Beautiful dresses, passionate romances, elegant parties, a general state of leisure and happiness – these are only a few of the idealistic views of the nineteenth century. In her novel, Emma, Jane Austen paints a much more realistic picture of the ins and outs of high society in England of the 1800’s. Through the presumptions and pride of the characters of heroine, Emma Woodhouse, and secondary character, Mrs. Elton, Austen presents a stark critique of the social assumptions and diplomatic maneuvering so common of the society of her time, however, by the end of the novel, Austen’s critique is made clear by a subtle foil of these two characters – Emma having been the only one of the two to learn her lesson.
Both of these two ladies, each high in status, display somewhat of a god-complex, taking it upon themselves to partially assist, but mostly re-mold, women whom they view as inferior to themselves. Though Mrs. Elton does this in a much less tactful and more forceful way, she and Emma both view their respective pupils as a pawn to be toyed with and, ultimately, a display of their superiority. Emma’s fancies of becoming a puppet-master begin when she is in the company of Harriet Smith, a girl attending Mrs. Goddard’s boarding school. Austen tells Emma’s thoughts, writing, “She would notice her… improve her… detach her from her bad acquaintance, and introduce her into good society; she would form her opinions and her manners. It would be an interesting, and certainly a very kind undertaking; highly becoming her own situation in life, her leisure and powers” (37-38). This passage makes clear Emma’s intentions of whittling Harriet into what Emma deemed best, not just to better Harriet’s situati...
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...Emma tells Jane her preference of having things in the open. These two situations, back to back, serve to foil the two characters of Emma and Mrs. Elton – Emma coming away the more respectable of the two.
Through Emma and Mrs. Elton, Jane Austen makes clear her vast understanding of the society in which she lives, and she shakes her finger to it. The heartache that both characters cause, Mrs. Elton in Jane Fairfax and Emma in Harriet, serves as a reproach to the gossipy, haughty, conspiring women in her society. Mr. Knightly, who serves as Emma’s conscience through most of the novel, best portrays the lesson by telling Emma, “Mystery; Finesse – how they pervert the understanding!” (352), and it is this advice that Austen makes clear throughout her novel.
Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. R.W Chapman. Rev. Mary Lascelles. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006.
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