Comparing Clueless and Emma

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Adaptations of Jane Austen’s, Emma, are usually period pieces diligent in capturing and replicating the manners, dress, language and values of the original text. Clueless, written and directed by Amy Heckerling, deviates drastically from the norm, as the film is not a period piece. While Emma is set in the early nineteenth century in the country village of Highbury, sixteen miles out of London, England, Clueless is set in Bronson Alcott High School almost two hundred years later, in the late twentieth century. Despite the significantly different geographical and historical setting and the diverse social values, lifestyles, and issues than those depicted in Emma, Amy Heckerling’s high school setting retains and is faithful to many of the characteristics exhibited by the characters and society found in Highbury. Evidence of this is clearly illustrated in examining the many parallels in terms of social class/groups, characterizations, events, plot, and the importance of themes such as relationships, and the process of growth leading to self-awareness in both the novel Emma and the film, Clueless.

As the transformed and transported Highbury, the modern high school in Clueless is inhabited by a younger cast that the characters in Emma. However, the high school exhibits a parallel concept of class structure and all it entails, as those found in Highbury. Highbury’s social structure is presented from the perspective of the upper middle class English society, primarily through perceptions of Austen’s female protagonist Emma and in her daily actions and interactions with the rest of the characters, and Austen’s use of free indirect discourse. The high school’s social structure is similarly presented in Clueless but through Heckerling’s female protagonist Cher and Heckerling’s use of the voiceover. Highbury and Broson Alcott high school are both small self-contained societies that exhibit varying but rigid hierarchy’s which have great impact on the daily life of its’ characters. Traditionally, Highbury’s society is a rigid hierarchical class structure based importantly from lineage and gentleman-landowner, followed by “traditional professionals” such as doctors, and Mr. Elton (the vicar), and military officers (Colonel Campbell and Captian Weston), tradespeople come next (upwardly mobile Coles, and the Fords) while tenant farmers (Robert Martin) are slightly above the hired servants, and the poor (gypsies) are at the bottom. Class standing or social rank in Emma’s Highbury is extremely important as it dictates marriage opportunities, social interactions and codes of behaviour. Attempting to rise above one’s class is only truly attainable through marriage. Highbury’s inhabitants examine marriage in terms of “inequality of fortune”(179) or a little “disparity in age”(179) but the aim is always to better oneself by marrying in a better or like class. It is not prudent to marry below own class. Mr. Weston did both. First he married to better himself, which backfired, since his wife spent most of his money. Miss Taylor, his second wife and Emma’s former governess, was below his rank. Therefore, Miss Taylor has made a good marriage with an upward change in status. Accumulating wealth to better ones rank takes generations to gain acceptance, as it did Mr. Weston. The Coles are grudgedly being tolerated after ten years of obtaining wealthy status. Marriage is the quickest and most profitable route to take to cross the great division of classes in Highbury. Each class in Highbury’s society is expected to adhere to specific codes of behaviour according to their status. Since the focus of Emma is on the upper class, they have a moral responsibility to be of service to those less fortunate. As a gentleman and the moral voice in the story, Mr. George Knightly takes care of the Bates by giving them bushels of apples and making his carriage available to them. He saves Harriet from embarrassment and dances with...
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