by Jane Austen
Emma Theme of Society and Class
Class structures are the most obvious –and most important – differences between characters in Emma. The rich control social situations, the social climbers attempt to seem rich and important, and the poor are at the mercy of the rich. Although Austen’s novel turns on Emma’s attempts to raise her friend out of social oblivion, the narrator mocks any and all attempts to change the social hierarchy. Manners mean everything, and those who weren’t born with good breeding just can’t measure up to those who are.
Questions About Society and Class
- When Emma learns of Harriet’s engagement, our narrator tells us that she can’t imagine it (that’s a first, huh)? Why do you think this is?
- We argued that Austen ends the novel with Mrs. Elton’s opinion of Emma and Mr. Knightley’s wedding because she always emphasizes various character’s responses to events in the plot. Some critics, however, suggest that Austen can’t figure out how to write a love scene. What do you think?
- Is Miss Bates actually respectable? Is Mr. Woodhouse? What determines respectability?
- To what extent do good manners determine social standing? What other factors influence social status?
Chew on This
An ironic tone allows Austen’s narrator to fully explain the workings of a trivial social system as if it were the center of the world – a move which eventually places readers in the position of valuing the very system Austen critiques.
Austen’s novel implicitly endorses the class system which it overtly critiques.