Friday, March 25, 2011

Concepts of Marriage in Jane Austen's Emma

Jane Austen’s Emma presents a heroine very different from those we have read in her previous novels. “Handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition” (1), it appears that Emma, unlike many of Austen’s protagonists, is under no pressure to marry into a superior social and economic situation; in fact, she makes it very clear from the commencement of the novel that she intends to avoid marriage at all costs. While the reader finds Fanny Price and the Bennett sisters constantly searching for a proper match, Emma turns to facilitating proper matches for others. How do Emma’s views of marriage differ from the heroines that came before her? What message do you think Austen is attempting to give us from Emma’s initial choice to remain single? Is Austen criticizing Emma for her unorthodox beliefs or simply recognizing that with high class distinction comes the privilege of independence? How does this message change when Emma uncharacteristically chooses to marry Mr. Kingsley?
Emma has little in common with Austen’s other heroines, but her character parallels a few secondary characters scattered through her novels. In Mansfield Park, Mary Crawford is an accomplished socialite described as “remarkably pretty” (32) and, with twenty-thousand pounds, financially stable. Miss Crawford is one of Austen’s only young, female characters other than Emma who possess good societal standing, wealth and beauty from the beginning of her respective novel. While a fundamental difference exists between the two characters in that Miss Crawford is actively pursuing marriage, her similarity to Emma cannot be overlooked. Do you agree that marked similarities exist between these two characters? If so, how is Austen commenting on marriage given the different positions that Mary Crawford and Emma Woodhouse take on the subject?
Emma’s tendency toward matchmaking reflects the meddlesome and frivolous Mrs. Bennett of Pride and Prejudice. Upon hearing word of “a young man of large fortune from the north of England” (1) is coming to Netherfield, Mrs. Bennett’s mind immediately snaps into matchmaking mode for her four daughters.  This moment calls to mind Emma’s tendency toward fixing up “proper” marriages – the first of which the reader finds herself in as the novel opens. Emma continues this matchmaking with Harriet Smith, providing her with guidance of social decorum that mimics the role of a governess. It seems odd that Emma would take such a motherly role toward Harriet when she was under no such obligation. Characters such Miss Taylor and Jane Fairfax had no other financial option than working as governesses. Why do you think Emma take on such a motherly role with Harriet Smith? How does her treatment of Harriet relate to Mrs. Bennett’s treatment of her daughters? Does Emma consider influencing others a leisurely activity or is it meant to show her own unconscious desire to marry? How do Emma’s actions toward matchmaking change throughout the novel and how does this correspond to her motherly treatment toward Harriet?


  1. I do not think we are meant to be critical of Emma merely because she initially wishes to remain single. Indeed, she has the financial security to do so, for her inheritance of 30,000 pounds (1,500 per year), compared to Elizabeth Bennet’s 1,000 pounds (40 per year), ensures her a comfortable and independent living (Appendix A: Rank and Social Status in Oxford World’s Classics editions of Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility). It is also notable that Emma is open and honest about her situation, for she tells Harriet, “‘I have none of the usual inducements to marry. Were I to fall in love; indeed, it would be a different thing! But I never have been in love; it is not my way, and do not think I ever shall. And, without love, I am sure I should be a fool to change a such a situation as mine’” (82). While I therefore think it is important to recognize the influence of Emma’s financial independence on her views of marriage, especially in comparison to most of Austen’s other heroines, I do not feel the contrast was designed to invite criticism of Emma based on her fortunate circumstances. Rather, one might argue that she is admirable in her proposed decision not to pursue marriage without love, and that she instead invests herself in the marriages of others, even if her matchmaking attempts for Harriet are misguided.

    However, I think her approach to marriage with Mr. Knightley invites some criticism of her beliefs. While her earlier assertion would seem to suggest that she marries Mr. Knightley out of love, such affection is not made obvious. Instead, as we discussed in class, the free indirect discourse utilized by the narrator makes Emma’s intentions ambiguous. The statement that “Mr.Knightley must marry no one but herself” is open to interpretation: is it a romantic realization of fate or an assertion of a right based on social norms? (382) Unfortunately, other aspects of Emma’s behavior point to the latter, for her teasing of Miss Bates, reluctance to attend the Cole’s party, and belief that marriage to Harriet would be a “debasement” to Mr. Knightley, all indicate that Emma is highly aware of social order and believes that it “must” be maintained (387). Such a view is almost reminiscent of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who wants her daughter to marry Mr. Darcy not out of love or benefit, but merely because “they are destined for each other by the voice of every member of their respective houses’” (337).

    Perhaps, then, Emma’s marriage to Mr. Knightley provides a look into the self-induced social stasis of someone from upper classes and the reasoning behind her choices. Emma may have indeed married Mr. Knightley to combat change in her social circle. This trait, like her wealth, was likely inherited from her father, who is “fond of everybody that he was used to, and hating to part with them; hating change of every kind” (9). Emma takes this resistance even further, for as we again discussed in class, she enjoys being mistress of her father’s house and similarly must be “first with Mr. Knightley, first in interest and affection” (389). Thus, Emma’s high social status seems to carry over into her social circle, for she desires to maintain her place in people’s attentions. It is perhaps this self-centered trait that invites the most critical thought, for it seems to separate Emma's ultimate views of marriage from those of Austen’s other heroines, even more than their differences in wealth. The question therefore remains: are Emma’s thoughts reflective of the upper classes overall, or do they represent her own personality, and perhaps that of her father? Do other wealthy characters from Austen’s novels give any indication?

  2. I think bringing up the similarities between Emma and Mary Crawford is a very interesting point. Mary Crawford was a much more lively and active character than the timid Fanny Price, and in some views, could almost be seen as the heroine. On the other hand, Emma is implied to be the heroine, but after all her manipulations, it could be argued that one of the other characters, such as Knightley, might be seen more as the heroine. Another similarity between the two is that both Mary Crawford and Emma were both trying to manipulate others. Mary initially wanted to catch the attention of Thomas Bertram, and then when she instead turned her attentions to Edmund, she did not want him to become a clergyman, for her own sake. Emma is not manipulating others directly for her benefit (marriage) as Mary was, but she manipulates the others through matchmaking, which affects her indirectly with respect to their social group and social rankings.

    When it comes to Emma's treatment of Harriet Smith, I think that she saw Harriet as a 'blank slate' that she could manipulate and transform into whoever she wanted her to be. Since her father was unknown, Emma could pretend in her mind that he was of a higher class, and treat Harriet as such, ultimately leading her to think this way as well. I also think that Emma definitely liked the attention she received from Harriet, who constantly stroked her ego and let her know how highly she thought of her. Once Harriet begins to feel that she is of a higher class, as Emma wanted her to believe, Emma goes back on this, and her 'motherly' treatment of Harriet becomes that of a jealous friend. Her being 'motherly' stemmed from feeling superior to Harriet, and being able to choose who to manipulate Harriet into loving, but once Harriet challenges this, Emma's feelings change towards her, in order to protect her own interests.

  3. Like Lauren, I found the comparison between Mary Crawford and Emma to be interesting and, as Lauren explained, correct. But I also found similarities between Emma and another of Austen’s heroines, Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth, like Emma, is not actively searching for a husband, even though she is under constant pressure to do so by her mother. In fact, if Elizabeth were in a financial situation similar to Emma’s, I would not be surprised to find her having the same sort of opinions on marriage. As it is, Elizabeth has no inclination to marry without love, as is shown by her rejection of Mr. Collins. This shows her to follow Emma’s assertion that, “I have none of the usual inducements to marry. Were I to fall in love; indeed, it would be a different thing!” (82) Although, even if she had not met Mr. Darcy Elizabeth would have most likely married after her father’s death, whether it was a love match or not. Her financial situation would have been too poor and her own common sense too great to influence her to do otherwise.

    Concerning Emma’s obsession with meddling with others, I believe that this is an effect of her not having a mother to influence her behavior as she was growing up. Even her father and her governess acted as authority figures, one was too childish and the other too friendly to truly fill the parental roles. So, as a result, Emma acts in the way she believes a mother may act, particularly when she becomes involved with Harriet. Emma declares that she is going to make Herriot into a proper, educated young woman in order to improve her station in life, but this ultimately fails. Whenever she and Herriot sit down to read, they never get very far, preferring to gossip rather than learn, and the only thing Emma’s “improvements” do to Harriet is exactly what Mr. Knightly feared would happen- she begins to believe that she deserves more than she can realistically obtain. Emma may have tried to act like a mother, but because of the striking lack of maternal influence in her life she ends up going about it the wrong way, simply because she does not know the correct way.

  4. Personally, I do not find any similarities between Emma and Mary Crawford, other than their social rank. Their personalities are radically different. And unlike Emma, Mary initially intended to mary Tom Bertram, the heir to the Bertram fortune. Mary had an predetermined intention of marrying for money with or without, whereas Emma's philosophy is not to marry at all, unless it is for love. Therefore, I see no similarity in their ways of thinking, and thus draw no conclusions from their different outcomes.

    As to Emma, I do not necessarily view her approach to marriage as radically different from other Austen heroines. Emma openly tells Harriet that she does not intend to marry without love; "Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing! but I never have been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall. And, without love, I am sure I should be a fool to change such a situation as mine" (82). Thus, Emma does not say that she will never marry; instead, she says that she will never marry until she finds love. And aren't all of Austen's heroines looking for a marriage for love? Both Elizabeth Bennet and Emma were offered marriage by a man belonging to the clergy, and both refused. In addition, Elizabeth refused Darcy's proposal of marriage when she did not think that she was in love with him, even though he offered her an elevated lifestyle. Elizabeth accepted Darcy when she discovered her feelings for him, like Emma discovered her feelings for Mr. Knightley. Emma is also similar to Fanny Price, who refused Henry Crawford, because she did not love him. Therefore, even though Emma has a more elevated social and monetary position than other Austen characters, she still possesses the key feature of all of Austen's female heroines: the longing to find love and a distaste for loveless matches.

  5. I think that Emma’s view of marriage for herself is different from other Austen heroines, but she still shares the idea that marriage is a way for women to advance themselves in society. She chooses to remain unmarried, or proclaims to remain unmarried, because she is well off in society, both financially and socially. She does not need a marriage for help. Emma is also very dedicated to her father and would find it difficult to leave him if she did marry, which is another reason why I think that she decides that marriage is not for her. I think by having a character like Emma express these views about marriage, Austen is stressing the fact that social advantage was a priority when it came to marriage during that time, with love being considered second.
    Emma does a lot of charity work throughout the novel, and because she never sees marriage as an option for herself, she decides to help other people find good matches that would be beneficial to them, another form of charity work. Like Mrs. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, she wants to make sure that people are secured for life. Harriet Smith serves as the perfect candidate for Emma to help because of her poor status and unknown parentage and Emma seems to also fill in as a cautious and protective mother figure for Harriet. Even though her goal is to help other people, I think that Emma ultimately gets caught up in everything as her plans keep backfiring and realizes that she could miss out on love and Mr. Knightley if she keeps getting involved in other people’s business.

  6. The character of Emma is a fascinating one. It is through her that marriage in the 19th century can be examined. As stated in our class, women of the time had to marry for financial reasons. As seen in Pride and Prejudice, a suitor's financial qualities sometimes took precedent over his other qualities. If a man could provide financially, he could be a husband. Emma is a woman who does not need to worry about that aspect of her life; she will always be financially taken care of. The man taking care of her is her father. He is almost like a pseudo husband in that regard. In fact Emma is as loyal to her father as a wife would be to a husband.

    Then why doesn't Emma pursue a husband for love? She has a liberty that very few women of her age had. She can actually marry for love. But she believes that she does not want to marry when the novel opens. This fact combined her passion for match-making shows me that she is unable to think of marriage as being about love. There needs to be another element to it, in her case it becomes a sport.

    This sport is similar to the games that Mrs. Bennet plays. They are both two characters who either cannot marry (because they are already married) or they chose not to. Instead they try to match up people who are the marrying type. Mrs. Bennet has her daughters; Emma has Harriet. Incidentally, if we are to connect Emma to Mrs. Bennet and if I am to call Mr. Woodhouse Emma's "husband" then both women are "married" to men who are aloof and out of it. Mr. Woodhouse is old; Mr. Bennet is creating Independence for his daughters.

  7. I find it incredibly interesting when Nick says that Mr. Woodhouse is a pseudo husband for Emma, as I had similar thoughts. Mr. Woodhouse absolutely adores his daughter and finds no fault with her; he reminded me of a lover trapped in the "honeymoon" stage of a relationship. Mr. Knightley, conversely, offers up the criticism and unfiltered thoughts that one would normally expect from a parent. These role reversals seem to me to provide reason for Emma’s hesitance to marry and the confusing nature of her eventual consummation with Knightley. I would agree that Emma doesn’t necessarily marry for love, but rather, as a means to make a territorial claim over a person who has held such a significant role in her life. Mr. Knightley has, as Craig has mentioned in class, acted as the older man who has shaped her mind and morals through constant critiques and reprimands of Emma’s follies and misbehaving. I certainly think that Emma does love Mr. Knightley, though I’m not sure if it can be stated that she is in love with him. He seems to be the most suitable person for her to marry, and, due to her high standards and high esteem for herself, the best possible option. In the beginning of the novel, Emma makes it clear that she holds herself of a high opinion, especially in terms of social rank and intelligence. Most men would find it difficult to live up to her standards, but Mr. Knightley, the ever sensible and dependable “knight” comes the closest to hitting the mark. Additionally, I think that Emma is so invested in matchmaking because she has assumed her father’s aversion to change. Emma, throughout most of the novel, is content with her life and her relationship status (that is, of course, until Harriet threatens to do exactly what Emma has been encouraging her to do all along…), and thus must throw herself into some occupation. As Nick says, matchmaking is a sport for her; it’s something that keeps her busy and allows her to focus on the happiness of others rather than the components that are perhaps missing from her life. Though she claims to be in it for the benefit of others, I would argue that she puts a lot of her own desires into the equation. As Kim asserts earlier, Emma’s lack of a mother may provide explanation for her motherly treatment of Harriet and is consequently trying to compensate for the things that she lacks.

  8. One of the most interesting aspects of Emma’s character for me is her fear of drastic change. I believe that this is the motivating factor behind so many of her decisions and reflects the consequence of being Mr. Woodhouse’s daughter. I believe one of the major reasons why Emma does not marry is because she is afraid of leaving her father, her home, her routine; in other words she is so scared of change that she refuses for nearly the entire novel to recognize that she loves Mr. Knightley. Even after she comes to this conclusion, her first thoughts are, “Let him but continue the same Mr. Knightley to her and her father, the same Mr. Knightley to all the world…Marriage, in fact, would not do for her. It would be incompatible with that she owed to her father, and with what she felt for him. Nothing should separate her from her father. She would not marry, even if she were asked by Mr. Knightley” (Austen 390). While the previous comments are evidence that there are different ways to interpret this statement and Emma’s relationship with her father, I would still argue that her inability to accept change is the reason why she fights to ardently against her own marriage throughout the novel. She has the ability to remain single because of her wealth, but I did not get the sense that Austen was creating an independent character with Emma. She certainly appeared independent and strong in the film, but I would argue that her dependence on her father in the novel does not allow her to be the independent young woman many are interpreting her to be. While Emma does eventually decide to marry Mr. Knightley, she still does not move out of her father’s house. So ultimately not much changes with her marriage, except with the permanent addition of Mr. Knightley to the house.
    Emma is similar to Mrs. Bennet in the sense that both women try to get others to marry, but the similarities end there. Mrs. Bennet wants her daughters to marry so they will be financially stable and assured a comfortable living. Emma, however, is motivated by something different. It’s obvious that she likes to exert her influence on others and becomes angry when things do not go her way or people do not agree with her, evidenced by her heated discussion with Mr. Knightley regarding Harriet and Mr. Martin. Harriet is not only the perfect subject for her to manipulate, but she can also act vicariously through her. Emma is opposed to change, but Harriet is open to it. Her affections switch from different men throughout the novel, from Mr. Martin, to Mr. Elton, to Mr. Knightley back to Mr. Martin. This is the epitome of the change that Emma cannot seem to understand or want to experience, but her relationship with Harriet allows her to experience these things in a pseudo manner. I don’t think she acts motherly at all; rather she uses a girl she knows will be easily influenced for her own purposes. I realize this may be a rather harsh interpretation, but I do believe that Emma was severely stunted by her father’s habits and development of her own aversion to change.