A novel about a Lady, ‘by a Lady’; Emma through a feminist lens


All the literary training that a woman had in the early nineteenth century was training in the observation of character, in the analysis of emotion. Her sensibilities had been educated for centuries by the influence of the common sitting room”   -Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

A classic masterpiece, Emma by Jane Austen is centered around ‘handsome, clever and rich’ Emma Woodhouse. While tracing her moral development it offers a nuanced and insightful account of the so called ‘domestic’ milieu of Victorian era. The limited scope of actions within the plot involves the aristocratic section of society. It is a smoothly weaved penetrating study of human’s vanity, self deception, jealously with the backdrop of the 19th century socio- economic pressure and constrictions within the society. The light romantic tale is ingeniously fused with narrator’s irony, and displays traits of mystery and comedy of manner.

Depicted as a lively and independent woman who asserts her individuality, Emma is a new kind of attractive femininity claiming equality. Emma considers herself a prodigious matchmaker and connives to strike matches on basis of her conjectures while remaining immune to marriage prospects. With ‘a room of her own’ she does ‘just what she liked’ and thus doesn’t have second thoughts about rejecting Mr. Elton’s proposal. She remarks ‘it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to generous public. A single woman with a narrow income must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid’. And thus conveys the possibility of women living without the dependence on men. In this respect, Emma is a strong heroine who takes actions irrespective of any social or economic consequence and seems to offer an alternative to the conventional romantic plot.

All of Austen’s novels include love and attraction tied to wealth in a big way. Emma, too, is structured around marriage. Significance of marriage lies in the attached possibility of ‘the comfortable fortune, the respectable establishment, and the rise in the world which must satisfy them’. With her handsome fortune Emma is self sufficient, but the author never lets us forget the vulnerability of others without the backup of beauty and wealth in such a social context. Miss Fairfax, ‘an equal of Miss Woodhouse’ with no fortune is a victim of this social framework. Even Mr. Weston had the determination ‘of never settling till he could purchase Randalls. He had made his fortune, brought his house, and obtained his wife’. Miss Smithson cannot reject Mr. Elton’s proposal given women’s paucity of choices. Mr. Woodhouse’s character is unconventional for his constant reproach of marriage, employed to offer stringent critique of the marriage market.

The unhealthy  education  of women is underscored by referring to the Mrs Goggard’s school ‘where girls might be out of the way , and scramble themselves into a little education, without any danger of coming back prodigies’. Similarly the ‘project’ Miss Harriet taken by Emma as for grooming and match making is to be taught manners and elegance ‘to introduce her into good society’. It reveals the process of internalization of patriarchal ideas by the women characters. Interestingly, Emma’s efforts seem ‘doomed to blindness’ as she creates problems for Harriet and herself. Harriet gets swayed by her beauty to fancy a wonderful match for herself thereby ignoring her own feelings for Martin. Austen is unleashing a stringent critique of the conduct books which ‘reduces women to creatures if feeling rather than reason and that of female meekness and artificial grace’ (Mary Wollstonecraft). The condition of working women is illustrated as no better than non- working women in the text so it is no wonder that Miss Fairfax considers governess job to the act of slavery.

Is it a feminist text? Observations of feminists’ critics vary for the text is complicated with myriad layers of questions of class, marriage, autonomy and patriarchal mannerism. In spite of the enormously gripping plot, the text’s closure remains disappointing. As the plot unfolds, Emma’s character gets confined within the patriarchal structure. Austen brings in the class angle through the mistakes committed by Emma due to her excessive pride, upper class insensitivity and arrogance. She explains “With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of everybody’s feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed everybody’s destiny. She was proved to have been universally mistaken. She had brought evil on Harriet, on herself, and she too much feared, on Mr. Knightley.”  However, the text conveys the sense that ‘real evil’ lies in Emma’s ‘power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think too well of herself’. The power structure which relegates women to secondary status remains intact as the text echoes patriarchal discourse in challenging protagonist’s exercise of power and authority. While it is unnerving to note that the dominancy of masculine power goes unquestioned by the narrator.

Like Darcy who emerges as Elizabeth’s saviour in Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Knightley is the protective figure for Emma who educates her about her mistakes and Frank Churchill. Mr. Knightley resembles a paternal figure for Emma in offering guidance and criticism. Wendy Moffat remarks that ‘for some critics the problem is not marriage itself but marriage to Knightley. Knightley’s suit- ability as a lover is an open question throughout Emma, and his sudden shift from mentor to lover is itself a comic turn’. It is problematic that Emma’s moral development is undertaken by Mr. Knightley for it can be read as the re- establishment of patriarchy over feminist ideology. Somewhere the feminist character of heroine comes into question by her projection as imprudent and ignorant whereas Mr. Knightley ‘as infinitely the superior’. Emma’s constant self reproaching and acceptance of inferiority to Mr. Knightley’s prudence can be judged as over emphasized given the fact that he himself errors in judging Emma’s relationship with Frank Churchill.  The narrator is amplifying the disparaging voice of Mr. Knightley throughout the text while examining Emma’s actions. The question arises if Emma’s character undergoes the change to make to fit within the role of ‘wife’ in which her sister, Isabella perfectly fits in.

The novels of Jane Austen have been read as  ‘feminine texts’ by Showalter in her study of emergence of feminist literature by applying gynocriticism. Austen is remarkable in given space to the ostensibly trivial affairs of domestic life of ‘social visits, music and artistic endeavors’ which characterized the life of women in literature.  Reading the novel through a feminist lens, one finds it revolutionary in presenting intelligent and powerful women characters while illuminating the dark possibilities of economic considerations lurking in the backdrop. However, the ending remains subscribed to the patriarchal narrative of finding happiness only within marriage.

Submitted by  Sheetal (208)



Works cited

Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. R. W. Chapman. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1923

Moffat, Wendy. ‘ Identifying with Emma: Some Problems for the Feminist Reader’, College English, Vol. 53, No. 1 (Jan., 1991), pp. 45-58

Showalter, Elaine. “ Toward a Feminist Poetics,” The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theory, 1985

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice , 1813

Woolf, Virginia. ‘A Room of One’s Own”,1929




2 thoughts on “A novel about a Lady, ‘by a Lady’; Emma through a feminist lens”

  1. This essay is well argued and the thoughts presented are unbiased. While Austen is hailed for giving a feminist streak to Emma, she is also critiqued for appropriating the notion that a male support is needed for a herione to progress in her life. The language is compact and impressive. The essay is also structured in a proper manner.


  2. Emma is a well known literary character presented by Austen. The research work perfectly traces the mode of development in Emma’s character who embarks her own identity by claiming feminine equality.


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