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Emma | Study Guide

Jane Austen

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the themes in Jane Austen's novel Emma.

Emma | Themes



The critic Ronald Blythe said that Emma "is really about marriage as an ordeal." Marriage is the linchpin of civilized society. The choice of a marriage partner is dictated by class, beauty, wealth, and affection, but it's hard to make right choices given the severity of social constraints and community obligations. The novel follows three couples who enter the marriage ordeal and emerge victorious.

Emma must go through some trials before she realizes that Mr. Knightley is essential to her happiness. Harriet wins the marriage lottery early on, when Mr. Martin proposes to her, but almost loses the prize because of her friend's meddling. Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill are in love, but they lack the courage and independent means to flout convention. Fate conspires to unite them after Frank's controlling aunt dies.


When people face up to their character flaws, they mature in their understanding of themselves and others and have a greater chance at happiness. Emma is a conceited young woman who overestimates her powers of observation and discernment. When Emma loses her friend and confidante, she quickly latches onto a young, inexperienced woman, Harriet Smith. Emma takes it upon herself to find a match for Harriet who will raise her social standing. Emma claims she will never marry, but in fact she loves Mr. George Knightley. She does not realize the extent of her love, which is something she takes for granted because he has always been a part of her life. When Harriet claims she is in love with Mr. Knightley and that her feelings are returned, Emma realizes how much she loves her old friend.

Another way in which Emma grows in self-knowledge is through the instruction of Mr. Knightley, who is willing to point out her follies and flaws. After her attempt to match Harriet with Mr. Elton fails disastrously, she realizes that her perceptions about other people are sometimes far off the mark. She also guesses incorrectly about the feelings and intentions of Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, misjudges Robert Martin, and fails to understand—until he tells her—that Mr. Knightley is in love with her. By the end of the story, Emma is willing to own her limitations and ready to follow the dictates of her heart.

Class and Gender Oppression

In Emma, women's livelihood and ability to make choices are constrained by their obligation to marry well. The women of the Regency period in England had few legal rights and were essentially treated as children. Their own children did not legally belong to them, they could not inherit property, and any money possessed by their families would pass to their husbands upon marriage. Job opportunities for middle-class women were limited; the only work they could respectably do (so that they would not be shunned by members of their own class) was to serve as a lady's companion or teach the children of the upper-middle class or aristocracy. In both of these roles, the women in question were treated as servants, on a slightly higher level than the maids or the coachmen.

If a woman did not have any money (which essentially served as a dowry), she could not expect to marry well. If she was lucky—and especially if she was attractive—she might be able to marry someone in her class or even above her class. If she was plain and uneducated, she would likely remain a "burden" on her family members.

Often a woman in this position was not treated well. If she did have money, she had to be careful to avoid being forced into an unsuitable marriage by her relatives, who might want to improve their social class through her marriage. Love was often the last consideration in marriage. Yet, by Austen's time, ideas about love and marriage were changing, and the marriageable women in Emma expect to—and do achieve—matches that are based on affection.

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