Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 609
Young readers will find in Emma a penetrating look at one of the most important issues that they face when growing up: the choice of a proper marriage partner. The novelist focuses on her title character, a young woman who seems to be able to ma-nipulate others to do her bidding. Financially secure and well placed socially, Emma may seem an attractive figure. Unfortunately, she is blinded by her self-centeredness and possesses an immature appreciation for adult social interactions. She is given to flights of imagination and invents motives for others in her social circle that fit her preconceptions about their attitudes and intentions. For her, matchmaking is a game, and while she appreciates the demands of married life, for most of the novel she is unwilling to acknowledge the serious nature of a commitment to that state.
Emma’s actions are not simply self-defeating either; she causes pain to Harriet by building up the young woman’s hopes for matches that cannot come to fruition, and she is on occasion callous in her behavior toward other young women toward whom she feels superior. Her treatment of Jane Fairfax, a genuinely nice woman who is in many ways more polished than she, is especially troublesome. As the story progresses, Emma learns from her mistakes, although she is prone to repeat behavior that is detrimental both to herself and to others. Fortunately, she is finally able to come to understand how love and marriage are natural partners; with the good luck that characterizes most of Austen’s heroines, she learns life’s most important lessons from the man whom she eventually marries.
Austen’s criticism is not confined to the young women in the novel. Frank Churchill’s behavior, especially his flirtation with Emma at a time when he is engaged to Jane, is censored not only by Mr. Knightley but also by the narrator of the work. Austen provides readers with a counterpoint to Frank’s improper behavior in the figure of Mr. Knightley, the quintessential English gentleman. Not given to excessive flattery, he is a keen judge of character, a practitioner of moderation in his social behavior, and a genuinely concerned neighbor and friend to members of both sexes.
The novelist also provides examples of good marriages that serve as models for those not yet married. Emma’s sister Isabella, the wife of Mr. Knightley’s younger brother John, is a happy mother of two young boys; the John Knightleys cheerfully accept their social roles, and they exhibit genuine love for each other and their sons. Similarly, Emma’s former tutor Miss Taylor is happily married to Mr. Weston; although he already has a grown son, Frank, from his first marriage, Weston and his wife take special pride in their new daughter. Austen’s description near the end of the novel of the beaming couple and their infant is a clear indication of the kind of domestic bliss that she considers the high point of married life.
In Emma, the heroine and other young people in the work learn how to judge character—their own and that of others. They also learn what is valuable in human relationships. Austen does not dismiss social class and status as important in forming a person’s character; in fact, she is a strong supporter of the system that existed in England during her lifetime. Consequently, some readers may have difficulty accepting her assignment of characters within their social class. Nevertheless, in Emma Austen demonstrates that, no matter where a person falls within the social hierarchy, he or she must exhibit certain public graces and moral virtues to be considered truly admirable.
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