Emma (In Modern Life?)…

Lately I have been doing a series of posts based on Austen’s novels. It’s been really fun for me to equate some of the important issues presented in Austen work with some of the same things we have going on today.

But when I got to Emma, I kind of scratched my head a bit. I don’t want to say that there are no pressing issues in it, because I’m sure I could argue about meddling in others’ lives or eventually needing to grow up and behave like a lady (when you’re twenty-one). But what really interested reading it this time around was the character of Harriet.

She starts out as basically a nobody, an orphan, but somehow at the end believes she is worthy of a man like Mr. Knightley. (Which, this may just be me, but I rank him up there with Darcy.) Emma feeds her these assurances that Harriet is better than the farmer Mr. Martin, then Mr. Elton, and then all hell breaks loose. Emma is left shaking her head wondering if she created a monster before Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was even written.

I was thinking today about how our class system operates. In America, we like to think there are no classes and we are free to marry whomever we wish, and in theory this is true. But have you noticed that this rarely ever happens? We date people with similar backgrounds and economic statuses.

However, while we’re reading Emma, we immediately start to resent Harriet because she wants to be with someone from a class that is not her own. We shake our heads at her—I even got a little angry. But can we really blame her for wanting something better? Can we really get angry at her for hoping?

I’ve been watching way too much 30 Rock lately, and I’m reminded of the episode when everyone is telling Liz Lemon to settle with someone—that love doesn’t exist past the first ten years. Are we supposed to be upset that Harriet, once Emma tells her there are other fish in the sea, wants something more? Are we supposed to resent her because she wants someone who treats her like a lady?

Reading it this time around, I wasn’t so sure.

What do you think? Do you think Emma is a commentary on improper hopes and dreams? Do you think we still do the same thing today?

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