The Power of “Ought”: A Close Reading of Perspectives and Obligations in ‘Emma’

April 15, 2019 by Essay Writer

Societal expectations motivate the characters of Jane Austen’s Emma. Because societal perception plays such a large role in the lives of these characters, many concern themselves with how they should behave; a fact which Austen underscores by utilizing the word “ought” to subtly express the views of society and propriety. However, “ought” also carries with it the ability to choose to go against the moral and societal expectations that judge actions. Through Emma’s use of the word “ought,” the audience can see her mature from a manipulative girl into a caring woman.

As essentially the highest ranking member of Highbury society, Emma often voices her opinion in “ought” statements, carrying the weight of moral and societal expectation. The audience sees this when Emma tells Harriet that “she certainly ought to refuse [Mr. Martin],” as she feels that Harriet ranks too far above Mr. Martin to even consider his marriage proposal (Austen 33). This indignation on her friend’s behalf says more about Emma than it does about Harriet’s societal worth. Emma believes that because she has taken Harriet under her wing, Harriet should be considered of nearly the highest social class. She entirely disregards the fact that Harriet has no family name, assuming that her own high status could raise Harriet’s rank simply by virtue of association. Though Harriet carries strong feelings for Mr. Martin, Emma’s use of the word “ought” quickly persuades her to reject him. Harriet views Emma highly and therefore greatly values her opinion, but this manipulation goes beyond that. Emma stands in for the voice of society in this interaction. Because Emma so incredibly outranks Harriet, her word becomes law. Harriet wants acceptance into higher society and she believes Emma’s advice can get her there.

However, Emma does not tell only the lower ranks what they “ought” to do, but also those whose status outranks her own. This subversion of social hierarchy can be seen in her interactions with her father, Mr. Woodhouse. For example, Emma tells her father that “we ought to be thankful, papa” to try to dissuade his melancholy comments about the shortness of Isabella’s stay with them (Austen 53). Due to his age and wealth, Mr. Woodhouse navigates outside the realm of societal expectation, and consequently societal expectations have ceased to matter to him. Thus, Emma’s use of the word “ought” in her conversation with her father serves as an attempt to rein in his behavior, highlighting her role as his caretaker. In her subtle reminder of socially dictated reasonable behavior, she attempts to temper his oddities and impose her opinion on him, albeit less forcefully than with Harriet. As the only person for miles that outranks Emma, and as her father, Mr. Woodhouse holds a position where he should be telling Emma what ought to be done. But because he chooses not to fill this office, Emma becomes the more powerful Woodhouse. Mr. Woodhouse gives his daughter the power to alter his behavior and manage his expectations through the word “ought”. In using “ought,” Emma’s opinion merges into the thoughts of society, therefore wielding more weight and becoming a greater argumentative tool.

Emma continues to dictate what others ought to do, even when she does not know them. Both Emma and Mr. Knightly feel that Frank Churchill neglects his duties by not visiting his father. Mr. Knightly expresses his disapproval to Emma when he states, “[Frank Churchill] ought to have opposed the first attempt on their side to make him slight his father,” emphasizing that this reflects solely on Frank’s character (Austen 99). Societal conventions of courtesy dictate that Frank should visit his father, yet he has failed to do so. Mr. Knightly embodies the view of proper society as he unapologetically judges Frank for his lack of propriety and insulting behavior toward his father. Emma’s opinion differs slightly from Mr. Knightly’s harsh judgment, and his behavior does not mar her attitude toward him. While Mr. Knightly harbors resentment toward Frank, Emma quickly accepts him when he finally arrives in Highbury. While she understands the disrespect Frank shows to his father by not visiting, she becomes swept up in his lively character and forgives him his missteps. Emma says “he ought to come” simply because she wants to meet him, not because society dictates it as proper (Austen 82). Here, Emma conveys her personal opinion, but masks it with the word “ought” to appear as the opinion of society. This expresses a level of selfishness as she speaks to Mrs. Weston, the object of Frank Churchill’s insult. In not meeting his father’s new wife quickly after the marriage, he deeply slights her and her place within the family. But Emma seems more disappointed in her not meeting Frank every time he fails to arrive, rather than the sharp pain the Westons must feel. Emma’s lack of sympathy in this situation reveals that the degree of personal opinion that exists in her “ought” outweighs the sense of societal propriety.

Emma extends her judgment on smaller matters as well. She thinks that “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” (Austen 138). This almost offhanded comment betrays Emma’s inherent sense of classism, and resulting sense of superiority. Because of Emma’s rank in society, she feels it acceptable to judge those around her, and her ideas about the behavior of others create an environment where she must always be disappointed. No characters in this story always do as they ought, but Emma still expects those around her to fall in with her personal expectations. While her personal expectations often coincide with the rules of propriety within society, it must be acknowledged that humans are imperfect creatures. Emma herself often fails to behave as she ought, so one would hope she could extend that courtesy to others. She even extends some annoyance toward Mr. Weston when she says, “General benevolence, but not general friendship, made a man what he ought to be” (214). This observation occurs because Emma feels slighted that she was not the only friend asked to arrive early to the ball. It comes from a place of personal disappointment, but Emma projects it onto the whole of society and all men. Thus, her distaste for Mr. Weston’s choices expands to a belief in his impropriety in Emma’s eyes. Because this comment also serves as a compliment to Mr. Knightly, it creates a distinction in class. While everyone finds Mr. Weston a very kind man, does not rank as high in society as Emma or Mr. Knightly. Because Mr. Knightly behaves with “general benevolence,” he exhibits signs of his higher-class upbringing. His behavior does not insult any of his acquaintances, and therefore Emma finds it preferable for society. In this, Emma says that the responsibility of the upper class revolves around moderation. They cannot be too friendly or too off-putting. In overextending the number of close friendships he has, Mr. Weston invariably pushes his friends away. He lessens the importance of friendship by sharing it with everyone. But Emma only notices this as it relates to herself, and turns a personal slight into an offense against societal propriety, as her position of power within the community allows. It does not matter that no one else witnesses this revelation; Emma will continue to judge others based on her own conceived notions of decorum.

Emma, who finds most to lack propriety from time to time, only finds fault in Mr. Knightly’s behavior once. At the ball, she noticed him “among the standers-by, where he ought not to be; he ought to be dancing” (Austen 218). While Mr. Knightly later rectifies this when he dances with Harriet, the instant still stands as a moment where Mr. Knightly does not behave as society expects. As an unmarried man, he should be dancing and Emma sees this flaw in him. The importance in Emma seeing this part of him lies in the complexity of their relationship. He always tells Emma what she ought to do, so Emma noticing him behaving poorly begins to level their playing field. Her maturity begins to catch up to his, and it shifts their relationship from that of siblings to that of caring friends. Their positions switch for a moment and allow Emma to view Mr. Knightly as less of an elderly brother figure and more as a nearly equal member in society. She has grown older and fully learned what society expects from everyone, and now resides in a position where she can judge Mr. Knightly. Although he rarely does anything to deserve negative judgment, the fact that Emma now can recognize his flawed behavior indicates her developed understanding of society. She embodies her rank as the pinnacle of Highbury society by internally critiquing everyone around her. Because not even Mr. Knightly escapes her reprimand, the audience can see that her youth no longer hinders her sense of propriety. She has enough years of experience to know what society expects and when people fail to comply with those expectations. Noting Mr. Knightly’s flaw also puts her in a position of superiority over a man. While this already occurred with her father and Mr. Weston, Mr. Knightly’s age and class make him the closest thing Emma has to an equal. She really begins to come into her maturity in this moment.

Prior to this, Mr. Knightly existed as the only person that could openly judge Emma. He rarely held his tongue in deference to her feelings, and bluntly details her mistakes when he says “she ought to set you a better example than to be renewing old grievances, and that if she were not wrong before, she is now” (Austen 66). His close relationship with her allows him this freedom and it implies the significance of their relationship that he is the only person who will tell Emma when she behaves poorly. To a certain degree, Mr. Knightly fills this role simply because Emma will actually listen to him. She respects his opinion and sometimes will reevaluate her actions based on what he says. This also emphasizes just how much Mr. Knightly cares for Emma. He potentially risks her affection towards him when he tells her that she conducts herself poorly, behaving selflessly in the name of helping her. The use of “ought” creates an interesting situation where Mr. Knightly can express his preferred course of action while not explicitly telling Emma what to do. He knows that he does not have the power to control her, but he ensures that she knows which option he considers to be superior. Mr. Knightly understands Emma’s lack of parental figures and takes it upon himself to fill that role to ensure she does not develop negative personality aspects as a result of being able to run free in her youth. He holds her to a reasonable standard and challenges her. Mr. Knightly treats Emma as a normal person and most importantly, embodies the closest thing she has to an equal. Emma does not have anyone else in her life that engages her on that level because in her relationships, societal disparities limit interactions. Emma fills many roles in her relationships including caretaker, advisor, and societal elevator, but none of these roles stimulate her intellectually. With Mr. Knightly, she fills the role of best friend, among many others. His support of her cannot be paralleled by any of her other acquaintances, even before their engagement. He loves her while understanding that she needs him to fill in the spaces she lacks. Their relationship merges them each into better versions of themselves.

Also through Mr. Knightly, Emma learns that she made a mistake in befriending Harriet. Because Emma believes Harriet and Mr. Knightly love each other, she emotionally thinks, “Oh! had she never brought Harriet forward! Had she left her where she ought, and where he had told her she ought!” (Austen 279). She knows that in not listening to Mr. Knightly from the beginning, she played an intrinsic role in her own devastation. Harriet would never even have an acquaintance with Mr. Knightly if not for Emma, and certainly would not have allowed her feelings to develop into love without Emma’s unknowing encouragement. But Emma only fully realizes her feelings for Mr. Knightly upon hearing that he might love someone else. So while not befriending Harriet may have saved her pain, it also would have denied her extreme happiness. Emma rarely absorbed Mr. Knightly’s advice fully until this moment. Because of her high degree of vexation, Emma interior thoughts take on the tone of Mr. Knightly’s pointed opinions. She fully acknowledges her mistakes for the first time in the novel and the use of the word “ought” continues to signify that she made the wrong choice. Emma disregarded the words of Mr. Knightly in favor of her own amusement, emphasizing her childlike mentality at the start of the novel. This scene invokes a comparison between the person Emma began the novel as and the person she grows into. Conflict forced her to mature because she had never before experienced significant problems. Her overwhelming regret exemplifies that she can now acknowledge her wrongs and feel negative repercussions. She grows to understand that her actions have consequences and that she cannot always manipulate people to get what she wants.

“Ought” in Emma conveys greater weight in every situation. Because society’s perception of a woman often decided the quality of her life, what these women ought to do becomes vital. However, the full weight of the societal expectations behind the word “ought” is never imposed on Emma. She understands its power over others and wields it as she pleases, but very few people attempt to persuade her with what society expects from her. Mr. Knightly tries to influence Emma by telling her what she ought to do, but even then it carries very little threat. Emma has a secure home and finances for the rest of her life, so the opinions of society cannot hurt her guaranteed comfort. Only once she realizes that she loves Mr. Knightly does the word “ought” hold any bearing on her. She finally cares what someone thinks about her, so the expectations of society and Mr. Knightly now must be taken into account. This is her first relationship where reciprocated love becomes uncertain and this forces her to think about her actions. In understanding the weight of societal and moral expectations, Emma matures beyond the privileged girl and comes to care about her role in the lives of those around her.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Emma. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1999. Print

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