On Social Class and a Criticism of Emma’s Character

We all come from different places, different backgrounds, different upbringings. Some of us are more fortunate than others as some are born into privileged families holding wealth, access to good education, abundant provisions, as well as exposure to the many pleasures that life can offer. I think about it as a race. The track marshal vehemently waives the flag signaling the start of the race and the privileged get a two mile head start.  When the less fortunate join the race, they are already at a two mile disadvantage and in order to succeed they will have to: One – catch up, and Two – run faster to surpass. Some people give up at the mere thought of reaching the end line because the amount of effort it would take to compete is heavily strenuous. All people in the race have the capacity to win.  Yet the man-made curse of class divisions forces people into categories that are not truly inherent but merely socially conventional.

Emma has a two mile head start.  As we know, she is “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition…and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her” (Austen 1). Everything she has is given to her by birth and she knows not the real value of life. She can go on about her day dreaming up the “perfect” couple, scheming ways to manipulate people, writing riddles in books, and she does not have to worry about tomorrow because for her –ultimately all will be taken care of. So what does Emma truly know about the real world? As the novel unfolds, Emma is constantly wrong about her intuitions and does not demonstrate a transformation in character. She does not understand what love actually is because she is completely blinded by the gleaming light of social status. Although Emma’s attempt to join Mr. Elton and Harriet may have stemmed from a genuine desire to see Harriet advance in social rank, she is oblivious to the fact that what satisfies the longing heart is true love – not status. I don’t condemn Emma for her faults; she doesn’t know any better. I mean, how can she? All she has ever been exposed to is the norms and ideals of her society which enforces mingling only within same class structures. In Emma’s own eyes she is a hero – saving poor little Harriet from the doom of marrying some loser guy! Emma does not have evil intentions. I believe she has a relatively good heart but overall lacks both the wisdom and ability to discern the truly important virtues of life.


The above Victorian Web link offers some insights into how classes were divided during the Victorian period. I also created a diagram to demonstrate the hierarchical structure of the 19th century. (Though it looks a little small after I posted it here – sorry y’all)


Furthermore, the supplemental reading  found on the above link explains that: “Different social classes can be (and were by the classes themselves) distinguished by inequalities in such areas as power, authority, wealth, working and living conditions, life-styles, life-span, education, religion, and culture.” With this being said, it is no surprise that Emma would naturally shy away from creating social bonds with anyone whose status was beneath her. It was a norm for people to interrelate only within their own social rank. For this reason, Mr. Knightly advises Emma that her plans to unite Harriet and Mr. Elton is destined to fail despite of her efforts to disciple her. And what do you think Austen would say about the social orders of her time? Do you believe she would applaud and agree that we should remain exclusive to our class and preserve superficial values like putting wealth before true love and respect for all people? I would argue that Austen is critical of the superficialities of social hierarchy and she clearly demonstrates this through the character of Emma. Austen portrays the character of Harriet as being more noble and genuine than Emma despite of being plagued by social disadvantage. I believe Harriet’s marriage to Mr. Martin will prove to be more fulfilling than Jane’s marriage to Frank as well as Emma’s marriage to Mr. Knightly because from the start, Harriet valued Mr. Martin’s person — not his funds.

I am a major advocate for equal rights and harmony between all people regardless of racial background, gender, wealth, life-style or any other condition. I hope that as time moves forward we become more willing to breakaway from labeling and categorizing so that the conditions of life here on Earth becomes rich for all people.


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3 thoughts on “On Social Class and a Criticism of Emma’s Character

  1. Katryna

    When I first began reading Emma, I thought that she was a mature character, but now I just think that the way she carries herself and speaks is what makes me think this but she has a lot of growing up to do really. The reason that I question her maturity is because of the way she thinks about social class (it does remind me of Clueless and how being rich and popular was so major to some of these girls.) I think if Emma looked beyond this and saw other aspects of people then it would make her really be like an adult, not just some rich educated girl who can put her words together well. I do agree with you though I do not blame Emma for her faults because as we can see to think the way Emma does about social class was completely normal and expected in her times.
    So far my my understanding of this book is that the writer wants to put a lot of attention on social class and the way people think about it and handle it; I think that this is Austen’s way of criticizing it. I think she would not agree on putting superficial things before true love, I think she was just writing about this society but not agreeing with them on every aspect. For example that is why maybe the situation with Harriet rejecting Mr.Martin at first made us feel bad for her, to express how this was not a right way to go about things.

  2. Kimberly Sciacca

    I do believe that Austen would stay strict to her social classes, from reading in “Emma” it can be shown that she does specify and place importance on social class. Though, we are made to see her as lenient, like with Harriet, Emma puts a lot of emphasis on the class structure of her tow. And it seems that the narrator is implicitly aware that Harriet will never be able to rise to the social class that Emma wants for her so even the omniscient point of view is sticking to the structure of the class structure.

    Gender inequality, it seems, is not so much an issue in the novel as it may have been in the time that Austen is living. There is a sense that the woman still have to respect the men, but they’re not limited by the inequality. If there is inequality in the book, it seems that either it doesn’t affect the characters or Austen did not want to emphasize on it.

  3. Jason Tougaw

    You ask a great question: “And what do you think Austen would say about the social orders of her time? Do you believe she would applaud and agree that we should remain exclusive to our class and preserve superficial values like putting wealth before true love and respect for all people?” Critics have debated this question for two centuries. What do you all think? Is Austen critical of class inequities? Or does her novel reinforce them? What about gender inequities?

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