PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.25, NO.1 (Winter 2004)

Aristos or Aristocracy? Alliances in Emma

Marti D. Lee


Marti D. Lee (email: earned her MA in English from Georgia Southern University where she currently teaches composition while pursuing a PhD in Literature from the University of South Carolina.


class, the categorization of people according to social or economic distinctions, often plays a pivotal role in Jane Austen’s novels.  Although Emma proves no exception to this model, the classification of characters as Aristos may be more relevant than dividing them into social classes.  John Fowles coined the term Aristos, based on the Greek word meaning “best,” to refer to characters who exhibit certain qualities of individual superiority.  Rather than family name, property, wealth, or social standing, Fowles proposes criteria such as integrity, compassion, mental and emotional strength, innate intelligence, an existential sense of responsibility, and high moral standards to measure a character’s worth, a natural aristocracy rather than a social hierarchy imposed by civilization.  GP, in John Fowles’s The Collector, sums it up best in his personal code: “‘But you don’t compromise your background.  You cut off all the old you that gets in the way of the maker you.  If you’re suburban, . . . you throw away (cauterize) the suburbs.  If you’re working class, you cauterize the working class in you.  And the same whatever class you are, because class is primitive and silly’” (135).  GP, an Aristos character, makes the point that class distinctions are outdated and immaterial because an individual’s ability to create, to be extraordinary, and to be secure in one’s own superiority are the traits that make a human being special, not what family or social circle into which one happens to be born.  Each person must recognize this and not depend upon class to define his or her personality.  Aristos characters also recognize that they are of the “Many,” but they must constantly strive to be of the “Few” (Fowles, “Aristos” 212-13).  Although this may seem elitist or snobbish, the distinctions between the Few and the Many are not external such as money or position but rather internal such as morality, values, and clear-sightedness.


Despite the fact that Emma is a typical nineteenth-century novel of manners and the characters spend a great deal of time treating the topics of social standing and wealth, in actuality, many of the criteria are present to designate them as Aristos.  For example, they must achieve balance between judgment/understanding (sense) and fancy/imagination (sensibility), a topic which clearly fascinated Austen, and not be afraid of setbacks and defeats as they strive to become Aristos.  In fact, Aristos characters must usually overcome impediments on the way to fulfilling their potential.  Mr. Knightley possesses this balance, but Emma must struggle continuously in her quest to acquire it.  Novels that incorporate the Aristos idea commonly include the presence of superior characters as guides or mentors and inferior characters as foils.  Mr. Knightley acts as a mentor to Emma as she becomes an Aristos character, and Mr. and Mrs. Elton, as foils, present marked contrasts to them both.  To a lesser degree, Jane Fairfax functions as Frank Churchill’s mentor, and both Robert Martin and Emma serve as guides to Harriet.  Regardless of the fact that most of the couples in the novel eventually marry within their own social spheres, the class distinctions are trivial when compared with each person’s true worth as a human being and, consequently, value as a potential partner.


Mr. Knightley is the main Aristos character, and although he happens to be the wealthiest and most highly regarded man in Highbury, neither high social standing nor wealth is criteria for the Aristos designation, but rather a natural grace and finesse, a delicacy of feeling and sense of compassion that all the money in the world cannot buy.  Certainly there can be no denying his superior social position, however, Mr. Knightley’s moral supremacy and role of mentor to the Aristos character in suspension, Emma, is more essential than his economic status.  Austen tells the reader that he is a “sensible man” with a “cheerful manner” (9) but, more importantly, that he always tells the truth to Emma rather than flatter her as everyone else is wont to do.  As he states when remonstrating her for her treatment of Miss Bates at Box Hill, “‘This is not pleasant to you, Emma—and it very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will,—I will tell you truths while I can . . .’” (375).  While most of Emma’s devotees, such as Mr. Elton and Mr. Woodhouse, would probably agree with Mrs. Weston that “‘Emma must do Harriet good’” (36), Mr. Knightley, quite accurately, accuses Emma of raising Harriet’s expectations and making her so vain that “‘nobody within her reach will be good enough for her’” (64).  Although certainly not unaware of class issues in Harriet and Robert’s suitability for each other, he is more concerned with their moral and intellectual match.  He claims that Robert is “‘as much [Harriet’s] superior in sense as in situation’” (my italics, 61).  Mr. Knightley goes on to ask Emma, “‘What are Harriet Smith’s claims, whether of birth, nature, or education, to any connection higher than Robert Martin?’” (61).  Martin, despite being “only” a farmer, is of a higher scale than Harriet, apparently the illegitimate daughter of a member of the upper classes, by virtue of his abilities and intelligence as Mr. Knightley insists, “‘Robert Martin’s manners have sense, sincerity, and good-humour to recommend them; and his mind has more true gentility than Harriet Smith could understand’” (65).  Besides being well aware of both Harriet’s and Emma’s shortcomings and Robert’s merits, Mr. Knightley is also cognizant of Elton’s greed and is blinded by neither his standing as the town vicar nor by his pretty manners.  Mr. Knightley’s ability to see with clear or whole sight marks him as the primary Aristos mentor in the novel.


Emma, second only to Mr. Knightley in social standing, is the main Aristos character in suspension.  In the beginning of the novel, Austen describes Emma as “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition” (5).  Despite the descriptions of a frivolous spoiled young lady who has a “disposition to think a little too well of herself” (5), signs indicate that Emma has the potential to become much more.  She is “of no feeble character, . . . more equal to her situation than most girls, . . . and had sense and energy and spirits that might be hoped would bear her well and happily through [life’s] little difficulties and privations” (18).  Emma, no feeble-minded or weak willed young lady who cannot endure hardships or disillusionment, but rather a strong and intelligent woman (or at least has the potential to become one) who can deal with whatever obstacles life may throw in her path, grows as a character in many ways.  For example, her sense of her own worth goes through a transformation during the course of the novel.  Although well aware of her lack of talent as a painter, she is content to let others flatter her in the beginning, but later she freely admits and even insists that Jane Fairfax is a better musician than she.  She refuses to acknowledge the defects in her portrait of Harriet, yet she is willing to take her portion of the responsibility in the miscommunication with Elton about his feelings for her.


Despite Emma’s willingness to share blame in their misunderstanding, she shows awareness of her superiority over Elton, and this type of consciousness is another characteristic of Aristos.  Emma must realize that Elton is not beneath her because of his rank or income, but because of his lack of intelligence and discernment.  As she reflects on his unexpected and unwelcome proposal, Emma thinks, “Perhaps it was not fair to expect him to feel how very much he was her inferior in talent, and all the elegancies of mind.  The very want of such equality might prevent his perception of it . . . .” (136).  She realizes that he is unable to see their unsuitability for each other because his “conceited head” (136) allows him to believe what he wants to believe about her reciprocity of feelings; however, as further proof that she is growing as an Aristos character, she accepts her share of the blame, realizing that she has unintentionally sent false signals to him in her quest to attach him to Harriet, as she goes on, “If she had misinterpreted his feelings, she had little right to wonder that he, with self-interest to blind him, should have mistaken her’s” (136).  She comprehends her own supremacy over Elton in intelligence and delicacy of feeling, but also admits her mistake in falsely encouraging his attentions while trying to play matchmaker for her friend.


In addition to the awareness of one’s own superiority, an Aristos character must exhibit compassion and not inflict unnecessary pain, particularly to people who are inferior.  Emma fails in this respect when she belittles and insults Miss Bates on Box Hill, but she quickly realizes this and learns from her mistakes.  Appropriately, Mr. Knightley, the Aristos mentor, points out Emma’s unkindness, which opens her eyes to her unfeeling cruelty to one who is far beneath her in life and “‘should secure [her] compassion’” (375).  Emma has been developing into an Aristos character throughout the novel as witnessed by her actions and attitudes toward others, but this scene represents a true epiphany for her and allows her to open herself up more fully to her potential.  Mr. Knightley’s remonstrance causes her to do some true soul searching and “a mind like her’s, once opening to suspicion, made rapid progress” as she “acknowledge[s] the whole truth” (407-08):


Her own conduct, as well as her own heart, was before her in the same few minutes.  She saw it all with a clearness which had never blessed her before.  How improperly she had been acting by Harriet!  How inconsiderate, how indelicate, how irrational, how unfeeling had been her conduct! (408)


If not for the incident on Box Hill, Emma may never have this moment of clarity, and hence she and Mr. Knightley would never come to their eventual state of synchronicity.  It is not enough for her to continue in her state of Aristos in suspension and he in his role as Aristos mentor; it is necessary for them both to reach full Aristos status.


While Mr. Knightley and Emma happen to match perfectly in both class and Aristos categories, the pairing of Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill presents an excellent example of the importance of Aristos qualities over class distinctions.  As a Weston and a Churchill, Frank is of a lofty social order, but Jane is of common birth, has little or no income, and must be dependant upon the charity of others for her livelihood.  Despite this obvious disparity in their classes, Jane’s intellectual and moral superiority elevate her over Frank.  As Mr. Knightley remarks, “‘He may yet turn out well.—With such a woman he has a chance’” (428).  Frank’s dishonesty about his engagement, his avoidance of his aunt’s displeasure at the expense of visiting his father, and his cheerful disregard for other people’s feelings clearly mark him as a non-Aristos character.  Jane’s influence on him, however, brings him much closer to this state by the end.  He owns up to his mistakes and apologizes to his family and friends for his dishonesty and insensitivity.  Once Frank begins to move closer to the Aristos, he and Jane can freely consummate their relationship.


In contrast to Jane’s sensitivity and Frank’s growth, Mr. and Mrs. Elton’s static unpleasantness serves as a foil for the Aristos characters.  Mr. Elton’s behavior—his shallow greed, insensitive treatment of Harriet, and callous disregard for Emma’s protestations to his courtesy—manifest unsavory qualities at best.  Robert Martin’s conduct, on the other hand, his well-written letter of proposal to Harriet, his willingness to accept her refusal gracefully, and his instinctive sense of propriety, provides a sharp contrast to Mr. Elton’s fatuous riddle and disregard for other’s feelings.  Mr. Elton’s inclusion into Highbury society of his rude, crass, and obnoxious wife further indicate his lack of taste and perception.  Mr. Knightley points out Mrs. Elton’s deficiencies as he compares her to Harriet: “‘Harriet Smith has some first-rate qualities, which Mrs. Elton is totally without.  An unpretending, single-minded, artless girl—infinitely to be preferred by any man of sense and taste to such a woman as Mrs. Elton’” (331).  The marked contrast between the two women, affirmation that Harriet is developing Aristos qualities, also demonstrates Mrs. Elton’s function as a foil.  Mrs. Elton’s indifference to Jane’s wishes in her quest to place Jane in a suitable position emphasizes this further.  Overall, The Eltons’ insensitivity, tastelessness, and crass preoccupation with money and position compare unfavorably to Robert’s tact, Mr. Knightley’s instinctive grace, Frank Churchill’s evolution, Harriet’s self-effacement, Jane’s discretion, and Emma’s (social) modesty.


The pairing of couples in Emma provides a strong indication of the social irrelevance but moral importance of the Aristos character and his or her station in life.  As Fowles says of the Aristos character: “He knows the difference between himself and the Many cannot be one of birth or wealth or power or cleverness.  It can be based only on intelligent and enacted goodness” (“Aristos” 212).  Although Mr. Knightley and Emma, the two principal characters, are both of superior birth and breeding, their Aristos qualities, such as clear or whole sight, compassion, intuition, discernment, and intelligence suit them perfectly for one another.  Frank’s social superiority and Jane’s moral excellence complement each other interestingly, while Robert’s innate tact and Harriet’s modest demeanor pair nicely.  Mr. and Mrs. Elton’s divergence from Aristos status make them a perfect match; although she is wealthier, and he is a rector and more socially acceptable, their mutual tastelessness and utter lack of consideration for others make them ideal for each other.  Class distinctions were an important aspect of nineteenth-century life, and as such, cannot be ignored in a novel set during that era; however, the notion of the Aristos character as presented by John Fowles makes intriguing and appropriate statements about the characters in Emma and their suitability as couples.



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  Emma.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1986.

Fowles, John.  “Aristos in the Individual.”  The Aristos: A Self-Portrait in Ideas.  Boston: Little Brown, 1964.  212-14.

_____.  The Collector.  New York: Dell Books, 1963.


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