By Jessica Allen
Jane Austen’s Emma, while essentially a marriage plot concerned with the niceties, formalities, and strictures of a hierarchical society, portrays a heroine vastly different from the majority of Austen’s female characters. From the opening paragraph of the novel, Austen reveals Emma to be “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition” and states that Emma had been the mistress of her father’s “house from a very early period” (Austen, 55). Through this initial description, Austen establishes Emma as the pinnacle of Highbury society, endowed with power and charms inconsistent with the accepted and mainstream female societal characterization. Whereas many of Austen’s other heroines, such as Elizabeth Bennet and Marianne Dashwood, possess beauty, lively personalities, and moderately respectable families, Emma is established as one of Austen’s only truly genteel heroines and the one heroine who really has the ability to exert societal power. And while the tales of all of Austen’s heroines ultimately end in matrimony, Emma’s situation appears vastly different from the heroines of Austen’s other novels. Where all of Austen’s previous heroines must concern themselves with making the best marital match possible, Emma alone possesses the ability to choose her matrimonial condition exclusively out of her own free will. Already possessing wealth and social status, Emma has the prerogative to choose any husband she wishes, or not to marry at all. The fact that Emma initially states that she never plans to marry, but later enters into a marriage with Mr. Knightley, does not in any way compromise Emma’s own independence and strong will, seeing as she does not feel any dependence on male protection or wealth. Emma, by marrying Mr. Knightley out of love and her own decision, maintains her powerful and independent status, causing Emma’s conclusion to be one of the most satisfactory of all of Austen’s novels.
As defined by Richard Handler and Daniel Segal in Hierarchies of Choice: The Social Construction of Rank in Jane Austen, to be independent is to “be governed by one’s own will” and “to have the power as an individual to make choices and to be governed by those choices alone” (692). Throughout Emma, Emma Woodhouse perfectly epitomizes this definition of independence, constantly asserting her opinions and social power. In stating that she has “no thoughts of matrimony” (Austen 151), Emma lives in opposition to the normal, widely accepted opinion held by most women of her time period; the opinion that marriage to a respectable man should be the highest goal for which a young woman strives. The very fact that Emma can make comments such as this indicates the extent of Emma’s own independence and spunk. Further, the fact that Mr. Woodhouse does not attempt to force Emma into a marriage further evinces the idea that Emma is fully autonomous, not requiring the protection of the traditional male-dominated society. Having already governed as the mistress of Hartfield since a young age, Emma holds more power and social standing than many men of the community, virtually functioning as the epitome of class and status.
Although Emma ultimately decides to marry Mr. Knightley, it is not to be expected that Emma will become a submissive or passive woman bending to the will of a man. Rather, Austen establishes a relationship of equal footing; a relationship in which the two parties still “show a tendency to spar” and continue to “obstinately hold on to untenable opinions for the sake of argument.” Throughout the novel, Emma, with all of her energy and social power, refuses to allow Knightley to simply exert control over her, but rather maintains her own independent thoughts and charisma. The pending marriage of Emma and Mr. Knightley is ultimately one of love and equal partnership, not a contract in which a powerful and arrogant man attempts to control a weaker and submissive being. Emma willingly enters into the relationship with Mr. Knightley, a fact that adds to her reputation of independence rather than detracts from it. As stated in John Hagan’s The Closure of Emma “self-knowledge is not an absolute state to which a person attains in a single moment of insight” (Hagan 4). Rather, human nature itself prompts one to have a wavering heart and changing emotions, making it absolutely natural that Emma can change her mind in the determination to never marry and allowing her decision to marry Mr. Knightley to appear simply as an exertion and exercise of her own fluctuating self-knowledge.
Emma and Mr. Knightley, through mutual understanding and love, embark on their life together in a way that is beneficial to them both and takes into consideration the needs of everyone involved. Emma, unable to leave her father in ill health, feels as if the imminent marriage can not occur while her father is still living. In order to rectify this problem, Knightley decides to move into Hartfield with the Woodhouses. In so doing, Knightley sacrifices “a great deal of his own independence” (379) in order to create a situation that will be most pleasing and convenient for Emma and her father. Apart from displaying Knightley’s respectable character and the feelings of true love he feels for Emma, this action further depicts the amount of power and status Emma possesses. In this time period, it was common practice for the husband to provide the home for the family, rather than the other way around. By continuing in her own home and way of living, Emma is further established as a highly important and independent character; a character that could live, if she wished, happily and comfortably without a husband.
Although some may argue that, by marrying Mr. Knightley, Emma sacrifices a great deal of her own independence and societal power, the fact remains that Emma never feels any obligation to marry: in fact, she outright rejects the first marriage proposal she receives in favor of remaining single. It is only whenever Emma falls truly and honestly in love that she decides to enter into matrimony, indicating that she still holds the power of choice and free will. Ultimately, Emma’s marriage to Mr. Knightley appears very favorable and in concordance with the character Austen creates throughout much of the novel. Emma, although often vain and proud, possesses a kind and loving heart. Often misconstrued as meddling and intrusive, Emma’s largest fault is only that she cares too deeply. Attempting to channel the great deal of love she feels for others, Emma often causes more harm than good, as in the situation involving Harriet and Mr. Martin. Thus, Emma’s decision to marry Mr. Knightley seems perfect for Emma’s character, offering her an outlet for all of the love she feels, but is often rather remiss in applying. The argument that Emma somehow rejects or relinquishes her own autonomy or independence in marrying Mr. Knightley is ultimately unfair to Emma herself. The idea of free will and independence works both ways—if Emma has the power to deny a marriage proposal, who is to say that by accepting one, she is renouncing her power of choice? Emma, through her love and willful decision to marry Mr. Knightley, establishes herself even further as a strong and independent female, portraying the idea that, while she is strong enough to take care of herself, she is also compassionate enough to truly love another.
Austen, Jane. Emma. New York: Broadview, LTD, 2004. Print.
Hagan, John. “The Closure of Emma.” Studies in English Literature 15.4 (1975): 545-62. EBSCOhost. Web. 21 Nov. 2009.
Handler, Richard, and Daniel A. Segal. “Hierarchies of Choice: The Social Construction of Rank in Jane Austen.” American Ethnologist 12.4 (1985): 691-706. JSTOR. Blackwell Publishing. Web. 21 Nov. 2009.
Waldron, Mary. “Men of sense and silly wives: The confusions of Mr. Knightley.” Studies in the Novel 28.2 (1996): 141. EBSCOhost. Web. 21 Nov. 2009.
 Waldron, Mary. “Men of sense and silly wives: The confusions of Mr. Knightley.” Studies in the Novel 28.2 (1996): 141. EBSCOhost. Web. 21 Nov. 2009.
Written for ENGL-367 (Jane Austen), Nov. 22, 2009