What is Jane Austen's attitude towards love and marriage in Emma?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Central to understanding this excellent and witty novel is recognising the very different way in which marriage was though of in Austen's day. Marriage was linked inextricably to social status. Marriage was one way in which women in particular could raise their social status, as they were unable to raise their status through a profession or personal achievement. Thus the novel is based around a series of marriages that have either just happened or are eagerly anticipated. However, the novel seems to suggest, marrying too far above your own social sphere is something that can bring sadness and strife. Mr. Weston's first marriage to Miss Churchill represented a rise in social status for him, but also resulted in a rather unhappy marriage due to the inequality of social position between them. Mr. Weston's second marriage is much happier because both come from a similar social position. This is of course also something seen by Emma's misguided attempts to match Harriet with Mr. Elton, which other characters see as foolish, and which Emma herself recognises was the wrong thing to do. Note how Mr. Elton responds to Emma's suggestion that he liked Harriet:

Miss Smith is a very good sort of girl; and I should be happy to see her respectably settled. I wish her extremely well and, no doubt, there are men who might not object to—Everybody has their level but as for myself, I am not, I think, quite so much at a loss.

Mr. Elton is very clear about the "level" of Harriet and his own level, which do not, in his perspective, connect in any way. Emma's affection and determination blind her to the social realities of Emma's position. Austen seems to suggest therefore that marriage is best when it is between two social equals, as is the case between Emma and Mr. Knightley.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Could you explain Jane Austen’s own attitude toward love and marriage in Emma?

Suffice it to say that no character who marries for status or for financial gain is portrayed as having a happy marriage in Jane Austen's novels. The imprudence of marrying for security is shown many times as responsible for unhappy marriages where a couple tolerate each other, but grow more and more aware of their lack of love for one another.

The social stigma of marrying above or below one's social circle is a constant theme causing turmoil in her character's lives. Think how characters who marry above their circle are portrayed (are you led to like or dislike them?).

In Emma, I think that we are led to like characters who marry for love regardless of social rank, but be wary of characters who marry to gain rank. It would not be wise, in my opinion to assert that Jane Austen promotes marriage outside rank (Mr. Knightley reminds Emma of Harriet's lack of rank and warns that she ought not become too puffed up in her marital hopes. Since his reasoning is portrayed as clearer than Emma's, his would seem to be the opinion the author intends to emphasize as the norm.).

If you see examples clearly in opposition to this, cite them and stun your professor.  :)

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on