In Emma, by Jane Austen, the correlation between marriage and social status is a prominent theme. In this novel, marriage is essentially the only way for a woman to change her identity or social standing. Marriage can change who someone is completely, and to some, that is all that matters. It can elevate one’s status, build fortune, unite families, or even lower one’s status, depending on who they marry. There is a heavy amount riding on an engagement; much more so than simply happiness. Emma Woodhouse, a 21-year-old woman of high intelligence, social class, and beauty, has taken it upon herself to play matchmaker for her friends. After successfully uniting her dear friend, Ms. Taylor, with the widowed Mr. Weston, she realizes that she is quite skilled at it, indeed. As Ms. Taylor moves away, Emma befriends Harriet Smith, who is a younger girl, often referred to as foolish, with insignificant parents. She is a very handsome young lady, which I suspect is why Emma takes such a strong liking to her. After a brief acquaintance is made between a man names Mr. Martin and Harriet, he claims to have fallen in love with her, and proposes to Harriet through a letter. Emma is with Harriet when she reads the letter, and is not pleased by the idea of marriage between the two. Harriet ends up refusing Mr. Martin, which Emma later tells her friend, Mr. Knightley. His response is not what Emma was expecting:
‘Then she is a greater simpleton than I ever believed her. What is the foolish girl about?’
‘Oh! to be sure,’ cried Emma, ‘it is always incomprehensible to a man that a woman should ever refuse an offer of marriage. A man always imagines a woman to be ready for any body who asks her.’
‘Nonsense! a man does not imagine any such thing. But what is the meaning of this? Harriet Smith refuse Robert Martin? madness, if it is so; but I hope you are mistaken.’ (p. 57)
Harriet Smith, although a rather undeveloped character at this point, was judged for refusing marriage. In the society that she lives in, people feel that it’s their right to comment on the decisions and lives of others. Harriet’s decisions have nothing to do with Mr. Knightly, and yet, he feels the right to express his negativity on the subject. His comments on her character, social status, and intelligence are shameful. Furthermore, as Emma said, why should Harriet feel pressured into marrying him, simply because he asked? Although in a completely different manner today, people still feel the right to comment on the lives and relationships of others. We pass judgements or remarks regarding other people, then proceed to be vexed if other people talk about us. This is a hypocritical cycle, and based on the similarities we see in this novel, it has been this way for some time. In Emma, marriage is formed to satisfy society. Societal pressures dictate the moves people make, because one toe out of line will cause revolt. If people saw a high-class man marrying a lower-class woman, there would be an uproar. This leads me to wonder, why? Why is speculation so regular; something most people engage in? Why are we so interested in the lives of others?