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Social class
Responsibility of the upper classes
Discussion of Emma


It is debatable whether the society that Austen depicts in Highbury is a realistic portrait of the society which she lived in or whether it is an idealized portrait of society as it should or perhaps could be. What is undeniable is that Highbury society seems real; Austen has convincingly created a sense of its actuality. Austen shows the characters' relationships and interactions in the context of society, whose values give their behavior and activities meaning. One anonymous reviewer commented that Austen sees man "not as a solitary being completed in himself, but only as completed in society" (The North British Review, 1870).


The class structure is basic in Emma, as it is in all Austen's novels. The responsibilities and behavior of each class are generally known and accepted . Some social mobility is possible, as is illustrated by the Coles, who "were of low origin, in trade, and only moderately genteel" (p. 190). (Whose point of view is being expressed in the quotation, Emma's and/or the narrator's?) With the increase of their income, the Coles changed their life style to imitate the classes above them; they employed more servants, enlarged their house, and gave dinner parties to which they invited the "regular and best families" (p. 190). Only Emma regarded their social movement as presumptuous; the Westons and Mr. Knightley were willing to dine with the Coles and to accept their social aspirations.

The Coles, be it said, displayed proper attitudes and were neither pretentious nor self-promoting; Mrs. Coles confessed that no one in her family could play their new grand pianoforte. Moreover, the Coles showed delicacy and consideration in sending to London for a folding-screen "which they hoped might keep Mr. Woodhouse from any draught of air and therefore induce him the more readily to give them the honour of his company" (p. 191). Contrast their behavior and attitudes with the ill-bred impertinence and pretentious bragging of Mrs. Elton, whose father, like Mr. Cole, made his money in trade.

In a small community where there are only a few genteel families, there may also be more tolerance at some mixing of the classes than in London or a more populous town. The Highbury whist club, for example, is made up of "gentlemen and half-gentlemen" (p. 182). What is Austen's tone in the word "half-gentlemen"?


In return for their many privileges, the upper classes have a responsibility toward the poor and the unfortunate. Emma not only fulfilled her social duties with charitable visits to the poor family, but also took effective measures to alleviate their distresses out of a genuine kindness:

Emma was very compassionate: and the distresses of the poor were as sure of relief from her personal attention and kindness, her counsel and her patience, as from her purse. She understood their ways, could allow for their ignorance and their temptations, had no romantic expectations of extraordinary virtue from those for whom education had done so little, entered into their troubles with ready sympathy, and always gave her assistance with as much intelligence as goodwill. (p. 94)

With this display of right behavior and right feeling, Emma reveals to the reader her sound moral nature and good judgment. They contrast both with Harriet's inadequate response and with her own scheming, fancy-driven behavior upon encountering Mr. Elton. As a clergyman, Mr. Elton naturally received appeals for help; John Abdy turned to him for help in caring for his bedridden father (p. 330). Because John Abdy had been her father's clerk and was so ill, Miss Bates meant to visit him the same day she heard of his condition.

What help can properly be given to a lady or a gentleman who has fallen in status, as has the Bates family, is severely circumscribed. To give them significant help or to offer money would be to strip them of what status and dignity they might still be clinging to by reducing them to objects of charity. For this reason, Emma and her father sent an occasional gift like the quarter of pork and Mr. Knightley gave them apples.

Does an upper class commitment to benevolence protect vulnerable, powerless people like Miss Bates and Harriet? Does it prevent the lower classes from demanding meaningful social changes by providing some relief for terrible conditions? or prevent their taking actions which would force social changes?


Harmony is a primary value and goal in this society. Achieving harmony involves openness in dealing with others, consideration for their feelings, a desire to please, and a general politeness. It is not necessary for individuals to have a mutual understanding of one another in order to achieve harmony; the loving relationship of Emma and her father makes this principle clear.

In planning the ball at the Crown, Mrs. Weston wished they knew "which arrangement our guests in general would like best. To do what would be most generally pleasing must be our object–if one could but tell what that would be" (pp. 227-28). Her desire was successfully implemented in the ball: "Everybody seemed happy; and the praise of being a delightful ball, which is seldom betstowed till after a ball has ceased to be, was repeatedly given in the very beginning of the existence of this" (p. 284).

To do what would be most generally pleasing was a guiding principle, one which Emma all too often ignored. It applied even to business matters; Mr. Knightley wanted to move a path which cut through a meadow; however, he told his brother, "I would not attempt it if it were to be the means of inconvenience to the Highbury people" (p. 110).

Both Emma, the insider, and Frank, the outsider, threaten the harmony and the stability of society with their manipulations and their hidden motivations and goals.


Today most of us think of manners only as etiquette, a code of rules which govern behavior and dress. In fact, the word has many more meanings. Samuel Johnson, in his Dictionary (1755), included these definitions: (1) Ceremonious behavior; studious civility, (2) Character of mind, and (3) General way of life; morals, habit. The Oxford English Dictionary lists "A person's habitual behaviour or conduct; moral character, morals" and "Conduct in its moral aspect" as meanings in use in 1794. Manners are important in Emma, in all of these senses, and two or more of them may be intended in a particular situation or usage.

  • When John Knightley told Emma he thought "your manners to him [Mr. Elton] are encouraging," he was referring to the way she talked and responded to him and to the feelings being expressed by that behavior.

  • Offended by Mrs. Elton's comments about Mrs. Weston, Emma responded that Mrs. Weston's manners "were always particularly good. Their propriety, simplicity, and elegance would make them the safest model for any young woman" (p. 246). She was both describing her friend's habitual behavior, character of mind, and moral character and affirming her status as a lady.

  • Moved by vanity and eager for flattering acknowledgment, Emma tended to judge others by their admiration for her. One reason she was not particularly fond of her brother-in-law was that he viewed her rationally, "without praise and without blindness" (p. 99). But a more important cause of her unease was based on her reason, not her egotism; she objected to his occasional impatience with her father. In these incidents, his manners showed an emotional and a moral deficiency. Think of the distress he caused Mr. Woodhouse by his callous overstatement about the snow.

    Emma showed a similar delicacy of feeling in forming her judgment of Frank Churchill; she reserved her assessment of him until she saw how he treated Mrs. Weston. She was pleased;

    It was not merely in fine words or hyperbolic compliment that he paid his duty; nothing could be more proper or pelasing than his whole manner to her—nothing could more agreeably denote his wish of considering her as a friend and securing her affection. (p.181)

  • Entering Mrs. Weston's drawing-room, Mr. John Knightley and Mr. Elton both had to adapt their manners:
    Mr. Elton must compose his joyous looks, and Mr. John Knightley disperse his ill humour. Mr. Elton must smile less, and Mr. John Knightley more, to fit them for the place. Emma only might be as nature prompted, and show herself just as happy as she was. To her it was real enjoyment to be with the Westons. (p. 118)
    In order to contribute to the enjoyment of the others and to conform to accepted behavior at dinner parties, Mr. Elton had to control his jubilation at his "successful" courtship of Emma, and John Knightley had to hide his displeasure at having to be there. Emma's manners were appropriate because they expressed her genuine pleasure to be with dear friends. Manners express feelings for other people. They also offer protection to others, in this case from the inappropriate, overexcited feelings of Mr. Elton and the unpleasant, hostile feelings of Mr. John Knightley.

  • Good manners required Frank Churchill to visit his father's new bride immediately. But his failure to do so was more than a matter of politeness; it was primarily and significantly a moral issue, as Mr. Knightley pointed out:, "There is one thing, Emma, which a man can always do if he chooses, and that is his duty" (p. 141). To Emma's objection that he might not be able to stand up to Mrs. Churchill in this matter, he asserted, "Respect for right conduct is felt by everybody" (p. 142). Though this principle was not supported by the behavior of Mr. and Mrs. Elton, it did hold true for the superior characters in the novel, like Mrs. Weston and Jane Fairfax. Emma learned the need for right conduct after Mr. Knightley's rebuke at Box Hill and wholeheartedly wanted Mr. Knightley to perceive her right conduct toward Miss Bates the next day.

  • Emma's cruelty toward Miss Bates at Box Hill was not merely rude; it was also immoral and socially irresponsible.

A code of manners also controls feelings by prescribing a formalized behavior and speech. Martin Price explains, "Such a code provides a way of formalizing conduct and of distancing feeling; we do not feel the less for giving that feeling an accepted form, which allows us to control its expression in shared rituals." There are times when feelings must be controlled or passed over. To smooth over Mr. Knightley's anger at Harriet's refusing Mr. Martin's proposal, Emma tried to talk of the weather, a safe topic and a staple of polite conversation.

Some readers are turned off by Austen's emphasis on manners; they prefer a spontaneous expression of emotions and find Austen and her characters unfeeling. But does following a code of manners necessarily indicate less feeling? Is there a difference between feeling an emotion and expressing it? Is a code of manners desirable in inhibiting aggressive and hostile emotions and actions, in facilitating social interactions, and in providing a safe environment?


Day 1
Austen, Emma, pp. 7-102
  Austen Overview
  Point of View and The Narrator
Day 2
Emma, pp. 103-209
  Emma, Harriet, and Mr. Elton
Day 3

Emma, pp. 209-317

Day 4

Emma, pp. 317-412
  Mr. Knightley
  Women's Lot
  The Ending
  Other Issues
Web paper due (1-2 pages)

January 26, 2009