Jane Austen Shows her Feminist Side in Emma
Emma is a story about the everyday life of Emma Woodhouse and her circle of family, friends, and acquaintances where nothing ever really seems to happen. The story takes place in a time when many things were happening in the world, such as the French Revolution and the industrial revolution. None of the important happenings in the world appear in the story of Emma. On the surface it seems to be just a story about everyday life in the village of Highbury. However, if one takes a look beneath the surface at the history of writing and writers, in this case Jane Austen, one would see that Austen is trying to do much more than write a cute story about Emma and her friends. In Emma, Jane Austen addresses many issues important to women, making her a feminist of her time.
Jane Austen was by no means a radical feminist by today’s standards, but she was indeed a feminist. Women have been feminists throughout history. Feminism as a defined term seems to be a relatively new concept but in fact has been around as long as women. They have worked within their confines to make their voices and opinions known. Austen has done this through her writing.
Jane Austen: Conformist or Radical Feminist?
Women writers in Jane Austen’s time had a difficult literary life. Their writing was not recognized or published, and often it was repressed. Many women writers found that they had to take on a penname in order to be able to write using themes deemed unfeminine and still get their work published. There was an attitude about women’s writing that it should be feminine. It was said that women should not write after they turned old at the age of thirty, in other words, “fiction by women must be fiction by young women – modest, delicate, wispy, delightful – and as soon as a woman has anything significant to say she…is past her career as a novelist and a woman” (Johnson xv). Austen was often praised for conforming to this ideal by writing in a feminine style and staying away from masculine themes.
It is rather ironic that Austen was seen as a conformist, because in Emma Austen used her writing to make some fairly gutsy remarks about women and their lives. Her feelings towards marriage stand out the most. In Emma’s time, women were always taken care of through marriage or some other arrangement, such as being made a governess. As a general rule, women were not independent beings. Emma Woodhouse would have been breaking this rule. At present in the novel, she is a single woman living with her father on his estate called Hartfield. Her childhood governess, Miss Taylor, has recently left Hartfield to marry Mr. Weston. It would have been quite acceptable for Emma to live with her father under the expectation that she would eventually marry. In this case though, Austen makes Mr. Woodhouse a rather helpless invalid whom Emma has to take care of. Since her father isn’t taking care of her, Emma is essentially independent.
Thoughts on Marriage...
Emma’s thoughts on marriage make her situation even more unacceptable, according to the times. In chapter 10, Emma and Harriet discuss Emma’s feelings toward marriage as they are walking past the vicarage on their way to visit a poor, sick family on the edge of Highbury. Harriet begins the conversation by saying:
Harriet is socially correct for the time when she replies, “Dear me! – It is so odd to hear a woman talk so!” (Austen 60).
From the newly defined feminist movement, many feminist critics have sprung up in the literary world. Feminist criticism has multiple definitions that can be applied to the passage above. For the French, it is focused around linguistic development and the effect that a patriarchal society has on that development. French theory says that women are forced to conform to men’s language or they must remain silent. In either case, they are kept in an inferior position as the “invisible and unheard sex” (Peterson 334).
In the scene above, Harriet believes that Emma should not be saying what she is. She believes that women should be happy to marry. However, Emma is in a position where she is independently wealthy. She does not need a man to take care of her financially. She is almost on an equal level with men as far as money is concerned. Here she speaks her mind with the same authority as a man would, choosing to use men’s language rather than keeping silent. This scene shows how Austen chose to make her statement by putting men’s words in Emma’s mouth. Austen is therefore not a conformist, as she is so often viewed. According to Claudia L. Johnson, in her book Jane Austen Women, Politics, and the Novel,
If Austen enters the canon because she seemed to deny or devalue her authority, Emma has been the heroine critics have loved to scold… Emma is often charged with the same transgressions – being ‘arrogant, self-important, and controlling’ or ‘narcissistic and perfectionist’ – from which critics diligently attempted to exempt Austen… (Johnson 122).
The American feminist critics take a broader approach. Some even base their criticism on “nonfeminist disciplines,” such as Marxism or psychoanalysis (Peterson 334). In general, Americans look at text from a female perspective, and attempt to bring unknown women writers to the forefront. An example of this would be when Alice Walker, a successful female writer in her own right and self-named ‘womanist,’ brought Zora Neale Hurston’s writing out of the dusty stacks by going to locate Hurston’s hidden gravesite and writing about Hurston and her work. Feminist critics find this a necessary task because, “women writers commonly took on urgent, social, political, and theological questions, since assigned to the ‘masculine sphere,’ and they have dropped out of later versions of literary history altogether as a result, leaving scarcely a trace” (Johnson xv). This was not necessary in Austen’s case since she was viewed as a conformist writing in the feminine style and therefore published.
In her article, “What is Feminist Criticism?,” Peterson states that American feminist critics also analyze works using gynocentrism. Gynocentrism is the examination of “the female literary tradition to find out how great women writers across the ages have felt, perceived themselves, and imagined reality” (334). The British theory tends to be more political. The British tend to have less emphasis on the differences between the sexes and more on the oppression of women in history. This theory taken with the American concept of gynocentrism can be used to explain Jane Austen’s feminist stance in Emma in the passage above.
Austen uses Harriet in the marriage passage to show how women of the time were supposed to view marriage. Women were supposed to become accomplished in female things, such as drawing, singing, or playing a musical instrument. These accomplishments together with charm were to be used to acquire a suitable husband that would take care of the woman financially. Austen shows this by having the Bates try to lure Mr. Knightley into their home to hear Jane Fairfax play the piano, or by having Mr. Elton’s interest in Emma increase when she shows her ability for drawing. In the passage above, Emma rebels against this view on marriage. She thinks that one should marry for love if the circumstances of life permit it. In her case, she feels that they do, so she won’t marry unless she finds a man that she loves. Many critics and readers would say that in the end, Emma gives in to the correct social roles of the time. I believe that she doesn’t give in by marrying Mr. Knightley. Austen emphasizes her point in the end by having Emma state that she loves Knightley and then by having Knightley move to Hartfield in order to make Emma happy.
In reading Emma for the first time, I described it, as many people do, as a novel about a bunch of ordinary people who don’t do anything. On the surface, the novel doesn’t seem to make any statements, which is why it was acceptable in the male world in Austen’s time. However, with the help of feminist criticism, readers have begun to look beneath the surface at what Austen is saying. Just as many writers throughout history and today who, living under the hand of oppression, have been forced to make their statements in a subtle way through fictional writing, Austen creates in Emma an untraditional character who is dependent “on [her] female strength, activity and good judgment” rather than on a man. Emma’s view of marriage as she states in chapter ten of the novel is just one of the statements that Austen makes about women through Emma. Emma sees herself as a complete person; she doesn’t need a man to make her whole. For Austen’s time, this was a daring statement to make, and for feminists it is groundbreaking.
Written by Donna Hilbrandt.
Austen, Jane. Emma. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 1994.
Johnson, Claudia L. Jane Austen Women, Politics, and the Novel. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Peterson, Linda H., ed. “What is Feminist Criticism?” Wuthering Heights. Boston: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.
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