What are the most significant characteristics of cultural criticism in the light of the novel Emma?
Cultural criticism is a branch of theory that takes culture and context as its defining quality. When exploring this novel through the lenses of cultural criticism, we therefore need to be aware of how Austen explores the context and culture of her time and how this culture is presented. This can easily be seen is we examine the theme of marriage in this excellent novel. Consider how the story presents us with a series of marriages that have either just happened or are eagerly anticipated. Socially, what is key to realise is that each marriage consolidates the social status of at least one of the parties. Life in Austen's era was all about social status, which was a product of wealth, background and reputation. Marriage became a vital and important way in which you were able to raise your social status, and this was particularly relevant for women, who, because of their gender, were unable to improve their social status through hard work like men could.
However, clearly the novel suggests that trying to marry too far above yourself can only lead to trouble. Mr. Weston's marriage to Miss Churchill, for example, represented an increase in social status for him, as he is a tradesman, yet the unbalanced nature of their relationship caused significant problems for them both. In the same way, Emma is forced to realise that Harriet, her friend who she tries to marry off to various males, is best off marrying somebody nearer to her own social position. Consider what Emma realises when she discovers that far from showing interest in Harriet, Mr. Elton has been courting her:
The first error, and the worst, lay at her door. It was foolish, it was wrong, to take so active a part in bringing any two people together. It was adventuring too far, assuming too much, making light of what ought to be serious—a trick of what ought to be simple. She was quite concerned and ashamed, and resolved to do such things no more.
Emma is forced to realise that improving one's social status needs to be done carefully and gradually. It is not easy to quit one's social sphere in order to rise up the ladder of society and at the same time remain happy and contented. Looking at the issue of marriage through the lenses of social criticism exposes just how different marriage was back in Austen's time and makes us reflect on the difference in our time.