Portrayal Of Social Classes In Emma By Jane Austen
The upper class are responsible for creating friendships, initiating invitations, and more importantly, being charitable to those in a lesser position. When someone violates these social norms, they are met with indignation as evidence of Mrs. Elton not understanding entirely her social position in society. Mrs. Elton is insufferably conceited new money and only has money because of her father’s generation and not even for the most of his lifetime. Her father is described as being a “merchant” added by “of course, he must be called” because the novel does not want to dignify a slave trader as a merchant. The people that give the wealth and privilege is an argument for their own vulgarity. Mrs. Elton is representative of a slave trading family that once again has transformed their wealth into pastoral privilege.
This varies greatly from Emma whose family has had wealth and status for generations and can be described as old money. Mrs. Elton shows condescension towards Emma forgetting her place in society with “all her airs of pert pretension and under-bred finery”. Her character, despite having money, forgets all social manners that are necessary to maintain themselves in a higher social class in society. Austen portrays intimacies in the novel that are actually maintained at a level of distant respect even up to the point of marriage. Mrs. Elton usurps these names even among married people by calling her husband Mr. Elton, “Mr. E” which scandalizes Emma’s deeper language. Mrs. Elton affects imitation by calling her husband “her cara sposo” which is a misuse of the words mixing the feminine and masculine, so she is actually saying “dear wife”. Additionally, she calls Mr. Knightley, “Knightley” which presumes intimacies that haven’t been and can never be earned. Austen’s portrayal of Mrs. Elton depicts the class structure that may be permeated by new money but doesn’t necessarily mean that people can buy themselves social graces that are necessary to be accepted in a higher class.
Austen’s display of Highbury social class shows that it is restrictive of the actions the characters are able to take in finding their match for marriage. Frank Churchill must hide his engagement to Jane Fairfax because she is regarded as an ill match by his family. The novel introduces her character by saying that she “was an orphan” as the first identifier of her character showing her inferior status to the Churchill family. Jane is the surviving chronology of the Napoleonic wars and is adopted by the Campbells. Colonel Campbells’ daughter marries Mr. Dixon who is rich and Irish. The Dixons are part of the worst ethnic cleansings in the entire world which means that their money is blood money. Additionally, Jane desires to be a governess to provide for herself which is seen unsuitable by the upper-class society. The announcement of Frank and Jane’s engagement shocked all of Highbury as they had managed to keep it a secret the entire time. Mrs. Weston states that “While poor Mrs. Churchill lived, I suppose there could not have been a hope, a chance, a possibility” regarding Frank and Jane becoming married. This shows the family’s belief in Jane Fairfax being an unsuitable match for Frank. Frank and Jane’s marriage became possible because of the death of Mrs. Churchill removing the barrier that would prevent their marriage. This barrier of family shows that those within the limits and restrictions of their class are not able to marry those that they wish so easily; therefore, showing that the class structure must be upheld.
Blinded by her own ambition for Harriet, Emma persuades Harriet to reject Mr. Robert Martin’s proposal for marriage because Emma believes it to be an unsuitable match for Harriet. Knightley strongly disagrees with Emma on that claim and exclaims “No, he is not her equal indeed, for he is as much her superior in sense as in situation”. Emma’s attempts to find a match for Harriet fail when Emma tries to place Harriet and Mr. Elton together. The placement of these two characters together goes against the social class structure that Austen has portrayed. Mr. Elton’s refusal of Harriet maintains the rigidness of the class structure and shows there are restrictions to those in a lower status. Mr. Elton rejects Harriet because he desires to find a more suitable match for himself, more specifically, a woman with money which Harriet does not have. Mr. Elton’s rejection of Harriet shows the rigidness of the social class structure that Harriet inhabits, and Emma attempts to change. This is made clear when Mr. Elton remarks, “who can think of Miss Smith, when Miss Woodhouse is near” further placing Harriet Smith apart from higher class society. After being slighted by Mr. Elton, Harriet becomes in pursuit of Mr. Knightley; thus, showing Harriet’s complete loss at her position in the social class structure of Highbury. Emma’s attempts to place Harriet with what Emma deems as a suitable match becomes an issue because Harriet tries to marry people that are not in her social class; thus, showing the importance of maintaining in one’s social class.
Through the novel Emma, Austen creates the town of Highbury to mirror British society. She creates the social class hierarchy to be fairly rigid; however, the differing classes are able to associate and communicate with each other. Despite the upper-class having a duty to manage friendships and be charitable to the poor, Emma’s and Knightley’s reactions to those moments reveals their characters. Knightley reprimands Emma for being rude to Miss Bates showing Emma to be rude and forgetting she sets an example for others; whereas, Knightley saves Harriet from the Elton’s rudeness performing his duty to be charitable to the lower class. Although the classes are able to associate with each other, it is important for those within the classes to know their places in society and to keep themselves within their place.
Mrs. Elton lacks the social graces that are representative of the upper-class society which results in Emma being indignant with her for not understanding her place in society. More specifically, despite one having enough money to move her to the upper-class doesn’t mean that she has the mannerisms or regard for their social graces. Emma acts as a commentary on British society showing how the classes are divided, how they should act, and the restrictions that the characters face within their social positions. Austen displays the importance of maintaining one’s self in their class for not only the functioning sake of society but for those who inhabit it.
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