Emma Questions and Answers
by Jane Austen

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Please could someone help me describe how Jane Austen's Emma uses class and social custom as a theme and as an aspect of comedy?

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In Emma, Jane Austen creates an entire English village, and snobbery is part of its makeup. Emma, the main character, is a snob with an acute consciousness of her own rank as daughter of one of the most prominent families in the parish. Much of the novel's comedy comes from Emma's blindness about rank when it doesn't suit her purposes. She is enraged when the village clergyman, Mr. Elton, dares to propose to her, the exalted Miss Woodhouse, but cannot understand why he would be equally insulted that she would imagine he would want to marry her illegitimate friend, Harriet Smith. Emma also expresses snobbery when the Coles, mere tradespeople in the village, have a ball. Emma decides she will not come--until she isn't invited, and then the Coles' lower rank fades from the picture. Emma also can't see that she mirrors the pretensions of the woman Mr. Elton marries, both women vying to be first in their social circle. 

 

Emma reflects a world in which social class is changing as wealthy tradespeople use their money to enter circles once closed to them, as well as a world in which poverty lowers the status of former high-status ladies, such as the poor Bateses. Money is never far from Austen's mind, nor is the intersection of money and class. Austen invites us to laugh at characters caught in old-fashioned class prejudices, such as Emma or Mr. Woodhouse, and to see the cruelty of a system in which poor but genteel women like the Bateses live at the generosity of others while large sums of money can outweigh any number of problems in gaining social acceptance. 

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