Class, the categorization of people according to social or economic
distinctions, often plays a pivotal role in Jane Austen’s novels.
Although Emma proves no exception to this model, the
classification of characters as Aristos may be more relevant than
dividing them into social classes. John Fowles coined the term Aristos, based on the
Greek word meaning “best,” to refer to characters who exhibit certain
qualities of individual superiority. Rather
than family name, property, wealth, or social standing, Fowles proposes criteria
such as integrity, compassion, mental and emotional strength, innate
intelligence, an existential sense of responsibility, and high moral standards
to measure a character’s worth, a natural aristocracy rather than a social
hierarchy imposed by civilization. GP,
in John Fowles’s The Collector, sums it up best in his personal code:
“‘But you don’t compromise your background.
You cut off all the old you that gets in the way of the maker you.
If you’re suburban, … you throw away (cauterize) the suburbs.
If you’re working class, you cauterize the working class in you.
And the same whatever class you are, because class is primitive and
silly’” (135). GP, an Aristos
character, makes the point that class distinctions are outdated and immaterial
because an individual’s ability to create, to be extraordinary, and to be
secure in one’s own superiority are the traits that make a human being
special, not what family or social circle into which one happens to be born.
Each person must recognize this and not depend upon class to define his
or her personality. Aristos
characters also recognize that they are of the “Many,” but they must
constantly strive to be of the “Few” (Fowles, “Aristos”
212-13). Although this may seem
elitist or snobbish, the distinctions between the Few and the Many are not
external such as money or position but rather internal such as morality, values,
Despite the fact that Emma is a typical
nineteenth-century novel of manners and the characters spend a great deal of
time treating the topics of social standing and wealth, in actuality, many of
the criteria are present to designate them as Aristos.
For example, they must achieve balance between judgment/understanding
(sense) and fancy/imagination (sensibility), a topic which clearly fascinated
Austen, and not be afraid of setbacks and defeats as they strive to become Aristos. In fact, Aristos characters must usually overcome
impediments on the way to fulfilling their potential. Mr. Knightley possesses this balance, but Emma must struggle
continuously in her quest to acquire it. Novels
that incorporate the Aristos idea commonly include the presence of
superior characters as guides or mentors and inferior characters as foils.
Mr. Knightley acts as a mentor to Emma as she becomes an Aristos
character, and Mr. and Mrs. Elton, as foils, present marked contrasts to them
both. To a lesser degree, Jane
Fairfax functions as Frank Churchill’s mentor, and both Robert Martin and Emma
serve as guides to Harriet. Regardless
of the fact that most of the couples in the novel eventually marry within their
own social spheres, the class distinctions are trivial when compared with each
person’s true worth as a human being and, consequently, value as a potential
Mr. Knightley is the main Aristos character, and
although he happens to be the wealthiest and most highly regarded man in
Highbury, neither high social standing nor wealth is criteria for the Aristos
designation, but rather a natural grace and finesse, a delicacy of
feeling and sense of compassion that all the money in the world cannot buy.
Certainly there can be no denying his superior social position, however,
Mr. Knightley’s moral supremacy and role of mentor to the Aristos
character in suspension, Emma, is more essential than his economic status.
Austen tells the reader that he is a “sensible man” with a
“cheerful manner” (9) but, more importantly, that he always tells the truth
to Emma rather than flatter her as everyone else is wont to do.
As he states when remonstrating her for her treatment of Miss Bates at
Box Hill, “‘This is not pleasant to you, Emma—and it very far from
pleasant to me; but I must, I will,—I will tell you truths while I
can…’” (375). While most of
Emma’s devotees, such as Mr. Elton and Mr. Woodhouse, would probably agree
with Mrs. Weston that “‘Emma must do Harriet good’” (36), Mr. Knightley,
quite accurately, accuses Emma of raising Harriet’s expectations and making
her so vain that “‘nobody within her reach will be good enough for her’”
(64). Although certainly not
unaware of class issues in Harriet and Robert’s suitability for each other, he
is more concerned with their moral and intellectual match.
He claims that Robert is “‘as much [Harriet’s] superior in sense
as in situation’” (my italics, 61).
Mr. Knightley goes on to ask Emma, “‘What are Harriet Smith’s
claims, whether of birth, nature, or education, to any connection higher than
Robert Martin?’” (61). Martin,
despite being “only” a farmer, is of a higher scale than Harriet, apparently
the illegitimate daughter of a member of the upper classes, by virtue of his
abilities and intelligence as Mr. Knightley insists,
“‘Robert Martin’s manners have sense, sincerity, and good-humour to
recommend them; and his mind has more true gentility than Harriet Smith could
understand’” (65). Besides
being well aware of both Harriet’s and Emma’s shortcomings and Robert’s
merits, Mr. Knightley is also cognizant of Elton’s greed and is blinded by
neither his standing as the town vicar nor by his pretty manners.
Mr. Knightley’s ability to see with clear or whole sight marks him as
the primary Aristos mentor in the
Emma, second only to Mr. Knightley in social standing, is the
main Aristos character in suspension.
In the beginning of the novel, Austen describes Emma as “handsome,
clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition” (5).
Despite the descriptions of a frivolous spoiled young lady who has a
“disposition to think a little too well of herself” (5), signs indicate that
Emma has the potential to become much more.
She is “of no feeble character, …more equal to her situation than
most girls, …and had sense and energy and spirits that might be hoped would
bear her well and happily through [life’s] little difficulties and
privations” (18). Emma, no
feeble-minded or weak willed young lady who cannot endure hardships or
disillusionment, but rather a strong and intelligent woman (or at least has the
potential to become one) who can deal with whatever obstacles life may throw in
her path, grows as a character in many ways.
For example, her sense of her own worth goes through a transformation
during the course of the novel. Although
well aware of her lack of talent as a painter, she is content to let others
flatter her in the beginning, but later she freely admits and even insists that
Jane Fairfax is a better musician than she.
She refuses to acknowledge the defects in her portrait of Harriet, yet
she is willing to take her portion of the responsibility in the miscommunication
with Elton about his feelings for her.
Despite Emma’s willingness to share blame in their
misunderstanding, she shows awareness of her superiority over Elton, and this
type of consciousness is another characteristic of Aristos.
Emma must realize that Elton is not beneath her because of his rank or
income, but because of his lack of intelligence and discernment.
As she reflects on his unexpected and unwelcome proposal, Emma thinks,
“Perhaps it was not fair to expect him to feel how very much he was her
inferior in talent, and all the elegancies of mind.
The very want of such equality might prevent his perception of it…” (136). She
realizes that he is unable to see their unsuitability for each other because his
“conceited head” (136) allows him to believe what he wants to believe about
her reciprocity of feelings; however, as further proof that she is growing as an
Aristos character, she accepts her share of the blame, realizing that she
has unintentionally sent false signals to him in her quest to attach him to
Harriet, as she goes on, “If she had misinterpreted his feelings, she
had little right to wonder that he, with self-interest to blind him,
should have mistaken her’s” (136). She
comprehends her own supremacy over Elton in intelligence and delicacy of
feeling, but also admits her mistake in falsely encouraging his attentions while
trying to play matchmaker for her friend.
In addition to the awareness of one’s own superiority, an Aristos
character must exhibit compassion and not inflict unnecessary pain, particularly
to people who are inferior. Emma
fails in this respect when she belittles and insults Miss Bates on Box Hill, but
she quickly realizes this and learns from her mistakes.
Appropriately, Mr. Knightley, the Aristos
mentor, points out Emma’s unkindness, which opens her eyes to her unfeeling
cruelty to one who is far beneath her in life and “‘should secure [her]
compassion’” (375). Emma has
been developing into an Aristos
character throughout the novel as witnessed by her actions and attitudes toward
others, but this scene represents a true epiphany for her and allows her to open
herself up more fully to her potential. Mr.
Knightley’s remonstrance causes her to do some true soul searching and “a
mind like her’s, once opening to suspicion, made rapid progress” as she
“acknowledge[s] the whole truth” (407-08):
Her own conduct, as well as her own heart, was before her
in the same few minutes. She saw it
all with a clearness which had never blessed her before. How improperly she had been acting by Harriet!
How inconsiderate, how indelicate, how irrational, how unfeeling had been
her conduct! (408)
If not for the incident on Box Hill, Emma may never have
this moment of clarity, and hence she and Mr. Knightley would never come to
their eventual state of synchronicity. It
is not enough for her to continue in her state of Aristos in suspension
and he in his role as Aristos mentor; it is necessary for them both to
reach full Aristos status.
While Mr. Knightley and Emma happen to match perfectly in
both class and Aristos categories, the pairing of Jane Fairfax and Frank
Churchill presents an excellent example of the importance of Aristos
qualities over class distinctions. As
a Weston and a Churchill, Frank is of a lofty social order, but Jane is of
common birth, has little or no income, and must be dependant upon the charity of
others for her livelihood. Despite
this obvious disparity in their classes, Jane’s intellectual and moral
superiority elevate her over Frank. As
Mr. Knightley remarks, “‘He may yet turn out well.—With such a woman he
has a chance’” (428). Frank’s
dishonesty about his engagement, his avoidance of his aunt’s displeasure at
the expense of visiting his father, and his cheerful disregard for other
people’s feelings clearly mark him as a non-Aristos
character. Jane’s influence on
him, however, brings him much closer to this state by the end.
He owns up to his mistakes and apologizes to his family and friends for
his dishonesty and insensitivity. Once
Frank begins to move closer to the Aristos,
he and Jane can freely consummate their relationship.
In contrast to Jane’s sensitivity and Frank’s growth, Mr.
and Mrs. Elton’s static unpleasantness serves as a foil for the Aristos
characters. Mr. Elton’s
behavior—his shallow greed, insensitive treatment of Harriet, and callous
disregard for Emma’s protestations to his courtesy—manifest unsavory
qualities at best. Robert
Martin’s conduct, on the other hand, his well-written letter of proposal to
Harriet, his willingness to accept her refusal gracefully, and his instinctive
sense of propriety, provides a sharp contrast to Mr. Elton’s fatuous riddle
and disregard for other’s feelings. Mr.
Elton’s inclusion into Highbury society of his rude, crass, and obnoxious wife
further indicate his lack of taste and perception.
Mr. Knightley points out Mrs. Elton’s deficiencies as he compares her
to Harriet: “‘Harriet Smith has some first-rate qualities, which Mrs. Elton
is totally without. An
unpretending, single-minded, artless girl—infinitely to be preferred by any
man of sense and taste to such a woman as Mrs. Elton’” (331).
The marked contrast between the two women, affirmation that Harriet is
developing Aristos qualities, also demonstrates Mrs. Elton’s function
as a foil. Mrs. Elton’s
indifference to Jane’s wishes in her quest to place Jane in a suitable
position emphasizes this further. Overall,
The Eltons’ insensitivity, tastelessness, and crass preoccupation with money
and position compare unfavorably to Robert’s tact, Mr. Knightley’s
instinctive grace, Frank Churchill’s evolution, Harriet’s self-effacement,
Jane’s discretion, and Emma’s (social) modesty.
The pairing of couples in Emma provides a strong
indication of the social irrelevance but moral importance of the Aristos
character and his or her station in life. As
Fowles says of the Aristos character: “He knows the difference between
himself and the Many cannot be one of birth or wealth or power or cleverness.
It can be based only on intelligent and enacted goodness” (“Aristos”
212). Although Mr. Knightley and Emma, the two principal
characters, are both of superior birth and breeding, their Aristos qualities, such as clear or whole sight, compassion,
intuition, discernment, and intelligence suit them perfectly for one another.
Frank’s social superiority and Jane’s moral excellence complement
each other interestingly, while Robert’s innate tact and Harriet’s modest
demeanor pair nicely. Mr. and
Mrs. Elton’s divergence from Aristos
status make them a perfect match; although she is wealthier, and he is a rector
and more socially acceptable, their mutual tastelessness and utter lack of
consideration for others make them ideal for each other.
Class distinctions were an important aspect of nineteenth-century life,
and as such, cannot be ignored in a novel set during that era; however, the
notion of the Aristos character as presented by John Fowles makes
intriguing and appropriate statements about the characters in Emma and
their suitability as couples.
Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1986.
“Aristos in the Individual.” The Aristos: A Self-Portrait in Ideas.
Boston: Little Brown, 1964. 212-14.
_____. The Collector. New York: Dell Books, 1963.