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Themes, issues, concerns and values in Emma

National:  The landed gentry under threat from Fr. Rev. and peasant’s revolts.  To preserve the status of landed gentry, George Knightley exhorts Emma to act responsibly and exemplarily. Manners and Geniality are important.

In the Box Hill Incident, Emma flirts embarrassingly with Frank Churchill and makes the faux pas of being rude to Miss Bates.

Marriage

Marriage and family are the foundation stones of a stable continuum and all of Austen’s novels centre around the incidents of young people in pursuit of a life partner.  Paradoxically, not all the marriages she depicts are happy ones but they are productive and this is a good omen for future population strength.

At the Crown Ball, when forced to give place to Mrs Elton, Emma declares: “was almost enough to make me think of marriage”.  Marriage equates to status position and power.  Emma eventually realises she needs a male partner to suit society’s conventions.

Shakespeare has already chronicled the gradual shift from arranged marriages to those based on romantic love in several of his plays, especially Romeo and Juliet.

In Bronte's Jane Eyre, Jane is pressured to marry a minister, St. John, because he needs a supporting wife to take to India as a missionary.  He demands that she sacrifice herself to serve him and God even though she is in love with another man.  She stands up to him. 

Class

As part of the leisured, privileged class, Emma is snobbish, superior, cocooned and sublimely oblivious to their suffering and deprivations.  Knightley encourages her to do her duty and treat all people civilly. Emma eventually develops self – awareness and makes the transition from “know it all” to acceptance of fallibility.

The novel depicts the relationships between young people in the process of finding a life partner.

 All Emma’s match making is designed to maintain or improve class status. After realising the mismatch of Harriet and Mr Elton, Emma catches herself incorrigibly thinking of matching Harriet with William Coxe, a pert young Lawyer.

Emma’s snobbery:  “A young farmer, whether on horseback or on foot, is the very last sort of person to raise my curiosity. The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do.

Then patronisingly: A degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or other…”.

When Mrs Elton climbs the social ladder largely because of her marriage with Mr Elton, Emma disapproves: “She brought no name, no blood, no alliance.

Emma’s objective is  to assist a social duckling to find its swanhood.

Mr Knightley maintains that "ugly ducklings tend to turn into ugly ducks".

Harriet:  a mind that never opposes any argument, but is never really swayed from its own opinion.

Emma’s attitudes towards the gipsies reflects society’s bigotry.

Gender

Emma starts out  supremely independent and self-assured, but eventually succumbs to the dominant male protective umbrellas and becomes the submissive wife. 

At the Crown Ball, when forced to give place to Mrs Elton, Emma declares: “was almost enough to make me think of marriage”.  Marriage equates to status position and power.  Eventually realises she needs a male partner to suit society’s conventions.

Feminists argue that Emma’s conversion from controller to submissive wife is a satire on a society that allows her no creative space to grow in her own right.  Given her intelligence, energy and imagination, her impatient attempts to transform a mundane reality are completely understandable.

The institution of marriage is central to most of Austen’s novels as she sees the family as the key to a nation’s strength.

Respect

Jane Austen’s most used word was “civility”.

When did we lose our way and start calling each other by our first names instead of Mister and Missus?

And what about those university students who don’t say Doctor or Professor anymore? In the US, academics have begun insisting on their students calling them by their official title.

According to a New York Times story, “U Can’t Talk to Ur Professor That Way,’’ some academics are including rules of etiquette in their syllabus, and a subtle push to make clear the teacher-student relationship isn’t an equal one. Somebody has to be in charge.

Molly Worthen, notes: “I suspect that most of the time, students who call faculty members by their first names… are not seeking a more casual rapport. They just don’t know they should do otherwise — no one has bothered to explain it to them.’’

Anna Musson is head of The Good Manners Company, based in Sydney. She believes the influence of American culture and rise of young entrepreneurs has had a “pervasive effect’’ on our social sense of appropriateness.

“We dress more casually, speak more casually and in many cases have cast off the appearance of formality in every aspect of life,’’ says Ms Musson.

“While there are positives to this, there is a skill to showing respect and familiarity at the same time which should not be lost. For example, young children are today often introduced to elders often just by their first names, without consulting the elder by which reference they would like to be addressed.’’ 

“Good manners is about putting the other person first, and it is this deference that suggests a civilised society,’’ says Musson.

Treska Roden is head of Sydney College of Etiquette. She agrees that the common courtesy of honorifics has gone out of fashion in recent years.



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