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?