EMMA Enchantments 

Celebrating 200 years Emma 

 1815 - 2015

An Allegorical Interpretation of Emma

Reverend Dr Michael Giffin


In an Austen novel, the developing relationship between heroine and hero is always part of the broader story of a community negotiating what, in his Two Treatises of Government (1689), Locke calls its implied social contract. This dynamic is particularly noticeable in Emma (1815), where Highbury is best understood as a body politic ordering itself for the common wealth. While the British wanted to prevent the kind of social instability which led to the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, they also had to operate within the unregulated capitalism of the Georgian period. In Highbury, stability meant accommodating the socially disadvantaged, whether they are the family “for whom education had done so little”, whose poverty and sickness were of widespread concern, or the family of its previous vicar living in reduced circumstances. Highburians did this because the disadvantaged were powerful reminders of their own insecurity and vulnerability.

In the Georgian period, the principle means of preventing social disadvantage was promoting social advantage; but if a family could move up the ladder, over the generations, it could move down the ladder more quickly. Impeding upward mobility was discouraged, as was depriving natural justice to those who were not capable of mobility, or whose mobility had been interrupted or reversed by any number of exigencies that could befall any family of any class at any time: economic crisis, moral failure, natural disaster, war, disease, and death. The first group included those classes below the yeomanry; because—according to Emma herself—the yeomanry was the lowest class capable of self-reliance. The second group included those displaced from other classes such as Harriet Smith, Jane Fairfax, and Mrs and Miss Bates.

In an Austen novel an effective marriage is the key to upward mobility; in Emma most families want to negotiate effective marriages. The Woodhouses are marrying into the Knightleys; the Westons want to marry into the Woodhouses; no doubt the Coles will marry up the ladder once their manners are more cultivated and their fortune loses the taint of trade. The Perrys are contemplating a carriage, which will enhance their status as a family worth marrying into; the Coxes and Martins will probably marry up the ladder over time. In describing this upward push—which she obviously approves of—Austen draws our attention to a few double standards.

To give one example: Miss Taylor was a governess before marrying Mr Weston, and, after they marry, they hope for an advantageous marriage between her former employer and his son by a previous marriage. Hence their disappointment on discovering that Frank Churchill wants to marry Jane Fairfax—who must become a governess unless she can find a husband—even though she is equal or even superior to Miss Taylor in birth, beauty, education, accomplishment, temperament, and manners. What kind of double standard is this?

While Emma, the dutiful daughter, apparently does not want to marry anyone, she still wants to be the de facto first lady of Highbury, a role belonging to the woman who eventually marries Mr Knightley. Presumably, she arrogates this role because the Woodhouses had become “first in consequence” in Highbury; however, they are still beneath the Knightleys and their origins are ambiguous. Hartfield is but a “notch” in the Donwell estate, to which “all the rest” of Highbury belonged; their fortune may be second only to the Knightley fortune but it originated from “other sources” which could mean trade or even a colonial enterprise; finally, they may be the “younger branch” of a “very ancient family” but that does not define class in a meritocracy. While Emma holds strong views about class—both her class and everyone else’s class—she has forgotten, or never learnt, her own family’s social evolution.

In Emma, marriage is “the origin of change”: sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. It is reasonable that the well-educated and (apparently) gentlemanly Mr Elton should want to marry someone of Emma’s class, provided he and his intended are in love, but it is unwise of him to project that desire onto an influential member of his parish. Likewise, it is reasonable that he should not want to marry Harriet Smith, who is illegitimate, because doing so would not advance his social mobility; however, if Mr Elton and Harriet happened to be in love, there would be nothing wrong with their marrying. Likewise, it is reasonable that the well-educated and prosperous yeoman Robert Martin should want to marry Harriet Smith, particularly if they are in love, and in two generations it would also be reasonable, provided the Martin family continues to consolidate its social position, for the grandchild of Mr and Mrs Robert Martin to marry the grandchild of Mr and Mrs Frank Churchill, or even the grandchild of Mr and Mrs George Knightley, provided the match was based on love and/or mutual advantage. It is not reasonable, in the present generation, that Miss Smith should marry either Mr Churchill or Mr Knightley.

While Emma subverts this implied social contract for most of the novel, by encouraging unreasonable marriages and discouraging reasonable ones, Austen satirises her misguided attempts at social engineering without ever suggesting she is a bad character. Like every other Austen heroine, she simply needs to mature. She is never selfish and is often generous, especially with food; she is a dutiful and forbearing daughter; she does all the right things when visiting the anonymous poor.

Emma’s sense of noblesse oblige is misguided, though, because it depends on the disadvantaged remaining disadvantaged. If they are below the yeomanry, she treats them as non-threatening objects of compassion. If they are from or above the yeomanry, they can easily become rival objects that betray her false sense of security. Once they are beyond her control, or do not behave the way she wants them to, or represent a threat to her, she can be contemptuous of them (as she often is of Jane Fairfax), or she can be rude to them (as she sometimes is to Miss Bates), or she can return them to the social margins she once intended to rescue them from (as she eventually tries to do to Harriet Smith).

In Austen’s scheme of things, this is not maturity. That is why she constantly sets Emma up for the disillusionment which is a necessary part of her journey into maturity. Emma’s journey is slow, confronting, and painful. Each time she is forced to admit she has made a mistake, ultimate recognition still eludes her; her will keeps driving her on, to make further mistakes, in an ongoing attempt to validate the reality she has constructed and does not want to part with. Her fundamental errors relate to marriages within the two most influential institutions in all of Austen’s novels: the Donwell estate, with Mr Knightley as its gentlemanly unmarried squire, and the Highbury parish, with Mr Elton as its (apparently) gentlemanly unmarried priest. Both men are as effective as they can be, without the benefit of effective wives, and together they preside over Highbury’s social welfare. Emma’s actions threaten to create disorder in Highbury and work against its ability to self-regulate for the common wealth. Ultimate recognition only comes when she realises Mr Knightley—the only character who has ever truly known and understood her—loves her unconditionally, in spite of her faults, and finally accepts it is her destiny to return that love unconditionally.


Is the Highbury parish disordered? If it is, how can it be reordered? Again, we need a sense of Emma’s pretext and subtext; we need a sense of what Austen takes for granted and leaves unsaid. If the broader logic of her novels is applied to Emma, the Highbury parish exists under the sign of reason rather than feeling, which is why Mr Elton needs to keep his feelings in check—and find an ideal and complementary wife—if his parish is to experience good management (oikonomia) and wholeness (soteria). This is particularly important because—according to convention—the absence of a first lady at Donwell means his future wife could function as first lady until Mr Knightly marries. So Elton’s future wife might not be a threat to Mrs Knightley but might be a threat to Miss Woodhouse. Is this Emma’s unconscious motive for wanting the non-threatening Harriet in the parsonage?

There is another issue too: Whether Elton’s real character changes during the novel or whether it is simply revealed. If Austen believes marriage is the origin of change, we need to consider whether his real character would have changed, the way it did, had Emma accepted his proposal, or whether his real character might have been held in check, had she declined in a way that allowed him to save face, as Elizabeth’s diplomatic refusal allowed Mr Collins to save face. Of course, Emma could never have married Elton, as she belongs to a category of trope destined for the estate rather than the parish; however, his marriage to Augusta Hawkins, if it does not determine his character, does determine its social manifestation. In this regard, it is worth considering whether Augusta is a vulgar version of Emma; whether Augusta’s ill-mannered interference is a parody of Emma’s well-mannered interference.

It is also worth remembering that Emma once thought Elton was a man of “such good temper and good will” that no one in Highbury deserved him. She even thought his manners were superior to Knightley’s. Clearly, he is an eligible bachelor—who appears to be gentlemanly, hardworking, and pastorally effective—and therefore the object of intense interest to a wide range of matrons, spinsters, and eligible young ladies. However, while everyone would understand his desire to marry a woman of Emma’s class, it was unwise of him to “raise his eyes” to Emma herself. Social mobility is one thing; social proximity is another, with its attendant opportunities for gossip, jealousy, scandal, and other manifestations of bad oikonomia. If Miss Bates’s allusions are anything to go by, everyone is aware of the folly of his pursuit of Emma, her rejection of his proposal, and his resentment over her wanting him to marry Harriet.

Elton has misread Highbury’s implied social contract. Of course Emma has also misread it, but she will be forgiven, as the novel’s heroine destined to be first lady of the estate. In this regard, manners are everything and Elton chose to react in the most ill-mannered way. No longer a gentleman, his major mistake was to treat his new wife as a kind of trophy and not be prepared for the inevitable repercussions, as interest in Augusta will range from conscious goodwill to unconscious resentment. No doubt she will hear about Emma’s failed plans for Harriet, and Elton’s failed proposal to Emma, and must feel a pang of jealousy. Also, there is no Mrs Knightley to counterbalance her personality and encourage her to accept a lesser position in the social hierarchy. In this vacuum, she puts herself forward as de facto first lady, which creates an urgent necessity; Emma must mature and fill the position herself.

As WM Jacob demonstrates in The Clerical Profession in the Long Eighteenth Century, 1680–1840 (2007), the parish had a broader function in Austen’s day than it does now; a broader function which disappeared soon after she died. It was more than a religious jurisdiction; it was the critical unit of government in people’s lives; it was responsible for administering whatever social welfare was available at the time. We have more glimpses of this in Emma than the other five novels. There was a reciprocal relationship between priest and people. The poor expected charity and were resentful when they did not get it. This charity had different sources. The priest was expected to set an example by sharing his income with the poor. Also, the collection from Holy Communion was often dispensed to the poor. In addition, parishioners paid rates, and the priest could raise funds in other ways.

The parish vestry was responsible for administering the Georgian Poor Laws. Elton was chair of the vestry, by virtue of his office, and overseeing charity was a core function he was obliged to take seriously. There was a national accountability system involved; he was required by an Act of Parliament to declare disbursements to the poor; there were Charity Enquiry Reports; there were even Charity Commissioners monitoring him. This background helps us understand what was happening when John Adby’s son was looking for charity to support his father, bedridden with rheumatoid arthritis. Messrs Knightley, Cox, and Cole have regular meetings with Elton where—according to Augusta—they were “left very busy over parish business”. Emma smiles when Augusta speculates that Elton is Knightley’s right hand man at these meetings and suggests they always get their own way; however, even if they do not, their squire–priest relationship is fundamental to Highbury.

That relationship goes bad, once the Eltons snub Harriet and Emma at the Crown Ball and Knightley begins some not-so-subtle snubbing of his own. Their clash may be about Highbury’s public discovery of the Eltons’ bad behaviour; however, the vestry could also be arguing over whether the Poor Laws should be altered and how. In this period there was lively debate over what caused poverty and how it should be alleviated. Was the vestry implicated in decisions that favoured ratepayers over the poor? Did agricultural improvements create unemployment? Was there a distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor? As workhouses were emerging, should the vestry channel relief to these new institutions instead of to the poor individually? While we do not know the nature of Highbury’s vestry debate, we do know this was an age of reform. Not long after Austen’s death the parish system was transformed by industrialisation and urbanisation; the place of the clergy in society changed; the close social, economic, and administrative link between priests and parishioners in an agrarian economy was broken forever.

It was most unwise of the Eltons to make an enemy of Emma because she is the sister-in-law of their patron and just below him in rank. Equally, it was self-defeating for them to be publically rude to Harriet. While parishes will suffer much in the way of bad manners from clerical families, they have ways of marginalising the clerical family and encouraging it to move on. However, while the Eltons do become disruptive characters, the reader should not condemn them out of hand and mitigating circumstances ought to be considered. Austen hints that the living is not sufficiently endowed, given the parish is described as large and active. It is clear that Elton’s workload is significant but there is no mention of his being able to afford a curate to assist him.

The vicarage is “an old and not very good house, almost as close to the road as it could be” with “no advantage of situation”. The rooms are small. It is not a suitable dwelling for a growing family. It probably needs major renovations or a new vicarage should be built. Why is noticing this important? Because it is easy to overlook the fact that—irrespective of his desire for social advancement and meanness of character—Elton is a busy, conscientious, resident priest who lives in a substandard vicarage and has an income insufficient to his needs. There may be an element of truth in Augusta’s frustrated admission, towards the end of the novel, that “this is the most troublesome parish that ever was”. Austen knew there could be mitigating circumstances which forced a clerical couple to keep a watchful eye on their social situation and the possibility of improving it. She knew how hard it could be for the clerical couple to answer so many social and spiritual expectations and to always be struggling for the means to do so. The reader does not know what allowances to make for the Eltons, if any, but irrespective of whether allowances are made, it is probable that, by the end of Emma, they are looking for another living.


Is the Donwell estate disordered? If it is, how can it be reordered? Again, if the broader logic of Austen’s novels is applied to Emma, unlike Highbury parish, which exists under the sign of reason rather than feeling, Donwell Abbey exists under the sign of feeling rather than reason, which is why Knightley needs an ideal and complementary wife if his estate is to experience good oikonomia. Emma will become that wife, once she matures according to the formula for “correct” understanding—reason, revelation, and reflection on experience—which Locke describes in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689). This is a destiny she shares with Marianne Dashwood and Elizabeth Bennet; three characters whose feeling must be tempered by reason before they can assume their roles as first lady of their respective estates. According to Austen, their affinity with feeling is what makes them suitable for the estate rather than the parish. Knightley, who has much in common with Colonel Brandon and Mr Darcy, knows this much about Emma, so he is waiting patiently for her to mature of her own free will.

What is the source of Emma’s immaturity? How does she exercise her free will? As ineffective parenting is a sign of disorder in an Austen novel, it is significant that Emma’s late mother was the “only person able to cope with her”; also, her valetudinarian father creates a role reversal which forces her to parent him. As Tony Tanner reminds us in Jane Austen (1986), the theme of miseducation or diseducation is also important here; she is intelligent but her mind is untrained; she is unteachable and lacks the patience or will to teach herself; she makes lists of books to read but never reads; she has never travelled beyond Hartfield, which gives her a parochial outlook; she fancies she understands everything but understands little. Complicating this, everyone apart from Knightley indulges and flatters her, so she has an inflated ego. The result of all this is a spoiled young woman; who abuses her social position; who is not in touch with reality.

Early in the novel, Emma believes she is responsible for the Weston–Taylor marriage. From then on, Emma describes her hubris and the many errors of judgment which violate Highbury’s implied social contract. As she feels Robert Martin is beneath her notice, she subverts an effective marriage between him and Harriet, even though Knightley thinks highly of him, is happy to mix with him, and wants to promote his socioeconomic interests. She is jealous of Jane Fairfax who—in spite of her disadvantage—is well bred and, indeed, is the only competitor preventing Emma from claiming the universal good will of Highbury and Donwell. She dislikes Jane’s reserved character and her aunt Miss Bates. As she may be unconsciously aware that Highbury’s treatment of Jane is a measure of its implied social contract, she resolves to think better of her in the future, but she would prefer not to.

As Emma is apparently unaware of her family’s genealogy, she has an inappropriate attitude towards other families trying to improve their social standing. She desires to publically humiliate the Cole family, to keep them in their place, because no one else will, not even Knightley. This tendency is immature, as is her misguided sense of being in control. We see this, for example, in an often-quoted passage from the geographical centre of the novel, where she is waiting for Harriet outside Ford’s store. She is surveying a busy street scene in which Highbury is going about the daily business of its implied social contract. The scene amuses her—she is self-satisfied and at peace—because: “A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer.” She is not interpreting the street scene correctly, however. She believes she is in control, but she is not in control, and Austen is setting her up for a fall.

Although Knightley and Emma occupy a secular sphere, rather than a religious sphere, Austen moves within the interdependent frames of British Empiricism and Georgian Anglicanism, which means her Enlightenment prism has an intrinsically biblical aspect to it. Relevant here is Jesus’ summary of the Torah. When asked which commandment is the greatest, his answer is:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:37–40)

Notice Jesus says these two commandments are like each other, which means Emma cannot love God until she loves her neighbours. Allegorically, there is clearly a theological dimension to Austen’s tropes and their purpose or goal (telos). We saw this in her most religious novel, Mansfield Park (1814), where Sir Thomas makes the transition from Deism to Theism. This symbolism continues in Emma, where Knightley is already a Theist, happy to walk about Highbury just as God walks in the Garden of Eden during the cool of the day (Genesis 3:8).

While secular readers—and many religious readers—will resist this level of allegorical interpretation, it is logical, demonstrable, and in keeping with Austen’s literary milieu. First, as a Theist, Knightley is neither distant nor a snob; he is personally involved in everyone’s welfare; he makes daily trips between Donwell and Highbury, mostly on foot; when Emma finally marries him, he moves to Hartfield so she can continue to care for her father. Second, he knows Emma better than she knows herself. Third, while he loves Emma, he knows she has free will and he cannot force her to love him back. Fourth, he is the only character she is in awe of, at least unconsciously; the only character who can undermine her sense of infallibility; the only character who gives her prophetic warnings which are always right. Fifth, he is jealous of Frank Churchill, as a possible contender for her affection, and, because jealously is an attribute God ascribes to himself in Exodus, Knightley can be jealous and still be a Theistic symbol.

Before Emma can fulfil the two great commandments, she must establish a right relationship with Knightley and her neighbours. She must accept the consequences of her hubris; she must accept that with:

… insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of everybody’s feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange everybody’s destiny. She was proved to have been universally mistaken, and she had not quite done nothing—for she had done mischief.

Emma’s awakening occurs gradually, in stages, including at the Crown Ball in Volume Two and during the Box Hill excursion in Volume Three.

Austen achieves a great deal at the Crown Ball. The implied social contract of Highbury is on display. The head of the symbolic order, Knightley, has no first lady to dance with, and, in the absence of one, Augusta is expected to claim precedence. This would not be so bad, if she was well-behaved and less vulgar, but the Eltons choose to treat Harriet and Emma badly, which makes Augusta a disordered first lady substitute. Emma and Knightley have a meaningful conversation, after which—for the first time—she looks at him a desirable male and admits their relationship is not that of brother and sister and might become something else.

Allegorically, the most important thing about the Ball is the multifaceted symbolism of Knightley asking Emma to dance. Here, Weston asks her to set her companions an example, which she now intends to do, in a way she has never intended before. In this dance we see a striking parallel with the theological concept of perichoresis—the dance of coinherence between the divine and human persons of the Trinity—where there is a perfect exchange of complementary power, free will, and assent, between Knightley as an archetypal symbol of God and Emma as an archetypal symbol of humanity.

The Crown Ball is a major shapely turn—if not the novel’s climax—a sign that the rising action is over and the falling action is about to commence. Something has stirred within Emma, in relation to Knightley, but she has yet to confront her hubris and atone for it. She can only do that when her imaginative world falls apart. She is unpardonably rude to Miss Bates at Box Hill, after which she must endure Knightley’s condemnation. She is mortified, on discovering Harriet believes Knightley has fallen in love with her, but she cannot be outraged or provoked because: “If Harriet, from being humble, were growing vain, it was her doing.” When threatened with the loss of his affection, she realises, for the first time: “how much of her happiness depended on being first with Mr Knightley.” Like God’s love for humanity, Knightley’s love for Emma is unconditional, unmerited, and undeserved; a free and gracious gift to her, given in spite of her faults; a love “which no other creature had at all shared”.

                                                                ~ THE END ~

All rights reserved by Rev. Dr M. Giffin

About the author

Michael Giffin is a member of JASA and JASNA. He obtained a BTh from the Sydney College of Divinity, a BA and an MLitt from the University of New England, and a PhD from the University of Western Australia. His books include:

  • Jane Austen and Religion: Salvation and Society in Georgian England (2002)
  • Jane Austen’s Religious Imagination: A Balance of Reason and Feeling (2013)
  • Female Maturity from Jane Austen to Margaret Atwood: When Bildungsroman Meets Zeitgeist (2013).

He is an ordained Anglican (Episcopalian) priest and a professed member of the Society of Saint Francis (Third Order). He was born and raised in Honolulu, lives in Sydney, and holds both United States and Australian citizenship.

For further information about Michael, visit his website at www.spanielbooks.com.

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