How could Jane Austen's Emma be considered a feminist novel?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Jane Austen's novel Emma has a central character criticized as sheltered and overly concerned with status, place, and marrying well, all the things well off women were supposed to be and do. In her match making, she pushed her friend to not marry a prosperous farmer because he was...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Jane Austen's novel Emma has a central character criticized as sheltered and overly concerned with status, place, and marrying well, all the things well off women were supposed to be and do. In her match making, she pushed her friend to not marry a prosperous farmer because he was not what was considered well born, from a high or elite background. By novel's end she is forced to admit she was wrong, and the marriage takes place.

Austen also makes use of gendered space in the novel. Female characters almost always meet indoors while males meet outdoors, suggesting their relative freedoms. The main character cannot walk alone to the post office without attracting gossip while her father can go alone to London without worrying about the same.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Jane Austen’s insightful critique of English rural society has many components that merit its consideration as a feminist novel. Austen places a number of strong female characters in a variety of social situations, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. The character of Emma, a rich, spoiled teenager, is initially shown to have numerous bad habits, which may cause the reader to find her to be a rather disagreeable protagonist. By contextualizing her situation, however, Austen shows how social conditions affect both rich and poor.

Emma’s character evolves in part through dialogue with Mr. Knightley, who will prove her true match—in part because he can be honest in telling her that she has behaved unkindly toward Miss Bates and to Harriet Smith. Even more, Emma must set aside some of her class snobbery and find common ground with the other women rather than look down on them. Emma’s maturity, which will be a basis for a solid marriage, depends in large measure on embracing sisterhood in solidarity by appreciating women as her friends.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Emma could be considered a feminist novel because it highlights the constraints faced by women in the small, fictional village of Highbury in the early 1800s. Emma, the main character, is wealthy, intelligent and attractive, yet because her father is a fussy hypochondriac, she has never once traveled from the aptly-named Highbury. Her claustrophobic existence has given her an inflated view of her own worth. While she claims to her friend Harriet that she is rich enough never to need or want to marry, in the end, she realizes she has almost no other options.

Jane Fairfax, possibly the true heroine of the novel, faces her own set of constraints. Beautiful, elegant and an accomplished pianist, she has been educated to be a lady, but she has no money. Her choices are marriage to a man who will accept her without a dowry or governessing, and while she compares governessing to slavery, she steels herself to it when it appears her engagement to Frank Churchill is in collapse. 

Jane Fairfax's aunt, Miss Bates, is also a lady, but she has "sunk" from her former status as the rector's daughter and lives on an extremely limited income with her aged mother. She depends on the charitable gestures of other members of the gentry to survive, and she is forced tolerate the ridicule that accompanies being a single woman with no money. 

The novel implicitly critiques the lack of meaningful options all these women face, and in doing so, makes a case for allowing women greater opportunity and autonomy.  

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team