She later
admits to herself that “[s]he had taken up the idea, she supposed,
and made everything bend to it.” Meanwhile, Mr. Elton’s feelings
for Emma cause him to mistake her behavior for encouragement. The
generally infallible Mr. Knightley cannot form an unbiased judgment
of Frank Churchill because he is jealous of Frank’s claim on Emma,
and Emma speaks cruelly of Jane because her vanity makes her jealous of
Jane’s accomplishments. Emma’s biases cause her to invent an attachment
between Harriet and Frank and blind her to the fact that Harriet
actually has feelings for Knightley. At the same time, Frank’s desire
to use Emma as a screen for his real preference causes him to believe
mistakenly that she is aware of the situation between him and Jane.
The admirable, frequently ironic detachment of the narrator allows
us to see many of these misunderstandings before the characters
do, along with the humorous aspects of their behavior. And the plot
is powered by a series of realizations that permit each character
to make fuller, more objective judgments.
The misunderstandings that permeate the novel are created,
in part, by the conventions of social propriety. To differing degrees,
characters are unable to express their feelings directly and openly,
and their feelings are therefore mistaken. While the novel by no
means suggests that the manners and rituals of social interaction
should be eliminated, Austen implies that the overly clever, complex
speech of Mr. Elton, Frank Churchill, and Emma deserves censure.
She presents Mr. Martin’s natural, warm, and direct manner of expressing himself
as preferable to Mr. Elton’s ostentatious and insincere style of
complimenting people. Frank too possesses a talent for telling people
exactly what they want to hear, and Knightley’s suspicions of Frank’s
integrity are proven valid when it turns out that Frank has been
misleading Highbury and hiding his true feelings for Jane. The cleverness
of Frank’s and Emma’s banter gets them both into trouble by upsetting
Jane, about whom Emma says indiscreet and unfair things. Emma and
Frank’s flirting at the Box Hill party hurts both Knightley and
Jane. Moreover, Emma forgets herself to the extent that she cruelly
insults Miss Bates. Austen seems to prefer Knightley and Martin’s
tactful tacitness to the sometimes overly gregarious commentary
of Emma, Mr. Elton, and Frank, and, as a result, the author gives
the latter characters’ contrived speech a misleading influence on
the story as a whole.