It is evident that society primarily focused on one’s social status, and that marriage was one of the main ways in which one could raise his or her rank in the community. This method of social climbing was crucial to women, who were unable to improve their status through hard work and personal achievement. Although the effect of marriage on one’s social upbringing has been present before Jane Austen’s time period, Austen took a different approach to demonstrate its significance in Emma.
Emma Woodhouse attempted to climb the social ladder by becoming the “ultimate matchmaker”, assuming that her self-declared success would shield the scandals and infidelity she caused. Austen presents marriage as an essential aspect of society during the time period. In addition to the fact that marriage promotes families and serves as a romantic aesthetic, it also upholds the social structure of the community by securing the tradition that individuals marry those of appropriate class levels. “Miss Smith is a very good sort of girl; and I should be happy to see her respectably settled. I wish her extremely well: and, no doubt, there are men who might not object to—Everybody has their level: but as for myself, I am not, I think, quite so much at a loss” (Pg 231). Emma personally took Harriet Smith under her wing and attempted to raise Harriet’s social status a few levels. A mistake that couldn’t be foreseen was that Emma was bringing Harriet to a level of her own, which allows Harriet to develop expectations beyond her reach for marriage, risking the rejection from people of her own class, as the Martins.
Successful weddings between two people with varying social stances usually do not end happily or forever. These marriages do not bring joy to either person of the party, despite improving the social standing of either of them. Mr. Weston’s first marriage was a good example of this, having a wife whose social class was higher than his. Mr. Churchill and Mrs. Churchill threw Miss Churchill off with ‘due decorum,’ which was against her favor and resulted in her looking back upon what she used to have: “They lived beyond their income, but still it was nothing in comparison of Enscombe: she did not cease to love her husband. But at once to be the wife of Captain Weston, and Miss Churchill of Enscombe” (20).
In Austen’s time, it was simpler for a person of a lower class to assimilate when wed to a person of a higher class than the person of a higher class, and doing so did not end well. Miss Churchill wanted to pursue the marriage, but she was not pleased with the result. Austen developed Emma as a person who would be above her social class if she was a character in the novel in order to outline the effects of the social class itself.
Austen submits to the ingrained oppression that was placed upon women in Britain society. Emma was a unique character, she was beautiful, financially stable, and independent, intelligent, and was in her higher social class. For women unlike her, options are fairly limited, ranging mostly between marriage or becoming a worker/governess. Harriet had the option to marry or work at Mrs. Goddard’s school, and Mrs. Weston chose to marry after working as a governess of Emma. Jane was placed in the novel to show what effect money can have on the social class since those were the two qualities that differentiated her and Emma.
Because of those slight differences, Jane had the same options as Harriet or Mrs. Weston, to marry or become a governess. Emma was in a better situation, but had her moments, too: “Marriage, in fact, would not do for her. It would be incompatible with what she owed to her father, and with what she felt for him. Nothing should separate her from her father” (730). This shows that Emma had a responsibility to not marry in compliance with the wishes of her father. Emma’s options for the future were to either marry which was already shot down or to become a wealthy spinster, who never married. Emma was a showcase of multiple life examples that Austen herself underwent, with a heroine who was placed under quite similar but better circumstances.
The reflection of marriage caused women and even men to seek to improve their social standing. By bringing somebody up to a social class standing they’re not used to, the power and stability will get the best of them and deem them undesirable from all parties. If a marriage is successful between somebody of a lower class with somebody of a higher class, the pressures placed upon the two for disrespecting familial traditions will provide more hardships than profit. A woman of that time who does not choose to marry is extensively limited to what else she can do, and may eventually get married. Austen was able to claim her novels in public, a concept very difficult in that time given that she was no married, but showed that if somebody’s heart is truly in a task, they will succeed.
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