Jane Austen’s Emma and Social Systems Theory

Jane Austen’s Emma (1815) has a lot in common with Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (1904). Both deal with the transition from stratification to functional differentiation. Given that the earlier narrative is set in England and the later one in Russia, this might have something to do with functional differentiation coming later to Russia. But what is interesting is how the socially privileged characters respond to the decline of the traditional stratified society. When the economy differentiates as a function system, aristocratic privilege is lost.  The aristocrats cannot even process as information what is happening around them. They have no way of making sense of it.

Emma Woodhouse always thinks in terms of social rank. For example, she is worried about the rising status of the Cole family:

The Coles had been settled some years in Highbury, and were very good sort of people, friendly, liberal and unpretending; but, on the other hand, they were of low origin, in trade, and only moderately genteel. On their first coming into the country they had lived in proportion to their income, quietly, keeping little company, and that little inexpensively; but the last year or two had brought them a considerable increase of means–the house in town had yielded greater profits, and fortunes in general had smiled on them. With their wealth their view increased; their want of a larger house, their inclination for more company. They added to their house, to their number of servants, to their expenses of every sort; and by this time were, in fortune and style of living, second only to the family at Hartfield [the Woodhouses]. . . . The Coles were respectable in every way, but they ought to be taught that it was not for them to arrange the terms on which superior families would visit them. This lesson, she very much feared, they would receive only from herself.

The Coles do not invite Emma to their house because they know she is a snob; so she is left out as the other families accept the Coles. Emma’s blindness in this regard drives the narrative. She cannot accept those who rise through work or investment. Social rank is firmly tied to family; it is not about individuals.  A person who tries to earn a place in the upper-classes would be guilty of “pretending”; they would be considered pretentious.

It’s interesting that the novel as a genre explores the lives of individuals not families. Of course, families are portrayed in novels, but that the families are usually the backdrop for the exploration of the inner and outer lives of individuals or the differences among the family members.

Characters like Jane Austen’s Emma and the genteel owners of the The Cherry Orchard are portrayed as fools, but they are interesting fools.


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