Jane Austen had passed her fortieth year when her fourth published novel, Emma, appeared in 1816, the year before her death. Although Pride and Prejudice (1813) has always been her most popular novel, Emma is generally regarded as her greatest. In this work of her maturity, she deals once more with the milieu she preferred: “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on.”
Emma can be viewed as a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, in which the main character grows in awareness of herself and others. Emma Woodhouse, pretty and clever, lives in a world no bigger than the village of Highbury and a few surrounding estates; in that small world, the Woodhouse family is the most important. As Austen states, the real dangers for Emma are “the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.”
These dangers are unperceived by Emma. In the blind exercise of her power over Highbury, she involves herself in a series of ridiculous errors, mistakenly judging that the Reverend Philip Elton cares for Harriet Smith rather than for her; Frank Churchill for her rather than for Jane Fairfax; Harriet for Frank rather than for George Knightley; and Knightley for Harriet rather than for her. It is the triumph of Austen’s art that however absurd or obvious Emma’s miscalculations, they are convincingly a part of Emma’s charming egotism. Emma’s vulnerability to error can in part be attributed to inexperience, since her life has been circumscribed by the boundaries of Highbury and its environs. She is further restricted by her valetudinarian father’s gentle selfishness, which resists any kind of change and insists on a social life limited to his own small circle.
Emma is convinced that she has no equals in Highbury. Knightley well understands the underlying assumption of superiority in Emma’s friendship for Harriet: “How can Emma imagine she has anything to learn herself, while Harriet is presenting such a delightful inferiority?” Emma fears superiority in others as a threat. Of the capable farmer Robert Martin, Harriet’s wooer, she observes, “But a farmer can need none of my help, and is therefore in one sense as much above my notice as in every other way he is below it.” Her resolution to like Jane is repeatedly shattered by the praise everybody else gives Jane’s superior attractions.
Emma’s task is to become undeceived and to break free of the limitations imposed by her pride, by her father’s flattering tyranny, and by the limited views of Highbury. She must accomplish all this without abandoning her self-esteem and intelligence, her father, or society. The author prepares for the possibility of a resolution from the beginning, especially by establishing Knightley as the standard of maturity for which Emma must strive. Emma is always somewhat aware of his significance, and she often puts her folly to the test of his judgment. There are brief, important occasions when the two, united by instinctive understanding, work together to create or restore social harmony; however, it is not until Harriet presumes to think of herself as worthy of his love that Emma is shocked into recognizing that Knightley is superior to her as well as to Harriet. She is basically deficient in human sympathy, categorizing people as second or third rank in Highbury or analyzing them to display her own wit. She begins to develop a sensitivity, however, as she experiences her own humiliations. She regrets her rudeness to Miss Bates not only because Knightley is displeased but also because she herself perceives that she has been cruel.
Far more, however, than merely a coming-of-age novel, Emma also examines the larger themes of community and class. Austen’s idea of community, while circumscribed by geography, ignores physical proximity as the sole determinant of neighborhood in favor of class discrimination. In Austen, the strictures of class determine both the community’s membership and how it works in the lives of its members. For example, there is no community between the gentry and the servant classes, except that demanded of landowners by noblesse oblige. The Coles, while visited by the Westons, are not part of the Hartfield community until they rise in the world sufficiently to socialize with the Woodhouses. Those in the upper class may visit those of lower degree, but the less highborn must wait for an invitation to visit the homes of the rich, although they may associate with them in public places. Thus, Emma visits the homes of poor cottagers to bring soup and drops in on the Martin family as well as at the Bateses; however, these families do not come to Hartfield until invited. Emma herself has to do some soul-searching before determining whether she may properly accept the Coles’s invitation: Are the Coles of high enough degree to be able to properly invite a Woodhouse to their premises?
Austen’s community provides necessary functions for its members, weaving the social connections among them that are necessary for providing awareness of each person’s welfare. We see the community sociality at work in Emma in the frequent visits Knightley makes to Hartfield to check on the Woodhouses and the Bateses, bringing occasional gifts of game or produce. As the vicar, Elton visits the members of his parish, a duty shared by his wife, Augusta. Other neighbors bring food to the Bateses when Jane is ill.
In addition to welfare, another important function of Austen’s community is the dissemination of news and updates about neighbors and friends, seen as an expression of social and emotional caring and support. Weston is an indefatigable visitor and sharer of news and gossip, as he lets everyone know as soon as he receives letters from his son, Frank, and airs their contents as they pertain to mutual interests. Miss Bates, while tedious, is still trying to perform her duty to the community by talking upon small matters and letting people know every piece of news about her niece, Jane. Those who are derelict in this social duty, including Frank, are viewed with dissatisfaction; Frank deceives people about his affairs. Another derelict in social duty is Jane, who refuses to share her views or enter into the general interest in community relationships.
Manners are very important to the Highbury community. Visitors and new members are welcomed politely. Jane, Frank, and Mrs. Elton are treated warmly upon their arrival, despite private reservations such as those entertained by Emma and Mrs. Weston about Mrs. Elton. Faults and foibles of community members, like Miss Bates’s garrulousness, Mr. Woodhouse’s hypochondria, and Emma’s snobbery, are tolerated with kindness. The general civility of the community is considered so important that when Emma ruptures it with her ill-natured insult of Miss Bates at Box Hill, Knightley takes steps to let her know of her gaffe, and she corrects it as soon as she can, aware of the necessity for courtesy and amity among neighbors. Knightley, the community watchdog, also points out to Emma that she is being insufficiently friendly to Jane. Other members of the community ignore insults to maintain good feeling, such as when the Martins continue to be kind to Harriet even following her Emma-instigated snobbery and her refusal of Robert.
Austen ridicules, punishes, and otherwise disparages characters in Emma who insufficiently carry out the obligations of neighborliness, just as much as she castigates characters who display flaws of moral character. Indeed, the two failings are often conflated in this novel, which does not contain dastardly villains so much as people who ignore or misread their responsibilities to the commonweal. The antagonists in Emma are Frank (non-frank) Churchill, who places his own interests in concealing his engagement above the community’s interest in honest disclosure, and Jane (less than fair) Fairfax, who withholds her opinions and friendship from the community to keep a private agreement. The other antagonists are Elton, who feeds his own social and pecuniary ambitions by disparaging Harriet, a disadvantaged member of the community he has an obligation to foster; and his wife, Augusta, who attempts to further community goals in befriending Jane and in organizing socials, but who also unwisely ignores the tacit rules of class decorum that demand she submit to those above her in the social hierarchy. While these characters do not ruin anyone’s life or fortune, they create potential rifts in the social fabric of Highbury. To Austen, these offenses that affect community sociality are more heinous than the external threats of poultry theft and outsider predation.
In Emma, social class is so prevalent that it is possible to read the novel as a primer on the proper observance of class distinctions and the obligations of the upper class. All the problems in the plot are caused by faulty perceptions of rank and its duties. When these errors are corrected and the characters assume their proper places in the social hierarchy, peace reigns. Emma, first in consequence in her sphere because she has a large income independent of labor, owns property, and possesses old and distinguished family connections, must learn how to act her part. High social rank demands superior manners, education, and appearance. As a Woodhouse and the mistress of Hartfield, Emma’s only social peer is Knightley, proprietor of Donwell Abbey and the highest-ranking gentleman in the area. While Emma’s behavior and ideas about the meaning of rank are frequently erroneous, Knightley’s opinions and actions can always be taken as a model for proper upper-class behavior.
Because Emma’s former middle-class governess, Mrs. Weston, has recently risen into the upper class by marrying into a respectable family, Emma aspires to similarly raise her new friend Harriet to a higher class. Emma feels that to elevate Harriet into the gentry would detach her from bad acquaintance and introduce her into good society. Knightley, however, opposes Emma’s friendship with, and plans for, Harriet because he feels nothing good can come from crossing class boundaries; that raising Harriet’s expectations will make her unhappy with the situation in which her birth and circumstances have placed her. So it proves that under Emma’s tutelage, Harriet loses her first suitor and raises her expectations for a husband beyond what is realistic.
Knightley, however, unlike Emma, is no blind snob: Emma rejects Harriet’s suitor, Robert Martin, as being illiterate and coarse because he is a farmer, even though readers find that he reads, writes a good letter, and is polite and respectful. Knightley, by contrast, respects Robert and considers him a friend. Harriet, with Emma’s encouragement, focuses her hopes upon Elton, who as a member of the clergy occupies a social position above that of a farmer. However, Elton, also hoping to advance himself socially, refuses to consider Harriet, deeming her beneath his level. Harriet then raises her sights to Knightley. When Emma realizes this, she sees the evil of raising expectations beyond one’s class and considers that Harriet’s unequal marriage to Knightley, while an amazing elevation on her side, would be a debasing folly for Knightley. Emma thus abandons Harriet as a confidant, whereupon Harriet returns to Robert and achieves happiness in the associations belonging to her own class, from which she should never have tried to rise.
Augusta Elton’s behavior is another illustration of the impropriety of trying to rise in class. The Reverend Elton had married Augusta Hawkins because she had substantial wealth, yet this wealth was only recently earned through her father’s business rather than through inheritance. Augusta tries to correct the taint of “new money” by continually flaunting her relationship to her sister’s husband, who owns an estate. She also tries to insinuate herself into the same class as Knightley and Emma by calling them by familiar names, proposing social gatherings with them, and otherwise ignoring class distinctions. Making herself obnoxious with her egotistical pretensions and her insults to lower-class Harriet, Augusta shows her lack of refinement and manners, illustrating that true upper-class gentility cannot be acquired simply by having enough money. Elton’s attempt to rise socially by marrying Augusta is properly punished by his ending up married to a woman whose attitudes and behavior will always display ignorance of true gentility.
The Bateses, by contrast, were born into upper-class gentility but have lost all their wealth. Truly high-class neighbors such as Knightley and the Woodhouses still associate with the Bateses, while trying to relieve their poverty with frequent gifts of goods and services. As the model of gentlemanly behavior, Knightley urges Emma to befriend the Bates’s niece, Jane, rather than Harriet, because Jane, while equally needy, belongs to a higher class because of her birth, accomplishments, and refinement. He also castigates Emma for insulting Miss Bates at the Box Hill picnic, because as one who was born and bred into the upper class, Miss Bates deserves Emma’s respect. Knightley also points out that as the highest-ranking young woman in the neighborhood, Emma has the obligation to set an example of courtesy and polite behavior, which she has failed to do.
Frank, adopted into wealth and given an upper-class education, is an example of one who can act convincingly gentlemanlike, yet because his adoptive family has no fair pretense to family or blood but only newly acquired riches, still betrays character flaws that show his inferiority to someone like Knightley. Although he has the good taste to fall in love with the refined Jane, Frank’s willingness to form a secret engagement and deceive those around him show that he falls short of an ideal gentleman’s honesty and integrity. Throughout the novel, Emma learns through her mistakes and through the tutelage of Knightley the true meaning of class. Initially, she looks down upon everyone in a lower economic sphere, such as Robert, and respects those, like Elton, who pretend to gentility. Later, however, she discovers Robert’s respectability and learns that Elton is petty, self-serving, and shallow. She learns that the Coles family, whom she considered too lowborn to socialize with, are courteous and kind associates. She at first ridicules Miss Bates and Jane, but at last discovers them to be cordial and discerning friends. She criticizes Knightley for insufficiently displaying his rank by walking rather than riding around in his carriage and by associating with farmers like Robert. However, Emma finally learns that Knightley has such true gentility of mind and heart that he does not need to flaunt his superiority with surface pretensions.
Altogether, Austen is telling the reader that gradations in social strata contribute to the orderly workings of society, and that happiness and peace result from recognizing and accepting class boundaries. Furthermore, she shows that there is more to gentility than simply money, birth, and connections: that true gentility of mind includes personal moral integrity, wise judgment, and respect for and kindness to everyone. At the novel’s close, Emma has learned this lesson well enough to be the proper companion of the estimable Knightley, and she is well on her way to developing the superior character necessary to accord with her high position on the social ladder.
Later criticism has addressed the gender issues in Emma, examining, for example, Emma’s defense of single and independent womanhood, which occurs early in the novel. The novel raises questions about the possibility of womanly fulfillment in a society focused on rank and wealth, about the social construction of womanhood, and about assumptions that women are merely extensions of the property of men. Furthermore, regarding class, other critics have viewed Knightley as an innovative, more egalitarian landlord for his acceptance and incorporation of the views of tenants like the Martins. Emma, a deserved classic, has a rich menu of themes and topics that continues to evolve with modern interests and concerns.