Is Emma a Feminist Novel? If so, how?
On the face of it, there seems to be very little way in which a novel that spends so much of its time poking fun at the central female character because of her belief that she is a matchmaker could be viewed as being feminist in any way. In addition, consider the way in which the ending of the novel features the traditional Austen ending of marriage and happiness, with Emma marrying Mr Knightley and accepting her role as wife. However, reading the text carefully, there are various ways in which Austen comments on the differences between men and women, and how in particular there are curious double standards in her society. Consider the following example:
A young woman, if she fall into bad hands, may be teazed, and kept at a distance from those she wants to be with; but one cannot comprehend a young man's being under such restraint, as not to be able to spend a week with his father, if he likes it.
This quote from Chapter 14 shows Emma reflecting on the position that women fall into when they are dependents on those who give them food and shelter. To be in such a position as a woman is profoundly entrapping and restricting, as such a woman would be all but controlled by those who look after her. However, a man in a similar position would not expect to be treated in such a way, and would still have freedom. To consider a similar view, note how Mrs Elton compares being a slave to being a governess in Chapter 35, highlighting the terrible conditions faced by so many women in that profession. Although the novel therefore may not be considered overtly feminist, there is certainly evidence enough to suggest that Austen uses it as a vehicle to confront her readers with the various inconsistencies between men and women and how women are often treated far more harshly than men are.