Jane Austen Shows her Feminist Side in Emma

Updated on February 23, 2017
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Emma is a story about the everyday life of Emma Woodhouse and her circle of family, friends, and acquaintances where nothing ever really seems to happen. The story takes place in a time when many things were happening in the world, such as the French Revolution and the industrial revolution. None of the important happenings in the world appear in the story of Emma. On the surface it seems to be just a story about everyday life in the village of Highbury. However, if one takes a look beneath the surface at the history of writing and writers, in this case Jane Austen, one would see that Austen is trying to do much more than write a cute story about Emma and her friends. In Emma, Jane Austen addresses many issues important to women, making her a feminist of her time.

Jane Austen was by no means a radical feminist by today’s standards, but she was indeed a feminist. Women have been feminists throughout history. Feminism as a defined term seems to be a relatively new concept but in fact has been around as long as women. They have worked within their confines to make their voices and opinions known. Austen has done this through her writing.

Jane Austen
Jane Austen | Source

Jane Austen: Conformist or Radical Feminist?

Women writers in Jane Austen’s time had a difficult literary life. Their writing was not recognized or published, and often it was repressed. Many women writers found that they had to take on a penname in order to be able to write using themes deemed unfeminine and still get their work published. There was an attitude about women’s writing that it should be feminine. It was said that women should not write after they turned old at the age of thirty, in other words, “fiction by women must be fiction by young women – modest, delicate, wispy, delightful – and as soon as a woman has anything significant to say she…is past her career as a novelist and a woman” (Johnson xv). Austen was often praised for conforming to this ideal by writing in a feminine style and staying away from masculine themes.

It is rather ironic that Austen was seen as a conformist, because in Emma Austen used her writing to make some fairly gutsy remarks about women and their lives. Her feelings towards marriage stand out the most. In Emma’s time, women were always taken care of through marriage or some other arrangement, such as being made a governess. As a general rule, women were not independent beings. Emma Woodhouse would have been breaking this rule. At present in the novel, she is a single woman living with her father on his estate called Hartfield. Her childhood governess, Miss Taylor, has recently left Hartfield to marry Mr. Weston. It would have been quite acceptable for Emma to live with her father under the expectation that she would eventually marry. In this case though, Austen makes Mr. Woodhouse a rather helpless invalid whom Emma has to take care of. Since her father isn’t taking care of her, Emma is essentially independent.

Thoughts on Marriage...

Emma’s thoughts on marriage make her situation even more unacceptable, according to the times. In chapter 10, Emma and Harriet discuss Emma’s feelings toward marriage as they are walking past the vicarage on their way to visit a poor, sick family on the edge of Highbury. Harriet begins the conversation by saying:

excerpt from Chapter 10 of Emma by Jane Austen
excerpt from Chapter 10 of Emma by Jane Austen | Source

Harriet is socially correct for the time when she replies, “Dear me! – It is so odd to hear a woman talk so!” (Austen 60).

Feminist Critics

From the newly defined feminist movement, many feminist critics have sprung up in the literary world. Feminist criticism has multiple definitions that can be applied to the passage above. For the French, it is focused around linguistic development and the effect that a patriarchal society has on that development. French theory says that women are forced to conform to men’s language or they must remain silent. In either case, they are kept in an inferior position as the “invisible and unheard sex” (Peterson 334).

In the scene above, Harriet believes that Emma should not be saying what she is. She believes that women should be happy to marry. However, Emma is in a position where she is independently wealthy. She does not need a man to take care of her financially. She is almost on an equal level with men as far as money is concerned. Here she speaks her mind with the same authority as a man would, choosing to use men’s language rather than keeping silent. This scene shows how Austen chose to make her statement by putting men’s words in Emma’s mouth. Austen is therefore not a conformist, as she is so often viewed. According to Claudia L. Johnson, in her book Jane Austen Women, Politics, and the Novel,

If Austen enters the canon because she seemed to deny or devalue her authority, Emma has been the heroine critics have loved to scold… Emma is often charged with the same transgressions – being ‘arrogant, self-important, and controlling’ or ‘narcissistic and perfectionist’ – from which critics diligently attempted to exempt Austen… (Johnson 122).

The American feminist critics take a broader approach. Some even base their criticism on “nonfeminist disciplines,” such as Marxism or psychoanalysis (Peterson 334). In general, Americans look at text from a female perspective, and attempt to bring unknown women writers to the forefront. An example of this would be when Alice Walker, a successful female writer in her own right and self-named ‘womanist,’ brought Zora Neale Hurston’s writing out of the dusty stacks by going to locate Hurston’s hidden gravesite and writing about Hurston and her work. Feminist critics find this a necessary task because, “women writers commonly took on urgent, social, political, and theological questions, since assigned to the ‘masculine sphere,’ and they have dropped out of later versions of literary history altogether as a result, leaving scarcely a trace” (Johnson xv). This was not necessary in Austen’s case since she was viewed as a conformist writing in the feminine style and therefore published.

In her article, “What is Feminist Criticism?,” Peterson states that American feminist critics also analyze works using gynocentrism. Gynocentrism is the examination of “the female literary tradition to find out how great women writers across the ages have felt, perceived themselves, and imagined reality” (334). The British theory tends to be more political. The British tend to have less emphasis on the differences between the sexes and more on the oppression of women in history. This theory taken with the American concept of gynocentrism can be used to explain Jane Austen’s feminist stance in Emma in the passage above.

What is your favorite Jane Austen novel?

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Austen's Statement

Austen uses Harriet in the marriage passage to show how women of the time were supposed to view marriage. Women were supposed to become accomplished in female things, such as drawing, singing, or playing a musical instrument. These accomplishments together with charm were to be used to acquire a suitable husband that would take care of the woman financially. Austen shows this by having the Bates try to lure Mr. Knightley into their home to hear Jane Fairfax play the piano, or by having Mr. Elton’s interest in Emma increase when she shows her ability for drawing. In the passage above, Emma rebels against this view on marriage. She thinks that one should marry for love if the circumstances of life permit it. In her case, she feels that they do, so she won’t marry unless she finds a man that she loves. Many critics and readers would say that in the end, Emma gives in to the correct social roles of the time. I believe that she doesn’t give in by marrying Mr. Knightley. Austen emphasizes her point in the end by having Emma state that she loves Knightley and then by having Knightley move to Hartfield in order to make Emma happy.

In reading Emma for the first time, I described it, as many people do, as a novel about a bunch of ordinary people who don’t do anything. On the surface, the novel doesn’t seem to make any statements, which is why it was acceptable in the male world in Austen’s time. However, with the help of feminist criticism, readers have begun to look beneath the surface at what Austen is saying. Just as many writers throughout history and today who, living under the hand of oppression, have been forced to make their statements in a subtle way through fictional writing, Austen creates in Emma an untraditional character who is dependent “on [her] female strength, activity and good judgment” rather than on a man. Emma’s view of marriage as she states in chapter ten of the novel is just one of the statements that Austen makes about women through Emma. Emma sees herself as a complete person; she doesn’t need a man to make her whole. For Austen’s time, this was a daring statement to make, and for feminists it is groundbreaking.

Written by Donna Hilbrandt.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Emma. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 1994.

Johnson, Claudia L. Jane Austen Women, Politics, and the Novel. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Peterson, Linda H., ed. “What is Feminist Criticism?” Wuthering Heights. Boston: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.


Questions & Answers

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      • profile image

        sagheer 

        10 months ago

        i m doing my research on Jane Austen's novel EMMA. emma symbolizes the misinterpretation of jane austen by depicting her protagonist for the wrong judgment of match making?" can anyone help me reegarding this? plzz

      • profile image

        Isabella Ruiz 

        16 months ago

        This article was very helpful. I really appreciate it because it really helped me write my first body paragraph for my synthesis essay which is based on feminist criticism. If you could please write another two articles like these ones on Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility I would forever be grateful. You're a rockstar!

      • Kara Skinner profile image

        Kara Skinner 

        16 months ago from Maine

        This was an excellent analysis and book review. I enjoyed reading Emma, but it has been many years since I've read it so I did not pick up on the subtle statements at the time. But it is true that Emma was a very independent character. However, I also remember this story is about how she grew up and matured and did eventually marry. So while I do believe that Jane Austen was a feminist, couldn't it also be argued (from what little I remember, so my reasoning may be faulty) that Emma is criticizing feminism?

        Excellent article. I very much enjoyed reading it.

      • donnah75 profile imageAUTHOR

        Donna Hilbrandt 

        3 years ago from Upstate New York

        Thank you, Larry Rankin.

      • Larry Rankin profile image

        Larry Rankin 

        3 years ago from Oklahoma

        Jane Austen a feminist? Sometimes people have a hard time understanding this concept because of her subject matter.

        But when you consider she was a woman author during this time in history, and if you analyze the strength of her female characters in the context of the society they were in, it becomes obvious she is the definition of the word: feminist.

        Wonderful read.

      • donnah75 profile imageAUTHOR

        Donna Hilbrandt 

        5 years ago from Upstate New York

        Thanks, Marion! The older I get, the more I enjoy and appreciate Austen's work. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      • marion langley profile image

        marion langley 

        5 years ago from The Study

        I just recetly saw Emma, the movie, for the first time, thoroughly enjoyed it. I've read P&P and S&S. There is a wonderful mix of traditional and modern qualities to her works. I agree with your premise on her being a feminist...her best characters looking for equals in matrimony. Thanks for writing and hopefully expanding her well deserved fan base.

      • donnah75 profile imageAUTHOR

        Donna Hilbrandt 

        5 years ago from Upstate New York

        Thanks, MsDora. P&P is my favorite too. Who can resist mr Darcy? Enjoy your reading of Emma. Thanks for stopping by!

      • MsDora profile image

        Dora Weithers 

        5 years ago from The Caribbean

        I voted for Pride and Prejudice, probably because it was the first Jane Austen novel I ever read; but really, I like all that I've read. Now, I want to read Emma against the backdrop of the views in your article. Voted Up!

      • donnah75 profile imageAUTHOR

        Donna Hilbrandt 

        5 years ago from Upstate New York

        Thanks, Suzette. Pride & prejudice is my favorite to. I am glad you enjoyed it.

      • suzettenaples profile image

        Suzette Walker 

        5 years ago from Taos, NM

        Wonderful article on Jane Austen, donnah. I am a Jane Austen fan and have read all her novels. Pride and Prejudice will always be my favorite because it is the first one by her I read. I see her as a feminist who was smart enough to create characters that women and men would love to read. The spoken word that she incorporates in her novels is always wonderful and quite feminist as in the example you give. Thanks for an informative and interesting piece on Austen.

      • donnah75 profile imageAUTHOR

        Donna Hilbrandt 

        5 years ago from Upstate New York

        midget38: Thank you. Jane Austen is my kind of feminist. She celebrates women in a beautiful way :)

      • midget38 profile image

        Michelle Liew 

        5 years ago from Singapore

        Yup, I totally agree, Donna. For Emma to have expressed her ideas as boldly as she did took a lot of guts! Thanks for sharing!!

      • donnah75 profile imageAUTHOR

        Donna Hilbrandt 

        5 years ago from Upstate New York

        teaches: Pride and Prejudice is my favorite too. I have been discovering more of Austen's work though, and Emma has always been one I love. The film is fun. I also recently watched a film based on Austen's Mansfield Park. That was great too. Her themes run through all her novels. She really had something to say about empowering women in a time when women were allowed to really have a strong opinion on anything that wasn't trivial. Thanks for the read and comment!

      • teaches12345 profile image

        Dianna Mendez 

        5 years ago

        I see Pride and Prejudice is our favorite from your voting poll. It is indeed my favorite Austen novel. I am going to have to watch the Emma movie, it looks interesting. I do admire how the author wrote on marriage and the views of traditional ways of courting, etc. We could use some of that in today's world.

      • donnah75 profile imageAUTHOR

        Donna Hilbrandt 

        5 years ago from Upstate New York

        Thank you, tillsontitan. It was definitely a good exercise in closely reading a text, which seems to be the center of my academic world right now. I am glad you enjoyed and appreciate it. :)

      • donnah75 profile imageAUTHOR

        Donna Hilbrandt 

        5 years ago from Upstate New York

        Thanks, hawaiianodysseus! Jane Austen is one of those writers whose work has stood the test of time because of the layers her works present. I love her work, because it is accessible and still relevant. Thanks for the great comment.

      • tillsontitan profile image

        Mary Craig 

        5 years ago from New York

        I have to agree with HawaiiO, this is amazing. You have autopsied the book and Jane Austen so well. Looking beneath what others chose to see. It is easy to read and leads us to appreciate both the book and the author more than we did when we started.

        Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting.

      • hawaiianodysseus profile image

        Hawaiian Odysseus 

        5 years ago from Southeast Washington state

        This was more than a book review. It was an outstanding treatise on feminism, specific to the profession of women writers as showcased in Jane Austen's Emma. Wonderfully written, academically intriguing, and yet presented in reader-friendly fashion, Donna. Thank you for the work you put into this article and for sharing it with your Hubsville neighbors. Aloha!

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