Emma by Jane Austen | Themes | Themes in Emma

Emma by Jane Austen | Themes | Themes in Emma

Themes in Emma


Jane Austen writes about what she has seen and experienced. She has written about leisured middle class people. She avoids romance emotion and passions. She deals with love, marriage, money, class and the first impressions of the people in her novels. Let us now examine the treatment of these themes in Emma.

Theme of Love and Marriage

There is no illicit, passionate love in Emma. Love here is justified by reason and self-control. Jane Austen has distrusted romance. She does not approve of romance which does not culminate into marriage. Therefore, she disparages pure romance and elopement. She approves of the love between Jane and Bingley, between Elizabeth and Darcy, and between Emma and George Knightley which culminate into marriage. She does not approve of the elopement of Lydia with Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, and of Maria with Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park. But such elopements are denounced. Lydia and Wickham must marry before they are allowed to live in society. Romance in Jane Austen’s novels does not always culminate into marriages. Such romance is criticized. Jane Austen condemns the declaration of love by Mr. Elton to Emma, because Elton aspires not to Emma’s efforts of match-making because love cannot be arranged. That is why match-making business of Emma fails miserably. Jane Austen condemns Frank’s flirtation with Emma. She condemns flirtation because it does not aim at marriage.

Emma is a novel about love and marriage. Throughout the novel one reads about love. Love is the axis on which the plot of the novel turns. We read about the love between Harriet and Robert Martin, Harriet and Elton, Harriet and George Knightley, Emma and Frank and Emma and George Knightley. There are four marriages performed in the novel-those of Miss Taylor with Mr. Weston, of Miss Augusta Hawkins with Mr. Elton, of Miss Harriet with Robert Martin and of Miss Emma with George Knightley. The fifth marriage is in the offing–that of Miss Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill. Thus the novel ends happily with the marriage bells.

Theme of First Impression

Jane Austen does not approve of the first impressions. The first impressions must be confirmed by mature judgment of experience before they are accepted. Most of Jane Austen’s heroines find themselves, committing mistakes. They delude themselves. Pride and Prejudice deals with the folly of trusting first impressions. Emma deals with the theme of self-delusion. Emma boasts of understanding the characters of other persons, but she grows gradually painfully aware of her first impressions and first judgments. If Emma had worked on her first impression, she should have married Frank, not Mr. Knightley. It is only when Emma’s first impressions are matured by her experience and reason that she marries Mr. George Knightley at the end of the novel.

Theme of Money

Money is always related to love and marriage in Jane Austen’s novels. Jane Austen is a Marxist even before Karl Marx was born. She always emphasizes two qualities of her male characters, their singleness and their income. Her characters are mostly materialistic in an acquisitive society. She herself believes that it is wrong to marry for money, but it is silly to marry without it. The characters of Jane Austen always seek money while seeking their life partners. Money is always involved in love and marriage in Emma, Mr. Elton wants to marry Emma for her wealth. Emma does not approve of Harriet’s marriage with Robert Martin because he is not wealthy. Mrs. Elton always boasts of wealth. She says:

“But what is distance, Mr. Weston, to people of large fortune”.

John Knightley remarks:

“Business, you know, may bring money, but friendship hardly ever does.”

Jane Austen writes about the fortune of Miss Churchill that it “bore no proportion to the family-estate.” She writes about the Westons that they “lived beyond their income, but still it was nothing in comparison of Enscombe.” She writes about Mr. Weston that he “had made his fortune, bought his house, and obtained his wife” She writes about the “landed property of Hartfield” that it “certainly was inconsiderable, being but a sort of notch in the Donwell Abbey estate, to which all of the rest of Highbury belonged.” Mr. George Knightley says to Emma about Miss Bates : “She is poor: has sunk from the comforts she was born to, and, if she lived to old age, must probably sink more.”

Theme of Class-Consciousness  

Related with money is the class-consciousness in the novels of Jane Austen. The characters of Jane Austen are always conscious of their class, rank and position. Emma seems to be declining the invitation of the Coles because they are inferior, she does not want to marry because there is no male character in her neighbourhood who may be equal to her rank. She does not approve of Harriet’s match with Robert Martin because he is a farmer. She suspends the doctrine of rank only in the case of Harriet. She tells Harriet, while persuading her to marry Elton, that matches of great disparity have taken place. She wishes that Mr. Martin’s social status was a little nearer her own. But as Mr. Martin is, he does not rank her curiosity. When Mrs. Weston says to Emma that Knightley loves Jane Fairfax, Emma calls it “a very shameful and degrading connection.”

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After Elton’s declaration of love to Emma, Emma speaks of “the very great inequality” of which he is sensible in regard to Harriet. She feels angry that Elton “should suppose himself her equal in connection or mind.” Jane Austen, while comparing Mrs. Elton and Harriet, writes that “setting aside the 10,000 £ it did not appear that she was at all Harriet’s superior.” Mrs. Elton seems to derive her superiority from the fact that her elder sister had married a wealthy gentleman who lived near Bristol and kept two carriages. She says to Jane Fairfax :

“I would not wish to be inferior to others.”

Harriet says to Emma that her lover is superior to Mr. Elton. And Emma replies:

“Your resolution, or rather your expectation of never marrying, results from an idea that the person whom you might prefer, would be too greatly your superior in situation to think of you.”

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