Study Guide

Emma Society and Class

By Jane Austen

Society and Class

Chapter One

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. (1.1)

Beginning with a perfect beginning is a sure sign that things are going to take a detour soon! Most importantly, this description of Emma focuses on the stability of her home and social situation.

Chapter Two

It was an unsuitable connection, and did not produce much happiness. (2.4)

"Unsuitable" because the wife was rich and the husband poor, Mr. Weston’s first marriage becomes a cautionary tale about the need for social situations to be similar in order for love to actually exist.

Chapter Three

[…] from various united causes, from his long residence at Hartfield, and his good nature, from his fortune, his house, and his daughter, he could command the visits of his own little circle, in a great measure, as he liked. He had not much intercourse with any families beyond that circle; his horror of late hours, and large dinner-parties, made him unfit for any acquaintance but such as would visit him on his own terms. (3.1)

Mr. Woodhouse’s small social circle is a particularly exaggerated instance of the sorts of micro-societies which characterize most Austen novels.

Chapter Fifteen
Mr. Elton

Miss Smith is a very good sort of girl; and I should be happy to see her respectably settled. I wish her extremely well and, no doubt, there are men who might not object to—Every body has their level but as for myself, I am not, I think, quite so much at a loss. (15.36)

Even Mr. Elton has a strong sense of how Harriet fits into a social hierarchy. Emma’s affection (and her determination) blinds her as to Harriet’s prospects.

Chapter Sixteen

Perhaps it was not fair to expect him to feel how very much he was her inferior in talent, and all the elegancies of mind. The very want of such equality might prevent his perception of it; but he must know that in fortune and consequence she was greatly his superior. He must know that the Woodhouses had been settled for several generations at Hartfield, the younger branch of a very ancient family—and that the Eltons were nobody. (16.9)

There’s a strange elitism in this attempt to empathize with Elton. He can’t understand how unfit he is for Emma – because he’s too unfit to understand.

Chapter Twenty-One
Emma Woodhouse

I think there are few places with such society as Highbury. I always say, we are quite blessed in our neighbors. (21.38)

Austen’s world centers completely upon a small cross-section of rural England. Even her most worldly characters seem to gravitate to rural areas – as if a small town is the center of the world.

Chapter Twenty-Five

The Coles were very respectable in their way, but they ought to be taught that it was not for them to arrange the terms on which the superior families would visit them. (25.6)

Emma single-handedly undertakes the task of upholding the social hierarchy of Highbury – but if only Emma recognized the hierarchy, of what value is it?

Chapter Thirty-Two
Mr. Elton

If we exert ourselves, I think we shall not be long in want of allies. (32.37)

Mrs. Elton’s "we" is something that Emma wants no part of! The idea of establishing oneself as the patroness of a town is pretty condescending, but it’s also a role that Emma silently assumed was her own!

Chapter Thirty-Three

The change on Mrs. Elton's side soon afterwards appeared, and she was left in peace—neither forced to be the very particular friend of Mrs. Elton, nor, under Mrs. Elton's guidance, the very active patroness of Jane Fairfax, and only sharing with others in a general way, in knowing what was felt, what was meditated, what was done. (33.12)

Two things: one, that social friendships are just that – purely social interactions (without much feeling involved); two, that the social world of Highbury seems to have a general knowledge base of its own. You don’t have to be involved in an event to know all about it.

Emma Woodhouse

I am a great advocate for timidity—and I am sure one does not often meet with it.—But in those who are at all inferior, it is extremely prepossessing. (33.7)

Mrs. Elton becomes the mouthpiece for every stereotypical narrow-minded comment that rich people could make about their "inferiors." Of course, as Emma is quick to point out (if only to herself), Mrs. Elton isn’t all that rich herself.