In Emma ((Page Numbers are for the Riverside Edition edited by Lionel Trilling)), Jane Austen presents characters who are uniquely human: each has their own rich personality and storied background. Through these characters, Austen is able to intimately explore the human condition, as she saw it, and highlight some of the issues of society and class in her world. To achieve this, Austen creates a world into which a reader can insert themselves through the gossip and unique perspective that the narrator and Emma provides; the reader’s perspective is not that of an all-seeing observer, but almost a character in its own right who may judge the characters as an equal participant and member of the community. From this perspective the reader is able to see characters as rich and complex individuals with whom the reader can acquaint themselves. In doing so, one can pass judgment on the characters not from the outside, but from the inside.
The characters of Mrs. Elton and Emma are extremely similar: they both are overly concerned with outward appearances, place too much value on social status, tend to treat others as their play things, and are quick to judge. They think very highly of themselves and hold themselves as pinnacles of their societies. The two women are so similar one could argue that if their positions were reversed, they would hold the same positions in the story. However, for all their negative similarities, it is the small differences that makes one superior to the other””not only as a person, but as a friend.
Although Mrs. Elton tends to believe herself to a member of genteel society, her manners and mannerisms are a cheap limitation: she has a tendency to place herself on an equal footing with others who are social superior to herself. Although a biased source, quickly Emma judges her to be a vain and self-satisfied who attempted to be superior, but “with manners which had been formed in a bad school [and] drawn from one set of people” (213). Further evidencing the low origin of Mrs. Elton’s manners is how impressed she is by Mrs. Weston’s and Mr. Knightley’s manners: Emma takes their manners for granted and to her, it seems obvious that their manners would be impeccable because of the society of which they are members (218). Mrs. Elton also oversteps herself by referring to people by their given or Christian names without honorifics—even when they are of a superior social class like Mr. Knightley—while Emma would never even consider this even though the families are long-term friends and nearly equal (218).
Emma, unlike Mrs Elton, is aware that her family’s status in society is that of “the younger branch of a very ancient family” whose landed property is relatively small (108). Although she has a tendency to be snobbish and exclusive, she is able to put these feelings aside when pressured by her friends to do what is right. When the middle-class Coles were in a position to invite Emma to a dinner party, she almost gleefully prepared to rebuke them for being so presumptuous, but when the invitation actually came, she allowed the Westons to convince her to attend without argument (163). Even though she believes in the exclusivity of her class, she realizes that it is not practical to insulate herself from the other classes when she should be accepting of them. However, her egalitarian views do not extend beyond casual relations: she was very quick to refuse Mr. Elton’s advances on social status alone, and even though she was correct to do so, she did not see that the relationship she tried to create between Mr. Elton and Miss Smith was similar to Mr. Elton marrying herself. According to Emma, Mr. Elton only proposed to “aggrandize and enrich himself,” and although he “understood the graduations of rank below him [he was] blind to what rose above” (107). This evidences Emma’s flaw in oversimplifying the lives of others through her habit of lumping the middle-class into one rather than seeing it as stratified.
Mrs. Elton is very insecure about her background and tends to speak frequently of her brother-in-law’s estate comparing every aspect of it to Hartfield and claiming as its equal; however, as Emma points out, those with wealth are not impressed with people who are equally wealthy, so Mrs. Elton’s comparison serves more to show how little societal standing she has. She also judges others of similar backgrounds harshly: mentioning a family that lives near Maple Grove who are an annoyance “from the airs they give themselves” without realizing it is the same way others view her (244).
Emma is very blind to the thoughts and the feelings of the people around her to the point that she projects all of her own feelings onto people and then expresses shock when she is wrong. Events like her blindness regarding Mr Elton’s advances, her insistence that Miss Fairfax is in love with the happily married Mr. Dixon, or her belief that Miss Smith was superior to the Martins show just how little she understands the core personalities of the people around her. However, although she can be strong-headed, she does accept correction””mostly by Mr. Knightley””when she is wrong, so her weakness is less glaring than it could be.
Emma and Mrs. Elton play off each other well: they both have similar personalities and levels of intelligence, but where Emma is born rich and gentile, Mrs. Elton’s only claim to high society is a sizable dowry and a wealthy brother-in-law. Emma and Mrs. Elton are both flawed individuals, but Mrs. Elton has all of Emma’s flaws but few of her good qualities, and Mrs Elton’s one-dimensional nature is such that she seems incapable of growing as a person; however, Emma does learn from the lessons she receives, albeit slowly, and respects the opinions of others; therefore, although both individuals have their flaws, Emma would make a far better friend.