Friday, March 11, 2011

Birthright and Social Rank

When the reader is first introduced to Emma, they discover that despite being a wealthy woman, belonging to a family that “all looked up to” (Austen 9) within their town of Highbury, she does not actually have many friends. The friends that she does have, like Mrs. Weston, her former governess, and Harriet Smith, she in a way makes into her own projects by playing “matchmaker.” While the friendship between Emma and Mrs. Weston is natural considering they lived in the same house for many years, it seems as though Emma’s friendship with Harriet Smith is for the sole purpose of Emma’s entertainment and benefit. Harriet, while not born into the privilege that Emma was born into, has a pretty settled life already with her position at Mrs. Goddard’s and a love interest in Mr. Martin. Emma attempts to change all of Harriet’s circumstances by making her into a good match for Mr. Elton, a member of the clergy.

Upon hearing of Mr. Martin and his profession, Emma says, “A young farmer, whether on horseback or on foot, is the very last sort of person to raise my curiosity” (Austen 29). She is very quick to judge Mr. Martin and believes that her friend, Harriet, can do better than him. Emma jumps to conclusions when Martin proposes to Harriet in a letter, assuming that Harriet wants to decline. She says, “Dear affectionate creature!—You banished to Abbey-Mill Farm!—You confined to the society of the illiterate and vulgar all your life! I wonder how the young man could have the assurance to ask it. He must have a pretty good opinion of himself” (Austen 53). Although it is obvious that Harriet has feelings for him, as she defends him as not being conceited, she ultimately declines. Do you think that Harriet decides to refuse Mr. Martin strictly because of Emma’s influence and opinions or do you think that she herself believes that she can marry someone of a higher social rank?

A short time following the refusal, Emma and a family friend, Knightley, have a conversation about Harriet and Mr. Martin. Knightley, being a friend of Mr. Martin, encouraged him to propose to Harriet and he is shocked and angry to learn that she refused him, with some help from Emma. Emma insists that the refusal occurred because Harriet and Mr. Martin were not equals. Knightley agrees, saying “No he is not her equal indeed, for he is as much her superior in sense as in situation. Emma, your infatuation about that girl blinds you…She is the natural daughter of nobody knows whom, with probable no settled provision at all, and certainly no respectable relations” (Austen 59-60). Do you agree with Knightley’s claim that Emma is blinded by her friendship with Harriet to see that she is in such a low social rank? Do you think Emma has a double standard, judging a man’s position in society more harshly than a woman’s position, or is she just too fixed on the idea that she wants Harriet to marry Mr. Elton? Do you think that Harriet’s lack of parents or her unknown family circumstances limits her options for moving up and into good society?


  1. I think it is important to take note of Mr. Knightley's comments throughout the text, as his comments tend to be less biased than Emma's. Emma had become very fixed on the idea of playing the matchmaker, and having a kind, beautiful friend to fix up, and as a result overlooked how society would see Harriet. As Mr. Knightley says with respect to their relationship, "I do not know what your opinion may be, Mrs. Weston, of this great intimacy between Emma and Harriet Smith, but I think it a bad thing. ... I think they will neither of them do the other any good" (35). He recognized that Harriet was feeding Emma's ego, and that Emma was making Harriet out to be above her situation. Emma was blinded by her scheming and love for her friend, and did not take into account that Harriet would be judged more harshly by others in society.

    When it came to Harriet declining the marriage proposal of Mr. Martin, I definitely think Emma played a huge role. She made it out to seem as if Harriet had already chosen to refuse his proposal, and then made little comments here and there leading Harriet in that direction, making Harriet think it was her own decision. I do not think Emma did this meanly, I think she had truly come to believe Harriet to be able to do better for herself, despite a lack of parentage and unknown family circumstances. This seems somewhat ironic considering how aware of societal standings Emma often appears. For instance, when the Coles decide to have a dinner party, Emma thinks, "The Coles were very respectable in their way, but they ought to be taught that it was not for them to arrange the terms on which the superior families would visit them" (194). She then plans to refuse them, and is dissatisfied when she realizes her refusal would have less weight since her father was sure not to attend.

    Overall, I think that Emma means well when it comes to Harriet, but she doesn't look at the whole picture, as society would be sure to limit Harriet's options, such as what happens with Mr. Elton. It is helpful to again look at Mr. Knightley's comments on this matter. "Depend upon it, Elton will not do. Elton is a very good sort of man, and a very respectable vicar of Highbury, but not at all likely to make an imprudent match. He knows the value of a good income as well as anybody. Elton may talk sentimentally, but he will act rationally" (64). Mr. Knightley speaks for the society when he explains to Emma that Mr. Elton does not see Harriet as a superior, and would not marry her, because that would not be a good situation for him.

  2. The characters in Emma are fixated on social rank and its relationship to marriage. Emma, as a youthful and eager matchmaker, transcends this fixation by acknowledging that there is more to an individual than their position in society. Whether she does this out of kindness to her friend Harriet, or out of pure youthful naivete, Emma frustrates the existing social structure through her meddling. She is eager to see her friend Harriet in an elevated societal position. As for Harriet's refusal, I think it is a prime example of Emma's manipulation. Harriet was excited at the proposal from Mr. Martin until Emma suggested that Harriet could do better. All the while Harriet is deciding upon her her response to Mr. Martin, she asks for advice from Emma. While Emma refuses to answer, she slips in her own ideas and advice, all subtly influential to Harriet. When Harriet has decided upon a response, Emma's agreeableness is free flowing; she says "While you were at all in suspense I kept my feelings to myself, but now that you are so completely decided I have no hesitation in approving." (53) In saying this, Emma reaffirms and convinces Harriet that she has come to her own conclusion, uninfluenced by Emma's manipulation. She makes Harriet think that she is thinking for herself, when in fact, she has been tricked into going with Emma's plan. I think this contradicts what Emma is trying to do, as a forward thinker, in that she is forcing her own ideals onto another. Therefore, I think that Emma makes Harriet think she is capable of marrying someone of a higher rank.

    Emma certainly takes into consideration the role of each gender in marriage and society. When she states "A man always imagines a woman to be ready for anybody who asks her" (60), she exemplifies that she is forward thinking, as well as interested in aspects of marriage other than social desirability.

    Mr. Elton's hasty marriage to his obnoxious wife perhaps suggests that Harriet can indeed do better than a clergyman, because she is proper in character. Her eventual marriage to Mr. Martin proves that Emma's matchmaking abilities are faulty, however, they cause for introspection. Emma makes herself into the center of nearly every situation at Donwell Abbey. She is eager to be involved in the lives of those whom dwell and visit the estate, as evidenced by her attempts at matchmaking. While the attempts are goodhearted at best, Austen makes Emma something of a radical through her speech and ideas.

  3. I agree with Lauren when she suggests that Mr. Knightley’s comments tend to be less biased than those of Emma. In general, I see Emma as one of the least self-aware and most stubborn characters in any of Jane Austen’s novels. To be sure, I do not doubt that Emma is well intentioned; I just would argue that she has an overwhelming inability and unwillingness to change her mind once it has been made up. This is especially evident and important when it comes to Emma’s behavior in regards to Harriet’s potential match with Mr. Elton and the actual proposal from Mr. Martin.

    I think that Emma is indeed blinded by her friendship with Harriet. I do not necessarily think that this blindness in specifically in connection with Harriet’s low social standing, however I do agree that this is a component. Mostly, I think Harriet’s personality is the real source of Emma’s blindness towards her friend’s suitability for marriage with either Mr. Elton or Mr. Martin. Harriet is not a powerful character; she is cripplingly impressionable, and she always looks to Emma for guidance. Emma feeds off of this in individuals. She naturally feels the urge to help people and thus has an inclination for matchmaking because she sees a good marriage as the ultimate happiness. Emma’s true mistake in her bad advice to Harriet was in her understanding of Harriet’s true wishes. Emma makes Harriet’s marital decision based on her own criteria of a good match when she should have offered guidance to Harriet based on Harriet’s criteria. Emma and Harriet are not of the same social standing and therefore have different considerations when approaching marriage. Harriet gets talked into reaching too high.

    Still, I do not even think that Emma is aware that she’s doing any of this. I honestly believe that she believes that she is helping her friend to the best of her abilities and with the best of intentions. Unfortunately, this is Emma’s greatest flaw. She is fatally stubborn and unaware of her true personality and even her own desires.

  4. I very much agree with Mallory’s assessment of Emma as a forward thinker and somewhat of a radical. Comparing Emma with the heroines of Austen’s former novels marks a major transition in her narrative focus. While reading the novel, I was struck by the difference between the contentedly single, young Emma and Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth. While both women were passionate and headstrong, it seems that Emma’s character resembles the meddlesome Mrs. Bennet much more closely than the spirited, moral Elizabeth. Emma is not self-seeking, but instead she takes on the role of matchmaker for the innocent Harriet. I was thrilled that such a docile, compliant character was placed as Emma’s foil because it accentuated Emma’s character. I enjoyed reading about a character who so contrasted Mansfield Park’s Katherine.

    In regards to social structure, characters such as Emma are often placed in female-centered novels to enforce social norms, but they are rarely given the title role. In Austen’s world, physical beauty, wealth and social engagements mark a truly accomplished woman. While her novels usually glorify social propriety, I read Emma as much more progressive than its predecessors. Austen brings the backbone of societal structure to the foreground of this novel and subtly (as well as often not so subtly) criticizes what is considered socially acceptable. When Emma’s plans for Harriet Smith go awry and Mr. Elton’s affections are not pliable, the most socially accomplished of Austen’s heroines is forced to reassess her standards of propriety. This introspection marks a denial of the customary practice of marrying inside one’s class and forces the reader to question the very nature of social class. Is material wealth more important than moral codes? How does one determine who is an acceptable union? Can love transcend social codes of behavior? These are questions Austen leaves Emma to tackle, thereby proposing that the reader does the same. I found this novel’s criticism very refreshing, as I was getting a bit frustrated with the compliance with society seen in some of Austen’s other novels.

  5. I also agree with Lauren that Emma’s view of Harriet is biased by her friendship and matchmaking goals, while Mr. Knightley’s comments likely reflect how the rest of society would typically view someone of Harriet’s status. While Emma is well-intentioned and ultimately aims to improve Harriet’s situation by finding her a well-to-do husband, the details of her interest in Harriet demonstrate the superficiality that contributes to her bias. The narrator reveals early on that Harriet is not an intellectually appealing character, for she repeatedly notes that Harriet is “not clever” and that there is not “anything remarkably clever in Miss Smith’s conversation” (24, 26). The narrator makes it clear that Harriet is not the sharp Elizabeth Bennett or another strong Austen protagonist. Instead, as Jacquie explained, Harriet is appealingly submissive: she shows “so proper and becoming a deference” that Emma approves of her as having “good sense” (24). Furthermore, Harriet is “a very pretty girl, and her beauty happened to be of a sort which Emma particularly admired” (23-24). According to Emma, Harriet’s “soft blue eyes and all those natural graces should not be wasted on inferior society” (24). Thus, Emma is drawn to Harriet’s malleable personality and her physical beauty rather than any strength of character, and these two surface characteristics, in Emma’s eyes, will allow Harriet to enter high society.

    The issue of Harriet’s mysterious parentage is particularly interesting in light of Emma’s superficial attachment, for Emma seems to treat Harriet as a blank slate upon which she can work. When Mr. Knightley questions Harriet’s worth in regards to her background, Emma replies, “That she is a gentleman’s daughter, is indubitable to me; that she associates with gentleman’s daughters, no one, I apprehend, will deny” (61). Instead of viewing Harriet’s background as a sign of low status, Emma sees it as an opportunity to create a hypothetical wealthy father for Harriet based on her allowance and her acquaintances with wealthy daughters such as Emma. In Emma’s mind, Harriet is not of a low position, rather, she merely lacks a position, thus Emma seems to use her own status to create a status for Harriet. Emma’s painting of Harriet seems to be a literal act of this, for she “meant to throw in a little improvement to the figure, to give a little more height, and considerably more elegance,” thus “she had great confidence of its being in every way a pretty drawing at last, and of its filling its destined place with credit to them both – a standing memorial of the beauty of one, the skill of the other, and the friendship of both” (45). With the painting, Emma aims to literally bring Harriet into existence in front of Mr. Elton, by again highlighting, and improving, her physical attributes.

    While Emma’s attachment to Harriet has a superficial basis, I do find it intriguing that Mallory notes Emma’s possible forward-thinking approach to marriage and social mobility. By approaching Harriet as a blank slate, Emma indeed seems to challenge social structures based on family names and birthrights, for she suggests that Harriet’s unknown background and impressionable nature will actually aid her in assuming a position in high society.

  6. I'm not so sure I would agree with the assessment of Emma (either the character or the novel) as particularly progressive and forward-thinking. Although it is true that Emma pushes her friend Harriet to marry a man above her own social class, these plans ultimately go awry. Despite all the efforts to set Harriet up with men who are "better-off," she ultimately ends up marrying the very man that society had deemed "most appropriate" for her from the get-go. Austen may have been attempting to make a statement in Emma's resistance to letting her friend settle for a man of less-desirable circumstance, but she balked at the repercussions she felt it might bring and inevitably ended up choosing the safer ending for the character.

    In terms of Emma herself, Mallory cited the line, "A man always imagines a woman to be ready for anybody who asks her," (60) as an astute social commentary aimed at questioning social norms. While at first glance this might be impressive for an Austen character, when comparing it to sentiments found in other novels we have read this semester it is almost old hat. In Pride and Prejudice's opening line, for example, the reader is privy to some social commentary about the perceived urgency of marriage in Austen's time period. The only difference between these two examples is the genders at which the barbs are aimed.

    Throughout most of, if not all of, the novels we have read for this class, this type of social commentary can be found. However, in most novels, as in the case of Emma, Austen ultimately defers to posterity to determine the fate of her characters.