The Presence of Art through Morality and Social Roles in Emma

March 22, 2019 by Essay Writer

Not all art is moral, but all that is moral is art. Especially art which intends to improve life rather than degrade. Set in the early nineteenth century, Emma by Jane Austen traces the social circles of Highbury—particularly the life of Emma Woodhouse, a wealthy daughter of a gentleman who enjoys matchmaking others but participates little in romance herself. In “What is Art?” Leo Tolstoy delves into the nature, state, and purpose of art; above all, Tolstoy remarks that art is not art without moral or emotional intention. Similarly, John Gardner remarks that art must be life-affirming in order to be art. Although Tolstoy and Gardner lived a century apart, their like-minded criteria can evaluate any piece of art—including Emma. Based on Tolstoyan and Gardner’s artistic standards, Emma by Jane Austen would classify as art due to the foil characters to Emma who depict proper moral behavior such as her friend Harriet Smith and acquaintance and rival Jane Fairfax; in addition Emma and Frank Churchill are characters which are not embodiments of ideal moral standards but marry their moral “superiors” which fits the criteria of moral art.

In Emma, Harriet Smith represents the primary foil character to Emma Woodhouse. Though opposite in nature, they both become great friends. However, Harriet’s age and naivete grant her more as a subordinate to Emma rather than her equal. Nonetheless, Emma should hope to become more like Harriet because she represents all of the qualities a woman of early nineteenth-century English society would hope to possess; which includes “‘ … Sweetness of temper and manner, a very humble opinion of herself, and a great readiness to be pleased with other people. I am very much mistaken if your sex in general would not think such beauty and such temper, the highest claims a woman could possess’” (Austen 73). Emma describes Harriet to Mr Knightley as if she is advertising her friend to a potential suitor. Harriet embodies perfect moral standard in that she does not push to get what she wants in the same way as Emma. Austen’s novels prominently feature—and often satirize—social standards. Coincidentally, Harriet Smith represents such standard: she is a respectable, agreeable, and kind young woman. Therefore, she makes the perfect mold for Emma to shape. She has an impatient temper and often manipulates the lives of others but still holds a high regard for social standards. Emma depicts social roles as more valuable than life itself, which grants it artistic integrity since Tolstoy remarks, “All that now … makes the social life of man possible (and already now this is an enormous part of the order of our lives)— all this has been brought about by art” (Tolstoy). Art sets the standard for morality—not society—though society can utilize art as a way to set laws and moral codes to follow. The intention of art is to halt violence and insurrection. Otherwise, society cannot function because immoral societies do not endure. The connection between Tolstoy and Austen is the emphasis on morality in society, and Harriet Smith is the epitome of the good necessary to placate social roles.

Another foil character of Emma is her acquaintance, Jane Fairfax. However, Jane resembles more of a rival than a friend to Emma in that she is an agreeable but rather indifferent young woman. While there is no actual hostile interaction between them, Emma does not like Jane because she is envious of her character. In fact, Emma even admits to her envy when “Mr Knightley had once told her it was because she saw in her the really accomplished young woman, which she wanted to be thought herself; and though the accusation had been eagerly refuted at the time, there were moments of self-examination in which her conscience could not acquit her” (Austen 193). Clearly, Emma wishes she could possess the same attractive qualities as Jane. She is not truly Emma’s rival, but Emma holds her to petty prejudice. Even when Jane Fairfax is ill, Emma secretly hopes she does not get better because she did not want to see her rival in good spirits. Nonetheless, Emma never commits any harm toward Jane, because that would be immoral. Art is necessary to inform how someone should act toward other members of society: “If by art it has been inculcated how people should treat … their relations, strangers, foreigners, how to conduct themselves to their elders, their superiors, to those who suffer, to their enemies” (Tolstoy). Particularly, treatment toward enemies. Behavior is necessary for social roles and standards, and morals should not be compromised. Emma is art because art, by nature, is moral and therefore should teach others how to act accordingly to social standards. Emma treats Jane Fairfax like any heroine of a nineteenth-century novel set in society: debase her in casual conversation when she is not around or in her thoughts. Since Emma is a high member of society, she cannot do much more toward Jane, and Austen implements that art does not tolerate conflict, which represents Tolstoy’s ideals of art.

As opposed to the previous characters, Frank Churchill is not a foil but a parallel of Emma. Frank Churchill is the son of Emma’s family friend Mr. Weston and former governess Mrs. Weston, though she had never met him before. Austen inserts an interesting dynamic between Emma and Frank Churchill: at first, they are simply acquaintances but become close friends in time. However, that connection severs when Emma convinces herself that Frank is in love with her. After that situation, Emma’s comfort with Frank subsides to near resentment. Later, she learns of his engagement to Jane Fairfax—her rival. Though her opinion of him levels, Emma still does not want to see herself in Frank’s character, but she cannot help but compare them since “‘ … There is a likeness in our destiny; the destiny which bids fair to connect us with two characters so much superior to our own’” (Austen 567). Emma and Frank Churchill are not perfect embodiments of moral behavior, but the novel emphasizes that they are generally good characters who marry spouses that are morally greater than themselves. Even when he marries Jane Fairfax, Emma acknowledges that Jane is a more suitable match for Frank than she, and that is because while Jane—along with Harriet and Mr Knightley—depict foil characters to Emma, she and Frank are strikingly similar in behavior and matrimony. According to Gardner, art should intend to heal rather than scar: “Art begins in a wound, an imperfection—a wound inherent in the nature of life itself— and is an attempt to learn to live with the wound or heal it” (Gardner 181). In this case, Emma and Frank are the wounds who hope to become better people through their individual marriages to superior characters. From the start, the novel reveals Frank and Emma as imperfect people—not that Harriet, Jane, or Mr Knightley are perfect, but characters constantly dote about their good-nature and kindness—and by the end, they are still imperfect, but willing to accept their place beneath their morally superior spouses.

Between Harriet Smith and Jane Fairfax, these feminine foil characters of Emma embody ideal moral figures of early nineteenth-century social standards in England. Austen emphasizes subjects within the novel such as social roles, moral standards, and little tolerance for immoral behavior. Emma may not be the most ideal depiction of moral behavior, but she respects her position in society by marrying her family friend and suitor Mr Knightley as well as befriending and supporting Harriet, both of whom Emma refers to as her moral superiors. Therefore, Emma would classify as art according to Tolstoy and Gardner due to the novel’s purpose and intention of upholding moral social standards. Perhaps art imitates life, but it is far more likely that life imitates art—especially if that art is moral.

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