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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 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.

 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.


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