Emma is a tour-de-force literary masterpiece about a privileged heroine. It is an imaginative tale of how the privileged might be taught to wield power, not only for their own gain, but also for the greater good. However, Emma, despite being a study of women and power, begins with the required reality of bowing to royal power.
Emma’s Opinion on Marriage
Emma tells her friend Harriet, in a crucial scene, that the only reason any woman should marry is because of lack of money, meaningful work, or social power. Emma tells Harriet that she has all of those. Emma says, “I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry. Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing! but I never have been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall.”
Without love, Emma says, she would be a fool to change her situation. She says she doesn’t have a lack of fortune, employment, or consequence. Emma does acknowledge her power. Few married women, she says, “are half as much mistress of their husband’s house as I am of Hartfield; and never, never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man’s eyes as I am in my father’s.”
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Emma and Miss Bates
The difference between Emma and the middle aged spinster Miss Bates, Emma says, is money.
Miss Bates started out life with education and prospects but she has fallen far economically, due to deaths in the family and due to her never marrying. Miss Bates serves as both Emma’s and Harriet’s nightmare vision of their possible futures. Yet while Harriet wants to get married, from the very first, so as not to turn into a Miss Bates, Emma rejects the idea of marriage.
As she tells Harriet, “A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls, but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else.”
Like many of the things Emma says, this is at least partly wishful thinking. Emma is a single woman of fortune, but she proves herself not as respectable, sensible, or pleasant as everyone else.
Relationship between Mr. Knightley and Emma
Mr. Knightley—Emma’s social and economic equal and a man who believes in faith, truth, and justice—is shown willing to help Emma discover how to be more faithful, true, and just, in a world in which she may be positioned to continue to lead and offer counsel. This leads to Emma’s realizing her own misuse of her power, as well as that no one must love Mr. Knightley but herself. He declares that he loves her in return.
Theirs is a May-December romance. Mr. Knightley has known Emma since she was child, which some readers today find unsettling, if not distasteful. Some critics think that, in giving herself over to Mr. Knightley’s criticisms and truths, Emma also gives over her strong voice and significant power to him in marriage. She subjects herself to his vision and his will.
The novel doesn’t entirely settle this question of equality and power in marriage. But it does tell us that Mr. Knightley is willing to take an unusual step with Emma. After marriage, we’re told, Mr. Knightley moves temporarily into her house, called Hartfield, with her father. This is so that Emma doesn’t cause her anxious father further distress. Mr. Knightley gives up his comfort and a bit of his power so that Emma can continue to cater to her needy but worthy parent.
Regardless of how one reads its ending, Emma is a novel about power—especially female social power, benevolent patronage, and female companionship.
It concludes in this way, with Emma and Mr. Knightley’s marriage: “The wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.” This line is a note of optimistic, hope-filled conclusion.
Dedication to Prince Regent
One of the things that makes Emma unusual among Austen’s works isn’t its closing page, however. It’s the opening page. Emma was dedicated by its author to the Prince Regent. Just before Emma was published, Austen received an invitation to dedicate her next novel to His Royal Highness. It was the sort of invitation she couldn’t refuse. From her letters, one can understand that Austen wasn’t a fan of his. She even used the word “hate” in relation to him. But the Prince Regent must be obeyed.
Austen’s dedication to him was, however, as tepid as it could be. It was formulaic and cold. One critic has called it nearly an anti-dedication. Austen wrote, “To his Royal Highness, the Prince Regent, this work is, by His Royal Highness’s Permission, most Respectfully Dedicated by his Royal Highness’s Dutiful and Obedient Humble Servant.”
It’s fascinating and even fitting that the novel Emma, as a study of women and power, begins with the required reality of kowtowing to royal power. The novel’s closing lines are, by contrast, about benevolent power wielded in a supportive, united community, among a “small band of true friends”.
Common Questions about The Social and Economic Power in Jane Austen’s Emma
Emma’s objections to marriage are economic. She tells her friend Harriet that the only reason any woman should marry is because of lack of money, meaningful work, or social power.
Mr. Knightley and Emma’s is a May-December romance. Mr. Knightley has known Emma since she was child. He is Emma’s social and economic equal and a man who believes in faith, truth, and justice, and he is willing to help Emma also discover how to be more faithful, true, and just.
Emma was dedicated by its author to the Prince Regent. Just before Emma was published, Austen received an invitation to dedicate her next novel to His Royal Highness. It was the sort of invitation she couldn’t refuse.