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Literary Analysis: “Emma” by Jane Austen
In this essay, we shall offer a thorough analysis of the mechanics of gender; social class and feminism. We shall explore Emma, the main character of the novel, and her relationship with Mr. Knightley using the lens above. At the end, we shall offer a brief analysis on how the novel’s style has been mimicked in contemporary young adult fiction.
Emma as a Character. Emma is first described as “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” (Austen 1) That description gives us an idea of the character we are speaking of. Emma has not had a problem in her life. She has lived a secluded and protected life in her house, learning the ropes of life by the hand of Ms. Taylor. Strictly speaking, the first moment where Emma’s life suffers from an upheaval is when Ms. Taylor decides to marry and turns into Mrs. Weston. At that moment, Emma loses all her drive, as she lacks the intellectual stimulus provided by her governess.
Emma as a novel shows the maturation; the coming-of-age of a girl who struggles to become a woman in a society that would not allow women to harness fully their potential. Emma begins as a self-absorbed girl, and at the end of the book she emerges as a self-conscious woman who knows her place in society. (Hoffman 1) In a traditional sense, the book speaks of a girl who is unwilling to grow, yet wants to. Her first interactions are childish, but as soon as she realizes that her youthful views are hurting those surrounding her, she changes to face the trials of womanhood. Her willingness to be a matchmaker can be contrasted with her desire of not marrying. “Emma never thinks of herself, if she can do good to others,” (Austen 7). That line explains much of her behavior. She is well-intentioned, but she cannot take those intentions to safe harbor given she has no experience in the real world.
Power and Hierarchy in the Book. There is also a great deal of hierarchy and power within the book. Although Emma is depicted as a rich girl, and a well-endowed person; she still is under the eyes of her father, a man who subconsciously does not want her to marry. As such event would change the way things are. To him, the bubbly personality of Emma is more a source of conflicting that of happiness. He insists on living a dull life but is unable to exert enough power over his daughter to keep her close to him. All his “care” stems from the fact that he does not want to be left alone. His relationship with Emma can be seen as a sort of balance where he supplies the manly figure, yet she is the one holding the house’s reins. “Emma allowed her father to talk but supplied her visitors in a much more satisfactory style, and on the present evening had particular pleasure in sending them away happy” (Austen 12)
Another instance of hierarchy that we consider important to highlight is Emma’s relation with Harriet. The girl is first presented as “the natural daughter of somebody. Somebody had placed her, several years back, at Mrs. Goddard’s school, and somebody had lately raised her from the condition of scholar to that of parlour-boarder.” (Austen 11) She looked up to Emma, as she found in the older woman, the wisdom she seemed to lack. That itself presents a problem because Emma’s personality appears to assert their individuality by domination other women (Curd 5). Emma’s perceived benevolence can be also seen as an intent to control those around her, to feel powerful and womanly. Her control mimics her father’s yet she is more aggressive in her methods. She wants people to have the happiness she thinks they deserve, rather the one they are looking for (Curd 6). Emma wants Harriet to marry a man within her social class, not Harriet’s. Although she does it as a favor, she bypasses Harriet’s judgment and “does a favor” to the girl.
FEMINISM IN “EMMA.”
There are a few stems of feminist criticism to the book. We shall comment and contrast a few as to give a comprehensive image of the subject.
From a feminist view, Emma can be regarded as a resolute character. A woman who is constantly trying to assert her will in an androcentric society such as the 19th century rural England.
Emma’s Relationships and Acquaintances. Emma has always had an election. She has a vast array of possibilities in her life, and she has always done her will, opposing to her father. Emma is always portrayed as women capable of reason and responsible for her choices (Marshall 43), which is a role hard to find in women roles in 19th-century literature. What sets Emma apart from many “heroines” in her era is that she is pictured as a rational and responsible individual, instead of a hysterical girl who is ostensibly trying to control everything. She reveals through her attitude to life, her unwillingness to live the life others would want her to live. She tries to equate her womanhood to the manliness she perceives in those around her. Her father at the beginning, and Mr. Knightley at the end. She is torn between her will of staying faithful to her father and her desire of leaving the nest and blossom.
In the same way, her attitudes can be seen as bulldozing to the others, especially to Harriet, whom Emma convinces to relinquish Mr. Martin and start thinking of Mr. Elton in a romantic way. “Mr. Elton was the very person fixed on by Emma for driving the young farmer out of Harriet’s head. She thought it would be an excellent match; and only too palpably desirable, natural, and probable, for her to have much merit in planning it” (Austen 17). The fact that Emma is so keen on deciding for Harriet might mean that the she wants to have a degree of control over people, and she uses Harriet to achieve her goals.
On the other hand, there is another instance we would like to highlight. Emma’s desires to make matches around her might expose another kind of motivations. Emma seems to enjoy a degree of control over others. She prides in her skills and in the happiness that causes her. She is not as happy with being a matchmaker as she is with controlling the person’s choices (Bubash 3). When she successfully marries Mr. Taylor, her mentor; she realizes she had devoted all her energies to driving away the only person who was really close to her, and that feeling of depreciation makes her seek another person to “help”.
Women in “Emma”. Women are a capital subject in the novel. Not only because it is a novel written by a woman, with a female lead. Its importance stems from the how women are conceived and depicted in 19th century England. In Emma, we see the portrait of a perfect woman in the character of Isabella Knightley, Emma’s sister. “Mrs. John Knightley was a pretty, elegant little woman, of gentle, quiet manners, and a disposition remarkably amiable and affectionate; wrapt up in her family; a devoted wife, a doating mother, and so tenderly attached to her father and sister that, however, for these higher ties, a warmer love might have seemed impossible.” (Austen 50) With those words, Austen describes what a perfect woman is, according to her standards. Those standards are not opposed what Emma is, but it seems that the author intends to remark that although she is a fine young woman, Emma is different than the rest. It is that difference what separates her from the rest; turning her into such an interesting character. It seems that Emma’s primary trait is her intelligence; she seems more cunning and aware than the remainder of the women around her, something she plays in her favor. Incidentally, the other woman who might oppose her is her friend. This also shows us an interesting thing about women in the book. Most of the women Austen depicts in Emma are educated, and reserved. They are educated in manners but not necessarily trained to think (Kollman 21)
However, despite all her power, Emma is still a woman in an era where women did not dare to raise her words to voice their concerns. Her actions might seem dull to us, but in her time, she would have been a fierce woman. Austen makes full use of the narrative devices at her disposition to create a feminist atmosphere (Kollman 10). Although the narrator in the novel is not a woman per se, it has a distinct womanly tone. She uses indirect discourse and switches from the all-seeing narrator to the main character’s perspective, which gives the idea of the sounds the author tries to convey. In that way, what makes Emma different, and pro-women is how to the tone in the book does not give the impression of a “butch” woman. Instead, it places a woman in a strong leading role, giving her forum to voice her concerns.
GENDER AND POWER IN EMMA
Emma and Mr. Knightley’s Relationship
From the beginning, we see that Mr. Knightley and Emma’s relationship is rather complicated. When she finally marries Mr. Knightley, she finally finds what she was looking for. A man who is capable of showing her the world she has been missing. At the beginning of the novel they seem to have a brotherly relationship that changes as soon as Emma realizes the man could be having feelings toward Harriet. She realizes she has her share of feelings toward the man “Why was it so much worse that Harriet should be in love with Mr. Knightley, than with Frank Churchill? Why was the evil so dreadfully increased by Harriet’s having some hope of a return? It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself” (Austen 219). In the same way, Emma and Knightley have always had a teacher-student relationship, on which Knightley has the role of the teacher, showing Emma how to behave and scolding her whenever she does something wrong. These examples display a disparity in the gender dynamics between both of them.
There is no doubt that according to Austen’s time standards, both Emma and Knightley share a rather curious bond. In the first place, Austen tries to balance Emma’s freedom of mind and character with the sternness of Mr. Knightley, who despite being a gentleman, toys with Emma’s mind. When she finally accepts her love for the man, she is leaving her childhood behind, with all the autonomy and carelessness it had. She is ceding her freedom to a man whom she thinks is going to show her new world. Instead, he decides to move to her house; leaving her confined in the same world. Married, but confined. Despite all the authority and independence Emma displays throughout the book, she relinquishes it all, unable to oppose to the man she loves. That vision of romantic love, where women are subjected to their husband’s wishes is debatable, but it is likely that to the author, being married to a gentleman is one of the most desirable outcomes in a young lady’s life. Besides, it is important to note how Emma is always in a subordinate position to Mr. Knightley. The man holds the masculine advantages of wealth; age, and freedom of action (Moran 79). This puts Emma in a position of inferiority from the beginning of the book. She might try to challenge the social order, but she is not likely to win. Instead, it is more likely that she finds out that nobody would stand up for her; not even her friends. Without a doubt, Emma is not looking to portray a balanced idea of genre, or between sexes relationship. The book is a product of its era, and despite the feminist undertones in it, the phallocentric implication in the characters’ interactions make impossible for Emma to fully use her potential. This leaves her as a young woman whose head is full of things, yet she finds impossible to accomplish any. While it is true that she falls in love with the best man available, that does not mean that Mr. Knightley is going to be the one who gives her the intellectual stimulation she needs.
Austen’s novels have withstood the passing of time. Her works have become a staple in English literature, as they are precise portraits of the 19th century England. In the same way, it served us to find out how the power and gender relationships were during that time. However, to readers today, it presents an affected version of love, a vision that although many people try to maintain, is no longer present. Contemporary fiction attempts, such as the Twilight saga have attempted to revive romantic Austen-esque books, with great success, at the cost of showing a flawed vision of human relationships. If we look carefully, Bella can easily be Emma; and Edward Mr. Knightley. Both men have the same traits in common and appear to show the girls how an older and wiser man can show a younger girl how to live. Love is always a good thing, but in Emma it came with a price, the woman’s freedom.
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Bubash, C. “Psychoanalysis of Jane Austen’s Emma.” Penn State University. Web. 29 July 2015.
Curd, S.A. “Sine Qua Non: Feminine Sublimation and Deconstruction in Emma.” Lebanon Valley College, 2011. Web. 29 July 2015. <https://www.lvc.edu/vhr/2011/Articles/curd.pdf>.
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