Character Commodification as a Response to Class Destabilization in Emma

April 5, 2019 by Essay Writer

Jane Austen’s classic is not merely a story of Emma Woodhouse’s journey of self discovery, nor is it just a tale of country romance, but rather, Emma chronicles the anxiety of its time: the destabilization of the classes. As the Industrial Revolution allowed for the democratization of money, more and more individuals were able to climb the social ladder in England as never before. With the formation of the ìnew middle classî came the blurring of class distinction and the impetus for the bourgeois identity crisis. With so many people gaining access to such signs of affluence as clothing, furnishings, and the means to move farther away from the city, the ability to distinguish the new middle class from the gentry was becoming difficult. From the characterization of the Eltons, Coles, Martins, and Sucklings, to the geography of the setting, Emma reveals bourgeois society’s fear of infiltration.Perhaps Austen’s best characterization of the nouveau riche comes in the form of Mr. and Mrs. Cole. A ìvery good sort of people…of low origin, in trade, and only moderately genteel,î the Coles have managed to improve their means quite considerably in a short amount of time to become, ìin fortune and style of living, second only to the family at Hartfieldî (132). Emma is particularly offended by their upward mobility and is determined to refuse their invitation to a dinner party: ìThe Coles were very respectable in their own way, but they ought to be taught that it was not for them to arrange the terms on which the superior families would visit themî (132). It is only after Emma realizes that all of her friends will be attending the party that she elects not to exercise the ìpower of refusalî (132), but rather to accept her invitation, thereby further facilitating the amalgamation of the classes.One of the more interesting illustrations of the dismantling hierarchy of the classes is Austen’s choice of setting for her characters. Highbury is situated in the country and consists primarily of estates and cottages. What is interesting to note is the status of these estates and their relationship to one another. Most revealing is George Knightley’s huge estate of Donwell Abbey, associated with a lineage predating Henry VIII, and its connection to Abbey Mill Farm and Hartfield. Given its relation in name and close proximity to Donwell Abbey, it is highly likely that Abbey Mill Farm was once a part of Knightley’s estate. But, the farm is now occupied and owned by Robert Martin and his family and is no longer in an inferior position to Donwell. Similarly, given Hartfield’s adjacency to Donwell Abbey, it is conceivable that it, too, was previously associated with the larger estate. This geography is an effective illustration of the fracturing countryside and the dismantling of paternal dominion.Another particularly effective depiction of the countryside’s vulnerability is Austen’s narration of Harriet’s attack by the gypsies. In a passage akin to Dickens’ description of the working class’s uncomfortable proximity to the suburbs, Austen writes: ì[T]he Richmond road, which, though apparently public enough for safety, had led them into alarm.óAbout half a mile beyond Highbury, making a sudden turn, and deeply shaded by elms on each side…they had suddenly perceived…a party of gipsiesî (214). In this scene, Harriet and her companion are accosted by ìhalf a dozen children, headed by a stout womanî (214) begging for money. After Harriet gives them a shilling and begs them not to harm her, she is further approached, ìor rather surrounded, by the whole gang, demanding moreî (214). This description characterizes the popular caricature of the teeming masses of the working class, and it is a further representation of bourgeois social fears. Perhaps even more telling than the characterization of the gipsies in this scene is the characterization of Harriet. Throughout this passage, Harriet is referred to as ìMiss Smithî and a ìlady,î thereby masquerading Harriet’s class affiliation. At this point, Austen shows the reader that Harriet’s class goes unquestioned and that the inability to distinguish class in this society is becoming more difficult. Not only is the fear of invasion epitomized in the gypsy attack, but the anxiety of infiltration is further evidenced by Harriet’s new class ambiguity. Despite her newly acquired genteel addresses in this scene, Harriet is still masterfully prevented from rising too high in Highbury through her appropriation by Emma.Emma, in her obsessive narcissism, appoints Harriet her protégé and assumes the role of friend and guide. But, rather than improving Harriet’s position, Emma’s concerns revolve around how Harriet may be most useful to her and how Harriet’s actions will best reflect on Emma’s reputation. As Emma’s fancy inspires her to invent a history for Harriet, Harriet assumes the role of Emma’s canvas, both literally and figuratively. When Emma is not painting Harriet’s portrait, she is stylizing her character, particularly telling her who she should and should not marry. Throughout the text, Harriet is continually referred to as a ìNobody,î further emphasizing her dehumanization by Emma. As Austen writes: ìHarriet had a sweet, docile, grateful disposition…[and]…Altogether [Emma] was quite convinced of Harriet Smith’s being exactly the young friend she wantedóexactly the something which her home required…Harriet would be loved as one to whom she could be usefulî (15). In this way, Harriet’s class ambiguity is overshadowed and controlled by Emma’s appropriation of her. Augusta Elton is another character who illustrates the blurring of class distinction through her appropriation of signs of affluence. Aside from her repeated references to Bath, Maple Grove, and her relative’s, the Sucklings, elegant carriage, Augusta’s soul desire is to manage everyone and everything, and to secure a position in bourgeois society. In her attempt to move in on genteel society, Augusta is keenly aware of the positions of those around her, and, as a result, her motivation to manage others moves toward the commodification of Jane Fairfax. As ìtwinsî of snobbery and manipulation, both Emma and Augusta take it upon themselves to locate those in positions of inferiority, and through commodification they seek to maintain their respective statures. As Emma repeatedly snubs Robert Martin, the Coles, and others, Augusta thinks quite highly of herself and makes Harriet the target of her rebuke. This act of snobbery is particularly ironic considering both Augusta and Harriet come from mercantile parents. Similarly, both Emma and Augusta seek to take young, disadvantaged women under their charge to groom and improve them. As Augusta describes her intentions toward Jane, the reader can hear the echo of Emma’s statements regarding Harriet: Jane Fairfax is absolutely charming…I quite rave about Jane Fairfax. A sweet, interesting creature. So mild and ladylike…She is very timid and silent. One can see that she feels the want of encouragement…I am a great advocate for timidity…Jane Fairfax is a very delightful creature, and interests me more than I can express.óI shall certainly have her very often at my house, shall introduce her wherever I can. (180-181)Augusta appropriates herself the patroness of Jane and thereby acquires a sign of gentility. Later, Augusta tells Jane that she has secured her a job as a governess with a family of her sister’s friend in town, thereby securing Jane’s removal as a threat. Both Jane and Harriet are relatively broke and devoid of parentage, but their noble qualities and charm make them threatening to a bourgeois society that is increasingly violated by those who possess appealing personal attributes rather than solely large bank accounts. For this reason, Emma and Augusta, in their obsessive narcissism, feel the need to control these women; to maintain their superior status. As the novel closes with the allusion to home break-ins in the countryside, Austen reminds her readers that the threat of violation to the estates of the bourgeoisie is very real. As Knightley moves in with the Woodhouses, it is clear that ìthe small band of true friendsî (313) must group together to combat such a threat. Under the guise of consideration, benevolence, and parental guardianship, Emma and Augusta cope with their inability to manage the upward mobility of the nouveau riche by plotting to maintain the inferiority of the young women they purport to improve.

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