Jane Austen's presentation of character and situation in "Emma". The relative importance of "gentility", "property" and "love" in the author's scheme of values

Essay, 1989

7 Pages, Grade: A


Illustrating your answer by referring to Jane Austen’s presentation of character and situation in Emma assess the relative importance of “gentility” “property” and “love” in the author's scheme of values.

Jane Austen was notably often considered a child more of the eighteenth century than of the nineteenth century. Most of her novels affirm the presence of an orderly society and its entrenched values. She valued universal and fundamental conventions such as consideration for others, good principles, and good judgement. In the novel Emma, Jane Austen demonstrates great concern for the stability of old values in the rapidly changing Highbury society. Her world comprises the traditional feudal systems with the landowners and yeomanry undergoing a transitional phase in its social structure. The community faces a new rising middle-class sector, which makes its money utilizing business and trade and would like the prestige of the gentry’s class. The new class also threatens the traditional hierarchy of the old gentry. The gentry’ class is the custodian of gentility and it must always observe the code for the sake of order. As such, Austen’s heroine Emma, of the old gentry is one of the dominating figures in the novel; who ultimately reconciles to her leadership position in society and her role as an exemplary female.

In this society, the value placed on gentility seems to exceed that of property and love. The value associated with love is subtly underrated as compared to the values of gentility and property. The pivotal events of the novel concern the marriage of young women to men and in this regard, the integration of the values of property, gentility, and love, is of prime importance. A perfect union forms only when these three values coalesce between the couple. There is sometimes much ambiguity in assessing the relative importance of these values to the author, as Austen unfolds unobtrusively several points of view in the novel. Moreover, she sometimes inserts herself into the landscape of the text. As such, Austen is portrayed dually as a figure of paradox and a Victorian writer of romance. The novel presents the lifestyle and culture of the bourgeois featuring the idiosyncrasies of their dinners, balls, social gatherings, word games, and gossip.

Jane Austen, it seems ultimately valued gentility above all else, gentility as a matter of respectability, politeness, good manners, common sense, good judgement, and moreover self-restraint in her men and women. As a moralist, these qualities were not only imbued in the nobility by birth but are qualities which all males and females could consciously aspire. Thus, Robert Martin who is a humble farmer could possess as Mr. Knightley notes “gentility of mind.” Also, Jane Fairfax an orphan achieves “gentility of mind” despite non-gentility at birth. Jane brought up by Colonel and Mrs. Campbell matures to be an elegant and an accomplished young woman in music and reading. She also observes the mandatory reserve and decorum of a lady. Miss Fairfax often outshines the heroine Emma in her observance of the codes of gentility. Mr. Knightley is the quintessential man of gentility in Austen’s view. The novel develops into a dialectic concerning gentility of blood and gentility of mind. Emma, mistress of Hartfield often depicts merely bourgeoisie gentility concerned only about elegance, segregation of classes and the outer finery and paraphernalia of the wealthy. Consequently, she is for the greater part of the novel a snob and a governor of other people’s lives. Emma is opposed to the notion of an egalitarian society. She only accommodates people of the lower class such as Harriet Smith, Mr. and Mrs. Weston when she can be patronizing to them. Emma dreads classification as belonging to, “the second and third rate society of Highbury.” Mr. Knightly, a paragon of gentility opposes her non-accommodation of the other classes and is often considered as representing Austen’s view. Austen thus seems to condemn this malignant and closed gentility. Hence, she characterizes Emma as a blundering fool in the novel. She occupies her protagonist in schemes that are successively failures. Therefore, Emma is portrayed as a charming fool. Paradoxically, however, she depicts perfect gentility; good manners and her sense of propriety as concerns members of the Hartfield’s, Randall’s and Donwell's, society. This portrayal is best exemplified in the respect; the heroine pays to her father serving his every whim and fancy. Additionally, it is demonstrated in the respect she shows to John Knightley and the refined opposition she offers to the vulgar Mrs. Elton. Thus, there is a noted inconsistency in Austen’s presentation of her vision of gentility. Moreover, Emma is increasingly crafted as attractive, as Austen surrounds her with fools like Mrs. Bates and Mrs. Elton.

Persons who have property but are lacking in gentility are characterized as doubly intolerable. Hence, it seems that Austen places greater importance on gentility than on property. This preference is demonstrated clearly in the vulgar personality of Mrs. Elton. The later, born into the gentry and always a figure of finery is an insufferable woman and the acme of snobbishness in Highbury society. She is often insensitive to the needs of others and thinks only of her importance. She wishes to officiate at every ball and social gathering. Mrs. Elton in a sense has usurped Emma’s position as the centre of attention at Highbury.

Austen is also very much concerned with gentility as a matter of restraint of one’s emotion and passion. Her world is a world of order and control in which the gentry must forever wear the mask of calm and contentment. The scene at Mrs. Weston’s Christmas party exemplifies this orderliness. We are told, "some change of countenance was necessary for each gentleman as they walked into Mrs. Weston’s drawing-room; 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”.

Their action, in essence, typifies the conservatism of Highbury society. At times, this process tedious to Emma and this comes to surface most evidently in the Box Hill episode. At this event, Emma oversteps the moral codes of the society in her direct insult to Mrs. Bates and her open flirtation with Mr. Frank Churchill. Her insult to Mrs. Bates contravenes the commitment of the community to ensure that in spite of Mrs. Bates poverty, she retains her inherited position. Mr. Knightley utterly condemns her behaviour. Emma thus becomes aggrieved of spirit and honestly repents her folly that has threatened the image of perfection she is supposed to represent. The event is an eye-opener to Emma; almost immediately she realizes that her fanciful behaviour and cruel treatment of her inferior have begun to affect her good judgement. Emma understands the damage and pain that her fanciful judgements and behaviours have caused mainly to Harriet Smith. The latter under Emma’s tutorship was so self-aggrandized that she was no longer able to fit in her social class, but snubbed those who were knowingly her superior. Emma, therefore by new self-knowledge derived from her humiliating lessons comes to understand and accept her social role. Accordingly, in Austen’s final marriage of Emma and Knightley she ultimately links the two kinds of gentility, gentility of the mind and blood, and affirms its value for the community. The marriage establishes stability in Highbury society as well as reinforcing the traditional values of gentility.

Austen as a novelist of realism is very much concerned with the business of money which involves property. Her heroines are crafted as seeking after property through marriage. Hence, for the women who do not earn an independent income marriage becomes a critical selection process. Strong emphasis is placed on property by Austen, as a necessary prerequisite allied to love for persons to qualify for matrimony. Throughout the novel, status and property are attached. In the text, when characters are introduced they are rated on social status by the property they own. In the opening paragraph of the novel, she states that her protagonist is, “handsome, clever and rich with a comfortable home.” We are later told that; Mr. Weston is “rising into gentility and property,” Mr. Woodhouse possessed, “a fortune, a house and a daughter” that commanded the respect of the gentry. Throughout the novel, she delineates her character in terms of property. Much of the life of the narrative takes place in the elegancies and society of Highbury’s drawing room and reflects bourgeoisie property. There is Emma’s description of the Knightley's house as an example, “The house was larger than Hartfield and totally unlike it, covering a good deal of ground, rambling, and irregular with many comfortable and one or two handsome rooms.” Emma as a matchmaker is concerned with Harriet’s acquisition of property through marriage. Accordingly, she scorns the idea of marriage to Robert Martin a farmer who does not own property; the question of love is of no consequence. Emma wishes to so ‘polish’ and ‘refine’ Harriet that she could marry a Mr. Elton or a Mr. Churchill and so rise in property and gentility. Austen’s world is one in which acquisition of property and gentility determines what one can become. Hence, a Harriet Smith could never, in reality, become married to a man like Mr. Knightley. The latter gentleman questions: “What are Harriet’s Smith’s claim either or birth or nature or education to any connection higher than Robert Martin.” Austen aware of the value of property recognizes that this is not the be all and end all in life and there are other concerns besides property. In assessing the relative value of gentility, property, and love to the author, the two former values are closely linked. Her young women in the novel are unwilling to marry solely for money. The novelist, Austen does not separate love from money but frequently shows how the latter determines the relationship of individuals. A marriage based solely on the sensual or practical also proves objectionable to Austen. This crucial issue is executed in the presentation of the union of Mr. Weston, a captain to Mrs. Churchill of the great Yorkshire family. The marriage is based very much on Mrs. Churchill love for this gentleman. It takes place to the “infinite mortification of Mr. and Mrs. Churchill who threw her off with due decorum.” Austen assesses this marriage to be only partially successful and to some extent disagreeable. The novelist explains, “She did not cease to love her husband, but she wanted at once to be the wife of Captain Weston and Mrs. Churchill of Enscombe.”


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Jane Austen's presentation of character and situation in "Emma". The relative importance of "gentility", "property" and "love" in the author's scheme of values
The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine
E353 Selected 19th Century Literature
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Jane Austen, Emma, gentry, feudal system, social structure, gentil society, marriage
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BA Literatures in English, Diploma in Education Masters Literatures in English Paulette Reefer (Author), 1989, Jane Austen's presentation of character and situation in "Emma". The relative importance of "gentility", "property" and "love" in the author's scheme of values, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/343320


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