Emma is a big mish-mash of funny stuff, love, funny stuff, growing up, and more funny stuff. We could call it high jinks with a good dose of heartbreak. In fact, we think we will. Watching Emma grow up and fall in love is only part of the fun of this novel – largely because it takes Emma such a very long time to figure out how misguided she’s been. Emma’s not the only misguided one, though – Austen seems to be suggesting that we’re all fools when it comes to love. We know, that’s a bit cliché – but in case you haven’t noticed, Austen tends to love clichés. At the very least, they’re funny. And they might even turn out to be true.
So that covers why we think that this is a coming-of-age romance. Emma grows up a bit and she marries Mr. Knightley. But why a satire? Well, we’re glad you asked. Satires often offer detailed, witty criticisms of people, places, or social systems. Irony is usually a key component of satire – and it’s Jane Austen’s trademark, so that’s a good sign that we’re dealing with some form of satire here (see our discussion of this in "Tone"). But what (or who) is being satirized? Well, we could say Mrs. Elton. After all, she’s so over-the-top annoying that she gives pretty much all people with newly-acquired wealth a bad name. We could even argue that Austen directs her satirical wit at Emma – after all, it’s the fatal combination of Emma’s boredom, her wealth, and her intelligence which lands her in so many predicaments. A poor woman wouldn’t have time to plan matches. A less intelligent woman wouldn’t be able to argue her way out of tight spots. A busy woman wouldn’t have time to waste on Harriet. Added together, however, Austen’s handling of Emma’s faults could be seen as a critique of the upper classes, who cause trouble as a direct result of their lack of occupation.
We could also argue that Austen’s satirizing English society as a whole. After all, as Emma often reflects, there are only so many occupations which a woman can undertake. She informs Harriet that she doesn’t need to marry, because nothing in her daily habits would really change. As she says, "Woman's usual occupations of hand and mind will be as open to me then as they are now; or with no important variation. If I draw less, I shall read more; if I give up music, I shall take to carpet-work." That sounds great, doesn’t it? Oh, wait, it doesn’t. And Austen doesn’t mean us to think it does. C’mon, Emma doing carpet-work? We already know that drawing and playing piano bore her.
We’ve talked a lot about society’s opinions of, well, everything. This is a HUGE focus of Austen’s satire. Why is it that everybody gossips about everybody else? Why do people pay social calls on people they don’t even like? Why are manners so ridiculously important? Aren’t they really just ridiculous? Well, yes. Oftentimes they are.
If Austen is ridiculing Highbury as a whole, then, is she always poking fun at her characters? Can we take anything she says seriously? Well, we honestly don’t know. She does seem to have some affection for her characters – she takes the time, for example, to show us how good Emma is to her father and to the poor. That doesn’t mean that Emma isn’t above criticism, just that she’s got some pretty good aspects to her character, as well. We like to think of satire as a sort of blazing fire: it burns away lots of the ridiculous stuff that cloaks characters, but that allows the truly human and respectable aspects of their roles to shine through. Also, it’s good for a laugh.