Terry Eagleton argues in the essay “What is a Novel?” that “the novel fostered a resistance to authority at the very time that it was becoming a resourceful medium of middle-class cultural power” (20). Being sure to make clear what this statement means, write an essay about either Emma or The Old Curiosity Shop in which you explain how we can see a simultaneous resistance to authority and assertion of middle-class power in that novel. Does resistance or authority ultimately win out? You might want to create coherence in your response by focusing on a particular scene from the novel or on a specific character.

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Emma, in Emma, resists authority throughout most of the novel. First, she resists the unspoken social authority that (despite her father's fear of change and desire to keep him with her) says that a young woman with a fortune must be in want of a husband.

Emma challenges this authoritative view of her destiny in several ways. First, she insists to Harriet that she will not marry and that her money will keep her from being a ridiculous older spinster. Second, she tries to build a woman's world around herself by orchestrating the marriage of Mr. Elton and Harriet so that Harriet will remain a close part of her social circle. In this, she directly bucks the patriarchal authority represented by Mr. Knightley. She ignores Mr. Knightley's wisdom that a man like Mr. Elton will not marry a penniless, illegitimate woman like Harriet. Further, she challenges Mr. Knightley's patriarchal authority—and utterly enrages him—when she intercedes to prevent Harriet's marriage to Mr. Martin—a proper marriage, in her brother-in-law's patriarchal eyes, for promoting class and social stability.

Emma temporally disrupts Mr. Knightley's vision of the proper social order, and, when she refuses Mr. Elton's marriage proposal, she also disrupts Mr. Elton's vision of the proper social order. She enrages both men—both of whom are pillars of authority in British society as a landowner and a clergyman, respectively—by trying to assert her own will over them.

In the end, the authority of middle-class power wins. Harriet does marry Mr. Martin, and Emma capitulates to her preordained role as wife to a suitable man who can act as a good steward of her fortune.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on January 15, 2020
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