Privilege: The Real Position of Power

As a domestic novel, Emma by Jane Austen deals with the tensions between characters from different classes and social statuses.  This contrast between the difference in class and status can be analyzed through the friendship of Emma Woodhouse and Harriet Smith. Both women lack the same freedom and agency offered to men in 19th century society, as both the class and social system still favoured men over women. Although issues stemming from the patriarchy did exist, an individual’s social status and class position was a main determining factor in what freedom and opportunities could be accessed at any given moment. By looking at the novel, readers can see that Emma possesses privilege over her friend Harriet. The two come from two completely different classes and by comparing these women, we can see that one’s wealth and position in society is a key factor in establishing their future, specifically when looking at marriage and potential partners. By the end of the novel, the set of values from the 19th century are upheld as one’s class and status still remains important. This benefits women like Emma who have an advantage over other women, allowing her greater freedom and agency throughout the novel.

Due to Emma’s position of privilege, she does not have to marry in order to improve her life. She can make the decision to marry; her status allows her to be selective with her prospects. In a conversation with Harriet, Emma acknowledges that she does not have any “of the usual inducements of women to marry,” (Austen 116) aware that her privilege grants her the ability to choose someone “very superior to any one [she has] seen yet.” (116)  She already possesses wealth and property thanks to her father, concluding that “a single woman of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else.” (117) Emma knows that her status gives her more agency in comparison to other women of the era. She is free to choose someone out of love, and if she opts not to marry, will not live a miserable life as a result.

In contrast, Harriet does not have the same freedom and opportunity in selecting a future partner. She is not of the same class as Emma; she lives at a boarding school and her father is unknown at the beginning of the novel. Except for Emma, most characters recognize that Harriet is not of the same status and will not have the same opportunities granted to her given her lack of privilege. Her storyline follows her journey to find a suitable partner, going from Mr. Martin to Mr. Elton, to Mr. Knightley only to marry Mr. Martin by the end of the novel. She cannot have Mr. Elton or Mr. Knightley due to her illegitimate status, which was still a dominating factor in determining marriage prospects. The class system of the era offered even less agency for women who found themselves on the lower half of society. Harriet has to find someone near her social status, in fear of turning into a “ridiculous, disagreeable, old maid” (117) as she does not possess anything in her name. Harriet has to marry someone close to her class and status for survival purposes.

Although they enjoy each other’s company, the existing tension in Emma and Harriet’s relationship comes to light when topics of marriage partners are brought up. This conflict exists due to their social and class differences. An example of this tension is the conversation between them after Harriet has received a letter of marriage proposal from Mr. Martin, a prospect that Emma disagrees with. She is vocal about her opinion, trying to convince Harriet that she is above Mr. Martin in status. Harriet clearly demonstrates inner conflict with the results, allowing Emma to influence her to refuse his offer. Although Mr. Martin is a suitable match for Harriet and she already has existing feelings for him, she chooses to listen to Emma. Emma’s existing privilege does not allow her to view life from Harriet’s perspective. Her options are limited by the values of the era; as Harriet finds out by the end of the novel, she is unable to move up the hierarchy and ignore her illegitimate birth status.

By the end of the novel, Emma and Harriet pair up with Mr. Knightley and Mr. Martin, respectively, and have the proper match according to the values of the 19th century. Those who have wealth and status are paired together, maintaining Traditional 19th century English society values still exist and the class system remains a structure that cannot be changed, from my interpretation. The constraints of freedom and agency for women remain an issue, showing that the limit still exists for women of lower status like Harriet.  Their differences are a result of how privilege determines how much agency a woman could have; when already limited by their gender, the only thing women had left was their material worth.


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