This is the final part of three blog posts about Emma by Jane Austen. Part I delved into the novel’s incredible narration and structure. Part II focused on its characters. Here, I will discuss the themes and values of Emma.
Disclaimer: Heavy spoilers. If you haven’t read Emma, you may not want to continue reading.
Emma, the themes
The impression a book makes on a bibliophile is twofold: technical and personal. Technically, Emma is a faultless novel. But ask any reader and you would find that their favorite books are ones that affect them emotionally, on a personal level. And what is more personal than your values?
Since the story of Emma revolves around Highbury and its social pecking order, it goes without saying that the prominence of social status is an important theme of the novel. Your socioeconomic class dictated the numerous laws and etiquette you must adhere to. Case in point, who the Coles could invite to dinner parties and how. Etiquette was different when inviting the Bateses (social inferiors) vs. the Woodhouses (class superiors).
Social status is also a major, if not the most crucial, factor in determining who you would marry.
All this is accurate to its time, but you would be a fool to think (at least some of) it doesn’t apply to contemporary times. The socioeconomic backgrounds we were born into shape a lot of our lives and identities.
Emma is a novel preoccupied with who constituted your “equal”. Some examples below:
- Mr. Knightley disliked the unequal friendship between Emma and Harriet. He accurately perceived that Harriet’s mildness and awe of Emma would flatter the latter and exacerbate her tendency towards self-indulgence.
- Mr. Elton was outraged that Emma presumed Harriet to be an adequate romantic match for him.
Not only did the novel raise the question of social equals, it also asked, “who is your equal marriage partner?” I was delighted that the narrative took time to explore how equal was never just about social class and status. You want to spend your life with people who are your equal in wit, discernment, and character. Part of Emma Woodhouse’s journey in the novel was understanding the difference between surface and character.
And yet. I didn’t always like how the themes of class and status were handled in Emma. Sometimes the idea that equality came from character got muddled in the novel, at times the idea even lost out to the superficial – reestablishing the notion that that your “place” is defined by your birth. It didn’t sit right with me. The status you were born into should never eclipse your character as a person.
Nowhere was this most seen than in the disintegration of Emma and Harriet’s friendship near the novel’s end. Emma’s growing coldness was likely meant to show romantic jealousy rather than class-consciousness, but it made me sad that their friendship pretty much dissipated after they both got their romantic happy endings.
It’s not that I don’t understand how Emma and Harriet were actually ill-matched. Both are essentially good people with good hearts, but their traits blocked each other’s improvement. Harriet’s final match really was what was best for her.
Yet the marked distancing from Harriet in the novel’s final chapter, especially with Emma’s narration, was jarring. In the majority of the book, both girls were so warm and effusive in their affection towards each other.
It is difficult to believe that Jane Austen, with all her writing talent, subversive wit, and pointed commentary, didn’t mean at least some of this ‘Harriet married what was good for her. So did Emma. Let’s stop them intermingling now’ deliberately. It was compounded by the revelation of Harriet’s parentage in the final chapter, making Emma and Harriet’s connection even less desirable from a class standpoint.
Perhaps Austen was simply being a realist. Or I need to make more concessions to the mores of the time. But I myself am a product of my time and age, and this is the first time I felt uncomfortable with how certain ideas were expressed in an Austen novel. Normally I find her commentary fresh and timeless.
Emma the novel had some excellent passages on what makes a respectable person, but it didn’t always succeed.
It has been a few months since I read Emma. Despite being at times disappointed by it, it remains deeply memorable. It takes a special book to elicit all this writing!
Does my disagreement with certain authorial choices make me wish Emma was a different novel? I don’t think so, actually. On the one hand, you want the books you enjoy to be perfectly suited to your tastes. But I’m realistic enough to know the chances of that happening are slim. You would be indifferent to many of the books you read; that’s just the way it is. Anyway, you are not the author – no matter how well you get along or agree with her. That’s life.
After Emma, I’m only more determined to read more Austen rather than stop here. Funny how things work. I think I’ll pick up Northanger Abbey next. We need to read more cute and funny novels in the age of covid.