Jane Austen Questions and Answers

Jane Austen book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Please comment on Jane Austen's ethical concerns with specific textual evidence from Emma or Pride and Prejudice.

Expert Answers info

Michelle Barry, M.B.A. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

briefcaseProfessional Writer, Professional Researcher

bookB.A. from Swarthmore College

bookM.B.A. from New York University


calendarEducator since 2019

write791 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, History, and Business

In both Jane Austen's Emma and Pride and Prejudice, concerns regarding ethical treatment of people from lower economic classes emerge. For instance, after Lizzy rejects Darcy’s proposal, she visits Pemberley and is surprised by how warmly his housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, speaks of Darcy:

“He is the best landlord, and the best master,” said she, “that ever lived; not like the wild young men nowadays, who think of nothing but themselves. There is not one of his tenants or servants but will give him a good name.

This makes Lizzy think about the man she rejected and consider him in another light. Austen writes,

As a brother, a landlord, a master, she considered how many people’s happiness were in his guardianship!—how much of pleasure or pain was it in his power to bestow!—how much of good or evil must be done by him!

In Emma, the titular character also demonstrates kindness to the poorer families who live in the neighborhood. One day, in fact, Austen writes that, “Emma had a charitable visit to pay to a poor sick family, who lived a little way out of Highbury.” In contrast, the author also shows how unkind Emma’s treatment to Miss Bates is, particularly as Miss Bates is not on an equal level with Emma economically or socially. Mr. Knightbridge chastises Emma, telling her:

I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance. How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?—Emma, I had not thought it possible.

... Were she a woman of fortune, I would leave every harmless absurdity to take its chance, I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner. Were she your equal in situation—but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case. She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed!

On a separate note, Austen also discusses premarital relationships in Pride and Prejudice, as well as in Mansfield Park. Although the author herself might not have been judgmental about it, she recognizes that society viewed it as “unethical.” Therefore, there are social ramifications that affect a character's family, and Austen provides a social commentary of the time. For instance, when Lydia runs off with Wickham, the author clearly paints her in a negative way for her indifference to how her actions will impact her family.

Their sister’s wedding day arrived; and Jane and Elizabeth felt for her probably more than she felt for herself. The carriage was sent to meet them at ——, and they were to return in it by dinner-time. Their arrival was dreaded by the elder Miss Bennets, and Jane more especially, who gave Lydia the feelings which would have attended herself, had she been the culprit, and was wretched in the thought of what her sister must endure.

They came. The family were assembled in the breakfast room to receive them. Smiles decked the face of Mrs. Bennet as the carriage drove up to the door; her husband looked impenetrably grave; her daughters, alarmed, anxious, uneasy.

Another issue discussed in both novels is the unfeeling way certain characters mislead others when they do not really have romantic feelings towards them. For instance, Wickham first shows attention to Lizzy and then transfers his affection to a girl who has more money. In Emma, Frank Churchill pays attention to Emma but is really in love with Jane Fairfax. He is clearly criticized in the novel for playing with Emma's affections. However, interestingly, he differs from Wickham significantly in that Jane has no money and Emma does.

Mr. Knightley also encourages Emma to modify her behavior towards Mr. Elton so that she not give him the wrong impression about her feelings for him. Knightley says:

I do not say it is so; but you will do well to consider whether it is so or not, and to regulate your behaviour accordingly. I think your manners to him encouraging. I speak as a friend, Emma. You had better look about you, and ascertain what you do, and what you mean to do.

Snobbery is another element dealt with in both novels. In Emma, the snobbery of Mr. Elton is clear when he tells Emma that Harriet is not on his social "level." He makes his affection for Emma known to her and is shocked when she tells him that she thought he was in love with Harriet. Mr. Elton says, “Everybody has their level: but as for myself, I am not, I think, quite so much at a loss. I need not so totally despair of an equal alliance, as to be addressing myself to Miss Smith!”

Similarly, in Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine’s snobbery towards Elizabeth is clear when she says tells her not to “quit her sphere”—in other words not to climb above her own social class. Lizzy responds, “In marrying your nephew, I should not consider myself as quitting that sphere. He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.”

Then Lady Catherine’s response underlies the difference in their social classes, as well as the negative impact of Lydia’s imprudent behavior:

Not so hasty, if you please. I have by no means done. To all the objections I have already urged, I have still another to add. I am no stranger to the particulars of your youngest sister’s infamous elopement. I know it all; that the young man’s marrying her was a patched-up business, at the expense of your father and uncles. And is such a girl to be my nephew’s sister? Is her husband, who is the son of his late father’s steward, to be his brother? Heaven and earth!—of what are you thinking? Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?

This is in contrast to Mr. Bingley's conduct. Mr. Bennet specifically is impressed with Bingley's lack of snobbery. When Bingley comes to ask for Jane’s hand in marriage, the author discloses Mr. Bennet’s thoughts:

There was nothing of presumption or folly in Bingley that could provoke his ridicule, or disgust him into silence.

check Approved by eNotes Editorial