views updated May 23 2018


Author Biography
Plot Summary
Media Adaptations
Topics For Further Study
Historical Context
Compare & Contrast
Critical Overview
What Do I Read Next?
Further Reading

Jane Austen


Of the 2,000 copes of Emma printed in 1815, only 563 sold over the next four years. Austen died in 1817 having earned less than £40 for the book during her lifetime. In the early 2000s, the novel was considered a classic of romance comedies and perhaps Austen's best novel of manners and morals. Written at the end of Austen's young life, and hence in her maturity, Emma fully demonstrates Austen's narrative power to render witty dialogue, romantic intrigue, memorable descriptions of scenes and situations, and the ironic and satirical treatment of the virtues, vices, and drawing room behavior of the British upper classes at the end of the eighteenth century. To combine both rationality and compassion in one's actions is the mark of true gentility, Austen seems to be saying. Yet, lest readers take this central lesson too much to heart, Austen gives plenty to laugh at and puzzle over as her flawed but redeemable heroine fumbles her way toward womanhood.

Author Biography

Jane Austen was the second daughter and the seventh of eight children born to the Reverend George Austen and Cassandra Leigh. Born on December 16, 1775, she grew up in the country village of Steventon, in Hampshire, England.

Her family was not wealthy, but they were certainly comfortable, for Jane Austen's father earned £600 a year as the local clergyman. This was a respectable salary but not one that could provide either Jane or Cassandra, her older sister and confidante, a large dowry. Austen lived at the Steventon rectory for 25 years. She never married, although she had more than a passing interest in romance and the society of her peers. Indeed, her keen observation of the society around her is mirrored in her novels, which reflect the manners and morals of her time, the conventions of courtship and marriage, and the psychology of human relationships.

Between 1795 and 1798, Austen wrote the original versions of three novels: Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice. However, none of these books was published until well after her father's death (1805) after which Mrs. Austen and her daughters moved from Bath (where the family had lived from 1801 until Mr. Austen's death) to Southampton briefly and then to Chawton, where they lived in a house provided by Jane's wealthy brother, Edward. Sense and Sensibility appeared anonymously in 1811, and two years later, Pride and Prejudice, the novel that made her reputation. In 1814, Austen published Mansfield Park.

Jane Austen received a minimal formal education at the Abbey School in Reading, which she left at age nine. In her time, it was not usual for a woman of the "genteel" classes to attend school; rather, she would be expected to attain certain "accomplishments" (singing, sewing, drawing, a speaking knowledge of French, letter writing) to prepare her for an advantageous marriage. Respectable careers (except for those of governess or school teacher) were not open to women, and being married was much preferable to working outside the home. Austen, like most women of her class, was educated at home and read from the books in her father's library. Evident in all her novels is a pointed satire leveled at women who define themselves chiefly by their ability to attract the opposite sex while ignoring the improvement of their minds.

Although Austen was at work on her last novel, Persuasion, in 1815, it was published posthumously (along with Northanger Abbey which she had written earlier in 1797); Emma was the last book to see publication before her death. Austen died July 18, 1817, of Addison's Disease. She was forty-one years old. She is buried in Winchester Cathedral.

Plot Summary

Volume 1

Austen introduces most of the major characters in Volume 1, with the exceptions of Jane Fairfax, Frank Churchill, and Mrs. Elton. Since Jane and Frank are the nucleus around which the central mystery revolves, and yet, since neither character is meant to outshine the hero and heroine (Emma Woodhouse and Mr. George Knightley), it makes good literary sense to save them for Volume 2 and the middle section in which the mystery unfolds and deepens. The book opens with the focus on Emma Woodhouse, whom we find has everything to recommend her as an eighteenth century heroine: She is "handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition." However, Austen makes it clear at the outset that Emma, and indeed all the characters, will take shape not as they appear in and of themselves, but in how they relate to others. Their mannerisms and habits, their allegiance to propriety, their wit and intelligence, and their compassion will mark them as either elegant or common.

Emma is motherless and has been educated by Miss Taylor, her governess of 16 years. "Poor Miss Taylor," as Emma's father calls her (projecting his own loss onto her) has just married Mr. Weston, their close neighbor and friend, and while they will continue to see her everyday, Emma is conscious of her approaching "intellectual solitude." Emma's "evil" character flaw, "a disposition to think a little too well of herself," has ample room for exercise when she meets Harriet Smith. Harriet has neither merit nor birth to urge a friendship between herself and Emma (she is a boarder at Mrs. Goddard's school for girls and her parents are unknown), and yet Emma decides to practice on her, to make for her the perfect romantic match and along the way improve her mind. Mr. Knightley, the novel's paragon of virtue and reason, is skeptical of the friendship. Prophetically, he sees that both must lose by the friendship. No one listens, least of all Emma, for once her imagination has been let loose on a subject, she must follow it to the bitter end. And bitter it does turn out to be.

Emma's designs to "improve" Harriet by association with a "superior" mind and to match her to the eligible bachelor, Mr. Elton, spring from a mix of hubris, boredom, a real intention to do good for both, a romantic detachment from the facts, and an overweening belief in the power of her own ideas. When she learns that Harriet is falling in love with Robert Martin, a simple but honorable tenant farmer (and a man wholly suited to Harriet), she immediately sets about discouraging Harriet by comparing his "clownish" ways to the ways of the "such very real" gentlemen she sees at Hartfield. Of course, Mr. Martin is dimmed by the comparison, at least outwardly. It becomes the cause of a serious disagreement between Emma and Mr. Knightley, who very much wants the union to succeed. Through the critical eyes of Mr. Knightley, and by virtue of her own supercilious airs, readers see how far Emma is from cultivating true grace.

The game of charades that Emma is teaching Harriet to play becomes a metaphor for the dual interpretations of words and motives that Austen cleverly weaves into the scenes assigned to Mr. Elton, Harriet, and Emma. Emma, so blinded by her own intrigues, cannot see that Mr. Elton's true intentions are to win her heart. Ever so belatedly, Emma becomes more and more aggravated by Mr. Elton's behavior. At the Weston's Christmas Eve party, his attentions to her are unbecoming, and she wonders why he is not more solicitous for the health of her friend, Harriet, who is home in bed with a sore throat. In the carriage ride home, the suspense is broken when Mr. Elton proposes to Emma, who, in her shock, rudely rejects him. She learns her first lesson here, when she now must comfort Harriet for the illusions that Emma herself has helped put her under. That Harriet does not judge Emma harshly, if at all, speaks to Harriet's gentleness and sweet nature but also to her inability to be discerning. That Emma truly is mortified by her mistake and compassionate toward Harriet compels us to consider Emma's true depths.

Media Adaptations

  • Emma was adapted for television as a BBC miniseries in 1972. It was directed by John Glenister, and the cast includes Doran Godwin as Emma and John Carson as Mr. Knightley. Since it is four and a half hours long, the series has time to develop fully the themes, characters, and story lines.
  • Emma was adapted as a full-length movie in 1996. It starred Gwyneth Paltrow and was nominated for two Oscars. The film was released by Miramax and directed by Doug McGrath. It is available on home video.
  • Emma was also adapted as a full-length British made movie in 1997, starring Kate Beckinsale and produced by Sue Birtwistle. It is available on home video.

Volume 1 closes with a discussion between Emma and Mr. Knightley on the merits or demerits of Frank Churchill, who is expected to pay a filial visit to his father, Mr. Weston, and his new wife, but who continually makes excuses why he cannot come. The debate grows rather heated since Emma, full of curiosity, imagines Mr. Churchill as someone she might like a great deal, while Mr. Knightley sees in him, although he never admits it, a potential rival to his affections for Emma. In singing his praises (although she has only heard of him by rumor) she claims: "he is very likely to have a more yielding, complying, mild disposition than would suit your notions of man's perfection." Here she hits Mr. Knightley where it hurts, for while he is the perfect specimen of reason and uprightness, the reader cannot help but feel him somewhat rigid and dogmatic in his pronouncements, somewhat bereft of the light-hearted playfulness that would make him truly appealing. For his part, Mr. Knightley, again prophetically, calls Frank's amiability superficial. "He may . . . have very good manners, and be very agreeable; but he can have no . . . delicacy towards the feelings of other people." Although the judgment is not aimed particularly at her, it should have made her blush, for in the department of delicacy she still has much to learn. The exchange shows us the gap between Emma's and Mr. Knightley's sensibilities as well as their carefully guarded feelings toward one another; it also keeps us in suspense about Frank Churchill.

Volume 2

When Jane Fairfax comes to Highbury to live with her aunt (Miss Bates) and grandmother (Mrs. Bates), she serves as a lodestone, attracting the attention of Emma, Mr. Knightley, Mrs. Elton (the former Augusta Hawkins, who has also just come to town with her new husband, the spurned Mr. Elton), the Westons, the Coles, and, surreptitiously, Frank Churchill. It is against Jane's elegance that we must compare all other women and find them wanting, even Emma. Emma, aware of Jane's talents, is determined to like and befriend her; however, her good intentions are shattered when she finds Jane cold and reserved. Jane has come back to Highbury on the occasion of the Campbells going off to Ireland in the wake of their daughter's marriage to a Mr. Dixon. Learning that the former Miss Campbell is not pretty or perhaps as talented as Jane, and, moreover, that Mr. Dixon once saved Jane's life on a sailing expedition, Emma is inspired with "an ingenious and animating suspicion . . . with regard to Jane Fairfax, this charming Mr. Dixon, and the not going to Ireland." She pumps the chattering Miss Bates for more information and, finding nothing to deter her from her suspicions, settles it in her mind that Jane is suffering from an attachment to her friend's husband.

Frank Churchill's arrival corresponds almost exactly with Jane's, although no one regards the timing as anything more than coincidence. His attentions are such that the Westons and Emma herself believe he has fallen in love with her. Here, again, Austen deftly weaves a web of double meanings and possibilities, so that a word, token, or gesture can convey several interpretations. She lets the mystery grow, and readers are none the wiser. Like Emma readers can believe that Frank Churchill is infatuated; however, they are also invited to mistrust his character, as more and more, he enters into the charade of baiting Jane Fairfax over her supposed love affair with Mr. Dixon. In the light of Frank Churchill's attentions, Emma is forced to admit that, although she has vowed never to marry, she might be falling in love with Frank. However, upon reflection, she realizes her attachment is not deep. She becomes increasingly more concerned with how gently to reject him when he does propose to her.

Frank goes off 16 miles to London to have his hair cut (he says), an indulgence that some judge excessive. A few days after he returns, the Coles have a dinner party, during which it is discovered that a pianoforte had arrived mysteriously at the Bates's for Jane. Emma guesses immediately that it is from Mr. Dixon, and those gathered speculate that it must come from the Campbells, since they know how extremely well Jane plays and how much she must miss an instrument at her aunt's home. In the meantime, Mr. Knightley is charitable toward Jane Fairfax and the Mrs. and Miss Bates, and it is not long before Mrs. Weston takes it into her head that he must be in love with Jane. Emma's explosive rejection of such an idea hints at her feelings of propriety regarding Mr. Knightley and her well-hidden jealousy of Jane.

Frank Churchill's youthful energy is contagious. He wants to have a ball, and every plan is made for its going forward, until he suddenly is called away by his ailing Aunt Churchill. His going away is an occasion for sadness, and an opportunity for Austen to introduce the recently returned Mr. Elton with his new wife. All the duties that must be shown to newly-weds—the visits, the teas, the small social indulgences—are given with due regard to their place as a respected couple in Highbury. But Emma soon sees that the new Mrs. Elton is "self-important, presuming, familiar, ignorant, and illbred." Harriet, though she lacks birthright or fortune, shines by comparison, an irony that Austen clearly intends for readers to feel. Mrs. Elton takes Jane under her wing, more by persistence and force than by any attraction on Jane's side. Emma is puzzled as to why someone of Jane's gentility would stoop to "chuse the mortification of Mrs. Elton's notice and the penury of her conversation." It is Mr. Knightley, once again, who reminds Emma of her own fault in that she herself deigned it unnecessary to take any further notice of Jane. The volume closes with a dinner party at Hartfield for the Eltons, at which we see Mrs. Elton presumptuously planning to find employment for Jane and Jane politely declining.

Volume 3

At the end of Volume 2, nothing has been resolved: Harriet still has not quite recovered from the loss of two potential husbands; Jane Fairfax remains mysteriously reserved; Frank Churchill is returning but no one knows when; Emma is still unclear about her feelings for Frank Churchill; and Mr. Knightley's denial of his matrimonial intentions toward Jane Fairfax does not satisfy the discerning Mrs. Weston. The stage, then, is set for the action's climax. Three scenes in particular are noteworthy for providing encounters among the whole cast of characters, for further developing individual vices and virtues, and for teasing readers with the possibilities of the mystery's solution. The first is the ball at the Crown, a greatly anticipated event that has been delayed until the return of Frank Churchill. Here at the dance Emma is happily engaged for each set, but Harriet is not. At one juncture she is mortified by the snub of Mr. Elton who refuses to dance with her when she is the only woman unengaged. Both Mr. and Mrs. Elton, who are seen to be smugly enjoying the discomfort they have caused, are shown in the worst possible light. Mr. Knightley comes to the rescue and saves Harriet the embarrassment of the moment, an act for which Emma can hardly praise him enough. Frank Churchill continues to flirt with Emma, but his attentions to Jane Fairfax seem pointed. To further complicate matters of romance, some days later, when gypsies accost Harriet, Frank Churchill gallantly comes to the rescue.

The second scene, the "exploration" to Mr. Knightley's estate of Donwell Abbey, once again brings the characters together (all except Frank Churchill, who arrives late after having been called away to attend Mrs. Churchill). At Donwell, Emma notes that Mr. Knightley seems often in conversation with Harriet and wonders what they can be talking about. Much of the scene is taken up with descriptions of the estate, which represent for Austen and for Emma all that is good and right with England. The narrator comments: "It was a sweet view—sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive." For her part, Emma "felt all the honest pride and complacency which her alliance with the present and future proprietor could fairly warrant.... Emma felt an increasing respect for it, as the residence of a family of such true gentility, untainted in blood and understanding." Clearly, Emma is at home here. Strangely, though, Jane Fairfax bursts into her reverie with the news that she is leaving and, furthermore, walking home alone. Emma is shocked but agrees to let Jane leave. She is clearly upset; earlier, Emma has remarked her conversation with Mrs. Elton, who is still persisting in finding "a suitable situation" for her. Finally, Frank Churchill arrives "out of humour," an occasion for Emma to remark to herself that Harriet's "sweet easy temper" will not mind his ill one. Ever since the gypsy rescue, Emma has been considering a match between them not at all to be opposed.

The third important group scene involves a picnic to Box Hill, during which Emma and Frank not only flirt openly, but make the rest of the group uncomfortable by their indelicate gamesmanship and barely disguised taunts. Emma's deliberate insult to Miss Bates makes Mr. Knightley so angry that Emma later feels deep shame and regret. Even Mrs. Elton seems more in the right than Emma, and the party breaks up, leaving Harriet, Mr. Weston, Frank, and Emma to themselves. Jane Fairfax's health becomes a matter of concern after Box Hill, and the next bit of news is that she has decided, on Mrs. Elton's recommendation, to go as governess to a Mrs. Smallridge. At about the same time, Mr. Knightley decides, on a moment's notice, to go to London for several days for no apparent reason. But all news is relegated to the background when it is discovered that Mrs. Churchill has died.

The denouement comes quickly. On the immediate heels of Mrs. Churchill's demise, Emma learns through Mrs. Weston that Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax have been secretly engaged all along. The Westons are loath to tell Emma for fear she is in love with him. However, Emma is more worried for Harriet, for comically enough, she has really begun to think of Frank and Harriet as a match. Now that Mrs. Churchill is out of the way, Frank and Jane can openly declare their love. Harriet, in the meantime, confesses to Emma that she has fallen in love with Mr. Knightley and believes that he might share her feelings. Emma is astounded. She had thought Harriet in love with Frank after the gypsy episode, but all along it had been Mr. Knightley's saving her at the ball that had overcome Harriet with gratitude. At the moment of Harriet's confession, Emma wakes up: "It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!"

Romances must have a happy ending, or at least must end in weddings, and this one does in spades. All the eligible young people are married off most appropriately. The ill-bred Eltons have each other; the mysterious but charming and elegant Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, free of obstacles, are united. When Mr. Knightley returns from London, it is with the intention of comforting Emma for her loss of Frank. Emma believes his diffident behavior while walking in the garden can only mean he is hesitant to speak of his love for Harriet. Since both are operating under the most mistaken of convictions, it is only by luck (but we feel it is destiny) that Mr. Knightley finds the nerve to propose. As for Harriet, all's well that ends well. Her plain dealing farmer, Mr. Martin, is still in love. With the help of Mr. Knightley (whose attentions to Harriet have been precisely meant to assess her suitability to Mr. Martin) and the approval of Emma, they, too, are married in the little country church. There can be no doubt that Emma has come to value what is most ideal and elegant in herself by her union with Mr. Knightley—the joy that stems from a life ruled by reason and compassion.


Miss Bates

"[A] great talker upon little matters," Miss Bates is a comic but sympathetic character whose loquacious, hopelessly indiscrete ramblings are the source of much unspoken amusement and, for Emma in particular, some disgust. Taken together, her uncomplaining acceptance of her lot and her well-meant, kind attentions to her neighbors give her poverty some "elegance" and authority. Miss Bates lives with and cares for her aging mother, the two of them surviving by the charitable good graces of their neighbors in Highbury. She also is the loving and solicitous aunt to Jane Fairfax, another major female character in the novel. Miss Bates is important for several reasons. Along with Mrs. Perry, Mrs. Goddard, and Mrs. Cole, she belongs to the country village's mature female circle. Since, on the one hand, her constant chatter is repugnant, but, on the other hand, her morals and her cheerful, good temper are beyond reproach, she is a challenging personality for Emma. It is only when Emma can feel ashamed of her treatment of Miss Bates and learn real patience and charity toward her that Emma herself can take credit for the elegance and breeding she so admires. Miss Bates's position in Highbury society is instrumental to the plot since she provides a source of charity, empathy, and social decorum against which other characters are measured. Moreover, as an "old maid" without means she shares the predicament of certain genteel women in Austen's time (Austen herself had brothers who provided for her) who did not worked and had neither husband nor inheritance on which to rely.

Mrs. Bates

Mrs. Bates is the old and much-respected widow of a former vicar of Highbury and mother of Miss Bates. She rarely leaves her room but to have tea with Emma's father, Mr. Woodhouse, or with Mrs. Perry and Mrs. Goddard. Her principal importance to the novel is as a convenient companion to Mr. Woodhouse and as an example of elderly propriety within the community.

Colonel Campbell

The Campbells are mentioned only in relation to being the benefactors of Jane Fairfax, who is the orphaned niece of Miss Bates. Jane has grown up in the Campbell family and been treated on an equal footing to their own daughter. Their daughter's marriage to Mr. Dixon and the family's temporary removal to Ireland compels Jane to return to Highbury; it also signals the dreaded time of independence, when Jane must seek her living as a governess. So, at least, the good people of Highbury have been led to believe.

Frank Churchill

The mysterious young gallant of marrying age has not yet made his appearance in Highbury, but he is expected every day, for his biological father (Mr. Weston) has just married the elegant Miss Taylor, former governess to Emma. His own mother having died before his was three, Frank Churchill was adopted by his uncle, who was in a position to bestow upon him all of the privileges of rank and wealth that his father could not. Mr. and Mrs. Weston have received "handsome" letters announcing his intent to come and his excuses why he cannot. When he finally arrives, he is liked by all except Mr. Knightley, who finds him less forthright or perfect in his duties and intentions than he ought to be. As it turns out, Mr. Knightley has good reason for his suspicions. Frank is playing a game of deception with the good people of Highbury, and at least two women, Jane Fairfax and Emma Woodhouse, are in danger of falling prey to his manipulative charms. By artifice, Frank Churchill becomes one of Emma's three suitors. In that role readers are meant to judge his character alongside that of Mr. Elton and Mr. Knightley. As importantly, though, he becomes the means by which Emma once again makes critical mistakes in both her assessment of character and in her own powers of reason and observation.

As with most of Austen's characters, Frank Churchill is more complicated than he appears. With Emma, readers learn that charm, good looks, and breeding may serve as a front for sly manipulations and selfish goals. Emma must see in Frank's actions a reflection of her own failings, and she must learn that appearances are not what they seem. With Mr. Knightley, readers must acknowledge that circumstances can sometimes deter good intentions and that although Frank Churchill's actions were not to be condoned, he can easily be forgiven for acting out of love.

Mr. Churchill

While he is never introduced in person, Mr. Churchill is one of the privileged, condescending members of society living outside Highbury whose influence on the story is felt mainly in his role as adopted father to Frank Churchill. Whether and when Frank Churchill will finally come to Highbury to visit his biological father, Mr. Weston, and his new wife, the former Miss Taylor, governess to Emma, is a matter of grave speculation among the neighbors. In fact, one of the key disputes between Mr. Knightley and Emma centers on whether Frank Churchill is being unduly ruled by his feelings of duty toward his adoptive parents and not enough by his filial duty to Mr. Weston. Mr. Churchill also is mentioned early on in the novel as disapproving of his sister's earlier marriage to Mr. Weston on the grounds that it was an unequal match. When that sister dies three years later, their child, Frank, becomes a means of reconciliation. The Churchills adopt him.

Mrs. Churchill

Mrs. Churchill is the sickly wife of Mr. Churchill and adopted mother to Frank. She is regarded by Emma and by the narrator as the chief obstacle to Frank's marrying Jane Fairfax. While, like her husband, Mrs. Churchill is never introduced except as a name associated with Frank's fate, she serves to illustrate the lure and the drawbacks of money and privilege. While Frank expects and needs his inheritance, he is unwilling to act on his own behalf in choosing a wife. Mrs. Campbell is not quite a stereotype. While she indeed appears to be the rich, domineering, condescending society snob that Emma takes her for, toward the end of the novel she actually does die of her illness—poetic justice perhaps, but certainly a very handy plot device, for otherwise Frank and Jane would still be dissembling about their secret engagement.

The Coles

Mr. and Mrs. Cole do not figure largely in the novel except as representatives of a merchant class who have some pretensions to mix with the gentry.

Emma grapples with whether she should attend a dinner party given at the Coles, first thinking it inappropriately beneath her, and later not wanting to be left "in solitary grandeur," she decides to accept the invitation. Austen's irony aims partially at a fixed society so blind in its class-consciousness that it cannot account for good character and breeding unless it is attained by lineage. More importantly, the Coles, like the Martins, serve as lessons in humility to Emma. Austen makes the point through the Coles that when the accepted hierarchies break down and judgments about class and character must be determined, Emma, more often then not, acts out of a desire to be treated as the first person of consequence.

Mr. Dixon

Mr. and Mrs. Dixon do not figure in the action except, as with the Campbells, through their acquainted with Jane Fairfax. However, Mr. Dixon, who has married Miss Campbell (a virtual sister to Jane), is important to the comedy and mystery of the novel. Emma reasons that Jane's sadness and eventual illness can be imputed to an unrequited or ill-fated love for Mr. Dixon. The romance that she imagines is all the more fixed in her mind when the pianoforte arrives for Jane from an anonymous source. She deduces that Jane's decision not to go to Ireland has everything to do with the love she cannot show for the former Miss Campbell's new husband.

Mrs. Augusta Elton

The former Miss Hawkins is coarse, arrogant, and interfering. She is embarrassingly familiar and at the same time unaware of social gaffes. Though orphaned and of dubious breeding, Mrs. Elton takes pride in her sister's having married extremely well, to a Mr. Suckling. Augusta makes odious comparisons between Mr. Suckling's "seat" at Maple Grove and Emma's estate at Hartfield, and her fondest wish is to explore the country in the her sister's barouche-landau, a fancy carriage. Mrs. Elton conspires with Mr. Elton to deliberately humiliate Harriet Smith at the Crown Ball, a social crime for which she is not to be forgiven. She also takes an immediate and therefore controlling interest in Jane Fairfax and her fate. It is Mrs. Elton's persistent haranguing of Jane to take a position as governess that nearly ends in disaster for Jane and Frank. Austen constantly forces Jane into Mrs. Elton's overbearing company to show how elegant Jane Fairfax is by contrast and, as importantly, how superior Harriet Smith appears despite her lack of breeding. Ironically, it might be the anti-heroic Mrs. Elton, so easy to criticize for her hauteur and disdain, who can be fairly compared to Emma at her worst.

Mr. Elton

Having been so successful (at least in her own mind) of having matched Miss Taylor to Mr. Weston, Emma determines to marry off Mr. Elton to her friend Harriet Smith. Mr. Elton, who is the new vicar of Highbury, is single and unhappily so. Readers know little about him except what Emma believes him to be: "most suitable, quite the gentleman himself, and without low connections." Readers have already been privy, though, to Emma's supercilious attitudes toward the Martins, her pride of place, and her vanity in manipulating marriages for her amusement. When it turns out that Emma mistakenly takes his courtship of herself for an attraction to Harriet, Mr. Elton is forever diminished in her eyes. Mr. Elton, to be sure, has her dowry in mind, and when his hopes are dashed, he acts the churl, all pretense of gentle behavior shed like a skin. He soon disappears and only returns to Highbury when he has found a new conquest in the person of Augusta Hawkins. After his marriage to Miss Hawkins, Mr. Elton is relegated to the role of husband and co-conspirator in the couple's haughty treatment of Emma and Harriet Smith.

Jane Fairfax

Jane Fairfax, orphaned at an early age, is raised in privileged circumstances by the Campbells. Of Emma's age and of fine sensibilities, she is beautiful, discrete, and refined. She is Emma's superior in her talent for music, and she is admired for her elegance. She comes to Highbury when the Campbells leave for Ireland and her friend and "sister," Miss Campbell, marries Mr. Dixon. It is expected that she will take a place as governess to a good family in order to support herself now that she is of age. At Highbury she is compelled to live with her chattering Aunt Bates and receive the attentions of the odious Mrs. Elton. While Emma could befriend her and has good intentions of doing so, she finds Jane's reserve and coolness anathema. For her peculiar reserve, indeed, "Emma could not forgive her."

Jane Fairfax can be considered the main female character around which romance and mystery revolve. Although Emma is mistaken in thinking her in love with Mr. Dixon, she is certainly in love. Jane's secret engagement to Frank Churchill, a man with whom Emma initially thought herself in love, is the cause for Jane's reserve and also her shame. While Jane Fairfax's virtue and intelligence are highly praised, the intrigue she is involved in, as David Lodge points out in his "Introduction" to Emma, leaves her "passive and enigmatic." Or as Mr. Knightley describes her, "She has not the open temper which a man would wish for in a wife."

Finally, however, she is redeemed by the same impulse the narrator feels for Frank Churchill. She could be forgiven because she was motivated by love and by a helpless sense of her own inability to choose her fate. She is infinitely finer than Frank Churchill, for in her dissembling, she hurt no one but herself, drew no one into the charade, took no enjoyment in others' ignorance of their secret but only wished for resolution and peace. Except that she lacks a spirit of animation and is not as fortunate in her circumstances of birth, she is Emma's equal or superior in every way. It is indeed necessary for her to leave Highbury soon after her plans to marry Frank are secure, for Highbury is only big enough for one heroine.

Mrs. Goddard

Mrs. Goddard runs a boarding school of high repute at which Harriet Smith is enrolled. She is an honest "plain, motherly kind of woman," a hard worker who is no longer young. She is one of the ladies whom Emma calls on to play cards with her father in the absence of Miss Taylor. She also is the one career woman in town who, by dint of her wholesome, old-fashioned establishment, and her great influence on generations of girls, Emma can accept as proper company for her father. She is one more example of the fluidity possible within a fixed society.

Isabella Knightley

Isabella Knightley is Emma's elder sister, the wife of John Knightley, Mr. George Knightley's brother. Isabella is the quintessential good mother and wife, deferring to her husband in all things, keeping an orderly household, and artlessly adoring her sister and father. Clearly Isabella provides a contrast to Emma, whose intelligence, wit, imagination, and lively projections of her own ego make it extremely unlikely that she will come to regard herself as a passive Victorian housewife.

John Knightley

Mr. John Knightley has, like his brother, a confident sense of self, an Enlightenment zeal for reason and logic, and a temper that does not easily suffer foolishness or inconvenience. His discernment is made evident when he warns Emma that Mr. Elton has designs on her. Austen uses John Knightley's visits to Hartfield to provide one more model of gentlemanly behavior against which to contrast Mr. George Knightley. In John's inability to be tactful in the face of Emma's father's eccentricities, he is found wanting. His sarcasm, as opposed to his brother's forbearance, adds to Emma's distress over her father's comforts. He also provides a comic, down-to-earth corrective to Mr. Woodhouse's peccadilloes and hobby horses.

However, there is room for education; if Emma must learn reason and gentility from him, he also must study to be more open and less decided in his opinions. He stubbornly clings to his assessments of Harriet and Frank Churchill before he has had a chance to really know them. His jealousy of the latter makes him immune to any of his charms, and his suspicions that the former cannot be improved by Emma's attentions makes him distant and cool to the friendship.

Of all the male characters, Mr. Knightley is the only man whom Emma can marry without fear of discovering a lack of intelligence, compassion, or virtue. He combines all three as well as a promise that things will remain much as they are with the surprising but wonderful addition of marital love and security. Mr. Knightley's absolute steadiness and brotherly affection make it possible for Emma to come face to face with her own desire and sexuality, which until now she has only managed to express in the form of affection for her father, family, and friends.

Mr. Knightley

Mr. George Knightley surpasses all other gentlemen of Highbury for his discernment, reason, kindness, and virtue. He is the owner of Donwell, a large estate comparable only to Hartfield for its size and grandeur, which, if he does not marry, will be inherited by the eldest son of his brother John. While Emma busies herself naïvely making matches, carelessly starting rumors, and meddling in affairs that bring confusion to her friends, Mr. Knightley quietly helps his neighbors, not for his own amusement but out of a sense of responsibility for their well being. It is with his help that Harriet and Robert Martin are finally united, with his care that Mrs. and Miss Bates's needs are often met. With brotherly advice and a firm sense of justice and duty he guides Emma toward more mature behavior. He befriends Jane Fairfax and chides Emma into better intentions on her behalf. He is suspicious of Mr. Elton and Frank Churchill when everyone else is charmed by them, and he turns out to be right most of the time.

Robert Martin

Robert Martin is a tenant farmer of good character and intelligence who has a comfortable and increasingly promising living on Mr. Knightley's estate, Donwell. Harriet is introduced to him and to his sister Elizabeth and the Martin family during a summer recess from Mrs. Goddard's School. Mr. Martin later writes Harriet an eloquent and quite correct letter proposing marriage, which Harriet is inclined to accept until Emma talks her out of it. He is the source of great irritation between Emma and Mr. Knightley, for Emma does not yet know how to value anyone below her own class. She finds a "young farmer . . . the very last sort of person to raise my curiosity. . . . precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do." While Robert Martin plays only a very minor role in the action of the novel, he is important to Emma's education. She finally learns how to value him, despite his station. And through the good offices of Mr. Knightley, Robert Martin finally marries Harriet to the delight of both.

Harriet Smith

Harriet Smith is a boarder at Mrs. Goddard's school, "daughter to someone" but no one knows who. Since Emma needs someone to amuse her after Miss Taylor moves to Randalls, she chooses Harriet, as someone whose sweet and guileless nature could be easily guided and to whom Emma "could be useful."

Harriet takes all her cues from Emma, flattered to be admitted to Emma's inner circle and presented as her special friend. In almost every respect, Harriet has more common sense than Emma, whose imagination leads her to believe that Harriet is of noble birth and therefore should be matched with a gentleman bachelor, the most eligible being Mr. Elton. Emma's misguided interference in Harriet's love affairs threatens to cost her the true happiness of Mr. Martin and loses for her the vague promise of Mr. Elton, who never liked her in the first place except as a friend of Emma's. Emma's "training" of Harriet, which consists of persuading her she is "superior" to anyone but a gentleman, ironically leads Harriet to think of Mr. Knightley as an appropriate and desirable match. It is only when Harriet begins to focus on Mr. Knightley that Emma herself realizes she is in love with him and that she truly has done Harriet great harm.

Harriet's simplicity and naïveté are transformed through Emma's agency to a confidence, maturity, and fuller sense of her own worth without the conceits and arrogance that might accompany such a change. It is to Harriet's credit that she does not judge Emma more harshly for her intrigues, even though they end up costing Harriet much heartache and disillusionment. In the end, it is her own good sense, and not Emma's wisdom, that leads Harriet to the altar and to an appropriate and fulfilling future.

Mr. Weston

Mr. Weston's importance has to do with his early alliance with the Churchills and his son, Frank. His rise in "gentility and property" makes him another example of upward mobility within the early nineteenth-century British class structure. He also presents another "type" of gentleman in Highbury society, who, though very amiable and cheerful of temperament, lacks the judgment and discipline that marks Mr. Knightley as the more reasonable and gentile.

Mrs. Weston

Mrs. Weston, formerly Miss Taylor, marries Mr. Weston at the beginning of the novel and leaves Hartfield where she has been Emma's governess for 16 years. It is her departure for Randalls, only a half-mile away, which occasions the miserable Emma to take on Harriet Smith as a respite to her loneliness. Mrs. Weston is Emma's best friend and confidante. As her governess, and indeed her surrogate mother, she has had a large share in Emma's education; she has also indulged and spoiled her and given her a great sense of her own importance. However, Mrs. Weston is an excellent creature—young, attractive, intelligent and always thinking of others' happiness before her own. Mrs. Weston is the second wife of Mr. Weston. Their marriage sets the stage for the appearance of Mr. Weston's son, Frank Churchill, who owes filial duty to his father and new mother to pay his respects.

Mrs. Weston's story ends almost before it begins with her happy marriage. However, her continuing friendship and devotion to Emma is one of the elevating themes of the novel. Her mistaken interpretations of events and scenes in the novel also endear her to readers. She keeps guessing with her own misguided detective work when she suggests to Emma that Mr. Knightley is really in love with Jane Fairfax, and she adds to the suspense in guessing that Frank Churchill means to propose to Emma. Like readers, Mrs. Weston is beguiled by double meanings and innuendo.

Emma Woodhouse

Emma is an unlikely heroine. She is haughty, immature, rash, overly imaginative, supercilious, and sometimes mean. She finds herself "superior" to almost everyone in her midst, and she is possessed of an undisciplined mind "delighted with its own ideas." Her pride and vanity seem to know no bounds, and her intrigues and manipulations harm or embarrass a number of her friends. But despite her questionable personal charm she is surprisingly able to remake and redeem herself. Where first there is blindness and conceit, later readers see self-awareness and humility. When one moment readers recoil at her arrogance, they are next cheered by her patience and forbearance. Readers almost dismiss her for her rude indiscretions but then are entertained by her candid, honest charm. Just when she is suspected of being ruthless, she is found to be capable of deep compassion and love. Indeed, Emma's very imperfections bind readers to her.

Austen infuses her heroine with such high spirit and determination that her youthful follies can be overlooked. She is motherless, after all, embarked on a project of self-education that begins only when her governess leaves. She is likeable because she refuses to be typical. She refuses to do what is expected of her. She determines never to marry, to continue to improve herself by her own means, and to reject the received wisdom of her times that a woman is nothing without a man. That she does marry in the end does not make her a hypocrite. On the contrary, it is only when she learns that she need not lose herself in a marriage, that her best moral guide and friend has all along been eager for her to make her own mistakes and to wonder in an unselfish way "what will become of her" that she relents.

Mr. Woodhouse

Austen clearly means to equate gentility with the amounts and types of foods one eats, and in his preference for the most abstemious amounts and the least volatile types, Mr. Woodhouse cannot be rivaled. Mr. Woodhouse is old and has a delicate constitution; he is constantly referring to the good advice of his esteemed apothecary, Mr. Perry. It is a source of comic relief when Mr. Woodhouse and his daughter, Isabella, converse about harmful weather conditions, the benefits of one seaside town over another, or the type of gruel that should be preferred on all occasions to avoid an unhealthy constitution. As a quintessential gentleman and undisputed member of the English gentry, Mr. Woodhouse is esteemed as the first citizen of Highbury. His neighbors are solicitous for his health, and he is always careful that people should do their duties toward one another, uphold customs and traditions, and by no means ever give in to excesses or haste. He deplores change and invariably refers to Mrs. Weston as "poor Miss Taylor" and to his own daughter as "poor Isabella," thereby projecting onto their happiness his own dread of their absence from his household.

Austen seems to measure her characters in relation to how they treat the eccentricities and hardships of the most difficult characters. Mr. Woodhouse is one of the characters whose trying personality must be suffered because of his position in society and because he has often been a benefactor to his neighbors. Emma's diligent and dedicated care of her father is perhaps one of her greatest strengths, and Mr. Knightley's unselfish decision to move to Hartfield and give up Donwell to marry Emma is a mark of his true superiority as a man.


Age of Reason or Age of Enlightenment

Jane Austen was well acquainted with eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers such as Dr. Samuel Johnson, whose classical ideals of common sense and moderation were revived during the so-called Age of Reason or Age of Enlightenment. Respect for scientific principles, including human nature, were applied to all aspects of life. While emotion, sentiment, and individual imagination were not absent from Enlightenment thinking, reason and rational thought were highly prized. Characters in Austen's works suffer from her lightly ironic and satirical pen when their wit is unconnected with their powers of reason. (Miss Bates, for example, is kind but "ridiculous"; Mr. Woodhouse is loveable but neurotic about health issues and eating habits; the Eltons' powers of reason are dwarfed by their meanness and pretensions.) But Austen's most heroic characters (Mr. Knightley; the Emma at the end of the novel) have found a balanced way to blend reason and compassion, intellect and virtue.

Manners and Morals

Self-control, decorum, and polite conduct are hallmarks of civilized society, and to be thought well of in society was a mark of good breeding in Jane Austen's privileged world. Although Austen has too keen a sense of humor and too deep a desire for good to triumph to be considered a slave to convention, she imposes limitations on her characters to act with gentility at all occasions. Much can be forgiven in the fictional world of Emma if one's manners are proper and if one acts out of a sense of propriety and decency. Hence Frank Churchill is chastised for having deceived the neighbors but escapes condemnation on account of his good manners, gentility, and well-intentioned heart.

Neoclassicism and Wit

Late eighteenth-century England saw a resurgence of classical forms in art (a period often referred to as Neoclassical)—the comic, the tragic, the epic, and heroic genres in literature reflected the universal truths of human nature. Jane Austen was writing during the Regency period, toward the end of the eighteenth century, when writers of the Romantic Movement were reacting with more lyrical and emotional content to the constraints and limits imposed by neoclassicists. Although Austen was not much influenced by romanticism, her witty dialogue and satire focuses on human foibles within a specific social context that fuels emotion, deep feeling, and sentiment. Austen's wit shows most boldly in her comedy of manners and situations when rules of conduct are broken (Mrs. Elton referring to Mr. Knightley with contemptible familiarity as "Knightley"); when one person's play on words hits on a truth that is unsuspected (Frank Churchill's declaring to Emma that the gift of the pianoforte was certainly "an offer of love"); or when human folly is at fault for uncomfortable social situations ("how peculiarly unlucky poor Mr. Elton was in being in the same room at once with the woman he had just married, the woman he had wanted to marry, and the woman whom he had been expected to marry").

The Novel and Realism

The novel, as a recognized genre, was born in the eighteenth century and in its earliest forms is associated with the writings of Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson, and Daniel Defoe. However, the novel was as much a female creation springing from the works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Fanny Burney, Ann Radcliffe, and, of course, Jane Austen. The novel was indeed original in that it took for its subject the experiences of ordinary people (rather than mythological, historical, or legendary figures) and based its story on individual expressions of truth common to current times and culture. Jane Austen took the novel to new heights in dramatizing the domestic concerns of her characters. She encompassed the full spectrum of human behavior through situational detail common to her characters and language particular to each character's psychology. The rise of realism and the novel had much to do with the rise of literacy and the middle class as well as the examination and scrutiny by women of their roles in both public and domestic spheres.



A German term, bildungs, and a French one, roman, combine to form a term that describes the novel of development or formation. This is a story about Emma's formation as a gentile woman. The author intends to show us how a youthful life matures, is educated, and, finally, transformed. In Emma, the heroine's development coincides with her attachment to those people in the novel (in particular Mr. Knightley) whose sterling qualities she also must adopt and make her own.

Comedy of Manners

A comedy begins in difficulty and ends happily. At the outset of Austen's novel, Emma is distressed by the thought of her own loneliness that must follow in the wake of Miss Taylor's marriage. The novel ends in the most suitable of companionship and marriage to Mr. Knightley. The major character is often set a task that needs completion or a lesson that needs to be learned. Emma must learn the true nature of discernment of mind and nobility of character. The term, comedy, comes from the Greek (meaning to make merry), and while it is usually lighthearted, a comedy can be serious in intent, as Emma certainly is. Austen's novel is not merely a light-hearted romp; its message of compassion and transformation is carefully illustrated. The comedy is not crude; on the contrary, it is subtly ironic and satirical. It revolves around the conventions and manners of an artificial, sophisticated society and depends on small, domestic intrigues and character foibles to generate amusement. Universal truths, however, can be gleaned from the small and particular.

Topics For Further Study

  • How is individual worth determined in a class-conscious society? Was there a clear hierarchical social structure in Emma's world? Did it reflect the reality of Jane Austen's time? What lessons did Emma learn about class and character?
  • Under what conditions could women own property in the eighteenth century? Why was it so important for women to marry? What qualities and behavior does Austen believe lead to a happy marriage?
  • List the kinds of female accomplishments that would have been considered praiseworthy in Jane Austen's time. Compare them to what women accomplish in the early 2000s. What does the comparison tell you about gender roles then and now?
  • Research the British Enclosure Acts of the eighteenth century. What impact did they have on urban and rural culture?
  • Austen's novel is full of references to diet and health as well as concern for illness and exposure to bad weather. Much of the concern is treated satirically as the obsession of an aging Mr. Woodhouse. But Harriet Smith's sore throat seems more serious. Describe the living conditions in London during the end of the eighteenth century. Was there any real reason for concern?
  • Do some research on the topic of feminism and how it is variously defined. Based on your findings, do you think the character of Emma could be an early proponent of feminism? If yes, what are her qualities that express this? Cite some specific scenes from the novel that you feel express feminist expressions or ideals.

Fatal Flaw

While Emma's personality flaws are not fatal as are those, for example, that mark major characters in Shakespeare's tragedies, hers prevent her from full participation in the life she aspires to—that of a gentile lady. Emma's flaws are treatable; they stem from an excess of imagination, a tendency to think too well of herself, and an inbred bias based on class superiority. At bottom she is well intended and compassionate, animated, intelligent, cheerful and patient. Readers are meant to like her, despite her flaws, but they are also meant to delight in her reinvention of self and the smoothing over of her rough edges.

Gender Issues

Jane Austen is not usually considered a feminist, at least not an active proponent of women's rights such as Mary Wollstonecraft (a contemporary of Austen's who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman). But she did believe that women were intelligent, creative equals to men, just as capable of accomplishment and just as liable to shortcomings and, therefore, that they should be judged according to their intelligence and character, just as men were. Emma vows never to marry. It is not because she dislikes men, but because she judges that her life will be just as fulfilling if she remains single. She is well aware of her personal resources, does not behave coquettishly in order to attract men, and prefers to make her own decisions about her welfare, behavior, and attitudes. She is open to instruction from Mr. Knightley, but it is also clear that she will continue to be a forceful, enlightened partner in their marriage.


Austen keeps us in suspense as to the nature of the romantic intentions and motives of several of her characters, especially in regard to the central mystery of Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill. She employs the usual strategies of mystery writing to do so: planting clues, creating dialogue and actions that may have multiple meanings; introducing red herrings to throw us off the trail; and supplying motives that offer possible keys to solving the mystery. Much of the enjoyment in reading is due to Austen's mastery of these techniques, which compels readers to join Emma in playing detective.

Point of View

In Emma, there are two perspectives from which to understand the story and the psychology of its characters: that of the author/narrator and that of the heroine, Emma. This limited omniscience provides insights into characters; motives and personalities, but (with the exception of Emma) it does not allow readers to know what characters are thinking. The strategy makes sense in this story since the plot revolves around Emma's process of maturation. Emma's insights are not to be trusted, and so the reliable narrator provides the full truth of the matter.


A literary strategy for revealing the follies and shortcomings of humankind, satire blends humor and wit with critical attitudes toward human nature and social institutions. Irony, which reveals an often-comic dual reality between what is true and what is illusion, is one of Austen's favorite techniques. She uses it freely to create intrigue and situational comedy. For example, it is ironic when Emma attributes the gift of the pianoforte to Mr. Dixon and Frank Churchill (knowing it is of course from himself) pretends to agree with her suspicions by saying, "I can see it in no other light than as an offering of love." Emma is none the wiser, but the reader sees the double meaning. The Eltons come in for their fair share of satire since they are the perfect pretenders to gentility, being themselves coarse, pretentious, and uneducated.

Social Setting

The novel is set in late eighteenth century England (during the Regency period), in a small countryside village, structured with a conventional hierarchical social ladder. At the top are the landowners (Mr. Knightley, Mr. Woodhouse, and their families); next come the respectable male professionals—the career military officers (Captain Weston, Colonel Campbell), doctors (Mr. Perry), solicitors, and vicars (Mr. Elton). The tradesmen have become more mobile (Mr. Cole), moving up in class as they gain wealth during the Industrial Revolution. Women also can earn respectable wages as teachers and governesses. The tenant farmers (Robert Martin) are near the bottom, followed by the hired servants, and the truly poor (the gypsies). The hierarchy is important to the story since Emma must learn not to be deceived by class when judging a person's character.


A secondary plot that develops alongside the main action involving the heroine and which usually influences the major character and the action as a whole is called the subplot. In this case, Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill are the major characters involved in the intrigue of a secret engagement that leads to mistaken motives and suspicions among the neighbors of Highbury. The mystery of the subplot allows the other characters to reveal their true natures as they interact with the two newcomers.

Historical Context

Jane Austen's Emma belongs to a period in English history known as the Regency (1811–1820), during which King George III was considered incompetent to rule and the Prince of Wales acted as Regent. But as a literary figure writing at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Austen can be considered a descendant of the Age of Enlightenment (alternately referred to as the Age of Reason, the neoclassical period, or the Augustan Age). It was a time of economic upheaval, political unrest, and great cultural industry and change.

During much of Austen's life, Europe and England were caught up in the Napoleonic Wars. While the novel itself makes no reference to war, nor is the plot in any way connected to it, military men do play a role as characters. Indeed, it is interesting to note that domestic country life could go on much as usual, despite the political turmoil. The Enlightenment philosophy that sustained the French Revolution and spurred the search for natural laws that would explain human behavior and social institutions did not alter Britain's tradition of monarchy. But it did inspire writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Paine, and William Godwin to pen classic essays on the rights of man, the defense of a just revolution, and the pernicious effects of unjust rule.

The Industrial Revolution grew out of Enlightenment thinking that placed faith in the rational individual and in human progress and science. New inventions such as James Watt's steam engine, Crompton's "mule" (for making yarn), and Jethro Tull's seed planting drill, led to a great increase in agricultural and manufacturing production. When combined with the Enclosure Acts, which radically reduced the number of tenant farmers and drove landless people to cities for jobs, this revolution also led to the spread of contagious disease, an increase in infant mortality, and terrible overcrowding and dangerous working conditions in cities. Social status became more mobile with the growth of the middle class, and confusion about rank and custom prevailed. The wealth and stature of the Coles, for example, comes from trade, and while they belong to a class of people with whom Emma initially does not think she should mix, she eventually accepts their importance to the community. In Mr. Woodhouse's obsession over food and health, we might read an eccentric but practical wish to stay removed from the evils spawned by urban life. (One of the wonderful discoveries of the time was the smallpox vaccine.) And, through Emma, Austen pokes fun at Mr. Knightley's recurring discussions of agricultural improvements and his need to be in constant communication with his estate's steward.

During Jane Austen's time, satire was a popular literary tool used to critique social institutions and human evils. Ironically, writers associated with the Age of Reason and characterized by Cartesian logic (the thinking of Descartes, as in "I think; therefore, I am.") were not hesitant to parody logical thinking when it came to addressing social ills. Jonathan Swift's great satire, A Modest Proposal, for example, uses rational arguments to suggest that the Irish could solve their famine by eating their children. Jane Austen's targets are moral, domestic ones. She satirizes the over-indulgent, supercilious, proud, and coarse whose actions and behaviors lead to crimes of the heart.

It makes sense that the rise of the novel should accompany the rise of the middle class during the eighteenth century. Henry Fielding, Daniel Defoe, Anne Radcliffe, Fanny Burney, and Samuel Richardson were experimenting with realism, and Jane Austen was their literary heir. The Romantic poets (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Byron, and Shelley among the most prominent) were also emerging, reacting against the cold and impersonal intellectuality of Cartesian logic with lyricism and exotica. Austen was more inclined to observe a unity of form—her novels have a well-conceived beginning, middle, and end, and all parts are related in an organic whole. For example, the action of the novel takes place in the tidy confines of one calendar year.

An influential philosopher of a slightly earlier time was John Locke. His seminal idea that human understanding evolves solely from the experience of the senses had a remarkable influence on the thinking of the next two centuries. The novel, with its focus on social and public discourse, evolved from Locke's stunning postulation that there was a normal shared truth in the collective memory of man and that new ideas did not emerge from private inspiration but from new combinations of old material. If external experience was the measure of knowledge, then essentially, truth was transparent and available to all. The nature of man was knowable and uniform. From this position, it is easy to

Compare & Contrast

  • 1815: Acting as sovereign in place of the ill king, George III, the licentious Prince of Wales (to whom Jane Austen, at his urging, dedicated Emma) runs the Regency, which becomes a symbol of British decadence. This era is known for the clash between hedonistic, vulgar behavior and classical standards of elegance.

    Today: Government leaders are held to high standards of behavior and decorum, but, although outwardly public officials maintain a public image of decency, intrigues and scandals are no less common in the early 2000s than they were in Jane Austen's time.

  • 1815: Women have very few legal or personal rights. They are not allowed to vote or to hold wage-earning jobs aside from teaching or factory work. Women cannot attend college. All property and children within marriage belong to the husband, and the eldest male child inherits the family wealth.

    Today: It is unconstitutional to discriminate on the basis of sex. Women have equal access to jobs, exercise complete control over their own property, share control over their children, can achieve a college or university education, and are free to decide their own destiny.

  • 1815: Leisure activities for ladies of the period include walking, drawing, playing a musical instrument, singing, embroidery, and cards. Any strenuous or intellectual activity is placed strictly outside of the woman's role in society. Accordingly, women's fashions are very restrictive.

    Today: Women from all walks of life participate in extreme sports, hard physical work, and challenging intellectual enterprises as well as enjoying more sedentary pursuits. Women's clothing allows complete freedom of movement.

  • 1815: Social relations between well-bred young people follow strict codes of behavior that preclude premarital sex, coarse language or rude behavior, and unchaparoned meetings. Since a woman depends almost entirely on her husband or father to make her way in life, she protects her reputation as a lady.

    Today: People live in a much more permissive society, and the conduct of individuals is not strictly enforced by social codes. Young adults date unsupervised, and cars provide a form of privacy and means of escape. Freed from dependence on husbands, women are likely to worry about education, careers and vocations, politics, among a great many other things once relegated to the masculine social sphere.

  • 1815: Few people move far from the conditions into which they were born. The economic classes do not mix socially, and the higher classes enjoy more privileges and rights than do the lower classes. The barriers that keep the farmer, tradesmen, landed gentry, and ruling elite within their separate spheres begin to break down with the rise of the middle class.

    Today: People pride themselves on living in a time when social barriers can be overcome by merit and education. Education and democratic institutions have created a society more open to mobility and change. However, wealth and status are still associated with privilege and well-being, and those who are economically secure do not usually mix socially with those who are not.

  • 1815: Disease is rampant in large cities such as London. The streets and waterways are dumping grounds for all kinds of animal and human waste; plumbing and refrigeration are primitive; and bathing is not a frequent activity. One of the most dreaded diseases is smallpox, but people also die from seemingly mild afflictions such as colds. Edward Jenner develops a vaccine for smallpox in 1796, and later in the twentieth century, smallpox is virtually eliminated.

    Today: Although knowledge of nutrition and hygiene has increased dramatically, environmental hazards and pollution problems have not been eradicated. People still suffer from plagues such as cancer and AIDS that threaten a growing number of the population. In the early 2000s, treatments for both diseases have been discovered, but there is no known cure.

see why satire and social documentary, science and empirical research prevailed. The influence of Lockian psychology on Jane Austen is suggested in her fondness for characters who show an appropriate public face and her penchant for discovering the true patterns of human nature through interactions in social settings. Other influential social thinkers include John Wesley, who founded the Methodist Church during the eighteenth century; Jean Jacques Rousseau, a radical philosophical voice of the time who distrusted science and valued emotion and intuition; and Adam Smith, called the father of modern economics.

Critical Overview

A collection of responses to Austen's novel (that includes, in fact, all the writers quoted below) is available on the Jane Austen Web site hosted by Brooklyn CUNY. Perhaps the most influential critique of Emma written during Jane Austen's lifetime was Sir Walter Scott's in the March 1816 edition of Quarterly Review, which that Web site contains. Scott described her as writing "a class of fictions which has arisen almost in our own times, and which draws the characters and incidents . . . more immediately from the current of ordinary life than was permitted by the former rules of the novel." For Scott, Austen's brand of realism was striking and unique, setting it apart from the false sentiment of typical romances or the lurid phantasms of Gothic tales. He praised Austen for "copying from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life, and presenting to the reader, instead of the splendid scenes of an imaginary world, a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him."

Despite Scott's praise, however, Austen's novels were not a commercial success during her life-time. Indeed, she was no self-promoter; she published her works anonymously. Because her novels came to be canonized as classics of English literature and because she was so venerated throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, it is difficult to imagine that Jane Austen's art garnered so little notice in her own time. Part of her obscurity as an artist might lie in the fact that most of her books were only actually published at the end of her life. Sense and Sensibility was her first book to see publication in 1811. She died in 1817. In the early 2000s, she was probably best known as the author of Pride and Prejudice (1813) because of that novel's popularity.

The central argument over her accomplishments tends to revolve around two notions: her narratives' lack of passion and their narrow focus. Some accused her of being blinded by conservative, upper-class views and Enlightenment philosophy. Others wondered how she could ignore the great events of her time. Two critics might serve to represent the critical divide. In the mid-nineteenth century, George Henry Lewes, English philosopher and companion of author George Eliot, heralded Austen as "the greatest artist that has ever written." Where Charlotte Brontë found reason for scorn—"Anything like warmth or enthusiasm, anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works.... The passions are perfectly unknown to her: she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood"—Lewes found plenty of room for praise. He wrote, "There are heights and depths in human nature Miss Austen has never scaled nor fathomed, there are worlds of passionate existence into which she has never set foot; but although this is obvious to every reader, it is equally obvious that she has risked no failures by attempting to delineate that which she has not seen. Her circle may be restricted, but it is complete. Her world is a perfect orb, and vital. Life, as it presents itself to an English gentlewoman peacefully yet actively engaged in her quiet village, is mirrored in her works with a purity and fidelity that must endow them with interest for all time."

Austen's reputation began to grow in the nineteenth century. Professor of English Lilia Melani notes how Victorian scholar and essayist Thomas B. Macaulay praised "the marvellous and subtle distinctive traits" of Austen's characters, and that novelist E. M. Forster preferred to read Austen's work with "the mouth open and the mind closed." Melani also reports, "In the twentieth century, Virginia Woolf rescued [Austen] from the vilification of feminists when she wrote that [Austen] was 'mistress of much deeper emotion than appears on the surface. She stimulates us to supply what is not there.'"

Indeed, devotion to Jane Austen became so commonplace that readers were even satirized for their sentimental devotion to her. The "Janeites" were so called after the title of a short story by Rudyard Kipling (1924), which tells of soldiers forming a secret society based on their admiration and understanding of Jane Austen's novels, a source of solace during the horrors of World War I. The Cult of Janeites originated with the 1870 Memoir written by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh. Wanting to portray her as conforming to strict Victorian values, he softened her image, painting her as a kindly old spinster aunt. Anthony Trollope enhanced the image by writing that her novels were "full of excellent teaching, and free from an idea or word that can pollute."

As of the early 2000s, Austen's work was the subject of countless essays, commentaries, dissertations, and media remakes. She is considered one of the greatest novelists in the history of English literature. An American Society of Jane Austen scholars features essays, biographies, book reviews, and web links; scholars continue to discuss and scrutinize her life and work for what it can tell them about her literary style and genius as well as the history, culture, and domestic sensibilities of small-town England in the early 1800s.


Kathy Smith

Smith has a Ph.D. in English literature and is a freelance writer, tutor, and non-profit administrator. In this essay, Smith discusses how the comedy of manners and the bildungsroman meet in the education of Emma.

Austen's genius for combining elements of the comedy of manners with the "coming of age" story, or bildungsroman, helped legitimize the novel as a literary genre. When Emma was published in 1816, the novel was still young. In the early eighteenth century, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding, often referred to as originators of the modern form, wrote what were to become the first canonized novels in British literature. Gothic horror, sentimental romance, satire in the service of reform, and epistolary moralizing characterized the bulk of popular narratives between the 1720s and the 1740s. By the turn of the next century, Austen had teased the novel into maturity by filtering out the sentimental, the fantastic, and the puritanical. In their place, she substituted ordinary domestic conflict, natural dialogue, a plot that progresses causally in real time and in familiar settings. Moreover, she complicated her stories with recognizable human motives, liberally leavened with wit, a dose of light irony, and sprinkled for the most part with sympathetic humor.

In keeping with the conventions of classical drama, Austen provides both enjoyment and instruction as she carefully constructs the events and circumstances under which Emma's education is to take place. We are introduced to the heroine in the first paragraph by a narrator who is both in and above the action, freely commenting on the story and its individual characters, much like a reporter, while closely identifying with them, in particular with Emma. In "'The Tittle-Tattle of Highbury': Gossip and Free Indirect Style in Emma," Casey Finch and Peter Bowen suggest that the effect of this "free indirect style" works on us the way gossip might. Each character's thoughts are "at once perfectly private and absolutely open to public scrutiny." We are "taken in" almost helplessly by our desire both to know what happens to the principles and to belong to the community around which the story unfolds. The narrative voice is comforting. It acts as a corrective to the characters' whims and opinions and also serves to exculpate them (or most of them) from the guilt of their social gaffes. As Frances Ferguson points out in "Jane Austen, Emma, and the Impact of Form," Emma (and by extension, the reader) is allowed to make mistakes and to learn "by trial and error" since "sociological knowledge . . . can be learned only experimentally."

Austen drops a clue as to what Emma's trials might involve in the very first sentence: "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." Something, Austen implies, is about to change. Our sheltered, privileged but intellectually alive heroine is about to experience some vexation that calls into question the early formation of her character under seemingly fortunate circumstances. We soon find that the first problem to be solved in Emma's social education curriculum is how to cope with boredom. The problem is both serious (her loneliness and isolation are real) and trivial (inasmuch as she seeks mere amusement and diversion). Emma's fixation on Harriet as the object of her tutelage is the ostensible solution to her problem and the first great irony of the novel since it is really Emma who needs improvement. The classical pattern of comedy slowly emerges whereby the protagonist is confronted with a difficulty, undertakes to remedy the situation by self-prescribed methods, and by a naïve series of missteps and adjustments, achieves a reformation of character that is ultimately rewarded, in this case by a new experiential self-awareness and a marriage that seals her achievement of elegance.

The action of Emma turns on the domestic scene, on the manners and morals of a country village society designed to represent all that is artificial and sophisticated, ridiculous and honorable, condescending and humble; in short, all the vices and virtues that plague and bless the human condition. It is crucial that we identify with Emma by seeing and judging through her eyes, for as a heroine, she is central to the human portrait, embodying those human qualities and frailties so often at war.

Emma is a meddler. She is presumptuous, haughty, and proud. In the wake of Miss Taylor's loss, she feels compelled to interfere in Harriet Smith's life in a way that brings trouble and shame not only on them both but on their neighbors as well. Moreover, Emma seems happily unaware of her own rectitude; her condescending attitude toward Harriet's beau, Robert Martin, is based on the "rightness" of traditional class structure ("The yeomanry," says Emma, "are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do."), and seems completely just and rational to her. Upon first meeting Harriet, Emma thinks, "Those soft blue eyes and all those natural graces should not be wasted on the inferior society of Highbury and its connections. The acquaintance she had already formed were unworthy of her." Emma herself would take Harriet's improvement in hand. "[S]he would form her opinions and her manners. It would be an interesting, and certainly a very kind undertaking; highly becoming her own situation in life, her leisure, and powers."

In the abstract, it is difficult to imagine a more smug protagonist. And yet, by chapter three, when Emma reflects with self-satisfaction on the good she can do Harriet, we have already decided to like her, despite, or perhaps because of, her psychological warts. Of course, Emma's animated spirit and intelligence attract our attention. She also has the advantages of wealth and beauty, but what really intrigues us is the pleasure we derive from eavesdropping on her. Austen invites us to critique her and commiserate with her. We feel superior when she expresses ugly sentiments; we are relieved and glad for her when she gets it right. The more we identify with Emma and her predicaments, the more minutely we are obliged to examine our own moral codes. Like Mr. Knightley, we are curious to know "what will become of her!" precisely because she is, like ourselves, a work in progress.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Pride and Prejudice (1813) has been the most popular of Austen's six novels. Like Emma, it is a comedy of manners, full of satire and irony, wit and sophisticated drawing room exchanges. Blending humor with stunning insight into the domestic scene, human nature, courtship, and the limits and attraction of authority, Austen paints a vivid portrayal of life in the English countryside at the end of the eighteenth century. Like Emma, the protagonists Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett undergo a moral education, teaching one another through mishap and intention that charm, intelligence, independent-thinking, and vibrancy must ultimately be leavened with humility.
  • Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is the first notable feminist essay on gender equality. It takes as its premise that reason, virtue, and knowledge separate humans from beasts. Women, Wollstonecraft argues, should therefore "endeavour to acquire strength, both of mind and body." Men who try "to secure the good conduct of women by attempting to keep them always in a state of childhood" are "unphilosophical" at best.
  • It is hardly possible to understand the Age of Reason without having read John Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690). It changed the nature of inquiry into human consciousness by establishing a cognitive model for analyzing human thought. Locke's notion was that all knowledge was gained by direct experience through the senses and by reflection on those experiences. Hence, individual expression, social interaction, and religious thought could be systematized and explained rationally.
  • The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), by Ann Radcliffe—a contemporary of Jane Austen, is considered one of the preeminent Gothic romances of the time, following in the style of the Horace Walpole prototype, The Castle of Otranto (1764). The Gothic novel, with its attendant hauntings, sudden storms, sliding tapestries, and generational madness was a very popular genre in the eighteenth century. Jane Austen parodied Radcliffe's work in her posthumously published novel, Northanger Abbey.

Artlessly, Emma draws us into intrigues that are partly a manifestation of her own active imagination. We don't mind because, like Mrs. Weston, we want to believe that, "[w]here Emma errs once, she is in the right a hundred times," and if Emma is manipulative, "she will never lead any one really wrong." Austen's narrator confirms Mrs. Weston's good opinion of Emma. If Emma possesses "a mind delighted with its own ideas" she is also full of "real good-will." If she is spoiled by always having been "first" with her father, she is also extraordinarily patient with his tiresome eccentricity. And if she is an intriguer, she is capable of self-criticism and compassion, qualities illustrated in self-reflection when her hopes for Harriet and Mr. Elton are dashed. By the time Emma has "taught" Harriet to be smitten with Mr. Elton, we have been given clues enough that Emma is the real object of Mr. Elton's desire. Of course we relish the situational irony of Emma's self-congratulatory pronouncement that her efforts for Harriet have paid off: "There does seem to be a something in the air of Hartfield which gives love exactly the right direction, and sends it into the very channel where it ought to flow." But by the same token, when the full horror of Mr. Elton's real intentions are revealed as he attempts to "make love" to Emma in the coach scene, her misery and admission of culpability redeem her in our eyes: "Every part of it brought pain and humiliation . . . but, compared with the evil to Harriet, all was light; and she would gladly have submitted to feel yet more mistaken . . . more disgraced by mis-judgment
... could the effects of her blunders have been confined to herself."

Lest Emma's journey toward true gentility become too didactic or moralistic, Austen introduces a romantic and mysterious subplot involving Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, which offers the theme of Emma's education more opportunities for wit and satire. Austen's humor expresses delight with the spectacle of imperfection; however, the tone is far from mocking, for we, like Emma, are still in the dark as to the nature of the mystery, and it is only by a succession of ambiguous hints that we ourselves discover the truth. Although we find little to admire in Emma's jealousy of Jane Fairfax, we do not like Jane's cool reserve any more than Emma does. (By now we are addicted to the gossip.) Moreover, Frank Churchill's deceptions are so clever, that we are able to forgive Emma her favorite new intuition that Miss Fairfax is secretly in love with Mr. Dixon. Despite her foolish mistake with Harriet, Emma has not yet learned the virtue of discretion, but in sharing her gossipy supposition with Frank she is led on deliberately. In fact, the entire community (both the village folk and the literary folk who read the book for the first time) is involved in guessing who has sent Jane the gift of the pianoforte. It is with an almost voyeuristic curiosity, then, that we watch the mystery unfold as the characters gather for a dinner party at the Coles' place.

Frank Churchill's cleverness and acute perception as contrasted with Emma's naïve conjectures set the scene for a comic display of wit during this episode when the major characters come together as a community. The dialogue concerning Jane and the pianoforte is a case in point. "I may not have convinced you perhaps," says Emma to Frank, "but I am perfectly convinced myself that Mr. Dixon is a principal in the business." She is looking for validation of her secret romance idea. Frank Churchill is only too willing to provide it. "Indeed you injure me if you suppose me unconvinced. Your reasonings carry my judgment along with them entirely. . . . And now I can see it in no other light than as an offering of love." The passage is at once ironic and witty because it is Emma's very lack of considered "reasonings" that allows Frank Churchill to deceive her, and because the pianoforte is indeed an offering of love, but from Frank himself. But wit is a double-edged sword. It can easily injure another (Emma "unwitting" use of wit at Box Hill hurts Miss Bates by implying that the spinster will not be able to limit herself to saying three dull things) as it forces the truth out into the open. Throughout the novel, Austen reveals when wit is appropriate precisely by gauging its effects on members of the community.

The comedy of manners "works" as an educational device only when we have wit enough to see that all in the community are subject to the petty foibles and peccadilloes to which flesh is heir. Even Mr. Elton, whom we hold in disdain both for his cruel treatment of Harriet at the Crown Inn ball and his irredeemable, supercilious behavior after his marriage to the equally ill bred Augusta Hawkins, requires a small measure of sympathy: "how peculiarly unlucky poor Mr. Elton was in being in the same room at once with the woman he had just married, the woman he had wanted to marry, and the woman whom he had been expected to marry."

Austen tends to forgive the improprieties of those who see their own shortcomings but finds little toleration for those who cannot. Frank Churchill is berated for his intrigues and deceptions, especially as they are perceived to compromise the health and future of Jane Fairfax, but his honest apologies, his true regard for Jane, and his loyalty to her friends overcome most objections to his frailties. Mrs. Elton, on the other hand, has no such loyalties and makes no such apologies. The fact that her character, especially, remains "unreclaimed" is important. In "Self-Deception and Superiority Complex: Derangement of Hierarchy in Jane Austen's Emma," Shinobu Minma points out what other critics have also noted: the character of Mrs. Elton is meant to "expose" Emma's own pretensions of superiority and her "self-righteous patronage." She is Emma's exaggerated and not so subtle alter ego. Shinobu argues that Austen's intent is to show how the arrival of the nouveau riche (here he includes the Woodhouses who, while well established, "are not a landowning family") tended to upset the traditional hierarchical structure with their need for acceptance into the upper echelons of society. I would argue that Mrs. Elton, unlike Emma, never fits, not merely because of her parvenu pertness, but because she is only superficially selfaware and lacks the talent to belong to any community. Emma's capacity to belong, ultimately, is the true measure of her gentility.

That belonging is finally crucial to Emma's happiness, for like most others in the village, "Not one of them had the power of removal, or of effecting any material change of society. They must encounter each other, and make the best of it." Mrs. Elton considers herself preeminent in Highbury society by connection to and by the trappings of wealth and position. While Emma also feels herself superior and wants to remain so, her social position as "first" is challenged on moral grounds. She submits to the tests of character and admits her vulnerability and failures. Her wedding (the simplicity of which Mrs. Elton finds "extremely shabby") promises, in fact, to make her "first" in social stature, for Mr. Knightley is a member of the true landed gentry. However, that union comes only after Emma realizes the poverty of her own class-based prejudice and rectifies her social behavior. She finds her place and her humility when she can be civil to Miss Bates, accepting of Robert Martin, sociable with the Coles, and intimate with Jane Fairfax. We are left to imagine that because her education has been successful, she will find her happiness among that "small band of true friends" who have vouchsafed her membership among them.

Source: Kathy Smith, Critical Essay on Emma, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Catherine Dybiec Holm

Holm is a freelance writer, as well as a genre novel and short story author. In this essay, Holm discusses how the writing style of this novel differs from a modern fiction novel.

Jane Austen's Emma was first published in 1815. Today's readers will note that conventions in written storytelling have changed dramatically since the early 1800s. But Austen's style of storytelling effectively captures the societal nuances that are such a big part of this story. While it may be difficult for modern readers to absorb an older style of writing, it is possible that the older style of writing reflects how people generally communicated during that period in history. In this way, writing is a reflection of the consciousness of society and the trends in communication in general, whether in the 1800s or the twenty-first century. The difference between writing in the 1800s and writing today does not mean that one type of writing is superior to the other, but it does lead to interesting observations about how communication changes over time and what these changes might imply.

A present-day reader will notice that Austen's book reads differently than a contemporary fiction novel, beginning with the first sentence. Modern fiction is required to "hook" readers right away. Within the first several pages of contemporary fiction (or even the first several paragraphs), there must be the sense of danger, urgency, or a problem (perhaps the central story problem) that the protagonist must deal with. Modern readers have come to expect this. This expectation may be influenced by today's fast-paced life, competing distractions, entertainment media that are short and to the point, or an evolution over time of storytelling methods which have come to be more popular than others.

For a modern-day reader, it may be difficult to discern Emma's central conflict, or the premise of the story, given the first several pages. By contemporary standards, the book starts out quite gently with the following statement: "Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition seemed to invite some of the best blessings of existence; and had very little to distress or vex her."

Compare this to the beginning of the 2002 bestseller The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold, which plunges the reader right into the first-person experience of a horrible murder, and one can see how much the conventions of fiction writing have changed in two centuries. Little seems urgent during much of the beginning of Emma, which was perhaps typical of 1800s stories but not typical today. One of the first senses of real urgency in Emma, which involves the protagonist, does not come until more than a quarter of the way into the book (at least one hundred pages from the beginning) when Elton and Emma are alone in a carriage and Elton reveals his passionate feelings for Emma.

This is one of the first times in the story that emotions from any of the characters truly flare, and there is suddenly a sense of the larger problem at hand. Emma's astute skills of human observation and her attempts at matchmaking have backfired. In a modern novel, a problem like this, or at least some real emotion with something at stake, would have presented itself earlier in the story.

A contemporary reader might assume, after the first few pages of Emma, that the governess named Miss Taylor is to be an important character in the story, since much narrative is devoted to Emma's consternation when Miss Taylor moves away. Yet this does not turn out to be the case. Emma does start the novel, as she is mentioned in the first sentence, and the reader might correctly assume (based on contemporary storytelling conventions) that she will be important, even though the urgency to the story is very slow in coming, by modern-day standards. A number of other minor characters make an immediate appearance. Six characters are introduced or mentioned in the first three pages: Emma, Mr. Woodhouse, Miss Taylor, Mr. Weston, Isabella, and Isabella's husband. This convention marks another difference from today's toned down, streamlined fiction. It is impossible to know whether this implies that readers in the 1800s were more patient or could tolerate more narrative complexity, or whether readers today need communications to be as streamlined and concise as possible.

Prose style in a novel such as Emma differs from a contemporary fiction novel. Sentences are often much longer than what today's readers are accustomed to. Dialogue is presented in huge chunks, compared to today's standards. Again, the urgent scene between Emma and Elton in the carriage illustrates both the use of sentences and dialogue in this novel. The way the scene is presented is also quite different than it might be written in contemporary fiction. The beginning of this explosive moment is almost lost in the prose.

To restrain him as much as might be . . . she was immediately preparing to speak . . . but scarcely had she begun, scarcely had they passed the sweep-gate and joined the other carriage, than she found her subject cut up—her hand seized—her attention demanded, and Mr. Elton actually making violent love to her.

It is a very roundabout way of getting to the main point, which reveals itself at the end of this somewhat long sentence. Mr. Elton is "making violent love" to Emma. By contemporary standards, this scene might be written quite differently, possibly using more dialogue, shorter sentences, and immediately presenting the urgency of the problem at hand: Mr. Elton completely surprises Emma when he passionately displays his feelings for her.

By contemporary story-writing standards, the dialogue in Emma often has a character speaking for a long time, longer than may sound natural to contemporary readers. A good example of this, toward the beginning of the book, features Emma and her father discussing their servant James. Mr. Woodhouse goes on for longer than may be comfortable to the modern reader.

I am very glad I did think of her. It was very lucky.... I am sure she would be a very good servant; she is a civil, pretty-spoken girl; I have a great opinion of her. Whenever I see her, she always curtseys and asks me how I do, in a very pretty manner.... I am sure she will be an excellent servant; and it will be a great comfort to poor Miss Taylor.... Whenever James goes over to his daughter, you know, she will be hearing of us. He will be able to tell her how we all are.

This large chunk of dialogue (with words omitted) is devoted to a servant and his daughter who have little importance in the novel's entirety, or its plot. Contemporary novels often emphasize a pragmatic approach, and very little shows up in the prose that does not advance the plot or serve as an important cue for the reader in some way.

Contemporary literature teachers often advise aspiring writers to "show, don't tell." This phrase is a common denominator of the resources available to writers who want to improve their craft. The narrative style in Emma seems to favor the "telling" side of the spectrum, in many cases. This implies no judgment on the quality of the writing, but is another good example of how immensely storytelling craft has changed since the early 1800s. A good example of narrative that tells more than it shows occurs shortly after Emma and her father discuss their servant.

Emma spared no exertions to maintain this happier flow of ideas, and hoped, by the help of backgammon, to get her father tolerably through the evening, and be attacked by no regrets but her own. The backgammon-table was placed; but a visitor immediately afterwards walked in and made it unnecessary.

The narrative then goes on to describe the visitor at great length, including his age, location of his home, and his "cheerful manner."

Contemporary storytelling would likely handle this series of events quiet differently. Mr. Knightley's (the above mentioned guest) appearance might be worded to stand out more effectively and the reader might not feel like such an observer but instead feel closer to the action. The wording "a visitor immediately afterwards walked in," which is almost lost and hidden at the end of a paragraph, "tells" the reader what is going on but might distance a contemporary reader. A more active way to "show" this action would be to set apart Knightley's arrival with a paragraph break. Then, instead of telling the reader that "a visitor walked in," the contemporary author might say something like, "Emma turned at a rustling behind her, and saw Mr. Knightly coming through the doorway." The contemporary author might immediately follow with dialogue and nuances that would gradually reveal (and "show" the reader) Knightley's character, age, and other details about this new character.

There are moments in Emma where the prose stands out with insight and conciseness. During one of these moments, readers gain deep insight into Emma because her honest and blunt (but unspoken) thoughts contrast so effectively with what she has to say. The irony of the contrast highlights the excruciating importance that people (and these characters) placed on social conventions during this time in history.

'Yes, good man!' thought Emma, 'but what has all that to do with taking likenesses? You know nothing of drawing. Don't pretend to be in raptures about mine. Keep your raptures for Harriet's face.'

These thoughts are in direct contrast to Emma's polite, socially mannered response, which follows immediately: "Well, if you give me such kind encouragement, Mr. Elton, I believe I shall try what I can do."

Obviously, social conventions and consideration of social standing were extremely important in England's early 1800s. Austin's style of writing, purposefully or not, reflects these societal considerations. In Emma, characters spend a lot of time discussing proper behavior, as well as the importance of class and social standing. Emma goes to great lengths to steer Harriet from a romance with a lowly farmer. Emma distresses internally at some length over Churchill's decision to go to London for a haircut. Clearly, these characters pay attention to details, and the modern reader might find them obsessed with such details. There is a self-consciousness that runs throughout most of the book, particularly as characters worry about how to behave in social situations.

Some change of countenance was necessary for each gentleman as they walked into Mrs. Weston's drawing-room. Mr. Elton must compose his joyous looks, and Mr. John Knightley disperse his ill-humour. Mr. Elton must smile less, and Mr. John Knightley more, to fit them for the place.

But, this is a part of the fascination with Emma; it is not only a story but an in-depth experience of life in nineteenth-century England. The writing style reflects the social concerns and nuances of the time and might well be difficult to recreate using modern storytelling methods. Critic Frances Ferguson of Modern Language Quarterly describes this predicament another way: for the characters in this novel, "desire is always triangulated" because individual choice is always being aligned with larger societal choices, or "what 'everyone' thinks." In the same article by Ferguson, D. H. Lawrence is quoted as saying that Austen "creates a world of 'personality' that identifies characters in terms of their interests and evaluations." In this way, societal trends are reflected in Emma and in the way that it reads. Perhaps this can be said of all writing.

Source: Catherine Dybiec Holm, Critical Essay on Emma, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Shinobu Minma

In the following essay excerpt, Minma describes the "old society" in which Emma takes place and Emma's disruptive effect on its hierarchical system.

Text Not Available

Text Not Available

Text Not Available

Text Not Available

Text Not Available

Text Not Available

Text Not Available

Susan M. Korba

In the following essay, Korba identifies Emma's behavior as similar to that of a dominating male and examines her relationships with submissive females in Emma.

She always declares she will never marry, which, of course, means just nothing at all. But I have no idea that she has yet ever seen a man she cared for. It would not be a bad thing for her to be very much in love with a proper object.

Intimacy between Miss Fairfax and me is quite out of the question.

—Jane Austen Emma

Austen critic LeRoy W. Smith asserts that, "contrary to the traditional view, Austen does not avoid the subject of sex in her fiction," that, in fact, "she is well aware of sexuality's powerful role in human behaviour." Similarly, in Sex and Sensibility, Jean H. Hagstrum warns readers of Jane Austen against allowing the author's "considerable modesty" to obscure "the real passion that seethes beneath the controlled and witty surfaces" of her novels. He points out that "anyone so seemingly cool and rational has of course invited speculation about what is being kept out of sight" (p. 269). The critical debate over Austen's novel Emma may be seen as a case in point. For years, critics of Emma have been circling around the apparently disconcerting issue of the protagonist's sexuality. Claudia Johnson finds that "[d]etermining the common denominator in much Emma criticism requires no particular cleverness. Emma offends the sexual sensibilities of many of her critics. Transparently misogynist, sometimes even homophobic, subtexts often bob to the surface of the criticism about her." Johnson cites Edmund Wilson's ominous allusions and Marvin Mudrick's dark hints (p. 123) about Emma's infatuations with and preference for other women as examples of the unease aroused by this particular Austen heroine. In examining these critical responses, she concludes that much of the discomfort generated by the novel results from the fact that Emma "is not sexually submissive to and contingent upon men" (p. 123), and that she "assumes her own entitlement to independence and power-power not only over her own destiny, but, what is harder to tolerate, power over the destinies of others—and in so doing she poaches on what is felt to be male turf" (p. 125).

Certainly Emma's adoption of the masculine role and the implications of her usurpation of social power are contentious issues. But it is the doggedly recurrent (yet inevitably dismissed) suggestion of Emma's possible lesbianism that seems to arouse the most critical discomfort. It becomes clear upon examining Smith's and Hagstrum's readings of Austen that the passions "seething" beneath her "controlled and witty surfaces" are seen to be exclusively heterosexual passions. Hagstrum finds no evidence in Austen's works of the "perverse" lesbian sensuality that he briefly examines in other eighteenth-century novels, and which he refers to as "morbidities" or "irregularities." Smith states that Austen "controls her use [of sex] to fit her settings, avoid offence and keep attention where she feels it belongs." One wonders if it is not Austen's critics who are determined to keep attention where they feel it belongs. Although several recent analyses have posited a more sexually radical Austen, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's characterization of the bulk of Austen scholarship as critically timid seems largely justified. For the most part, approaches to Austen conform with "the vast preponderance of scholarship and teaching . . . even among liberal academics [which] does simply neither ask nor know. At the most expansive, there is a series of dismissals of such questions." Accordingly, while Christine St. Peter challenges readers of Austen to "discover previously unremarked aspects in her treatment of women's relations," her response to the suggestion that Emma's sexual orientation is homosexual rather than heterosexual is emphatically and contemptuously dismissive:

In my rejection of a narrowly defined marital love I do not intend to introduce here a parallel error of discovering in Austen the crypto-lesbian. I know well that in our post-Freudian critical world any mention of intimacy between women conjures up an image of sexual bonding. Austen was aware of this possibility, too, and quite severely rejects it. (p. 475)

Claudia Johnson herself sees the suggestion of Emma's possible homosexual proclivities as nothing more than the misogynistic projections of critics who are "at a loss to account for how Emma could like Harriet more than she likes Mr. Elton." While Johnson's point is well taken, it illustrates the limitations of a feminist perspective that remains resolutely heterocentric. Critics consistently resist what Sedgwick refers to as "the rich, conflictual erotic complication of a homoerotic matrix" present in Austen, refusing to take seriously the possibility of an alternative to the prescriptive heterosexual paradigm. The fact that Emma possesses a measure of social and sexual power, and that she is a woman who, in a number of significant ways, "plays man" throughout the novel, implies as much about Emma's place in the novel's sexual configurations as it does about her appropriation of masculine social prerogatives. Her relationships with Miss Taylor (later Mrs. Weston) and Harriet Smith exemplify her attraction to and infatuation with docile and malleable members of her own sex, women over whom she exerts control and influence, and in whose sexual destinies she evinces a passionate and active involvement; and her relationships with the male characters in the novel—Mr. Knightley, Frank Churchill, and even Mr. Elton-serve to demonstrate Emma's marked sexual indifference to men, and, more importantly, her strong sexual identification with them.

Feminist scholar Carole S. Vance suggests that

The external system of sexual hierarchy is replicated within each of us, and herein lies its power. Internalized cultural norms enforce the status quo. As each of us hesitates to admit deviations from the system of sexual hierarchy, nonconformity remains hidden, invisible, and apparently rare. The prevailing system retains hegemony and power, appearing to be descriptive as well as prescriptive, a statement of what is as well as what should be.

Thus, according to Vance "feminism must be a movement that speaks to sexuality . . . We cannot be cowardly, pretending that feminism is not sexually radical. Being a sex radical at this time, as at most, is less a matter of what you do, and more a matter of what you are willing to think, entertain, and question" (p. 23, [emphasis mine]). Accordingly, I propose an investigation of the controversial issue of Emma's erotic sub-text that poses the following questions: How do Emma's relationships with the various male and female characters in the novel reveal the nature of her sexual orientation? What are the underlying dynamics that animate her sexual identity? And finally, and perhaps most importantly, why must analyses of this particular heroine ultimately reinscript a normative heterosexual identity? Why shouldn't Emma be a lesbian?

Susan Morgan, in "Emma Woodhouse and the Charms of Imagination," offers some insights into the psychology informing Emma's relationships. She suggests that Emma is a novel about "the fact that people have an internal life of their own, and that the recognition of this personal existence, this self in someone else, is the necessary requisite for morality and for love." She observes that "within her small world [Emma] knows no boundaries, recognizes no limits. And because there is no point for Emma where her sphere of influence ends there is no room for anyone else's to begin" (p. 37); as a result, Emma constantly "violate[s] the inner lives of the people she tries to control" (p. 46). The unconsummated friendship between Emma and Jane Fairfax is central to her argument: "Emma's inability to go outside herself and grant the value of others must cost her something. And Jane Fairfax is the measure of what Emma loses" (p. 42). Ultimately, Morgan concludes that Emma is about the unfolding of an "educational process" in which the heroine learns "to accept her limits and the inviolability of others" (p. 46). Her analysis, despite its avoidance of the sexual/erotic forces afoot within the text, provides a convenient point of departure from which to attempt an investigation of the complexity of Emma's sexual identity: Morgan has identified, albeit unwittingly, both the erotic dynamic at work in Emma, which I believe to be a subliminal form of "erotic domination" as delineated by psychoanalytic critic Jessica Benjamin, and the principal erotic relationship within the novel, which, I will argue, is the one that exists between Emma Woodhouse and Jane Fairfax, our heroine's real object of desire. In the discussion which follows, I will examine this concept of "erotic domination" as I see it operating covertly within Emma, focusing on several issues that I believe are central to an attempt to understand the complex construction of Emma's sexuality: her relationships with Miss Taylor, Harriet, and Mr. Knightley; her identification with the "male" sexual role, particularly in terms of sexual object choice and the wielding of power; and her involvement with Jane Fairfax, the erotic relationship around which all the others may be seen to revolve. It is this relationship that, for various reasons, is unavailable to Emma throughout most of the novel, and that reveals, finally, the insurmountability of the sexual and social limitations that circumscribe her. It is Jane's ultimate (and, I would argue, necessary) inaccessibility that leads Emma back to Mr. Knightley. Alice Chandler has noted that "marriage is . . . a sexual act in [Austen's] novels—usually a reconciliation between a man and a woman whose inner feelings and conscious knowledge have been at odds throughout the story"; ultimately, Emma does retreat from "playing man" and marries Mr. Knightley. Nevertheless, I would suggest that the real "reconciliation" in this novel is not between Emma and Mr. Knightley at all, but rather between Emma and Jane—and that, despite this reconciliation, they must then part. Each ends up with her respective husband, and the heterosexual social order is maintained.

However, an examination of the various sexual relationships in Emma reveals that this heterosexual social order—"the normal" order, as opposed to "the perverse"—is governed by the same underlying principle that animates Emma's amatory relationships. It has been noted that, in Austen's novels, "love and power cannot be separated as ruling independently in the private and political orders." Accordingly, Sandra Lee Bartky points out that since "the subordination of women by men is pervasive . . . it orders the relationship of the sexes in every area of life . . . a sexual politics of domination is as much in evidence in the private spheres of the family, ordinary social life, and sexuality as in the traditionally public spheres of government and the economy." It would then follow that the dynamic of erotic domination, a concept that "mingles love with issues of control and submission . . . flows beneath the surface of 'normal' adult love" and runs "throughout all relationships of arousal"; in Emma, it permeates all sexual relationships, both heterosexual and homoerotic. Indeed, Benjamin contends that domination [is] not a nasty additive to nice eroticism but its essence, for, in patriarchies, domination and submission constitute erotic excitement." Thus, the structure of Emma's intercourse with other women, epitomized in the paradigmatic relationship with Harriet Smith, is mirrored in each of the novel's heterosexual attachments, including those of Mr. Weston and Miss Taylor, Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, John Knightley and Isabella, as well as that of Emma and Mr. Knightley. The way in which the desire to dominate is expressed varies in each of the relationships: with Mr. Knightley, it is through overt control and the assertion of superiority; with Frank, it manifests in cruel games and the tormenting of his partner; with Emma, it is through manipulation. The submissive partner in each relationship is usually female, a "sweet, docile, grateful" young woman like Harriet—or a "worshipping" wife like Isabella. Nancy Chodorow points out that "[w]omen find it difficult to integrate agency and love and often accept whatever love they can get in exchange for identification with and love from a man"—for women, this often involves "submission, overvaluation, masochism, and the borrowing of subjectivity from the lover." Mr. Knightley, who is wont to express his views of relationships in language permeated with such terms as "submitting" and "subjection," affirms this view of the woman's role in a discussion with Mrs. Weston, in which he characterizes her as the ideal wife, one trained in "'the very material matrimonial point of submitting your own will, and doing as you were bid'"; he assures her that, as a consequence, had he been asked by Mr. Weston "'to recommend him a wife, I should certainly have named Miss Taylor.'" Ironically, Mr. Knightley credits her relationship with Emma for having turned her into such "an excellent wife"—as Emma's intimate companion, she has been well-trained in the role of the submissive partner.

Typically it is the male partner who occupies the dominant position in the erotic relationship. Susan Contratto observes that "Power has a gender: charismatic power with its excitement, visibility, and privilege is male." Thus, Mr. John Knightley is said to be "no doubt . . . in the habit of receiving" his wife's "pleased assent" to his dicta, despite his tendency to "act an ungracious, or say a severe thing"; Mr. Weston's marriage to Miss Taylor gives him "the pleasantest proof of its being a great deal better to chuse than to be chosen, to excite gratitude than to feel it": Frank Churchill, who behaves with "shameful, insolent neglect" of his betrothed, and, worse, with "such, apparent devotion" to Emma, "as it would have been impossible for any woman of sense to endure" exits the novel with the woman of his choice, having been unable to "weary her by negligent treatment"; and Mr. Knightley, with his "downright, decided, commanding sort of manner" and his fondness for "bending little minds," acknowledges having "'blamed . . . and lectured'" Emma throughout their relationship, conceding that she has "'borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.'" Emma, however, is able to "bear" Mr. Knightley's attempts to dominate her because she does not recognize his right to dictate to her, and when he refuses to forgive her for contravening his wishes, she is "sorry, but could not repent." Her will—her sense of the legitimacy of her own power—matches his at almost every turn.

Emma occupies a rather unique and peculiar position in the novel's relationship paradigm. LeRoy Smith finds that, in Austen's fiction, "some women, instead of acceding to dependency, sustain their self-esteem by a compensatory striving for power that takes the form of imitation of the dominant male." Indeed, Austen's creation of Emma at times seems to directly address the kinds of questions that Jessica Benjamin poses in her examination of sexual power: "Why does femininity appear to be linked to passivity? And why do men appear to have exclusive rights to sexual agency, so that women seek their desire in men, hoping to have it recognised through the agency of an other?" As Smith points out

The hard truth about Austen's world is the fact of male domination. Women, characteristically, are devalued . . . Their social status is narrowly and rigidly defined: passivity is their expected state. Any attempt by them to acquire or exercise power is viewed by men as "manipulative, disruptive, illegitimate, or unimportant." But the female's craving for power is as deeply rooted as the male's [emphasis mine].

Emma firmly rejects the notion of passivity as her "expected state." She is laughingly dismissive of Harriet's wonder that, with all of her charming qualities, she "'should not be married, or going to be married!'," explaining that "'My being charming, Harriet, is not quite enough to induce me to marry: I must find other people charming—one other person at least. And I am not only, not going to be married, at present, but have very little intention of every marrying at all.'" It is clear that Emma recognizes and relishes the power and autonomy of her somewhat anomalous position when she asserts that she has "none of the usual inducements of women to marry'"—that she would, in fact. "'be a fool to change such a situation as mine."' Austen has placed Emma Woodhouse in the position of sexual dominance usually associated with men. What is more, she possesses a considerable degree of power, which is almost exclusively associated with "male mastery": "'Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want; I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband's house, as I am of Hartfield'"; Mr. Knightley remarks disapprovingly that "'ever since she was twelve, Emma has been mistress of the house and of you all.'" Arguably, Emma wields a degree of power equivalent to that of any of the male characters within the novel; more, in some cases, as demonstrated by her rejection of Mr. Elton, and her proven ability to deprive Robert Martin of his choice of a wife. This power is one that comes with social prestige, financial security, and a character allowed to develop without the restraints usually imposed upon women; in short, power that usually comes with the label of the male gender. However, Emma is free to exercise her need to control as long she violates only the selfhood of the women with whom she conducts relationships, and not the social boundaries that circumscribe them. Ultimately, Emma will discover that the power she possesses will not allow her to avoid the fate that she attempts to arrange for everyone but herself; her claim to having "very little intention of ever marrying at all" is one she will have to retreat from, once she realizes that if "all took place that might take place among the circle of her friends, Hartfield must be comparatively deserted; and she left to cheer her father with the spirits only of ruined happiness." Once everyone is settled in the security of heterosexual coupledom, Emma will have no outlet for her desire, no object upon which to exert erotic control-her power will no longer mean anything.

In Emma, power and sexuality are inextricably linked, and it is Emma's desire for and limited exertion of erotic mastery that provide the framework for Austen's narrative. Susan Morgan identifies Emma's "problem" as a failure to "see the boundaries of oneself and the separate life of others." Similarly, Jessica Benjamin explains "erotic domination" as the failure to recognize the Other "as like, although separate, from oneself"; at the most basic level, it is an impulse imbued with the individual's desire for mutual recognition, for selfhood, and for transcendence. Erotic domination has its psychological origins in an individual's earliest experience, in the failure to achieve "true differentiation." This is a somewhat paradoxical process in which the individual acquires a sense of identity through the development of the ability to see herself and others as independent and distinct beings and learns that her acts and intentions can have an impact on others, and theirs on her; at the same time, the individual is dependent upon the recognition provided by her earliest care-giver, usually the mother, in order to reaffirm this autonomous identity. Benjamin explains that the problem of erotic domination begins with the denial of this dependency—this need for recognition from the maternal Other:

To escape from this conflict it is all too tempting to imagine that one can become independent without recognizing the other person as an equally autonomous agent in her . . . own right. One need only imagine that the other person is not separate-she belongs to me. I control and possess her.

The resulting relationship is one in which the dominant partner must subjugate the submissive partner as a means of establishing her own autonomy through the negation of the other person's. In Emma, this dynamic is not manifested physically between Emma and anyone else; rather, Emma's need to dominate the women who serve as her objects of desire, to repudiate dependency "while attempting to avoid the consequent feeling of aloneness," is sublimated in her attempts to direct and control their sexual proclivities and to determine the final configurations of their heterosexual unions. In this way, she is able to take an erotic sort of pleasure in exercising mastery, without transgressing the sexual norms of her society or acknowledging the possibility of such desire.

In Emma Woodhouse's case, the failure to differentiate may be seen to have its roots in her early childhood: "Her mother had died too long ago for her to have more than an indistinct remembrance of her caresses: and her place had been supplied by an excellent woman as governess, who had fallen little short of a mother in affection." Miss Taylor, although occupying the maternal space in Emma's life during her formative years, is a problematic figure. In effect, she plays the role of the "permissive parent," as does Mr. Woodhouse, "a most affectionate, indulgent father." We learn that "[e]ven before Miss Taylor had ceased to hold the nominal office of governess, the mildness of her temper had hardly allowed her to impose any restraint"; Emma becomes accustomed to "doing just what she liked; highly esteeming Miss Taylor's judgment, but directed chiefly by her own." Benjamin explains that if

the first other we encounter is our mother . . . then it is through our . . . impact on her that we experience ourselves as existing and our intentions as meaningful and potent. If our acts have no impact on her, we feel powerless. But if we overpower her, there is no one to recognize us. When we affect her it is necessary that she does not simply dissolve under the impact of our actions . . . If, for example, the mother sets no limits for the child, if she obliterates herself and her own interests . . . she ceases to perform the role of other person . . . If the mother does not at some point remove herself from the child's control she becomes simply an object, which no longer exists outside the self. [(p. 284)]

It is clear that Emma has come to objectify the maternal figure of Miss Taylor, a woman who "had devoted all her powers to attach and amuse her" for sixteen years. Emma considers her an essential appendage to herself, "a friend and companion such as few possessed"; and it is apparent in the first conversation we witness between Emma, Mr. Woodhouse, and Mr. Knightley, that Miss Taylor has long been considered a "possession" of the Woodhouse household. Her function has been "to please" both Emma and her father, a function that she is now expected to perform for her new husband. It is significant that Emma claims to have orchestrated the union between Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston: "'if I had not promoted Mr. Weston's visits here, and given many little encouragements, and smoothed many little matters, it might not have come to anything after all.'" Emma's view of Miss Taylor's marriage is one that privileges her own role and degree of control rather than that of the actual participants, illustrated by her claim that "'I made up my mind on the subject'"; she sees the marriage primarily in terms of how it involves and affects herself, much as she sees the objectified person of Miss Taylor. In effect, she is unable to maintain "the essential tension of the contradictory impulses to assert the self . . . without effacing the other." It is this "dialectic of control" upon which the achievement of true differentiation depends: "[I]f I completely control the other, then the other ceases to exist, and if the other completely controls me, then I cease to exist." Benjamin draws upon Freud and Hegel to explain how the breakdown of this tension leads to the desire for domination:

According to Freud the earliest self wants to be omnipotent, or rather it has the fantasy that it is so. Subsequent omnipotence fantasies are seen as regressions to this necessary first stage. Hegel says that self-consciousness wants to be absolute . . . to be recognized by the other in order to place itself in the world and make itself the world. The I wants to prove this at the expense of the other; it wants to think itself the only one; it abjures dependency.

For Hegel and Freud, then, the self gives up omnipotence only when it realizes its dependency . . . The subject discovers that if it completely devours or controls the other, it can no longer get what it originally wanted [recognition]. So the subject learns better. But although the subject may relinquish the wish to control or devour the other completely, it does so unwillingly, with a persistent if unconscious wish to fulfill the old omnipotence fantasy. This is a far cry from a real appreciation of the other's existence as a person. The truth in this view of the self seems to be that acknowledging dependency is painful, and that denying recognition to others because of this pain leads to domination . . . predicated on the denial of the other person's independent subjectivity and autonomy . . . It makes the other person an object but retains possession of her. (Pp. 284–85)

Morgan observes that Emma "really sees herself as a director and the other people around her as extensions of her will"; her relationships with the other women in the novel—Miss Taylor, Harriet Smith, and Jane Fairfax—are all shaped by the underlying desire for control and domination. When combined with her passionate and obsessive responses to and interest in each of the women, particularly in their individual sexual relationships, a picture of Emma Woodhouse's own sexual identity begins to form.

Emma's erotic predilection for members of her own sex can be traced throughout the novel and in each of the relationships she has with other women, and it is in these relationships that the underlying dynamics of erotic domination are most in evidence. Emma clearly has identified with the dominant role in the "self-other relationship," a role that Benjamin suggests is usually occupied by the male, while both Miss Taylor and Harriet Smith can be seen to occupy the corresponding submissive role, the "traditionally female side of selfhood" with its characteristics of "dependency, connectedness, [and] yielding" (p. 294). Emma's experience of the failure of differentiation, "the core experience underlying erotic domination," while different from "the male experience of differentiation," has in common with it several important factors. During the formation of male gender identity, the male child repudiates the mother once it is discovered that he "cannot be, or become, her":

The repudiation of the mother . . . has meant that she is not recognized by the child in the normal course of differentiation. She is not seen as an independent person, another subject, but as something other . . . as an instrument or object, as less-than-human. An objectifying attitude comes to replace the earlier interactions of infancy.

It is the male experience of differentiation that Benjamin links to the tendency to assert control, to make "the other an object and instrument of one's own will" (p. 293)—to subject her to erotic domination. Yet Emma Woodhouse's early childhood experience of the Other, the self-obliterating maternal figure, is one that has placed her in a peculiarly similar position: she also desires the submission of the other, and the mastery that comes with erotic domination. Benjamin points out that the submissive position is generally associated with the female and the dominant with the male and that the basis for this division is found in the mother's "lack of subjectivity for her children." However, the fact that "actual men and women often play the opposite role does not contradict this association. It affirms rather that erotic transgression is an opportunity to express what is ordinarily denied" (p. 294). And, as LeRoy Smith notes, Emma's development appears to be further complicated by her

identification with the position or role of a model that represents a fantasised projection into the situation and behaviour of the model. The model attracts emulation because of his or her role or status . . . Emma's most influential model is a male figure, Knightley, whose position and role she comes to wish for herself.

Throughout the novel, there are many references to Emma's being identified in a distinctly "male" position, often by other characters. During a discussion about Mrs. Weston's marriage, John Knightley suggests that "'You and I, Emma, will venture to take the part of the poor husband . . . the claims of the man may very likely strike us with equal force,'" At times, Emma herself seems to speak from a "male" point-of-view, as when she asserts "'I know that such a girl as Harriet is exactly what every man delights in—what at once bewitches his senses and satisfies his judgment'" (p. 64); she later passionately defends the absent Frank Churchill to Mr. Knightley, saying "I wish you would try to understand what an amiable young man may be likely to feel in directly opposing those, whom as child and boy he has been looking up to all his life'"
(p. 148), a statement that reflects her own position in her adversarial relationship with Mr. Knightley. But it is in her dealings with Harriet where Emma's behavior seems most "male." Emma considers Harriet "a valuable addition to her privileges," and is "quite convinced of Harriet Smith's being . . . exactly the something which her home required"
(p. 26), sentiments reminiscent of a traditionally proprietorial male attitude and more appropriate to a successful young man deciding the time is right to acquire a wife. Emma, in fact, manages to "win" Harriet away from a male rival. When she comes to realize that Robert Martin poses a serious threat to her relationship with Harriet, her amused tolerance of Harriet's connection to the Martin family changes, and "other feelings arose" (p. 27). Emma coolly manipulates the girl into re-evaluating Martin's desirability, and although she encourages her to compare the "very clownish" (p. 32) manners of the young farmer to those of Mr. Knightley, Mr. Weston, and Mr. Elton, it is obvious that it is Emma, and not any of Harriet's more lofty male acquaintances, whom Martin is being matched against. Later, when Martin has proposed, Emma successfully brings about Harriet's refusal of him:

"You must be the best judge of your own happiness. If you prefer Mr. Martin to every other person; if you think him the most agreeable man you have ever been in company with, why should you hesitate? You blush, Harriet.—Does any body else occur to you at this moment under such a definition? Harriet, Harriet, do not deceive yourself . . . At this moment whom are you thinking of?"

The symptoms were favourable.—Instead of answering, Harriet turned away confused, and stood thoughtfully by the fire . . . Emma waited the result with impatience, but not without strong hopes. (p. 53)

Emma makes it very clear to Harriet in the ensuing conversation that her acceptance of Martin would have precluded further intimacy: "'I must have given you up.'" The choice Harriet makes is between intimacy with herself, or marriage to Martin-and, in this instance, Emma, not Robert Martin, "gets the girl."

Moreover, Emma seems to be impervious to the idea of being attractive/attracted to members of the opposite sex. She is at first amused at the idea of Mr. Elton as a possible suitor: "'Me!' she replied with a smile of astonishment, 'are you imagining me to be Mr. Elton's object? . . . What an idea!'" While it is true that Emma's incredulity is based as much on her specious desire for Elton to love Harriet, and her belief that his social inferiority precludes his aiming as high as herself, it is odd that someone of her physical beauty and accomplishments should never even consider herself a potential object of male sexual attraction. In projecting her own feelings about Harriet onto the various men of their acquaintance, she instead repeatedly imagines Harriet as such an object, despite the fact that, except for Robert Martin and Emma herself, no one in the novel evinces any sexual interest in a girl described as merely "'pretty, and . . . good tempered, and that is all.'"

Other characters in the novel notice Emma's curious sexual inaccessibility: Frank Churchill, despite the flirtation he indulges in with Emma, admits that "'Amiable and delightful as Miss Woodhouse is, she never gave me the idea of a young woman likely to be attached.'" Her relationship with Frank is one which elicits nothing but the most superficial response from Emma, and begins, in her head, before she has even met him. It is the idea of Frank, rather than the flesh-and-blood reality, which appeals to her. Significantly, she is said to have "frequently thought-especially since his father's marriage with Miss Taylor—that if she were to marry, he was the very person to suit her." She convinces herself that she "'must be in love; I should be the oddest creature in the world if I were not—for a few weeks at least'"; but she is content "'not [to] persuade myself to feel more than I do. I am quite enough in love. I should be sorry to be more.'" Her ultimate desire regarding Frank and "the progress and close of their attachment" is that "she refused him. Their affection was always to subside into friendship . . . they were to part." When she later confesses to Mr. Knightley that there was really nothing to the relationship with Frank, she says that, "'in short, I was somehow or other safe from him,'" the implication being that it is her unrecognized love for Mr. Knightley that has rendered her "safe" from Frank's charms. However, there is little evidence in the novel to suggest that Emma feels any genuine sexual interest in anyone of the opposite sex. In speaking to Harriet of the possibility of falling in love with a man, she states that it will have to be '"somebody very superior to any one I have seen yet, to be tempted . . . I would rather not be tempted. I cannot really change for the better.'" Yet she has "seen" Mr. Knightley all of her life, and she is only "tempted" when her other options have been exhausted.

Emma exercises these other options through her involvements with members of her own sex, in her attempts to establish a form of erotic mastery. In a relationship of erotic domination, "[o]ne person maintains . . . her boundary, and one allows her . . . boundary to be broken"—this seems an accurate description of the sort of dynamic that Emma strives to establish in her relationships with other women. For the most part, she achieves mastery through manipulation, as when she subtly maneuvers the gullible Harriet into spurning Robert Martin's offer of marriage. However, at times she resorts to more overt methods, as when she joins with Frank in humiliating Jane at Hartfield, in an attempt to punish her for her reserve. From the outset of the novel, it is clear that there is a pattern to Emma's choice of female company: she is attracted to women who, like Miss Taylor, possess a "mildness of . . . temper," who defer to Emma's will, and who are "peculiarly interested in herself, in every pleasure, every scheme of hers." These qualities are even more exaggerated in Harriet Smith, described as a "humble, grateful, little girl" whom Emma can mold:

She would notice her; she would improve her: she would detach her from her bad acquaintance, and introduce her into good society; she would form her opinions and her manners. It would be an interesting, and certainly a very kind undertaking; highly becoming her own situation in life, her leisure, and powers.

One is reminded of Mr. Weston's satisfaction in "its being a great deal better to chuse than to be chosen, to excite gratitude than to feel it" in his own choice of a sexual partner. Miss Taylor's friendship with Emma has consisted of "submitting [her] own will, and doing as [she was] bid"; Harriet comes to "understand the force of influence" as wielded by Emma, whose resolution of "driving
... out of Harriet's head" any desire or attachment Harriet might feel towards anyone Emma deems unsuitable seems to her perfectly within her rights. Patricia Meyer Spacks, in "Female Changelessness; Or What Do Women Want?," states: "What do women want? Ideal women want whatever men want them to want." In considering Emma's relationship with Harriet, we could ask: "What does a woman chosen by Emma Woodhouse want? Whatever Emma wants her to want." Accordingly, Emma seems most to love Harriet when she is most effusively humble and compliant:

"You, who have been the best friend I ever had in my life!—Want gratitude to you!—Nobody is equal to you!—I care for nobody as I do for you!—Oh! Miss Woodhouse, how ungrateful I have been!"

Such expressions, assisted as they were by every thing that look and manner could do, made Emma feel that she had never loved Harriet so well, nor valued her affection so highly before.

It is significant that Harriet seems to value her relationship with Emma far more than she values a romantic union with Robert Martin. When Emma reveals to her that such a union would have destroyed the possibility of any further intercourse between them, Harriet is "aghast"; she "had not surmised her own danger, but the idea of it struck her forcibly . . . 'What an escape! Dear Miss Woodhouse, I would not give up the pleasure and honour of being intimate with you for anything in the world . . . It would have killed me.'" Interestingly, in keeping with the underlying sexual dynamic that pervades the novel, Harriet's willingness to defer to Emma in all things, to place her in the position of prominence usually occupied by the male suitor or husband, ends when Harriet believes herself beloved by someone whom she perceives as more powerful than Emma—Mr. Knightley.

Emma's attachments to her particular female friends are passionate and somewhat obsessive. Miss Taylor's absence "would be felt every hour of every day," and Emma wonders how she will be able "to bear the change?—It was true that her friend was going only half a mile from them; but Emma was aware that great must be the difference between a Mrs. Weston only half a mile from them, and a Miss Taylor in the house." Certainly Miss Taylor's marriage, despite Emma's self-congratulatory claim of having made the match herself, is an impediment to Emma's desire for dominance, since, as Mrs. Weston, she is no longer subject to Emma's control. Emma must needs find a replacement for Miss Taylor—this will prove to be a pattern in her erotic fixations. As the focus shifts from her feelings of loss at Miss Taylor's marriage to Mr. Weston, to her growing interest in Harriet Smith, the language Austen employs seems to become increasingly sexual. The relationship that Emma had shared with Miss Taylor is described as that of "friend and friend very mutually attached." It is replaced with something that is described much more overtly in terms that traditionally evoke the romantic heterosexual relationship. Emma's initial interest in Harriet is a very physical one: "Miss Smith was a girl of seventeen whom Emma . . . had long felt an interest in, on account of her beauty"; "She was a very pretty girl, and her beauty happened to be of a sort which Emma particularly admired"; on several occasions, we not only find Emma "busy in admiring those soft blue eyes" of her favorite's, but assuring Harriet that her "'soft eyes shall chuse their own time for beaming'" if Harriet will but "'Trust to me.'" A particularly charged scene between the two women occurs after Emma has "decoded" Mr. Elton's riddle:

"Dear Miss Woodhouse"—and "Dear Miss Woodhouse," was all that Harriet, with many tender embraces could articulate at first; but when they did arrive at something more like conversation, it was sufficiently clear to her friend that she saw, felt, anticipated, and remembered just as she ought.

Significantly, Austen's language here anticipates that used in the romantic declaration scene between Emma and Mr. Knightley, where it is Emma who ultimately finds herself saying and doing "[j]ust what she ought." After all, a lady—a heterosexual lady, that is—always does.

Emma's feelings about Harriet become increasingly possessive; her remarks concerning Harriet are indicative of the way in which she views the younger woman in relation to herself: "The business was finished, and Harriet safe"; "'Now I am secure of you for ever'"; "'We will not be parted. A woman is not to marry a man merely because she is asked.'" Consequently, Emma's desire for Harriet to attach herself to Mr. Elton, although an alliance that would "'confirm our intimacy forever,'" is somewhat questionable. On the one hand, since Emma cannot actually "have" Harriet herself, the power to decide who does in some measure satisfies her unexpressed sexual desire. As well, Harriet's connection to someone whom Emma will be able to interact with socially will ensure Harriet's continued accessibility. (We must wonder, however, how Harriet, as Mrs. Elton, and therefore mistress of her own household, would be any more accessible to Emma in the way she seems to need her to be than Mrs. Weston.) On the other hand, her manipulation of Harriet's sexual focus takes her away from the one man who really does want her, and encourages her to fantasize about belonging to men who do not, and who, in reality, present no threat to Emma's proprietorship. Once Emma has successfully manipulated Harriet into refusing Mr. Martin's proposal of marriage, we learn that Harriet "slept at Hartfield that night," something that occurs with increasing frequency as Emma's influence over her grows.

Not surprisingly, it is Jane Fairfax's lack of Harriet-like humility, her "coldness and reserve," her "indifference whether she pleased or not," which frustrates Emma and creates in her what seems to be a strong repulsion to Jane that lasts until almost the end of the novel. Emma, in her enthusiasm over Harriet's "tenderness of heart" and evaluation of her desirability as a wife, is driven to make unflattering comparisons to Jane: "'Dear Harriet!—I would not change you for the clearest-headed, longest-sighted, best-judging female breathing. Oh! the coldness of a Jane Fairfax!—Harriet is worth a hundred such.—And for a wife—." Austen continually emphasizes Emma's resentment over Jane's determination "to hazard nothing," and her feeling that she "was disgustingly, was suspiciously reserved." It is this reserve for which "Emma could not forgive her," a sentence that ends Volume 2, Chapter 2, and that is insistently reiterated at the beginning of Volume 2, Chapter 3. Susan Morgan observes that "Jane, to Emma's outrage, thinks for herself and feels for herself and so controls herself. She does not hand her character over to Emma"; more tellingly, Elizabeth Jean Sabiston states that "Jane Fairfax . . . resists all of Emma's efforts to probe her." Jane will not allow Emma to violate her boundaries, and so prevents her from establishing the dominant/submissive dynamic upon which her other relationships are built: "A distinctive quality about Jane is that she is not part of Emma's domain . . . primarily because Jane has an independent sense of self which Emma cannot absorb." As a result, her resentment leads Emma to some very adamant disclaimers about any attraction to Jane Fairfax: "'I must be more in want of a friend, or an agreeable companion, than I have yet been, to take the trouble of conquering anybody's reserve to procure one. Intimacy between Miss Fairfax and me is quite out of the question.'" Yet Emma seems to be more than aware of Jane's attractiveness and desirability. Whereas Emma initially thinks of Harriet as "a girl who wanted only a little more knowledge and elegance to be quite perfect," her first impression of Jane after her two year absence is that she is "very elegant, remarkably elegant; and she had herself the highest value for elegance"—she has, in fact, the sort of "elegance, which, whether of person or of mind, she saw so little in Highbury." She recognizes in Jane both "distinction, and merit"; in short, Jane possesses in abundance the qualities that Emma feels would make Harriet "quite perfect." And, despite Emma's declared antipathy towards Jane, she finds her "'the sort of elegant creature that one cannot keep one's eyes from'" and is "'always watching her to admire.'"

Jane's apparent inviolability leads Emma to try and punish her, to force her into the subordinate role she so desperately needs her to occupy in order for Emma to maintain her sense of erotic mastery. She does this through Frank Churchill. Ironically, although Emma cannot know that Frank is Jane's lover, she singles him out as a sort of ally in her attempt to denigrate Jane. Frank and Emma are thus joined in a somewhat bizarre dyad as Jane's persecutors: simultaneously, each occupies the position of rival inamoratos, unbeknown to the other, and, in Emma's case, to herself. It is through their social unity that they manage to inflict the most torment upon Jane, exemplified in their behavior during the word game, when Frank teases Jane with the word "Dixon." Emma reacts with "eager laughing warmth"; Jane "blushed more deeply than [Mr. Knightley] had ever perceived her" the scene is highly charged—with erotic tension? Clearly the prospect of Jane's discomfort and pain affords Emma an exquisite thrill. Emma is complacent in her belief that Frank "perfectly agreed" with her evaluation of Jane and is confident that their feelings are "much alike." The "alikeness" of their feelings lies deeper than Emma is willing to acknowledge. At their second encounter, "Emma felt herself so well acquainted with him, that she could hardly believe it to be only their second meeting"—yet the bond she feels they are developing seems for the most part based on their various conversations concerning Jane Fairfax. In fact, all of their subsequent intercourse revolves around Jane, much of it initiated by Emma, who constantly pumps Frank for details about Jane's behaviour at Weymouth. Despite the fact that outward appearances lead others to suspect that Emma and Frank are interested in each other, for each of them the focus is most decisively Jane Fairfax-her situation, her supposed feelings for Mr. Dixon, her reserve, her musical skills, her complexion—as their common passion, she is endlessly fascinating to them both.

In fact, it is Jane whom Emma most desires, whose recognition she most craves. It is through Jane Fairfax that the possibility of a reciprocal relationship based on an equal and mutual giving of self is presented. Benjamin suggests that the underlying motivation of the dynamic of erotic domination may be the individual's hope of replaying "the original thwarted impulse to discover the other person as an intact being who could respond and set limits at the same time," but that "the original need for a relationship of differentiation with another person is not really solved in erotic domination . . . The aliveness and spontaneity that come from an unscripted relationship is missing." However, Emma continues to resist the sort of intimacy she might find through a relationship with someone like Jane Fairfax, someone who is her equal; Morgan notes that "Emma . . . does not want friendship with a real and independent person. She prefers the indulgence of manipulating Harriet." Yet Emma's passionate attachment to Harriet begins to wane, and she eventually grows tired of her "delightful inferiority"; Harriet begins to figure less and less in Emma's musings, Jane Fairfax more and more. Benjamin explains that the "exhaustion of satisfaction that occurs when all resistance is vanquished, all tension is lost, means that the relationship has come full circle, returned to the emptiness from which it was an effort to escape." As we observe Harriet kiss Emma's hand "in silent and submissive gratitude" for her latest attempt to direct Harriet's sexual interest and "save her from the danger of degradation," it has already become apparent that the focus has shifted quite decisively to Jane Fairfax and to Emma's complex relationship with her.

Susan Morgan suggests that Emma eventually "learns to recognize the presumptuousness of her games, to accept her limits and the inviolability of others" (p. 46), largely as a result of her relations with Jane Fairfax. I would argue that, on the contrary, Emma continues to resist the idea of a relationship based on mutuality until the end of the novel. Her feelings for Jane Fairfax, long denied and twisted into repugnance, are allowed to surface only when she perceives Jane in a powerless and vulnerable state—the desire for mastery informs all of her dealings with Jane. During their first visit, Emma is filled with "complacency" and a "sense of pleasure" over her resolve to be kind:

When she took in her history, indeed, her situation, as well as her beauty; when she considered what all this elegance was destined to, what she was going to sink from, how she was going to live . . . Emma left her with such softened, charitable feelings, as made her . . . lament that Highbury afforded no young man worthy of giving her independence; nobody that she could wish to scheme about for her.

Emma is reassured by Jane's powerlessness; indeed, she seems to dwell with some lingering pleasure on the idea of Jane's coming degradation. Once again, Emma's desire to exercise erotic power is manifested in her deliberation over another's sexual fate—and the possibility that she herself might somehow direct it. Emma has previously devoted a great deal of time and thought to Jane's possible sexual relationship with Mr. Dixon; her fixation on this imaginary situation has, in fact, caused her to behave in ways of which she is later ashamed. It is also interesting that Emma should be unable to come up with a "worthy" heterosexual prospect for Jane, considering that she seems to have no trouble when exerting herself on behalf of anyone else. In fact, she expends a great deal of energy in denying the possibility of any such connection for Jane, save for the non-existent romance she creates around Mr. Dixon and the pianoforte. Her reaction to Mrs. Weston's suggestion that there may be something between Jane and Mr. Knightley is one of horror and repudiation: "'Jane Fairfax . . . of all women! . . . Jane Fairfax mistress of the Abbey!—Oh! no, no;—every feeling revolts.'" Similarly, her response to Mr. Knightley's suggestion that she does not "'perfectly understand the degree of acquaintance'" between Jane and Frank Churchill is to protest in hyperbolic, almost manic terms: "'Never, never! . . . Never for the twentieth part of a moment, did such an idea occur to me . . . There is no admiration between them, I do assure you
... they are as far from any attachment or admiration for one another, as any two beings in the world can be." Since we know that Emma has no real feelings for Frank, her response would be distinctly out of proportion, unless we assume that it is the thought of Jane's attachment that so upsets her. It is obvious that Emma's attraction to Jane becomes more overt as Jane's situation seems to deteriorate. Emma decides, after Jane leaves Donwell in great agitation, that she does, in fact, pity her and her prospects, and that "'the more sensibility you betray of their just horrors, the more I shall like you.'"

Emma's feelings for Jane have been undergoing a change throughout the latter part of the novel; as Jane's autonomy becomes increasingly threatened, Emma's desire for her increases. Once it becomes clear that Jane can no longer avoid the grim necessity of the "governess-trade," and that her departure from Highbury is immanent, her state of pitiable vulnerability is reassuringly confirmed for Emma. It is at this point that Emma desires to "win" her: "the person, whom she had been so many months neglecting, was now the very one on whom she would have lavished every distinction of regard or sympathy." Her interest in Harriet having abated, Emma's behavior to Jane becomes almost obsessive—however, her attempts to visit with and show favor towards the other woman are consistently rebuffed: "It was a more pressing concern to show attention to Jane Fairfax, whose prospects were closing, while Harriet's opened . . . with Emma it was grown into a first wish . . . She wanted to be of use to her; wanted to show a value for her society, and testify respect and consideration." Susan Morgan characterizes Jane as "the measure of what Emma loses" (p. 42); and Emma herself comes to realize what she has missed:

She bitterly regretted not having sought a closer acquaintance with her . . . had she endeavoured to find a friend there instead of in Harriet Smith; she must, in all probability, have been spared from every pain which pressed on her now.—Birth, abilities and education, had been equally marking one as an associate for her, to be received with gratitude; and the other—what was she?

Unfortunately, Emma's inability to answer this question—to comprehend the inviolability of the other's selfhood (whether that of Harriet or Jane) constitutes her real loss.

Significantly, Emma's realization that "Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself" directly follows the scene in which she is informed of Jane's elopement with Frank, and Emma feels "most sorrowfully indignant: ashamed of every sensation but the one revealed to her—her affection for Mr. Knightley.—Every other part of her mind was disgusting." D. A. Miller, in his article "Emma: Good Riddance," discusses the way in which Emma is able to block out any previous erotic attachment (his example being that of Frank Churchill) by simply deciding that she "has always loved Mr. Knightley, but simply never knew it; she has never loved Frank Churchill, but only imagined she did." Miller sees this as a "self-revision":

It would seem as though the psychology of being "really" in love required such retraction to help sustain itself. "This time, it's the real thing": but the reality of the real thing is in part produced by treating previous erotic interest as unreal: inauthentic, delusional, even (as here) non-existent.

In the proposal scene, this closure of desire becomes institutionalised. Desire has recognised its "proper object" and made itself capable of fixing on it; this recognition can now be incarnated socially, in marriage. (p. 73)

Indeed, Emma has undergone a "self-revision": but the "previous erotic interest" she repudiates is the one she feels for Jane Fairfax. Jane has proven to be an "object" who refuses to engage in the dynamics of erotic domination, and who is leaving her sphere of influence completely, through heterosexual union with Frank Churchill and her removal from Highbury. Emma, who has evinced no previous sexual interest in Knightley, is able to convince herself that he has always been her object of sexual desire, and, what is more, that all erotic interest previous to this is a cause for sorrowful indignation, shame, and disgust. Miller states that "the assumptions under which erotic desire is locked into place . . . [are] in holy matrimony and wholly in matrimony" (p. 73).

Once Jane and Frank have run away together, Emma is forced to deal with what remains to her in the world of Highbury. Harriet's revelation that she is in love with Mr. Knightley and has hopes of reciprocation on his part brings home to Emma the realization that the very fabric of this world, with her at its center, is unraveling:

Till now that she was threatened with its loss, Emma had never known how much of her happiness depended on being first with Mr. Knightley, first in interest and affection—Satisfied that it was so, and feeling it her due, she had enjoyed it without reflection; and only in the dread of being supplanted, found how inexpressibly important it had been.

This passage is reminiscent of Emma's sentiments about her place in her father's affections: "'never, never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man's eyes as I am in my father's'" and she feels that "Could she be secure of . . . [Mr. Knightley's] never marrying at all, she believed she should be perfectly satisfied." Thus, Emma cannot bear for Mr. Knightley "to be lost to them for Harriet's sake . . . to be thought of hereafter, as finding in Harriet's society all that he wanted" or for Harriet "to be the chosen, the first, the dearest, the friend, the wife to whom he looked for all the best blessings of existence." When Mr. Knightley does declare his feelings for her, her first thought is "that Harriet was nothing; that she was every thing herself" (emphasis mine); later, when the new alliance between them is established, she congratulates herself on her good fortune in obtaining. "Such a companion for herself in the periods of anxiety and cheerlessness before her!—Such a partner in all those duties and cares to which time must be giving increase of melancholy!" Her "love" for Mr. Knightley seems based on a combination of her desire for ascendancy over Harriet or anyone else in his affections, and her fear of Hartfield's being "comparatively deserted; and she left to cheer her father with the spirits only of ruined happiness." Claudia Johnson observes that the

"resources"—beauty, wit, employment, money—which Emma thinks can preserve her from sharing Miss Bates's ignominious destiny as a poor old maid finally amount to very little. It is single womanhood itself, the lack of a circle of people to be "first" with, that turns out to be the evil.

Ironically, the "reconciliation scene" between Mr. Knightley and Emma is yet another manifestation of the dynamic of erotic domination permeating the relations among the characters. Mr. Knightley and Emma have been engaged in a power struggle throughout most of the novel, yet Emma's attitude towards him is generally marked by complacency (save for those instances when she feels deservedly rebuked by him for meanness or bad manners). Having no sexual investment in her relationship with Mr. Knightley, she is able to dismiss his attempts to subjugate her quite easily. While she does "not always feel so absolutely satisfied with herself, so entirely convinced that her opinions were right and her adversary's wrong," she is not so affected by their clashes "that a little time and the return of Harriet were very adequate restoratives." But here, in the reconciliation scene, Emma is finally subdued, "overpowered," in fact, by Mr. Knightley. For the first time, she responds from a position of diminished power—in short, from the "female" position: "What did she say?—Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does." Suffering from "wretchedness," from "loneliness, and . . . melancholy," with a "prospect before her . . . threatening to a degree that could not be entirely dispelled—that might not be even partially brightened," Emma is frightened, vulnerable, and humbled, and she is vanquished by a force more powerful than her own will—Mr. Knightley's declaration of desire, and the comfort and safety to be found in heterosexual union. However, Austen reserves the truly charged and sexually ambiguous moments for the reconciliation between Emma and Jane Fairfax. Emma visits Jane upon her return; she is "longing to see her," and finds that she "had never seen her look so well, so lovely, so engaging." They are unable to exchange confidences in the presence of Mrs. Elton, and Emma, in the few moments they have alone together, tells her that "'Had you not been surrounded by other friends, I might have been tempted to introduce a subject, to ask questions, to speak more openly than might have been strictly correct. I feel that I should certainly have been impertinent.'" Ostensibly she is referring, of course, to Frank Churchill. The two share an emotional exchange: Jane, "with a blush and an hesitation which Emma thought infinitely more becoming to her than all the elegance of all her usual composure," expresses her gratitude to Emma for her interest and forbearance. She chastises herself for her former behavior: "'I know what my manners were to you.—So cold and artificial!—I had always a part to act.—It was a life of deceit! I know that I must have disgusted you.'" Strong words. The encounter ends with Emma's realization that "'we are to lose you—just as I begin to know you.'"

As the novel ends, all of the principals have been matched up with someone of the opposite sex and married off. Heterosexual order is reaffirmed, and everyone is happy. Yet are they? I have attempted to demonstrate that Emma's sexual interest lies, not in Mr. Knightley, or in any of the other men in the novel, but rather in other women. The novel's ending, then, presents a denial of her sexuality. Furthermore, Emma's sexual identity has been formed in a world where the "the question of power affects who and how you eroticize your sexual need"—that is, a patriarchal world. Consequently, as I have suggested, "the question of power . . . is absolutely on the bottom of all sexual inquiry." And, in fact, Emma's sexuality seems to be all about power, expressed through her desire for mastery, for domination, for manipulation. Thus, Emma is subject to a "double whammy," as it were: her erotic predilection for women cannot be openly expressed, and her identification with the "male" role in her most intimate connections with the women she desires renders what is expressed unequal, unhealthy, and ultimately unsatisfying. The only alternative model available to her, which she is forced to embrace at the end of the novel, is no better: Emma must learn to play woman and wife, to submit in her turn.

Source: Susan M. Korba, "'Improper and Dangerous Distinctions': Female Relationships and Erotic Domination in Emma," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 29, No. 2, Summer 1997, pp. 139–63.


Austen, Jane, Emma, edited by James Kinsley and David Lodge, Oxford University Press, 1971.

Austen-Leigh, James Edward, A Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections, edited by Kathryn Sutherland, Oxford University Press, 2002.

Ferguson, Frances, "Jane Austen, Emma, and the Impact of Form," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 1, March 2000, pp. 157–80.

Finch, Casey, and Peter Bowen, "'The Tittle-Tattle of Highbury': Gossip and Free Indirect Style in Emma," in Representations, Vol. 31, Summer 1990; quoted in Ferguson, Frances, "Jane Austen, Emma, and the Impact of Form," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 1, March 2000, pp. 161–62.

Lynch, Deidre, ed., Janeites: Austen's Disciples and Devotees, Princeton University Press, 2000, pp. 25–44, 87–114.

Melani, Lilia, "Discussion of Emma," Jane Austen Web page, http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/novel_19c/austen/ (accessed December 3, 2004).

Minma, Shinobu, "Self-Deception and Superiority Complex: Derangement of Hierarchy in Jane Austen's Emma," in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 14, No. 1, October 2001, pp. 49–65.

Scott, Sir Walter, Review of Emma, in "Reader Response to Austen's Novels," Jane Austen Web page, http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/novel_19c/austen/ (accessed December 3, 2004); originally published in Quarterly Review, March 1816.

Shaw, Harry, Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms, McGraw-Hill, 1972.

Tillotson, Geoffrey, Paul Fussell Jr., and Marshall Waingrow, eds., Eighteenth-Century English Literature, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969, pp. 1–10.

Wollstonecraft, Mary, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: An Authoritative Text; Backgrounds; The Wollstonecraft Debate; Criticism, 2d ed., edited by Carol Poston, Norton, 1988, pp. 1–20.

Further Reading

Austen-Leigh, James Edward, A Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections, edited by Kathryn Sutherland, Oxford University Press, 2002.

The memoir written by Austen's nephew James Edward was first published in 1870 and offers the one existing source of family memories about Jane Austen, mostly the recollections, biographical notes, and vivid personal accounts of devoted nieces and nephews.

Copeland, Edward, and Juliet McMaster, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, Cambridge University Press, 1997.

This book is a comprehensive guide to Jane Austen and her work in the context of the times in which she lived. The book includes a discussion of her works and chapters on economics, politics, religion, social class, and literary traditions.

Lynch, Deidre, ed., Janeites: Austen's Disciples and Devotees, Princeton University Press, 2000.

This collection of essays produced since Austen's lifetime demonstrates how wide is the range of interpretations and reader response to her works. It also explores adaptations, reviews, and general reasons for her popularity.

Tomalin, Claire, Jane Austen: A Life, Vintage Books, 1997.

This is a lively and accessible account of the flesh and blood Jane Austen as told mainly from the perspective of family and friends and the many fascinating people she knew.


views updated May 17 2018


by Jane Austen


A novel set in Highbury, a fictional village about 16 miles from London, during the early nineteenth century: published in London in 1816.


Emma Woodhouse. “handsome, clever, and rich,” has a penchant for matchmaking. But she avoids matrimony for herself until, after a series of errors in which she learns to criticize her own conduct, she comes to know her own heart.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Born on Dec. 16, 1775, to Cassandra Leigh and George Austen, Jane Austen was the seventh of eight children. Educated at Oxford, her father was rector of Steventon, the small Hampshire village where Jane lived until 1801, when the family moved to Bath. Jane and her only sister, Cassandra, had several years of schooling away from home, but most of their education came from the family library (which held some 500 volumes, making the Austens a very bookish nineteenth-century family indeed). Though courted on a number of occasions, Jane remained unmarried. Her closest relationship was with Cassandra; the two sisters maintained an extensive correspondence and deep intimacy despite circumstances that pulled them apart (after their father died, the sisters often circulated among their brothers’ households). In 1808, both sisters moved with their mother to a cottage on the property of their brother Edward in Chawton, Hampshire. It was then that Jane Austen embarked on her most prolific period of writing and publishing. She would receive most of her acclaim after her death. In 1811 Austen published Sense and Sensibility, followed by Pride and Prejudice in 1813, and Mansfield Park in 1814. Two years later she published Emma, dedicating it to the Prince Regent, convinced she had created “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” (Austen, Emma, p. viii). Austen could hardly have been more wrong.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

Revolutions and wars abroad

From initial sympathy, English public opinion regarding the French Revolution (1789) moved rapidly to ambivalence and fear. While the overthrow of the French monarchy inspired some Englishmen to press for reform in their own country, the horrors of revolutionary France soon turned sympathy into anxiety. If the lower classes in France could protest so violently, what was to stop the English lower classes from doing the same? The line between reform and revolution seemed altogether too thin while the guillotine lurked over the horizon (or just across the channel), and the British government started to come down hard on potential reformers. New legislation prevented unsanctioned public meetings, made trade unions illegal, and expanded definitions of treason to include writing and speaking as well as acting against the government. This new era of conservatism in England would last for more than a quarter century. The squelching of nearly all opposition to the government continued from 1793-1815, during which time England (along with most of Europe) battled with little respite the French Republican army, eventually led by Napoleon Bonaparte, who rose to virtual dictatorship in France and sought to conquer all of Europe.

The defeat of Napoleon by England’s Duke of Wellington at the decisive Battle of Waterloo, fought near Brussels on June 18, 1815, ended Napoleon’s career and ushered in an era of peace and internal reform in England. This period also witnessed the dissolution of the Irish Parliament—for which the Irish were compensated with seats in the British parliament, but not with the promised Catholic emancipation (the abandonment of policy that excluded Catholics from holding senior government offices, being judges, and so forth). On the other hand, Parliament did abolish the slave trade in 1807 (slavery itself would not be abolished in the British Empire until 1833). At first glance, these events seem to have little impact on the novels of Austen (who preferred to write from her own experience). Upon closer examination, however, their effects surface, not only in the shortage of eligible men at home and the presence (or absence) of soldiers, but also in the characters’ anxieties over class mobility and even class conflict.

Monarchs, morals, and manners

Though Americans know King George III as the monarch who taxed the colonies into revolt, the English, by the early nineteenth century, were more concerned with the fact that he was prone to bouts of insanity. When it became clear that he could not rule, his son was made Prince Regent to rule in his stead, and England entered the Regency period. The Prince Regent (called “Prinnie”) was known for his opulent and immoral lifestyle, much flash, and multiple mistresses. As a lasting monument to the excesses of his reign, the Royal Pavilion—built for the Regent in conspicuous oriental style by renowned architect John Nash—still stands at Brighton, a town that the Regent made a popular seaside resort (one of many to which the genteel might repair for health and recreation). General prosperity enabled the very upper crust to indulge in a level of promiscuity and display worthy of such a regent—expanding houses into castles, employing unprecedented numbers of servants, and blithely scattering illegitimate “love” children.

Emma is dedicated to the Prince Regent shortly after his—or more accurately, Wellington’s—triumph at Waterloo, but the novel’s implicit critique of the morals of the Regent and his set suggest that the dedication may have been grudging—even satirical. Among the gentry (the class below the aristocracy) in Austen’s novels, one begins to see a reaction to the decadence of Prinnie’s crowd. Indeed, such behavior started to smack too much of the French for England’s gentry. Traditionally, French fashion had been quite influential in England. Clothes, manners, even the method of serving food à la française (i.e., in just a few “removes,” or what we might call “spreads”), were all copied from the French. But such style became increasingly suspect during the long wars with Napoleon. Decadent behavior had long been associated with the French by the English so they grew especially intolerant of such behavior at this time. A new emphasis on morality spread among the genteel and was supported by an evangelical trend in religion, which caught hold among the propertied classes, especially those merging with the professional classes. While evangelism sought to reform both lax and corrupt church practices, the trend also had a broader, social aspect that emerges in Austen’s novels. Led by such social conservatives as William Wilberforce, with his rallying cry of “reform or ruin,” upper-class evangelism moralized about behaving properly and setting a good example to inferiors (Grey, p. 205). It did so, at least in part, to help maintain the existing social hierarchy.

The gentry in Austen’s novels display carefully structured manners that show how pervasive these “reform or ruin” concerns were. They suffused social custom. In subtle ways, Austen’s characters maintain distinctions of rank and behave in ways that appease the potentially feisty lower orders. When, for example, Emma offends Miss Bates (a character far lower in rank and wealth), Emma is chastised by Mr. Knightley, a landowning gentleman. His reprimand aims not only to protect Miss Bates’s feelings; it also indicates the importance of considerate treatment of the lower orders in maintaining social stability.

Changing social order and the limits of economic prosperity

Emma is a novel extremely sensitive to the many, increasingly subtle, gradations of rank among the English gentry and professional classes. (Members of other classes—the poor, workers and servants, aristocrats—do not put in much of an appearance in the novel.) Simple distinctions between upper and lower “orders” do not begin to describe the complex class structure. Among the gentry, for example, those whose income derived from the land, ranked higher than those whose wealth derived from investments. Even within families, one finds important distinctions: under the system of primogeniture, all of the family land and much, if not all of the wealth, devolved upon the first-born son, in an effort to keep the estate itself intact through successive generations, rather than split it into ever smaller parcels. A gentleman’s younger son, who had to earn his living, entered the professional classes, though only a few professions were acceptable for the younger sons of the gentry: the clergy, the military, and the law.

These carefully maintained distinctions were in flux by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In England, upper-class status was not legally defined (as it had been in France). One had always to work to preserve social standing—to earn money and maintain social connections (through land, profession, or marriage). As the nation grew in wealth through the changes wrought by the industrial revolution (improved agricultural techniques, greater circulation of goods, and the economic stimulus of war), it became increasingly possible to move into and out of the higher orders. Social standing itself became an object of consumerism; one could not only be born or marry into the higher classes but also buy one’s way up the social ladder, as those in industry or trade bought property. There were no strict rules about how to achieve this—a social climber might step into a higher class by buying land or succeeding in industry and acting sufficiently genteel. New money carried a stigma, but one that wore off as the nouveau riche socialized with and married their offspring into the established gentry. Class mobility was also facilitated by the possibility of military advancement—more likely in times of war, such as the Napoleonic strife that plagued Europe in Austen’s day. In short, one could increase one’s social distinction through military achievement, advantageous marriage, or purchase. As Austen’s novels suggest, the opportunity for social climbing was open to the deserving and undeserving alike.

Meanwhile, as some grew richer, others grew poorer. Emma provides glimpses of the so-called “lower orders” in the fear that Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse, has of poachers and in a run-in that another character, Harriet Smith, has with gypsies. These examples bespeak a larger social problem that mystified economic observers at the time: as the country grew more prosperous, the situation of the poor worsened. Yes, the industrial revolution helped the British finally win the war against the French, but it also sparked an economic upheaval that, along with a long period of conservatism, left the poor in dire straits. British commerce expanded, factories could produce more because of advances in machinery, but traditional workers lost their jobs and the crackdown on reform around the turn of the nineteenth century meant the usual avenues for agitation were closed. In the depression of 1811-13, the poor textile workers staged the so-called Luddite riots, destroying the machines they blamed for the loss of their jobs. At the same time, more and more land used by the public was enclosed, that is, made into private property. Between 1761 and 1801, some 3 million acres were surveyed and distributed among the wealthy landowning class, which dominated Parliament. Given improved farming methods and the high price of corn (by which the British meant grains such as wheat, barley, and oats) during the war years, landlords and independent farmers grew richer; the gentleman farmer emerged as a common fixture of the landscape. But at the same time industrialization and enclosures produced a population of dislocated people. Out of jobs and no longer able to avail themselves of land, these people shifted increasingly to the cities, where, instead of finding a solution, many of the rural poor adopted the problems of the urban poor.

Marriage … a happy ending?

Though Emma’s position seems in many ways enviable, most women in nineteenth-century England enjoyed considerably less power and privilege. Emma’s wealth spares her many privations, but law and custom were not kind to women of any class. A female’s education was extremely limited, even among the upper classes. Women could not enter the professions, nor could they vote. They could, of course, marry, but contrary to popular belief, marriage made the situation in many ways worse, not better.

By marrying, a woman avoided the stigma of being an old maid or a spinster and could secure her financial security by one of the only routes open to her. But the cost was considerable. The marriage might elevate her social status, but her legal status simply vanished. Legally, a husband and wife were considered one person, and that person was he. This meant that a married woman could not enter into a contract or write a will without her husband’s consent—or, for that matter, commit a crime (he was held responsible on the logic that she must, after all, be acting under his influence). Nor could a married woman own property. Anything she had inherited or earned was automatically his for the duration of the marriage, or during what was called her coverture (because the wife was considered covered by her husband). This would remain the case until the 1870s and 1880s, when the Married Women’s Property Acts eventually gave married women the same rights over their property that unmarried women had. Before then, only a few measures could ensure a woman ever regaining her former property. Her husband could leave it, or give it back to her in his will. Or the groom (and his family) could enter into a premarital agreement with the bride (and her family) called a settlement. This was a legal document; usually it specified that some or all of the property that the wife brought to the marriage would revert to her or her children after the husband’s demise, though this did not mean that she had control over any of this property during his lifetime.

Divorces were extremely difficult to obtain. Until 1857 secular divorce could be acquired only by an act of Parliament, a method that was both costly and extremely rare. Otherwise, divorce remained under the purview of the Church of England, whose officials granted it only in extreme cases of violence, adultery, sodomy, or marriage to a close relative. If a couple separated or divorced, custody of the children automatically went to the man until the 1839 Custody of Infants Act, which allowed a woman of “unblemished character” to ask for custody of young children.

All these disadvantages suggest that the single state was not without its attractions. Never married, Harriet Martineau (1802-76), also a writer, celebrated her own choice to remain unmarried: “The older I have grown, the more serious and irremediable have seemed to me the evils and disadvantages of married life, as it exists among us at this time” (Martineau in Hellerstein, Hume, and Offen, p. 155). It is true that since the eighteenth century the situation for married women had been improving somewhat; as preachers and others spoke of the need for companionship in marriage, the expectations that a wife should always be subordinate and obedient began to fade. Yet, although more and more lip service was paid to love and companionship, marriage remained serious business for men and women alike among the gentry of Austen’s England. For a man, marriage could mean the acquisition of property, for whatever is hers became legally his. For a genteel woman without property of her own, marriage might well be the one respectable—or palatable—career move available. Few women wanted to risk the stigma or privations of spinsterhood, and there were few like Emma who could easily afford to do so.

The Novel in Focus

The plot

When her companion and former governess marries, Emma Woodhouse is left at loose ends. Not only has her companion, Miss Taylor (now Mrs. Weston) left; her sister Isabella has married Mr. John Knightley and moved to London. Now Emma, a clever and imaginative 21-year-old, has only her sickly and not very bright father for company, and he can do little to alleviate the boredom and isolation. He is part of the gentry of Highbury. Owner of the Hartfield estate, Mr. Woodhouse opposes matrimony on principle, since it precipitates change, which, for him, necessarily implies discomfort. Unable to see that others might view their own marriages in a different light, he always refers to both Isabella and Miss Taylor with the epithet “poor” as he bemoans the cruelty of fate in taking each of them away from Hartfield.

Emma’s well-wishers, including her sister and Mr. Knightley (George, elder brother to John) agree that Jane Fairfax—elegant, talented, and the same age—would make a delightful companion for Emma. Jane, an orphan, has been raised in the family of her late father’s friend, Colonel Campbell, whose own daughter has recently married a Mr. Dixon. When the Campbells travel to Ireland, Jane returns to Highbury to stay with her aunt, Miss Bates, and her grandmother, Mrs. Bates, who have fallen on hard times. This visit is to be the last prior to Jane seeking a post as a governess. Emma imagines that Jane has returned to Highbury because she has fallen in love with the recently married Mr. Dixon, a suspicion Emma does not keep entirely to herself.

But for all of Jane’s elegance and education, Emma prefers the company of the adoring and naive Harriet Smith to the superior company of Jane Fairfax. Harriet’s lovely face convinces Emma that Harriet must, in fact, be more genteel than the undisclosed circumstances of her birth seem to warrant. Crediting herself with having made the match between the Westons, Emma shortly begins a campaign to marry Harriet well. She settles first on the parson, Mr. Elton, whose attentions to the two women convince Emma of his interest in Harriet. When he proposes to Emma herself, her error—indeed, a whole series of errors—becomes clear, including her mistake in having dissuaded Harriet from marrying the respectable (but not genteel) farmer, Mr. Robert Martin. Mr. Elton marries shortly thereafter. Since he and his wife cannot afford to snub the prominent Miss Woodhouse, they snub her friend Harriet at a ball instead. At this point, Mr. Knightley comes to the rescue by asking Harriet to dance.

Meanwhile, Highbury has finally been graced with a visit from the much-talked-of Frank Churchill. Though he is Mr. Weston’s son, Frank has been adopted by his wealthy uncle and aunt, and does not come to Highbury to pay his respects to his father’s new bride until long after he is expected. It is clear that both of the Westons would like Frank and Emma to make a match of it, and Emma, flattered by the attentions Frank shows her, imagines herself first in and then out of love with him. Yet she never makes plans to marry him. She does, however, start making plans for Harriet again, deciding that Frank would make a good match for the young woman. When he rescues Harriet from a band of rowdy gypsies, this fortuitous circumstance seems, to Emma, to seal the match.

Frank, however, has other plans. Unbeknownst to the villagers of Highbury, he has long been secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax. As soon as his domineering aunt dies, Frank seeks his uncle’s approval for the match. He thereby prevents Jane from taking up a post that has been arranged for her (against her wishes) by the interfering and selfaggrandizing Mrs. Elton. The Westons worry that Emma will be hurt by the news, but she is not Emma worries that Harriet will be hurt by the news, but she is not. In fact, it is when Emma shares the story of Frank Churchill’s engagement that Harriet discloses the true object of her current affections: Mr. Knightley. Shocked by the disclosure, Emma finally recognizes not only her own mistakes, but also her own feelings: “It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!”


The proper form of address is a delicate matter among Austen’s gentry. A name, when properly used, indicates much about a person’s rank and family position. The privilege of bearing the family name falls to the eldest son or unmarried daughter; thus in Emma, the title “Mr. Knightley” belongs only to George, the older brother, who will inherit the property as well. His younger brother goes by the name of Mr. John Knightley. Isabella, as the eldest sister, would have been “Miss Woodhouse” until she married. She then becomes Mrs. John Knightley, and Emma (formerly, Miss Emma Woodhouse) assumes the title “Miss Woodhouse.”

To dispense with formal address without permission is to reveal one’s own lack of breeding. It would be considered extremely presumptuous to address someone by their first or “Christian” name unless one were a relation or an intimate friend (of the same sex). In Austen’s novel, only Mrs. Elton is vulgar enough to routinely dispense with proper address. It is presumptuous indeed that she should refer to Mr. Knightley as “Knightley” (in striking contrast to Emma, who still calls him “Mr. Knightley” though she has known him all his life). Nor is it surprising that Frank Churchill writes (in righteous indignation that Mrs. Elton should dare to address his fiancée by her first name), “‘Jane,’ indeed!–You will observe that I have not yet indulged myself in calling her by that name” (Emma, p. 290). That the book itself should refer to Emma by her first name—even in the title—attests to how intimately the narration follows the thoughts, perceptions, and growth of its heroine.

After a short time—though long enough for introspection and remorse—Emma is visited by Mr. Knightley who, believing her to be attached to Frank Churchill, hopes to comfort her for the behavior of that “abominable scoundrel” (Emma, p. 279). So relieved is Mr. Knightley to find that Emma’s affections have not been engaged, that he confesses his own feelings for her. Uncharacteris tically reticent, he explains his silence: “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more” (Emma, p. 282). The sentiment is promptly—though somewhat inaudibly—returned, and only Harriet’s happiness and that of Emma’s father remain uncertain. Harriet’s is secured when, on a trip to London, she transfers her volatile affection once more, from Mr. Knightley to Mr. Robert Martin. Mr. Woodhouse is reconciled to Emma’s marriage by design (Mr. Knightley suggests that he move in to Hartfield rather than upset Emma’s father) and by chance (a raid on Mrs. Weston’s poultry house makes Mr. Woodhouse eager for his son-in-law’s inhouse protection). The story ends with Emma and Mr. Knightley’s wedding. And in spite of Mrs. Elton’s jealous comment about there being hardly any white lace at the wedding, we are assured that the union between Emma and Mr. Knightley is a happy one.

Courtship plotting

The structure of Emma is what is known as a marriage plot, or perhaps more accurately, a courtship plot, for marriage is the end (meaning “the finale” and “the goal”) of both the courtship and the plot. We see little of what goes on within marriages; we see much of what goes into making matches. Thus the novel focuses on a finely delimited period of a woman’s life, during which she is marriageable but unmarried—the period of courtship. This period, moreover, endows a woman (socially, imaginatively, legally) with the most power she has ever had or ever will have. By the custom—or at least the rhetoric—of courtship, hers is the power to choose, the power to refuse, the power to be pleased or displeased. As Mr. Elton’s conundrum suggests, during courtship, “Man’s boasted power and freedom, all are flown … And woman, lovely woman, reigns alone”(Emma, p. 46). Of course, this power effects its own removal. The successful courtship ends in marriage, at which time, a woman in Austen’s England ceases to reign in any sense; she yields her power, her property, and her independent existence under the law. Emma stages this loss as well. Putting on airs, Mrs. Elton repeatedly refers to her husband as “my lord and master,” a refrain that, although affected in her case, is nevertheless all too accurate. Mr. Knightley confirms the state of affairs when he observes that Mrs. Weston’s former position as governess was good training “on the very material matrimonial point of submitting your own will, and doing as you were bid”(Emma, p. 23). Frank Churchill’s aunt is the exception who proves the rule—and is, significantly, despised for it. Another character calls Mrs. Churchill, who rules at Enscombe [the Churchill’s home] “a very odd-tempered woman”; in less gentle language, we learn at her death that she has been “disliked at least twenty-five years”(Emma, pp. 79, 254).

What the courtship plot does is focus on the heightened significance and power of a woman during courtship. Meanwhile, it ignores much of the downside of marriage, writing it off, or at least writing it offstage, as others have noted (Poovey in Austen, p. 396). In this regard, the marriage plot can be said to serve social stability, for such a plot entices readers, especially women, into socially acceptable roles. Thus, Austen’s novels have come under considerable criticism for their conservatism—for Austen’s tacit acceptance of women’s social and legal position.

On the other hand, in Emma’s case, the courtship plot can be said to create a space for female power. Emma is the most powerful of all of Austen’s heroines—thanks to her money, her class, her position. She does not need to get married to secure her position or her future. So Emma stands poised at the intersection of social distinction and gender subordination: her class gives her power; her gender takes it away. She herself introduces a critique of the current status of married women: “I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s house, as I am of Hartfield; and never, never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important, so always first and always right in any man’s eyes as I am in my father’s”(Emma, p. 55) On the one hand, her comment can be compared to that of a small child who wants to remain with a father she can wrap around her finger. On the other hand, it can be taken seriously, as a rational, critical assessment of the married state, which has nothing to offer a woman who is already financially and thereby socially secure.

Taking Emma seriously raises the issue of her eventual marriage to Mr. Knightley. His position as her future husband is reinforced by their age disparity, and by his brotherly/fatherly solicitude and corrective manner toward her. A the same time, the two of them spar verbally in the novel—more or less as equals. Also Mr. Knightley shows an unusual willingness to move to her home. This willingness to postpone indefinitely what he says “a man would always wish [for],” that is, “to give a woman a better home than the one he takes her from,” suggests that perhaps this marriage, and Austen’s views, are based on compensation and compromise (Emma, p. 281).

Sources and literary context

The literary context of Emma is indicative of the position of the gentlewoman as well as the position of the novel in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Austen herself had little or no contact with the literary world. As a woman, she did not have the classical education her brothers would have received at school. But she read extensively, consuming the works of Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, Dr. Samuel Johnson, and the poetry of her contemporaries: Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and especially William Cowper. She routinely heard the Bible read and, of course, read the Book of Common Prayer. Indeed, the style of the latter is in many ways like her own. She had moreover, what might have been considered a “low” taste for verse riddles and conundrums as well as for novels—a much more controversial form of writing in her day than in ours (Grey, p. 356). Austen would read (often aloud with he family) even a mediocre novel multiple times as she gradually formed her thoughts on it.

Though Austen is far too subtle to engage in the conspicuous performance of erudition by quoting classical authors at every turn, which was popular at the time, she speaks to the literary movements that immediately preceded her and were evolving around her. Her novels draw on comic tradition, on the satire as well as on the courtship plot, made big in the eighteenth century by writers like Henry Fielding and especially Samuel Richardson. Despite her use of the courtship plot, Austen disclaims any wish or ability to write a romance—a term that at the time referred


Though it is perhaps not surprising to her readers now, Austen’s predilection for novels would have been mildly scandalous in her day. As she put it, her family were “great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so” (Austen in Grey, p. 357). This comment is significant and gives us a hint of the problematic status of novels at the time. They were often frowned upon as too fanciful, insufficiently instructive, and even too feminine in the sense that they were too tied in with women’s fantasies. One novel that quite obviously influenced Austen’s work is Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote, which Austen read many times and admired. Isolated because of her father’s preferences, the heroine Arabella (who is wealthy and beautiful, of course) takes her idea of life from fantastic romances of her day (mostly French ones); she sees love, abduction, mystery, and adventure in every mundane occurrence. The novel is a satire that shows concern for how detrimental reading fiction can be. an eighteenth-century worry, and shows sympathy for Arabella’s wish to create a world in which she is much more powerful and important than a woman (even a wealthy one) can ever be in her era. Another novel of Austen’s, Northanger Abbey, traces the re-education of a similarly mislead heroine. Emma too takes up this satire, but in far more subtle ways. It uses the language of heroic romances ironically, applying it to everyday problems: “The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way,” although the “danger” at the start of the novel goes unperceived (Emma, p. 1, emphasis added). The irony resides in the existence of a danger that threatens to harm neither life nor limb, but only to diminish slightly Emma’s many enjoyments.

to a highly unrealistic adventure story with sharply delineated heroes and villains. She preferred, as she said, to “go on in my own Way,” in the satire of people and manners (Emma, p. 350).

Though Emma displays elements of romances such as Regina Maria Roche’s The Children of the Abbey (1798) and Fanny Burney’s Cecilia (1782), it is clearly not Austen’s intent to reproduce these texts. Emma instead reorganizes traditional tropes, relegating a superior woman (like Jane Fairfax, someone beautiful and talented who might have been the persecuted heroine of another novel) to the sidelines, and exploring the complex motivations of a flawed heroine. As she does so, Austen establishes herself as an innovator in the novel of ordinary life. She also reveals her complex relation to the shifting literary trends of her day, especially the Romantic poets, whose verse often stressed intuition and emotion over reason. Prevalent in Romantic poetry is the belief that the road to truth is through the self, through one’s imagination and insight, rather than through “any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (Keats, p. 193). On the one hand Emma is fully aware of the pleasures and uses of imagination. On the other hand, the novel finds fault not only with the excessive imagination associated with the prose romances that preceded Austen’s novels but also with the spontaneous overflow of feelings that defined poetry for Romantics like William Wordsworth. In Emma, too much of one’s own desire, unchecked by rational thought, distorts truth. Such emphasis on rationality has led scholars to class Austen as a daughter of the earlier Enlightenment movement, which gave higher priority to reason than emotion, but (like Romantic writers of her time) Austen diverges from her Enlightenment predecessors in important ways. Her fiction demonstrates a distaste for the didactic or preachy, an emphasis on particulars rather than abstractions, and a belief that human nature is neither fixed nor universal. Thus, Emma suggests a happy balance between Enlightenment sense and Romantic sensibility, a blend wherein the pleasures of imagination (and undoubtedly, much of Emma’s charm comes from her warm and lively imagination) must always be tempered by rationality and social responsibility.

Publication and reviews

Austen’s moment was a strange one for women writers. On the one hand, there were more opportunities for women to publish than ever before, and many women were publishing—Ann Radcliffe, Frances Burney, and Maria Edgeworth are only the most visible among the large numbers of women writers. On the other hand, authorship seemed too public for the genteel (modest, retiring, emphatically private) woman, and indeed women were attacked for writing without adequate education. Many women, including Austen, published their first novels anonymously. And many women apologized for having the temerity to write for profit—prefacing their work with descriptions of the desperate financial need (usually in support of family members).

It is perhaps, no wonder then, that Austen’s brother Henry paints a picture of Jane Austen as genteel amateur, writing predominantly for the amusement of her family. Certainly her family, especially her sister Cassandra, were her first readers, though Austen’s letters show us another side. She was clearly gratified by the limited success of her novels and evinced a real pleasure in earning money from them. Publishing mostly “on commission,” a method wherein the author was responsible for all the costs if sales fell short, Austen was both financially and personally invested in the sales of her novels. Due to a still small novel-reading public, considerable risk was involved, and the 2,000 copies of Emma published in 1816 (the largest known edition of an Austen novel) failed to sell out. After four years, only 1,437 copies had been sold and the rest were remaindered.

Contemporary reviewers could be rather condescending and formulaic. Sir Walter Scott’s respectful and in many ways positive 1815 review is an exception that reflects his interest in a then-new type of novel—the novel of ordinary life. As raves go, however, Scott’s review is more than understated; he asserts that Emma —a novel “we peruse with pleasure, if not with deep interest”—”has even less story than either of the preceding novels” and describes Emma herself as “vainly engaged in forging wedlock-fetters for others” (Scott in Austen, pp. 357-58). To Victorian reviewers, however, Emma becomes the test of the reader’s acuity; George Henry Lewes observes in 1852 that “only cultivated minds fairly appreciate the exquisite art of Miss Austen” (Lewes in Austen, p. 360). So popular was Austen by mid-century that Lewes claimed only to be “echoing a universal note of praise in speaking thus highly of her works” (Lewes in Austen, p. 360). Lewes goes on to admire what he considered the special touch of the female writer in the novel. Charlotte Bronte disagreed. While acknowledging the “fidelity” and “delicacy” of Emma, Bronte bemoaned Austen’s lack of passion, a complaint echoed by Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who observed that Austen’s characters lacked “souls” (Grey, p. 98).

Austen’s fame grew mostly after she died. Numerous editions have been published in the two centuries since she wrote. Modern readers are often ambivalent about the novel: on the one hand, they wish that Austen would take her heroines out of their traditional, constricted roles; on the other, they can’t help admiring her portrayal of women’s lives. Many authors have attempted to pick up where she left off or to tell the story from another point of view, as does Naomi Royd Smith’s Jane Fairfax (1940). Still others have tried to adopt Austen’s style or setting or both, giving rise to a subtype of literature—Regency Romances.

Emma has also been repeatedly transformed for the screen, by, among others, Amy Heckerling, whose Clueless updates the story to a contemporary California setting and has a high-school “Emma” fix up two teachers whose wedding closes the film. Rivaled only by Pride and Prejudice (also in Literature and Its Times), Emma is considered by many to be the best of Austen’s novels. Scholars, Hollywood, and successive generations of readers make it clear: far from being the heroine that, as Austen predicted, “no one but myself will much like,” Emma is the heroine whom (like Mr. Knightley) everyone loves—flaws and all (Austen, p. viii).

—Barri J. Gold

For More Information

Austen, Jane. Emma. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Stephen M. Parrish. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000.

Copeland, Edward, and Juliet McMaster, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Grey, J. David, et. al. The Jane Austen Companion. New York: MacMillan, 1986.

Hellerstein, Erna Olafson, Leslie Parker Hume, and Karen M. Offen, eds. Victorian Women: A Documentary Account of Women’s Lives in Nineteenth-Century England, France, and the United States. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1981.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats. Ed. Hyder Edward Rollins. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Pool, Daniel. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whistthe Facts of Daily Life in 19th-century England. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.

Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800. New York: Harper Torch-books, 1979.


views updated May 14 2018


The servant girl of Joseph Haddock, a well-known English exponent of animal magnetism before the advent of Spiritualism. Emma was the first English somnambule or trance subject whose powers of clairvoyance and trance visions were carefully recorded. These were published in Haddock's book Somnolismand Psychism (1851) and in such journals of the time as The Zoist and the Boston Chronicle.

Haddock narrated that one day, trying to put a patient into magnetic (mesomeric) sleep, he thought of suspending a magnet from the ceiling and directing the patient to look steadfastly at it. Emma was in the kitchen under the room where he was practicing and knew nothing of his movements. In a few minutes Haddock smelled burning and called out to his daughter to look for the cause. She found Emma on fire. Haddock quickly ran down and found her mesmerized, on her knees before the kitchen fire, engaged in sweeping the hearth and with her apron burning from contact with a glowing coal. She was un-conscious of the fire and her attention was wholly directed to a point in the kitchen ceiling. When asked what she was doing, she replied, "I want that magnet." When Haddock pretended not to understand, she replied, "that magnet hanging up there" and accurately described its position.

Subsequent experiments disclosed that Emma had remarkable powers both in medical and in traveling clairvoyance. Haddock freely employed her for making diagnoses. She could describe the diseased structures in the patient's body without medical terms. Looking at the heart she called the auricles the "ears" and the ventricles the "meaty part." She distinguished between arterial and venous blood in the heart by calling one the "light side" and the other the "dark side." She could see events at a distance and described the whereabouts of lost or stolen property.

One case attracted considerable attention at the time. A Mr. Arrowsmith of Bolton, England, was considerably worried over a sum of £650 that one Mr. Lomax the cashier remembered to have paid into the bank but which the bank denied receiving. Emma was consulted. On being given the envelope that had contained the money, she correctly described the contents and how they were handed in at the bank counter and finally described the missing banknotes and the bill of exchange in an envelope with other papers in an inner room of the bank. Arrowsmith went to the bank and demanded another search, and on the directions given by Emma, the money was found among some old circulars in the manager's private room.

Like her contemporary Adèle Maginot, Emma had visions of the future life and spiritual matters, which Haddock also recorded in his book.


Haddock, Joseph. Somnolism and Psychism. 1851. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.