In Jane Austen’s era which is also called as Regency period, English society revolved around a social hierarchy. One’s rank greatly determined one’s social class. Class, stratification on base of economic and social means, is a central theme in Jane Austen’s novel Emma. The protagonist itself reveals the class differences in the novel.
Emma Woodhouse is a lady who possesses a good disposition. She is rich and wealthy. She has not faced any difficulties in one and twenty years of her age. She lives an easy and comfortable life without any social or economic hardships to confront. She belongs to a respected family ‘Woodhouse’. She is not confined as other women of her time and somehow lives an independent life. She is opinionated and thinks herself right in her decisions. Throughout the novel she takes things in her own way. She thinks herself too sagacious.
She lives an easy life. She has many facilities. She has no predicaments to face. She has not confronted the hardships of life. She is not known to the atrocities of a commoner. She has an indifferent attitude towards the people of lower classes, and, she also marks differences among people. Throughout the novel we see many instances of her making distinctions among different classes. We also have examples of her poking fun at class distinctions.
First such instant of her attitude towards lower classes reveals when she meets Harriet Smith.
“Those soft blue eyes and all those natural graces should not be wasted on the inferior society of Highbury and its connections. The acquaintances she had already formed were unworthy of her. The friends from whom she had just parted, though very good sort of people, must be doing her harm.” This reveals her thinking of classes other than hers. She admits that they are good sort of people but at the same time she declares them coarse and unpolished. This shows that she is quick and decided in her ways. She knows about their good manners but still she resists them as they belong to the class inferior to her. Another incident occurs where her attitude towards lower classes is revealed. The occurrence is when Harriet Smith asks her whether she has seen Mr. Martin and what she replies is a clear evidence of her concerns for the people of the classes lower to her.
“. . . I may have seen him fifty times, but without any having idea of his name. A young farmer, whether on horseback or on foot, is the very last sort of person to raise my curiosity. The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do.” Her attitude towards people of lower classes is revealed in the above statement. A farmer, how much indigent he may be, is not a beggar. He works and earns his living with his own hands. Her attitude towards them is totally ridiculous. She warns Harriet not to get herself acquainted with the woman Mr. Martin marries as she might be an illiterate woman and a farmer’s daughter. A gentleman was distinguished by his status as a member of landed gentry. She compares a mere farmer with a gentleman. Her comparison is absurd. Robert Martin who is regarded as a gentleman farmer is termed as a vulgar farmer by her. She compares a man of working class with those people who were born with good fortunes, which seems farcical.
Mr. Martin sent a proposal to Harriet through a letter and Emma manipulates Harriet to refuse the suit of Robert Martin. At this stage Emma tells Harriet that if she had married Martin how her attitude would have been changed towards her. She tells her the difference between a Harriet and a Mrs. Martin. “Dear Harriet, I give myself joy of this. It would have grieved me to lose your acquaintance, which must have been the consequence of your marrying Mr. Martin. . . I could not have visited Mrs. Robert Martin of Abbey Mill F arm. Now I am secure of you forever.” This is what Emma Woodhouse actually is. She would have left the friendship of the lady of which she is so fond of, if...
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