What is the role of women in Emma?

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In Emma, the role of women is closely associated with their class position. Upper-class women have more independence and control than middle- or working-class counterparts. However, women are financially subordinate to men, so for most women, marriage is both a desired and necessary arrangement. Widows and unmarried women are shown as enduring a financially precarious state.

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Jane Austen’s novel Emma presents a view of society in which class as well as gender strongly affects people’s opportunities in life. Although the female characters play numerous different roles, their options are closely associated with their class position. Because men control government, politics, and property, female subordination is a reality for all women, albeit in different degrees. Women are also shown as needing moral guidance from men.

Elite women such as Emma can gain an education, but it is almost impossible for them to inherit or own property. Middle-class and working-class women often hold down a job for at least part of their adult lives.

Austen portrays marriage as a goal for almost all women but shows them as having varied reasons for marrying. Both Isabella and her husband, John Knightley, and Mr. and Mrs. Weston provide examples of successful marriages based in love. Because Emma has little to worry about in terms of finances, she is somewhat relieved of the pressure to marry, but this flexibility also gives her romantic notions which she foists onto Harriet. The idea of upward mobility for a poor, probably illegitimate girl such as Harriet is conveyed through the suggested match with Mr. Elton.

The problems that unmarried women face and the importance of class distinctions are shown in Emma’s relationship with Mrs. Bates and her daughter; their near-destitution is linked to the mother’s widowed state. Elite women are expected to be gracious benefactors to those less fortunate than themselves, a rule that Emma shockingly breaks while under Frank’s influence. The idea that men should also provide proper guidance for women is also demonstrated by the contrast between the deceptive, unkind Frank and the generous, mannerly Mr. Knightley.

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