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Conservatism, Radicalism, Irony in Austen’s “Emma”


Jane Austen (2003) treats Emma, the central character of the novel of the same name, with irony. The most apparent aspect of this attitude is created situationally, for example, through the mismatches that Emma creates, which contrast with her “disposition to think a little too well of herself” and self-assuredness (Austen 2003, p. 2). The greatest irony, though, appears to be the plot twist which results in Emma realizing that she is in love with Mr. Knightley and agreeing to become his wife despite her initial unwillingness to marry.

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It should be pointed out that throughout the novel, Emma changes: it is visible in the development of her relationships with other characters (for example, Jane), her understanding of herself (through her matchmaking failures and Mr. Knightley’s comment on her cruelty towards Jane) and her acceptance of Harriet’s match to Mr. Martin (which indicates that she becomes more aware of social disparities).

However, Austen’s (2003) ironic style of narration does not appear to abate with these developments. In general, this irony seems to be directed at the majority of characters and situations; the examples may include Woodhouses’ gruel or the attitude to love that the characters appear to exhibit: from Emma’s momentary infatuation with Frank Churchill to Harriet’s love towards Mr. Knightley which is easily “supplanted” by that towards Robert Martin. As a result, it may be unnecessary to remove the main character from this mildly sarcastic portrait of the social life of the time as presented by Austen (2003).

Conservatism and Radicalism

It is questionable whether Austen (2003) is a social conservative or radical, and throughout the history of Emma‘s analysis, the novel was related to conservatism, radicalism, and even radical feminism (Byrne 2004, pp. 36, 66). In Emma, social class is one of the key topics together with marriage; the two concepts are in an apparent relationship that is visible through attempted and successful mismatches (Mr. Weston, Harriet, Jane) and appropriate matches.

Emma’s matchmaking attempts with Harriet are partially connected to the misunderstandings of this “balance” of social statuses, and they are one of the main sources of irony in the novel. Also, Austen (2003) reserves a proper match for her main character. At the same time, the ironic tone of the book is directed at many targets, and the activities of the society presented in the novel are among them.

Apart from that, the position of the woman in the book is also noteworthy: the options that are available to a woman include marriage and a socially acceptable job (governess). The life of a married woman is shown as dull; that of a governess presupposes selling one’s intellect, as was pointed out by Jane (Austen 2003, p. 267). While it may be incorrect to insist that Austen (2003) is opposed to this state of events (especially since Emma grows to accept marriage), the irony of the novel is directed at society among other things.

Similarly, Austen (2003, p. 111) mentions the “model of right feminine happiness,” which consists of being a wife and mother, and while this statement appears to be outwardly conservatory, the word “right” does not seem to match the word “happiness.” I would suggest that Austen (2003) is conservative in her acceptance of the realia of her society, but it does not prevent her from highlighting and ridiculing its flaws, which may be classified as a radical approach, especially for the time.

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Reference List

Austen, J 2003, Emma, OUP Oxford, Oxford.

Byrne, P 2004, Jane Austen’s Emma, Routledge, London.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, April 7). Conservatism, Radicalism, Irony in Austen’s “Emma”.

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