You Are At: AllSands Home > Literature > Emma by Jane Austen
In today's society the British author, Jane Austen, is probably more popular than she was during her own lifetime. Although this popularity maybe geared towards the many films that are based on her novels, it is more likely that Austen's unique writing ability has captured more and more readers' interests. Unlike many British writers at the time, Austen criticizes the manners and values of the upper class in English society. According to Anne-Marie Edwards, Jane Austen noticed the "corruption of society: and that money took precedence over everything else, so, important values were being "undermined" (283). This is the perspective in which Austen wrote most of her novels including Emma. Emma focuses on the central character, Emma Woodhouse. Emma is a beautiful, wealthy, well-educated young woman who was born and raised in upper-class society. She lives with her father at Hartfield, their upper class home. Emma has led a rather sheltered life at Hartfield: "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" (Austen, 1). Emma centers her life on herself and her father who also seems to have no directed purpose in life. His role consists of providing an education for Emma and giving her a rather easy-going existence. And, although Emma has become quite intelligent and educated, her increasing knowledge, authority, and power contribute to her many faults: "the real evils of Emma's situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself" (Austen, 1). Another one of Emma's flaws is her tendency to concern herself too much with other people's lives. She does this continually throughout the novel by gossiping and playing "matchmaker." Emma is constantly setting up her friends with people who she feels maybe suitable matches. Even though she knows that meddling with other people's lives can be dangerous, she continues to play "matchmaker" throughout the novel: "'that I made the match myself…you cannot think that I shall leave off matchmaking'" (Austen 6-7). In fact, it is Emma's arrogance, meddling nature, and snobbery, which keep her from obtaining the true gentility that she wishes to possess. So, Austen introduces Mr. Knightly, Emma's brother-in-law, who serves as her teacher of gentility and kindness: "Mr. Knightley, in fact, was on e of the few people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse" (Austen, 5). Indeed, it is through Mr. Knightley's influence that Emma is able to grow. Through the development of Emma, Austen is able to effectively criticize the intense snobbery of the upper class that existed in English society.
The first example that illustrates the snobbery of English society is shown through Emma's opinion and treatment of Robert Martin, a lower class farmer. Mr. Martin wishes to marry Harriet Smith, a good friend of Emma, so he sends Harriet a very sincere letter of proposal. Emma, however, urges Harriet to refuse Mr. Martin's proposal because she believes that he is a very "unfit" match for Harriet due to his lower class rank: "'They were a family of the name of Martin…but they must be coarse and unpolished, and very unfit to be the intimates of a girl who wanted only a little more knowledge and elegance to be quite perfect'" (Austen, 16). Emma's thoughts of Mr. Martin clearly illustrate the prejudice that the upper class had towards the lower class. She believes that Mr. Martin cannot be a true "gentleman" because his position in society is not as prestigious as her own. Yet, she surrounds herself with the superficial company of others simply because they are wealthy. With this in mind, Julia Prewitt Brown remarks, "one of the many ironies surrounding Emma's social preferences is that she will not admit the 'true gentility' of Robert Martin…but will sit through an evening of 'everyday remarks, dull repetitions, old news, and heavy jokes' at the Coles' [an upper class family] and decide then to be 'worthy people'" (97). Emma's behavior and treatment towards Robert Martin is later argued by Mr. Knightley, who begins to teach Emma to judge people morally as opposed to superficially: "Robert Martin's manners have sense, sincerity, and good-humour to recommend them; and his mind has more true gentility than Harriet Smith could understand" (Austen, 49). It is Mr. Knightley's influence alone that is able to alter Emma's views. According to Bernard Paris, Mr. Knightley is the dominant figure in Emma's life, and he provides "guidance, good example, and rebuke" (69). Through Mr. Knightley's guidance, Emma begins to slowly change. As the novel progresses, Emma changes her thoughts of Robert Martin, and during a conversation with Mr. Knightley he comments about her change: "'You [Emma] are materially changed since we talked on this subject before'" (Austen, 373). This incident effectively persuades Austen's message about the snobbery of society. She uses Emma to represent the prejudices of society and Mr. Knightley as the moral norm.
Another specific incident in which Emma displays a picture of aristocratic snobbery is during her conversations with Mr. Knightley about Mr. Elton, a man of great prestige and wealth. Emma's views of Mr. Elton are directly opposite of her views of Mr. Martin. She considers Mr. Elton to be a "true gentleman" because of his high rank in society: "'Mr. Elton is good-humoured, cheerful, obliging, and gentle'" (Austen, 24). It is this superficial judgment that leads Emma to separate Harriet from Mr. Martin and "match" her with Mr. Elton. And, one of Emma's greatest errors in the novel is "cutting off Harriet's warm attachment to the Martins" (Brown, 96). However, Emma is again corrected by Mr. Knightley who influences her to think otherwise:
Elton is a very good sort of man, and a very respectable vicar at High bury, but not at all likely to make an imprudent match…he knows he is a very handsome man, and a great favourite wherever he goes…I am convinced that he does not mean to throw himself away (Austen, 50)

Mr. Knightley's words coupled with Mr. Elton's unfavorable actions towards Harriet convince Emma to change her opinion once again: "Mr. Elton was not the superior creature she had believed him" (Austen, 259). Although Emma alters her views and slowly develops as a person, her initial thoughts and criticisms are truly snobbish and unkind, which was typical of English society during the era.
One of the most powerful scenes in the novel in which Emma portrays the snobbery of society is shown when she insults Ms. Bates, an old, poor, extremely talkative spinster, who is a dear friend of Emma's family. Emma visits Ms. Bates occasionally to bring her charity and company, but Emma dislikes making these visits. It is Emma's distorted view of the social classes and selfish nature that keeps her from enjoying her visits to Ms. Bates. In fact, Brown remarks that "she [Emma] does not like visiting Ms. Bates for the very reason she should visit her: because it sanctions class fluidity" (96). Emma cannot see the goodness and morality of others because she simply judges people from a social perspective: by their class ranks. This leads Emma away from being truly kind and gentle. The readers experience her unkindness during her insult to Ms. Bates. Emma mocks Ms. Bates' extreme talkativeness and sarcastically remarks that she (Ms. Bates) has trouble limiting the number of silly comments that she makes: "'Ah! Ma'am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me-but you will be limited as to number-only three at once'" (Austen, 290). And, Ms. Bates was extremely hurt by this comment: "Ms. Bates, deceived by the mock ceremony of her [Emma's] manner…it could not anger, though a slight blush showed that it could pain her" (Austen, 290). This insult proved to be a very tactless and unfeeling maneuver by Emma, and the readers can clearly see Emma's snobbery and her lack of true gentility. Lionel Trilling remarks about Emma: "[Inevitably] we hold her to be deeply at fault. Her self-love leads her to be a self-deceiver. She can be unkind. She is a dreadful snob" (11). Through this incident, Austen is again able to show society's unkindness towards the lower class.
Furthermore, Austen uses Emma's "rite of passage" or development to criticize the snobbery of English society. She uses Emma as an example of society's distorted views of "gentility," as well as an example of snobbery. At the start of the novel, Emma believes gentility to be simply social stature and class rank, not moral values. This is exemplified through her opinion of Mr. Elton and her treatment of Mr. Martin and Ms. Bates. However, Emma must learn from her errors in order to discover the true meaning of gentility. Mr. Knightley guides her to understand the true meaning of gentility as she is reduced, humbled, and purified. Paris comments that throughout the novel, Emma is educated through a "combination of suffering, correction, and good example" (68). Similarly to the previous incidents, Mr. Knightley argues with Emma about her unkindness to Ms. Bates in order to teach her errors: "'How could you be so unfeeling to Ms. Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman her character, age, and situation?'" (Austen, 293). Here, Mr. Knightley humbles Emma and makes her rethink her rude and insensitive treatment of others.
Another character Austen uses as a tool for Emma's growth is Jane Fairfax, a young, gentle niece of Ms. Bates. Emma believes that Mr. Knightley has a secret love for Jane, and this idea stirs up many feelings Emma has for Mr. Knightley. Through the incidents between Emma and Jane, Emma reaches a higher enlightenment. The first incident where Emma shows her jealousy and insecurity is during her conversation with Mr. Knightley about Jane Fairfax. Emma already feels insecure about Mr. Knightley's feelings towards her, but she feels even more insecure about his feelings towards Jane. Mr. Knightley is always noticing and correcting Emma's errors, and he holds her accountable for her faults. However, he considers Jane to be a very sensitive, well-bred woman who does not make the errors that Emma does. This makes Emma terribly insecure: "'Jane Fairfax is a very charming young woman-but not even Jane Fairfax is perfect.' Emma could not but rejoice to hear that she [Jane] had a fault" (Austen, 223). Here, the readers see Emma's unbelievable insecurity within herself. Paris even states, "she [Emma] tends to avoid competition, to cut down rivals, and to evade unpleasant realizations" (69). Emma is able to learn from this insecurity about her own faults. During a conversation with Mr. Knightley about Jane Fairfax, Mr. Knightley is able to communicate to Emma that Jane is the perfect example of gentility: "'Jane Fairfax has feeling…her sensibilities, I suspect, are strong-and her temper excellent in its power of forbearance, patience, self-control'" (Austen, 223). Emma then begins to realize that she must be purified just as Jane has been in order to reach true gentility. Through Emma's purification, Austen is able to communicate her opinion about the distorted views of gentility that existed during the era.
The concluding scene of the novel, Emma's marriage to Mr. Knightley, is particularly significant to the novel because it clearly represents Emma's purification and her discovery of gentility. Emma's rite of passage provides hope for society to progress from snobbery to gentility. Before Emma's purification, she was overcome by selfishness and snobbery. She was so filled with love her herself that she was unable to love anyone else: "'And I am not only, not going to be married, at present, but have very little intention of ever marrying at all…I have never been in love; its not my way; or nature; and I don't think I ever shall'" (Austen, 65). But, Emma grows. She experiences insecurity, jealously, and an overall purification of her soul. She realizes that in order to be gentle, she must only be educated and well bred, but kind, caring, and loving. So, Emma falls in love with and marries the one man that can help in furthering her growth, Mr. Knightley. According to Malcolm Bradbury "[Emma] marries the man who can instruct her in an accurate reaction to the world" (84). The readers are able to completely view Emma's growth through this "match": "the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union" (Austen, 381). This scene is very effective in showing Austen's message that society must experience a "rite of passage," just as Emma has, to progress from snobbery to true gentility.
Jane Austen had a strong belief about snobbery that existed in upper class society. She uses Emma as a representative of the faults and lack of values of her society. Trilling declares that snobbery is Emma's greatest fault, but she is also unkind, as seen during the insult to Ms. Bates. Moreover, Emma is a gossip and has no problem taking control of other people's lives, and she has excessive pride (14). So, just as Emma contains these many faults, the upper class society as a whole also contains these many faults. Additionally, in Emma, Austen depicts the distorted views of gentility. During this ear, it was commonly though that wealth and education of the upper class provided gentility, and the lower class lacked gentility. Austen depicts her own message of true gentility by creating characters of differing class ranks. Bradbury relates that the characters that are socially high seem to be morally inferior and those of lower rank are "elevated" by their actions (81). Austen's development of characters, especially Emma, is very effective in relaying her message about the snobbery and lack of gentility that existed in upper class society.


Austen, Jane. EMMA. 1993. Boston: Oxford UP, 1957.

Bradbury, Malcolm. "Jane Austen's Emma". CRITICS
ON JANE AUSTEN. ED. Judith O'Neill. Coral
Gables: U of Miami Press, 1970: 78-89.

Brown, Julia Prewitt. "Civilization and the Contentment of Emma". JANE AUSTEN. Ed.
Harold Bloom. New York: CHelsea, 1986: 87-107.

Edwards, Anne-Marie. "Jane Austen in London".
THE JANE AUSTEN COMPANION. Ed. David J. Grey. New York: Macmillan, 1986. 283-285.

AUSTEN NOVELS. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1978.

Trilling, Lionel. Introduction. JANE AUSTEN'S
EMMA. Ed. Trilling. Boston: Oxford, 1957.