In its depictions of characters' processes of decision-making, Jane Austen's Emma incorporates a model of choice that later came to dominate neoclassical economics. This model is preferential choice, which asserts that individuals choose based on their subjective, idiosyncratic preferences rather than following socially sanctioned value systems. While Emma represents preferential choice and illustrates its connection to consumer capitalism, unlike neoclassical economists, the novel ultimately exhibits skepticism toward this modern model of decision-making. This skepticism is rooted in Emma's conservative economic and political vision. Its conservatism paradoxically gestures to a point that is important to some of today's progressive thought: that our valorization of preferential choice—of the idea that choices should be a matter of individual desire for one option among many—is not inevitable and comes with its own significant difficulties. This article shows that even as the novel distances itself from consumerism's mode of preferential choosing, Emma's representation of preferential choice acknowledges its aesthetic importance in the construction of interiorized characters and in open-ended narrative forms. Such an acknowledgment shows Austen's recognition that consumerist habits of mind are important to literary production, especially at a moment when novels vied for attention in a competitive literary marketplace. In such a marketplace, readers chose among many disparate titles; the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century literary field was, indeed, one of the first manifestations of modern consumerism wherein overflowing markets tried to convince shoppers to express their individuality through their preferences for some goods over others.

You do not currently have access to this content.