On the surface, Jane Austen’s Emma reads as a simple account of its protagonist Emma Woodhouse’s emotional development. Through the course of the novel, Emma comes to realize the folly of her arrogance and cluelessness. Emma’s realization of her shortcomings allows her to correct her reprehensible thoughts and opinions and attain humility as a result. Whereas Emma displays an assortment of protofeminist beliefs at the onset of the novel, her pseudo-maturation causes her to forego these beliefs in order to acclimate to the society she resides in. Despite being the most affluent and respectable woman in Highbury, Emma experiences both empowerment and oppression during her maturation. Her unique position sheds light upon the novel’s conflicting opinion towards gender, specifically on matters such as empowerment, sovereignty, and individuality.
Although Emma is the de facto head of Hartfield on behalf of her hypochondriac father, she exercises significantly less power in the greater world of Highbury. In an attempt to influence the world within her reach, Emma continuously engages in matchmaking throughout the novel. Her hobby is promptly contested by none other than Mr. Knightley himself, who calls her match between Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston a “lucky guess” of “idle” thoughts and hopes (Austen 14). Emma responds:
“… a lucky guess is never merely luck. There is always some talent in it. And as to my poor word ‘success,’ which you quarrel with, I do not know that I am so entirely without any claim to it. You have drawn two pretty pictures–but I think there may be a third–a something between the do-nothing and the do-all” (Austen 14).
Although Emma concedes the possibility that the marriage may not have been entirely due to her actions, she adamantly argues that her efforts cumulated in a tangible contribution nevertheless. By devising and promoting matches that may sometimes be singularly visible to herself only, Emma attempts to break free from tradition, which confines women within their domestic spheres. Thus, Emma’s matchmaking is a progressive attempt of female self-empowerment.
This tale of self-empowerment may cast Emma in a protofeminist light, but a closer examination of matchmaking and its effect on the greater group of women shows that it has a retrograde silver lining. Emma’s matches are made without the will of the men or women involved taken into account. Furthermore, her matches are specifically intended to benefit herself. To keep her friend Harriet Smith “within the sphere in which she moves” (Austen 60), Emma encourages her to reject Mr. Martin’s marriage proposal. Emma’s obvious support of the preestablished social hierarchy is observable here when she explains that she “could not have visited Mr. Robert Martin, of Abbey-Mill Farm” (Austen 52) due to her social class. Emma’s inability to consider the prospects of associating with a family considered to be as socially inferior as the Martins trumps even the close friendship that she shares with Harriet. Thus, she deprives Harriet of the ability to choose her husband and delays her settlement into a marriage considered “safe, respectable, and happy” for her (Austen 63). Whereas matchmaking is a means of empowerment for Emma, it is also a means of disenfranchisement on the women it targets.
Emma’s privilege allows her to take up the potentially reprehensible action of matchmaking. However, it does not exempt her from the expectation of marriage. Matrimony is arguably the most significant pursuit that a woman in Victorian England can make as it cements her place in society as a respectable and established woman regardless of whether she chooses to marry within or outside of her rank in society. Miss Taylor’s marriage does not spare her from the duty of pleasing an employer or husband, but she is nevertheless congratulated by “every friend” as she is now “settled in a home of her own” and “secure of a comfortable provision” (Austen 13). Thus, the expectation and appreciation of marriage in Highbury continues to largely restrict the vocational sovereignty of its women.
While marriage presents itself as a universal requirement for women, the characters Emma Woodhouse and Jane Fairfax demonstrate the emergence of alternate options. Emma’s initial stance towards marriage questions the necessity of marriage and rejects the notion as a whole. As a notable character with “none of the usual inducements of women to marry,” (Austen 82), Emma makes it clear that her marriage will be a conscious choice in the event of love rather than in compliance with societal expectations. In comparison, Jane’s predicament is a product of the other extreme. Given little but a “very few hundred pounds,” Jane’s penury makes independence á la Emma impossible. She is instead expected to supply a personal means of “respectable subsistence” by occupying a position as a governess. Whereas employment is seen as an ignominy and a fall from respect for accomplished young women, the mere establishment of jobs for women paves the way towards their entry into the greater parts of society. The excess possession of wealth or lack thereof creates newfound forms of sovereignty for the women of the novel, who are able to not only renounce marriage but also find a means to support themselves without it.
Ascribing to the Victorian ideals of civility and propriety, the women of Highbury are encouraged to cultivate a variety of qualities that are considered desirable for women. These mannerisms and skills are solely acquired through diligence and devotion and are therefore expected from all of the female characters of the novel. Emma’s comparatively superior status does not exempt her from this expectation but conversely holds her to a higher standard to attain these characteristics as they are considered the marks of the accomplished, civilized woman. This appreciation is most clearly portrayed in the novel’s depiction and introduction of Jane Fairfax. Having acquired a “decided superiority” in her acquirements, Jane’s proficiency at playing the pianoforte and her reserved personality cause her to be considered as a “very elegant, remarkably elegant” young woman who is respected regardless of her worldly endowment. Her cultivation of these talents has a twofold effect; while it enforces the stereotype of the meek, domestic, yet intelligent woman, it also allows her to catch the eye of Frank Churchill, who appreciates her enough to the point of marrying her. Thus, Jane’s cultivation of her “feminine” qualities has a paradoxical effect. Whereas her accomplishments and ensuing respect reinforce a certain set of expectations for women, they are the very qualities that stress her individuality and save her from her barren predicament through the prospect of matrimony.
The depiction of gender in Emma possesses both progressive and conservative elements that can be observed in three main points of contention. The act of matchmaking can be viewed as the empowerment of an individual, it occurs at the expense of the individual’s closest peers. The societal expectation of marriage in the novel can be viewed as a stifling and unyielding mark of submission but serves to illustrate that women are beginning to vie for their sovereignty by circumventing this requirement. While the attainment of traditionally feminine qualities perpetuates a conventional stereotype of the “perfect” woman, it allows the women to cultivate their skills and differentiate themselves from others by doing so. Although the novel does not espouse a clear message on gender, it nevertheless conveys an emerging rift between expectation and reality.
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