A single woman of good fortune is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else!” (CITATION). Emma by Jane Austen is an 1815 novel that centers around the life of a respectable, pleasant young woman named Emma Woodhouse. The novel follows Emma’s life and the events of her small town, Highbury. With little else in means of entertainment and no desire to find a husband for herself, Emma takes to matching up other young couples. Unfortunately, she finds little talent in the skill and more trouble than she expected. In the end, however, all works out for the best, and all the significant characters find their perfect match by the end of the novel, even Emma herself. Although it may leave something to be desired by modern feminist readers, Jane Austen‘s incorporation of feminist ideas throughout Emma was revolutionary for the time period in which she wrote the novel. Her representation of women and refusal to conform to traditional gender roles is groundbreaking, even compared to modern literature; however, her novel is so entirely focused on women that there is not an equal opportunity for male characters to develop their own complex stories.
Jane Austen challenges gender roles by refusing to bind her characters with the suffocating chains of traditional masculinity and femininity. She creates well-rounded, interesting characters by allowing them to behave and express emotions without the restriction of masculinity or femininity according to their gender. The main character of the novel, Emma Woodhouse, portrays traditionally feminine characteristics without losing any of her power or influence. On the contrary, her feminine qualities and activities reinforce her achievements and exemplify her intelligence, class, and proficiency in a variety of disciplines. She is a gracious hostess who runs the house efficiently, plays piano, paints, and dances, yet none of these activities imply that she is silly, fanciful, or foolish for being traditionally feminine. Through her writing, Austen empowers women to be feminine without fear of inferiority. She gives as much importance to the home and the arts as she does to intelligence and rationality. Austen does not unrealistically confine Emma to feminine traits but allows her to express herself naturally with both powerfully feminine and traditionally masculine qualities. Emma radiates the intelligence, confidence, rationality, and emotional strength generally attributed to men. Despite the limits society places on her, Emma does only what she wants to do, “highly esteeming Miss Taylor’s judgment, but directed chiefly by her own” (CiTATION). Ms. Woodhouse is independent and capable, and she is not the only one.
Emma is filled with independent female characters who take care of themselves and each other in order to survive in a society in which it is difficult for them to make substantial money, or even inherit it. Nurturing or emotional qualities are attributed to several female characters, but it by no means implies that they are submissive or inferior. Mrs. Weston is a strong example of such a woman. She is like a mother to Emma, a kind-hearted, affectionate woman, and the picture of femininity. Like Emma, her feminine qualities do not belittle the strength of her character. Other characters frequently admire Mrs. Weston for her ability to manage responsibility and refusal to back down when she believes in something. Mrs. Weston remains confident in her beliefs, refusing to submit even when she is up against Mr. Knightley’s strong opposition. When, for example, Mr. Knightley suggests that Emma and Harriet’s friendship is no benefit to either woman, Mrs. Weston defends them. She insists that, as a man, he cannot possibly “be a good judge of the comforts a woman feels” by being in the company of another woman (CITATION). Her comment draws attention to the fact that men and women experience life very differently and must make an effort to understand the perspective and experiences of the other.
Women in Austen’s novels are not the only ones with the freedom to express their emotions and behave without regard for gender roles. Male characters also often express traditionally feminine characteristics. For example, Austen describes Mr. Westion an “open-hearted man” while she describes his wife, Mrs. Weston, as a “rational and unaffected woman” (CITATION). These descriptions of the couple would be considered oxymorons when interpreted according to the conventional definitions of man and woman. Austen allows her male characters to express the traditional feminine characteristic of showing emotion without being ridiculed by their community. When it comes to romance, the men are allowed to be just as passionate and invested as the women. Every significant male character exemplifies this enthusiasm for marriage, from Weston and Martin to Churchill and Knightley. They care about the women they marry beyond their visual appeal and potential usefulness as a wife. Mr. Knightley even compliments Robert Martin to Emma, insisting that the man has “too much real feeling to address any woman on the hap-hazard of selfish passion” (CITATION). The young farmer cares enough for Harriet Smith not to put her in a position that he believes will emotionally harm either of them. Robert Martin expresses his emotions and considers the consequences of his actions, and when he is initially rejected by Harriet, he accepts her answer rather than demanding she marry him or harassing her. His character reinforces feminist ideas in the novel because his expression is not limited by traditional gender roles, and he respects the decisions of the women in his life, even when it is not convenient for him.
Some male characters are still shown as the traditional protector, like when Frank saves Harriet, but the instance serves more to cause a misunderstanding that shapes the plot than to make Frank Churchill seem dominant or powerful.
Perhaps the most groundbreaking aspect of the novel is the main character’s lack of desire for marriage. During the 1800s, marriage was often a young woman’s only means of providing for herself because society limited her to occupations that offered minimal earnings, certainly no enough to build a fortune. In addition, society expected young women to marry to fulfill traditionally uxorial duties. Fortunately for Ms. Woodhouse, she has only her father to care for and a surplus of wealth to support her independent lifestyle. Regardless of social expectations, Emma declares from the beginning of the novel that “she will never marry” (CITAtION). She remains true to this statement for most of the novel, often reminding her friends that she has “very little intention of ever marrying at all” (CiTATION). Even when she finds herself harboring amorous feelings for Frank Churchill, Emma remains committed to avoiding spousal attachment. It is refreshing to have a female character whose story is not about a man. Emma seems to genuinely have no interest in marriage, a fresh narrative for young women in 1815, and still uncommon in modern literature. Her story seems to be a simple one about enjoying friends, family, and dancing. Alas, Austen does not allow Emma to escape her feminine destiny, commented through Mrs. Weston’s character that Emma’s resolve to avoid marriage “means absolutely nothing” (CITATION).
In the end, Emma does marry Mr. Knightley, reinforcing the age-old narrative of a young woman whose story ends with marriage and a happily ever after. There seem to be few female protagonists whose stories do not end with a man. For this reason, literature often reinforces the idea that a woman will eventually give up her naive notions of remaining single and choose to marry. Women in literature are constantly waiting for Mr. Right to swoop in and turn her life into one of domesticity. This cliche is harmful representation for young women because they are there is little value in their lives before a man comes along, for that is when their life truly begins. Rather than being encouraged to find fulfillment in life by themselves, young women are constantly reminded of the inevitability of marriage. Although Emma’s matrimonial ending reinforces the marriage plot for young women, Austen redeems the marriages by emphasizing the importance of equality in a relationship.
During the early nineteenth century, women were expected to marry whether they existed in society or literature. It is possible that Jane Austen needed to end her novels with the happily ever after in order to have people read her books at all. In any terms, Austen allows the marriages, but she uses them to present unconventional thoughts on the subject. Emma, ever critical of marriage, takes every opportunity to remind the impressionable Harriet that “[a] woman is not to marry a man merely because she is asked, or because he is attached to her” (CITATION). Society taught Harriet that marriage is her only ending, and she cannot hope for something better. By spending time with Emma, Harriet learns that she has more power over her future than she thought. Emma teaches young women that they do not owe their bodies or services to men, and they are not obligated to marry a man just because he likes her. The novel emphasizes the gravity of marriage, that is “[i]t not a state to be entered into with doubtful feelings [or] with half a heart” simply because a person is expected to (CITATION). Ms. Woodhouse stands by her beliefs when Mr. Elton, a man she is not interested in herself, proposes to her during a carriage ride. Instead of accepting, as she is expected, Emma gently refuses the man and explains her previous misunderstanding of his affections. Given this example of Emma’s feelings, her marriage is a surprise. Her empowering take on marriage suggests that she would not have accepted Mr. Knightley’s refusal had she felt anything less than genuine desire to continue her life with him. Additionally, Emma discovers her feelings before she has any notion of their reciprocation, so a reader can be certain that they do not emerge from any pressure by Mr. Knightley. In the end, Emma is the one to decide when and whom she wants to marry. She controls the direction of her own fate, and she chooses a marriage of mutual love and admiration.
The lack of representation of women in literature is a common issue, even today. In fact, literature centers so much around men and their lives that there is even a three-question test to help people uncover gender inequality in media and literature alike. Often referred to as the “Bechdel-Wallace test” after the women who created it, the three-point quiz asks whether the work 1) has at least two women in it, who 2) have a conversation, about 3) something other than a man (CITATION). Emma certainly passes this test, but if a reader reverses this test to apply to men, the novel will pass only the first question. The few male characters rarely interact by themselves, and when they do, it is to discuss a possible marriage with one of the women. In fact, most of the male characters do not even like each other. For example, the two most significant male characters, Frank Churchill and Mr. Kightley do not get along because Mr. Knightley is jealous of Frank Churchill’s flirtatious relationship with Emma, with whom Mr. Knightley is in love. Even their lack of interaction is because of a woman. In Austen’s novel, male characters take the supporting role, a rare occurrence even in modern media and literature. Emma is one of few novels in which the male characters seem to be included solely for the purpose of the female characters, to marry or discuss their manners. While this role reversal is a refreshing change for female readers, it is not consistent with feminist ideology, which demands equal representation for men and women. Equal representation is important to feminist ideology because it is the only way to portray the genders as equal. Consumers of literature should be able to understand that men and women lead equally complex and interesting lives, and no gender is superior to another in any regard. A feminist reader may find Emma problematic in a feminist analysis because it portrays men as supporting characters in women’s lives rather than people with their own complex experiences and emotions
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