Although it’s not the main focus of Jane Austen’s Emma, the main character is portrayed as doing a great deal of charitable work in her town. Because of her fortunate financial and social status, she feels a sense of obligation to help those in need. The concept of noblesse oblige (translated from French “nobility obliges”) is at work; the idea that privilege is paired with social responsibilities. This notion is codified in the bible: “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” (Luke 12:48)
When attempting to dissuade Harriet from her interest in Mr. Martin, Emma says, “The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do. A degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or other. But a farmer can need none of my help, and is, therefore, in one sense, as much above my notice as in every other he is below it.”
For Emma, at least, one can conclude her feeling of noblesse oblige has extremely specific parameters and limitations!
I use this concept of noblesse oblige to motivate Lara Robinson in A Gift for Lara. She lives in a country manor, and is keenly aware of the needs of the poor. When Miles Greystoke comes to stay, they have a conversation about charitable works. To Lara’s dismay, Miles believes, “There will always be inequality and poverty, no matter what any of us do. I believe that much of our efforts toward the poor are wasted.”
Lara thinks Miles means he’s unwilling to even try. Therein lies the conflict. Noblesse oblige does not require the privileged to guarantee a positive outcome from charitable works—-only that a sincere effort be made. Will Miles make the effort to please Lara?
For my part, I think giving out of a sense of obligation is good. Giving from the heart is better. ~ S.G. Rogers