What "Emma" tells us about Marriage
TLDR; it ought to be out of love
Marriage is one of the overarching themes in Emma. The novel starts when the young, clever, and rich Emma decides to partake in some matchmaking for her own amusement.
To be blunt, all of her attempts are proven unsuccessful. Nevertheless, we are revealed 4 new matches by the end of the novel—Harriet and Mr. Martin, Mr. and Mrs. Elton, and Emma and Mr. Knightley. These 4 couples give us a picture of what marriage was like in Austen's time.
Harriet is an illegitimate daughter of an unknown man and Mr. Martin is a farmer whose family rents land from Mr. Knightley. Although Emma tries to pair Harriet with the higher class Mr. Elton, the two eventually end up together. This is the most realistic match because those who married were often from the same class.
Jane Fairfax is an orphan brought up by the Campbells. Despite her humble background, she is an elegant, talented, accomplished woman, who Emma is initially jealous of. She works as a governess in order to provide for herself. Frank Churchill is her secret fiancé, the charming son of the wealthy Churchills. The engagement is kept secret at first because the match is surely to be disapproved by Mrs. Churchill, but she conveniently dies and they are ready to get married. Here, a woman with modest means gets together with a man of higher means.
Mr. Elton is the village vicar who "will only marry for money," as Mr. Knightley astutely observes. This becomes apparent because after he is rejected by Emma, he quickly meets and marries Augusta Hawkins, who is arrogant and shallow but possesses a huge fortune. Now, a man marries above himself for a large dowry.
Emma is independent and well-off, so she does not intend to marry. She also acknowledges her need to stay home because she is the only one left to look after her attention-demanding father, after her older sister Isabella and governess Miss Taylor leave. Similarly, Mr. Knightley is a wealthy landowner, so he does not need to rush into marriage. He is a kind and honest, and an excellent judge of character—the only one to notice flaws in Emma and tell her directly. They take their time to become aware of their feelings for one another, and their long years of friendship blossom into a romantic love. This is Austen's ideal type of marriage, because it is done purely out of love, not out of necessity.
While most marriages in the 18th century took place to raise one's social standing, Austen highly regarded marriages done out of love.
Marriage was a tool for many to climb up the social ladder. Because women could not own property and faced limitations in employment, the only way to acquire wealth was through a partner.
Marriage was an opportunity for many women to better their situation, but also trapped them in situations where they could not be career-oriented and became essentially governesses of their own homes.
Furthermore, all the women who get married adopt their husband’s name. This means that once women say their vows, they instantly became one with their husbands. They lose their original identity, and sacrifice themselves for their family. Although most women in the novel are happy in their situation, it is indispensable that had they lived now, they would have drastically different goals and dreams in life.
Because of limiting circumstances, it often was necessary for marriages to be done with the intent of raising one's social standing. Austen observed this, and felt that that was a shame. There was so much room for love, but the way society was at the time didn't allow it.
Emma is often criticized for the lack of plot, to which I have to agree with. It's not the most action filled story; in fact, it's about a vain girl going out of her way to make matches, failing miserably, then falling in love herself.
But at the same time, perhaps Austen wouldn’t have been able to include so much commentary on marriage in the 18th century without getting us involved into the mundanities of their everyday lives.
The idea of marriage as a means to security and stability remains to this day. People marry for money. People are expected to settle down in their twenties and start a family. People pity all the "Mrs. Bateses," the happily single women in their thirties and forties.
Still, we can sympathize with Emma's inner feminist, which would not have been the case in the 18th century. In a conversation with Harriet, Emma firmly states that she is not interested in marriage:
"I have none of the usual inducements to marry. Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing!... And without love, I am sure I should be a fool to change such a situation as mine. Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want: I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband's house..." (Emma, ch. 10).
Jane Austen, who remained celibate for her whole life, most likely felt the same way. She was fortunate enough to focus on her writing career, financially supported by her family. So there was not much need to marry.
I think if she were still alive, she would be glad to hear that we now proudly identify with Emma's words.