A hundred and seventy years apart, yet Jane Austen’s novel and Amy Heckerling’s film both explore the themes of marriage, money and social status. The values and techniques of the composers are demonstrated by the final chapter of Emma and Scene Three of Clueless, at the school walkway. On the one hand, we have the small, traditional English village of Highbury. On the other, Beverly Hills, icon of consumerism, globalisation and change. Both are experiencing escalating social fluidity as wealth becomes the main criteria for social status, rather than land, family or race. Austen and Heckerling suggest that personal worth should be valued more highly, as illustrated by Mr Knightley’s approval of tenant farmer Robert Martin and Cher’s close friendship with African American Dionne. The composers also emphasise the need for individuals to fulfil their obligations to society. These values reflect how the composers were influenced by their political contexts: Austen by the French Revolution and Heckerling by the campaign for legal equality between races and genders. Emma and Clueless both support a hierarchical society. In each text, this is cleverly communicated through the language. Emma’s wit and Mr Knightley’s unfailing courtesy mark their breeding, while Mrs Elton’s vulgar familiarity – ‘Mr E’ and ‘Knightley’ – suggest her coarseness and inferiority. In Heckerling’s film, the characters’ wit and ability to comprehend jargon likewise marks their social position. Cher’s “full-on Monet” and Dionne’s “our stock would plummet” acts as a stark contrast to Tai’s “You guys talk like grown-ups.”
Despite the emphasis of society on money, Austen and Heckerling convey disapproval of materialism and consumerism. In Emma, this is achieved through satire, for instance, juxtaposing Mrs Elton’s comments about white satin with “the perfect happiness of the union” of Emma and Mr Knightley. Clueless uses contemporary allusions and stereotypes, such as Dionne’s...
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