Social Hierarchy and Class Ranking in Jane Austen’s Novel Emma

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

Social class and hierarchy are representative of one’s wealth, standing, and reputation. This can influence the merit that one holds and the ability to persuade others of lower class in believing in what they believe if it means that the lower class has hope of becoming one of higher classes. Jane Austen’s Emma is a tool for criticizing the social class and its effect and unreasonability towards the lower classes. Austen uses her characters to demonstrate the problems of the usual attitudes present in high class hierarchy. She uses Emma and Frank Churchill to question if the wealthy in hierarchy should even be perceived highly because of their wealth and as an “experiment” of the social norms of attention given to social status. The protagonist of the novel is Emma who is introduced as “handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home.” (p. 5) Emma is already introduced as someone who has put attention into her social class and perception without any background information for the reader. We are given a perception of Emma by Austen as if introducing an enemy to us. Emma shows a lack of empathy to many characters who are impoverished. Austen uses this as an example of how Emma’s perception of social class changes based on the person she is with such as Mr. Knightly who can be seen as opposite of Emma, as he is not introduced as a rich man, but a man who is kind and charitable. Emma would see a connection with Miss Bates as “shameful and degrading” (p.150) living at Highbury, but Mr. Knightly would see that connection with “great regard and is always glad to show them attention” (p. 156) because Mr. Knightly does not seem to care much about someone’s social class and treating them equally.

Austen gives attention to the restrictions of social standing and how it can limit the possibilities of new relationships. In the novel, Jane Fairfax and Emma are two characters who seem to share many similarities and could potentially be good friends. Because they have very different social standings and ‘that their circumstances should be so confused!’ (p. 168) this becomes demonstrative of the harm that having a social hierarchy can do to people who want to mix into different social classes. Frank Churchill wishes to have a relationships with Jane Fairfax, but because of the difference in their social standings they must live in secret as to not upset the perspective of the population as Frank Churchill is seen as such a persuasive figure.

Austen suggests that social hierarchy and class standing ought to be ignored. She writes her character Emma as a person who views social class with much merit rather than a statistic. Emma talks about Miss Bates as someone who “enjoyed a most uncommon degree of popularity for a woman neither young, handsome, rich, nor married.” (p. 15) and seems to care more about how Miss Bates should be treated even worse because of her standing even though society decided to give her “five minutes of fame”. This shows Austen writes a great deal of emphasis on the removal of class system because it can be completely ignored overall, the only ones who seem to ever mind the conventions of hierarchy are the higher class who only benefits it.

Emma also holds criticism for her long time neighbors, The Coles. She describes them as “good sort as people” (p. 203), but she does not view them as worthy people describing them as “of low origin”, and even though they are “second only to the family at Hartfield” (p. 203) based on their class. Emma’s fixation on her social standing even brings out her own narcissism as she starts to believe that people have to be high enough standing in order to actually see her, as if she is some kind of queen. Even though The Coles are increasing in status and have brought “considerable increase of means” (p. 204) as hard working people, Emma still views them as lower because they are not long time high class and are only “moderately genteel” (p. 204) Social hierarchy even convinces people that the age of your class can determine whether or not you are truly wealthy as compared to the people who are born into the higher classes and given respect based on their generational high class standing. Austen uses these interactions to show just how much unreasonable judgement there is in the social class hierarchy.

Frank Churchill is a character introduced by people of Highbury views Frank with high esteem even though they have never met him. As the reader we can only help but question why numerous characters in the book seem to be so dense about the perceptions of certain people in certain classes, especially when they are not even generous people compared to Mr. Knightly. Frank is seen as a love interest for Emma when he is secretly in love with Jane Fairfax. Due to social class and restriction, Frank cannot openly pursue a relationship with Jane Fairfax. Emma is only looking at Frank Churchill as a potential husband due to them belong to the same equal social standings. The principles behind social class force Emma to think about marriage even though Emma does not need to socially secure her place. Frank Churchill uses Emma as a way to mask his secret relationship with Jane, while tricking Emma into thinking that he agrees with the ideals with Emma. Frank can be seen as the slowing point of Emma’s moral change. As Emma begins to learn about how to understand the people she interacts with, being with Frank Churchill is stunting that growth. She cannot see the mask that Frank Churchill wears because it is the only view of him she sees.

This relationship also brings the question whether Emma is seen as a respected figure because of her wealth or because she is actually likable. If Emma were in a lower class would having her current personality make her a likeable person or does class wealth actually sway the opinion of the masses. Emma’s opinions are also listened to by the people of Highbury, even though she is normally wrong, as Mr. Knightly states that the people “would be entirely guided” (p.170) when Emma is to give an opinion of Miss Bates. However Miss Bates who is seen to give correct judgements almost always is not seen with trust or merit because of her social class because her opinion is “worth nothing.” (p. 172) Austen is criticizing the ideas of society by showing this contrast and to how someone who can give completely false information can even hold merit even if their information can come with major consequences.

Jane Austen’s Emma uses social hierarchy and class ranking to create disconnected realities between it’s characters. Relationships affected and disconnected by hierarchy are seen as close calls rather than missed intellectual meetings. The judgement passed by the higher classes to the lower classes are not seen as unreasonable, even when the lower class finally rises to higher classes. The perspectives of all the classes can be manipulated even depending on which you come from as one of higher classes can deceive another just because they are automatically seen as trustworthy even when you know nothing of them.


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