What really lies underneath those ideas that Jane Austen incorporates into Emma? The novel portrays the partitioned social structure of early nineteenth-century society. Even at first glance, the basic theme of social status is obvious throughout many circumstances in the lives of the families in Austen’s fictional town of Highbury. To whom and for how long a person paid casual visits, who would be invited to attend carefully planned social gatherings, and who a person married all affected social status. An individual or a family could instantly lose or gain honor through these events because, to the characters in Emma, honor was the amount of respect a person had in the eyes of their acquaintances. On all societal levels, the characters in Emma assume that an individual could not gain honor without another person having lost honor, essentially labeling honor as a limited commodity.
Frequently individuals’ casual visits to acquaintances stand as a primary means by which Austen portrays honor as a restricted asset. This most recognizably occurs as Emma, while out on a morning stroll with Harriet, decides to stop for a chat with Mrs. and Miss Bates, an action that Emma worries will cause “all the horror of being in danger of falling in with the second rate and third rate of Highbury…” (Austen 102). This interaction between Emma and the Bates family is a look into the complex meaning of even the most superficially innocent of events. In fact, Emma’s true thoughts on the situation show us that she believes that what is taken as an “extremely kind” gesture of recognition by Miss Bates is in fact a “horror” to herself at the thought that it will decrease her social status. In essence, Emma views this meeting as a means by which Miss Bates would be socially uplifted, while Emma’s own honor would sustain a significant loss (Austen 102-103). As expected, this worry of losing honor to the increase of a subordinate’s honor continues into the more complex social gatherings.
A significant portion of Emma is applied to planning for and having parties. Of specific importance are the planning sessions before the Coles’ and Woodhouses’ parties. They contribute, even more so than the casual visits, to the development of the notion that a limited supply of honor exists. Emma’s thoughts give a deeper look into the meaning behind who the host of a party is and why certain people are invited to that party. Emma’s thoughts regarding the plans for the Coles’ and the Woodhouses’ parties are stated most clearly, so they are the two gatherings that best show this belief in a limited amount of honor.
Among cultures that accept the idea of a restricted supply of honor, it is a common occurrence for people with less honor to invite guests with more honor into their homes. This is done with the hope that these superiors will increase the honor of the host by means of decreasing their own stores of honor (Stum). Although the idea of limited honor was initially proposed to describe a cultural aspect in Biblical times, this concept resonates in Emma centuries later. The dinner party is the route that the family of new money, the Coles, takes by inviting the Woodhouses and Mr. Knightley into their home. Indeed, Emma’s opinion on the Coles’ attempt to gain honor is quite strong, as she thinks, “The Coles were very respectable in their way, but they ought to be taught that it was not for them to arrange the terms on which the superior families would visit them” (Austen 138). In light of the fact that the Woodhouses are one of the most respected families in Highbury and are considered old money, or in other words, a family in which wealth had been inherited, Emma’s goal in hosting a party is slightly different than that of the Coles. Instead of desiring to gain honor, Emma’s intention is to ensure that she and her father would not “be exposed to odious suspicions, and imagined capable of pitiful resentment” (Austen 194). Basically, this party is Emma’s way of maintaining the Woodhouse honor. As complex as this system of belief was, even more attention was paid to how marriage between parties would affect each other’s honor.
In Emma, marriage is a primary means by which this belief in a limited quantity of honor is expressed. Straightaway, one of the goals in marriage for the people in Emma is made evident: they desire to marry someone of the same, or slightly higher, social class. To Mr. Knightley’s disbelief, Emma attempts to pair Harriet with Mr. Elton because of her unsupportable assumption that Harriet’s “father is a gentleman- and a gentleman of fortune!” (Austen 40). However, as it is later discovered, her father is actually a “tradesman,” and marriage to Mr. Elton or Mr. Knightley “would have been a stain indeed,” as Emma describes it (Austen 326). Consequently, Emma’s early belief in Harriet’s nobility had led to an argument with Mr. Knightley. Mr. Knightley, being responsible for encouraging Mr. Martin’s proposal to Harriet, told Emma, “My only scruple in advising the match was on his account, as being beneath his deserts, and a bad connexion [sic] for him” (Austen 40). Emma responded by stating, “The sphere in which she moves is much above his. It would be a degradation” (Austen 40). Evidently, both Emma and Mr. Knightley fear that the marriage of Harriet and Mr. Martin would lead to “degradation,” a decrease in honor for one and an increase in honor for the other. Marriage in Emma stands as the most publicly known means to change one’s level of honor.
Social status remains a prominent theme in Emma, and though it contributes much to the plot, there is more to be understood beyond the surface of this theme. More can be learned about the culture shown in Emma by delving deeper into what people actually believed was occurring when social status was altered. Chatting with a friend, hosting a party, and marrying somebody are all purposed to affect social status. In Emma, honor is transferred relationally. Crucially, the people in Emma held strongly onto the idea that one could not create, but only lose or gain, honor.
Austen, Jane. Emma. Dover Publications, Inc., 1999. Print.
Stum, Jake. "Honor and Shame." BIBL 110: Message of the New Testament. Lee University. Cleveland, TN. 28 Aug 2013. Lecture