Class and Society in 'Emma' by Jane Austen: Essay

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Those of the lower class depend on the kindness of the upper class and how the upper class manages their actions reveals their character. Mr. Knightley is exemplary of chivalry and graciousness by asking Harriet to dance after being snubbed by Mr. Elton. Harriet is without a partner at the ball and when Mr. Elton finds he is to be paired with Harriet he says, “Anything else I should be most happy to do” which goes against his duty of a higher class to be charitable (Austen 307). Emma states that “in another moment a happier sight caught her; -Mr. Knightley leading Harriet to the set!” showing Emma’s appreciation and the charitableness of Mr. Knightley’s action (Austen 307).

The novel states that “there had been a time when he would have scorned her as a companion, and turned from her with little ceremony” showing that despite his graciousness to Harriet then, he is not entirely perfect in his actions to those of a lower class (Austen 338). As Mr. Knightley saves Harriet, he reprimands the Eltons for their rudeness to which Mr. Elton was “looking (Emma trusted) very foolish” (Austen 307). Mr. Knightley is the dignified rebel of his class as he walks instead of riding in the carriage. The novel states that he was “keeping no horses” and “was too apt…to get about as he could, and not use his carriage so often as became the owner of Donwell Abbey” (Austen 199). Despite being a very wealthy member of the upper-class society, Mr. Knightley is not afraid to walk to get places. Austen creates Mr. Knightley as the perfect and most suitable match for Emma regarding social station and temperament but he is aware of how to act in social situations; whereas, Emma has moments where she acts out of her class.

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The upper-class society was seen as having a duty to be benevolent to those who occupied the lower classes. Opinion is a privilege; however, Emma's insulting Miss Bates reflects poorly on upper-class society. Emma is allowed to stake out opinions on other people because she is so uniquely placed but her treatment of Miss Bates breaks a fundamental rule of social class interaction and reflects poorly on Emma’s character. While Emma insults Miss Bates with a jest, Miss Bates remarks, “I must make myself very disagreeable, or she would not have said such a thing to an old friend” (Austen 347). Despite not noticing the slight at first, Miss Bates becomes flustered at the interaction and comment made by Emma. Emma denies ever upsetting Miss Bates claiming, “Nobody could have helped it. It was not so very bad. I dare say she did not understand me” showing Emma’s true character to be unfeeling to those inferior to her (Austen 351).

Emma’s slight towards Miss Bates sets a bad example for those who would follow Emma and try to exemplify her character. Knightley reprimands Emma telling her that it was wrong of her to be so cruel to Miss Bates especially “before others, many of whom (certainly some), would be entirely guided by your treatment of her” (Austen 352). Knightley’s corrective nature to Emma shows her that by being in a position of higher class she must show her neighbors and friends with respect despite possibly having a lower position in society to her. He states that “were she your equal in situation” he wouldn’t reprimand her but because of lower status “her situation should secure your compassion” (Austen 351).

Knightley is corrective of Emma’s character when she falls short of where she should be. Emma’s wealth and privilege in society come from being born into good fortune not from merit herself; thus, she needs to be compassionate toward those in a less desirable situation. While the upper-class society should be charitable to those in a lesser position than themselves, Emma disregards this entirely when she is less inviting to Jane Fairfax. Emma is charitable to the poor as she visits Miss Bates and brings her food; however, shows little initiative in befriending Jane Fairfax. Harriet attempts to remark on their musical abilities to which Emma remarks “Don’t class us together, Harriet” showing Emma’s contempt for Jane (Austen 215). Emma attempts to get information out of Jane which she is suspiciously and coldly reserved about being open about information. What Emma despises about Jane is that Jane has no interest in stupid details that Emma takes pleasure in. Jane is in the subject position in which she wishes herself in a different universe and not feigning interest. Emma believes her to be unsocial and does not flatter Emma’s need for drama, attention, or social ability. Jane has no interest in Emma’s world and is not different from her; thus, showing that Jane does not recognize Emma’s superiority makes compulsions in her behavior. Jane is emancipated from all of Emma’s trivialities and knows her social class place very well. Knightley says that Jane is the good girl that Emma ought to be. Due to Jane’s social class, she is at the disposal of other people’s pleasures and cannot even walk to the post office on her own, showing the restriction of her social class position. Despite being a governess, Jane is constantly being governed by those in a higher class.

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