Emma–a RELUCTANT Heroine (An analysis on Jane’s Austen’s Emma)

So here’s my individual novel’s term/occasional paper for our major subject British Literature. 

Emma Woodhouse: A Manifestation of a Reluctant Heroine as Seen in Jane Austen’s Emma

Background of the Author

Jane Austen (16 December 1775 – 18 July 1817) was an English novelist. Her works of romantic fiction, set among the working class, earned her a place as one of the most widely read writers in English literature. Austen began writing stories at a very young age and completed her first novel in her early twenties. Emma, which appeared in 1816, was the last novel published during Austen’s lifetime. Her realism, piercing irony and social commentary have gained her historical importance among scholars and critics. Her plots highlight the dependence of women on marriage to secure social standing and economic security. (Southam, 1940) As admired as Austen’s novels later became, critics have had a difficult time placing them within literary history. She is known for her gently satirical local color and of the rituals of courtship and marriage, but she wrote during the Romantic period, when most major writers were concerned with a very different set of interests and values. Romantic poets confronted the hopes and failures of the French Revolution and formulated new literary values centered on individual freedom, passion, and intensity. In comparison, Austen’s detailed examination of the rules of dignity that govern social relationships, and her insistence that reason and moderation are necessary checks on feeling, make her seem out of step with the literary times. One way to understand Austen’s place in literary history is to think of her as part of the earlier eighteenth century, the Age of Reason, when literature was associated with wit, composure, and propriety. Her novels certainly belong to an eighteenth-century genre, the comedy of manners, which examines the behavior of men and women of a single social class. In this social context, Austen’s commitment to reason and moderation can be seen as feminist and progressive rather than conservative. The intelligence and resourcefulness of her heroines stand in constant contrast to the limits of the constricted world of courtship and marriage defining their sphere of action.

Emma, by Jane Austen, is a novel about youthful hubris and the perils of miscomprehended romance. The novel was first published in December 1815. Austen explores the concerns and difficulties of genteel women living in Georgian-Regency England; she also creates a lively comedy of manners among her characters.

Main Topic

            Background on Emma Woodhouse

The narrator introduces Emma to us by emphasizing her good fortune:  

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her,’ But, the narrator warns us: ‘The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her.”

 She has every advantage in life that a young lady could wish for but is without temper and totally clueless. Emma’s stubbornness and vanity produce many of the novel’s conflicts, as Emma struggles to develop emotionally. Indeed the novel centered on the character of Emma and her development.

In the novel, Emma makes three major mistakes. First, she attempts to make Harriet into the wife of a gentleman, when Harriet’s social position dictates that she would be better suited to the farmer who loves her. Then, she flirts with Frank Churchill even though she does not care for him, making unfair comments about Jane Fairfax along the way. Most important, she does not realize that, rather than being committed to staying single (as she always claims), she is in love with and wants to marry Mr. Knightley. Though these mistakes seriously threaten Harriet’s happiness, cause Emma embarrassment, and create obstacles to Emma’s own achievement of true love, none of them has lasting consequences. Throughout the novel, Knightley corrects and guides Emma; in marrying Knightley, Emma signals that her judgment has aligned with his.

Austen predicted that Emma would be “a character whom no one but me will much like.” Though most of Austen’s readers have proven her wrong, her narration creates many ambiguities. The novel is narrated using free indirect discourse, which means that, although the all-knowing narrator speaks in the third person, she often relates things from Emma’s point of view and describes things in language we might imagine Emma using. This style of narration creates a complex mixture of sympathy with Emma and ironic judgment on her behavior. It is not always clear when we are to share Emma’s perceptions and when we are to see through them. Nor do we know how harshly Austen expects us to judge Emma’s behavior. Though this narrative strategy creates problems of interpretation for the reader, it makes Emma a richly multidimensional character.  The novel implicitly prefers Emma’s independence and cleverness to her sister’s more traditional deportment, although we are still faced with the paradox that though Emma is clever, she is almost always mistaken (Flavin, 1991).

Emma, a reluctant heroine

Emma contains one of Austen’s most remarkable heroines. Austen is known for her strong, intelligent, amazing women. Emma is strong and intelligent–but she is also flawed. She charges right in to mistake after mistake, convinced that she is somehow invulnerable to the sorts of errors in judgment which she is so quick to notice in those around her.

Emma Woodhouse is not the ideal, stereotype heroine. Neither does she possess the typical characteristics of a heroine. These unusual characteristics in Emma actually make her someone more than a heroine. Lacking the traditional heroic virtues makes one an antihero or a reluctant hero according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. For Emma’s case, however, she is a manifestation of a reluctant heroine. The reluctant hero is a heroic archetype described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1968): The reluctant hero is typically portrayed as an ordinary person thrust into extraordinary circumstances which require him/her to rise to heroism. The reluctant hero does not initially seek adventure or the opportunity to do good, and their apparent selfishness may draw them into the category of antiheroes. The narrator of Emma reveals:

 “the real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and disposition to think a little too well of herself . . . The danger, however, was at present so unperceived that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her” (5).

This description of Emma’s inner shortcomings also reminds readers of self-importance and insistence on having her own way being the hallmark of her anti-heroic behavior. Along with her selfishness, Emma’s interactions with her friend Harriet are often manipulative, especially when Harriet struggles to know whether or not to accept the proposal of Robert Martin, a young farmer that Emma feels is socially beneath Harriet. Emma takes advantage of Harriet’s indecisiveness and subtly guides her friend to refuse the young man.

Emma’s isolation

According to Seigneuret (1988), a reluctant hero also tries to establish his own personal social codes. It is seen in the novel that Emma entertains herself within the confines of her small village by managing the lives of those around her. The reluctant hero can also be puzzled, frustrated, and isolated. Going back to the novel, Emma, essentially an orphan, is left alone with her invalid father when her governess and friend is married.  In addition, Emma’s sense of exclusivity isolates her from many of the families within the community of Highbury because, we are told, the Woodhouses “were first in consequence” and knew no equals (7). While Emma reigns as mistress of Hartfield, enjoying youth, beauty, intelligence, wealth, “a comfortable home and a happy disposition” (5), her position is threatened by the very superiority she values.  Emma is in danger, we learn as the novel opens, of “suffering from intellectual solitude” (7).  To compensate for this isolation, she attempts to set up a little set of friends separate from the larger community of which Hartfield is a part. In doing so, she almost ensures her own complete isolation because she fails to understand the need to share in the friendships of the community as a whole, especially the bond to the lowly Miss Bates.

Emma’s social snobbery

Seigneuret also indicated that the reluctant hero is always a displaced person in terms of society. Emma’s wealth and social superiority directly affect her character and behavior. She has an excessive amount of free time, time that she uses to fuel her overactive imagination. Terry Eagleton (2005) explains the connection between Emma’s wealth, imagination, and social responsibility:

If you are too rich and socially prominent you are likely to be idle . . . idleness can lead to imaginative self-indulgence, which in turn can result in harm to others. There is thus an indirect route from being extremely well-heeled to being morally irresponsible, which is the opposite of the paternalistic ethic of noblesse oblige—the doctrine that wealth and high rank bring with them responsibilities to others. Emma is at the summit of her society, but exactly because of this she is a kind of transgressor. (112)”

Emma’s immaturity coupled with her sense of privilege results in a snobbery that is distasteful and disconcerting to many characters in the novel, including Emma’s future husband, Mr. Knightley, but even more so to modern readers who view a strict class structure, and especially class superiority, as a thing of the past. It is Emma’s snobbery and instance on a strict social hierarchy that readers dislike most about her (Duckworth, 1971). Austen herself despised social snobbery, as evidenced in how she portrays characters such as Lady Catherine de Burgh, Caroline Bingley, and Fanny Dashwood. All of these characters use their social arrogance to be cruel or manipulate others; unfortunately, Emma, as a member of the wealthy elite, also uses snobbery as a social weapon at times. The worst part of Emma’s snobbery is that she is blind to this flaw within herself. It is only because the story is seen primarily though Emma’s eyes that readers “travel with Emma rather than stand against her” (Booth, 1961). By gaining self-awareness of her own mistakes and suffering the consequences of her own snobbery and social failings, Emma eventually does see her shortcomings and makes corrections to improve her behavior and relationships with others, even crossing previously impassable class barriers.

Emma’s courage, growth and maturity: her redeeming factors

Seigneuret also has stated that a reluctant hero has foolhardy, but attractive personal courage. Emma was able to redeem herself as she developed and transformed throughout the novel. Emma’s most significant growth takes place when she changes her point of view toward her social and moral responsibilities, particularly in her acceptance of the lower classes, her charity to the less fortunate, and a reversal of her jealousy toward those who are superior to herself. Emma indeed did take courage to journey from snobbish girlhood to mature and compassionate womanhood (Meng, 2010).

She does possess a caring and loving heart, especially toward her immediate family. Her care for her valetudinarian father, whose personality quirks would exasperate the most patient of daughters, is exceptionally long-suffering. Emma constantly looks out for her father’s personal comfort, soothing his easily irritated nerves with the skill of an expert caretaker. Emma also often gives up or is willing to give up social engagements in order to keep her father company. The same devotion she gives to her father is also seen in her love for her sister, brother-in-law, nieces and nephews, and also for her governess-turned-best-friend, Mrs. Weston (Miss Taylor). Mrs. Weston offers sweet praise of Emma when she notes, “Where shall we see a better daughter, or kinder sister, or a truer friend?” (Austen, 1932). Emma’s actions and motivations toward her family are pure and loving, and no fault can be found in her, especially regarding her tender relationship with her father.

Emma can also be praised for her devotion to the poor in Highbury. On more than one occasion, she sends gifts of food to Mrs. and Miss Bates, the widow of a vicar and her unmarried daughter. Mrs. and Miss Bates are poor, but often socialize with Emma and her father. Emma struggles with her relationship and attitude toward these women, even though they are all part of the same class: The clergy came from the wealthy class, though, as second sons of the landed gentry, these men were not given an inheritance. However, they did receive an education from Oxford, which gave the clergyman social respect but not a substantial income. The clergy often had to procure a patron to subsidize their meager income of tithes doled out by the Church of England. In a way, Emma acts as a type of patroness to the Bates, though now that Vicar Bates has passed away, they are in more need of her financial assistance. Mrs. and Miss Bates have been reduced to a charity case in Highbury, yet because of their connection to the church, these women also move in higher social circles. Emma distinctly feels the tension between social class and monetary wealth in relating to the Bates, and her charity toward them seems to be more out of obligation rather than eager desire.

Yet there is another type of poor that Emma tends to. She often pays charitable visits to the poor or sick in Highbury (Austen, 1932) and by doing so, she exercises her duty of noblesse oblige, a tradition harkening back to the days of feudalism where members of the upper class were expected to take care of the needs of the unfortunate. By this type of social service, Emma exercises her class privileges correctly and admirably: “the ability to exercise patronage, to offer charity, and generally to aid others—in brief, to encompass them as dependents—is a key mark of social superiority” (Meng, 2010). This is not the social superiority that contributes to Emma’s snobbery; rather, Emma uses her wealth and social status to serve those less fortunate than herself. In this way, Emma differs greatly from characters such as Fanny Dashwood whose greed and selfishness hinder her from even extending charity to her own family. Emma can be rightly admired for fulfilling her social obligations by regularly giving food, money, and service to those in need.


Emma has rightly been identified as “the most flawed of all Austen’s heroines” (Koppel, 1988). In fact, many of Emma’s flaws and personal characteristics align her with Austen’s anti-heroines. However, the primary theme of Emma is her journey of growth from immaturity in her judgments and relationships to mature self-knowledge and character development. By gaining self-awareness of her own mistakes and suffering the consequences of her own snobbery and social failings, Emma eventually does see her shortcomings and makes corrections to improve her behavior and relationships with others, even crossing previously impassable class barriers. Every experience Emma has in the novel contributes to her education and personal growth, teaching her what it means to act as a compassionate woman in society (Meng, 2010).

Truly by being a reluctant heroine, Emma was able to show the education of how a heroine should “be and move in today’s world”, which has become the foundational premise of this novel. Emma Woodhouse, certainly is a manifestation of a reluctant heroine whose social and moral lessons learned are still relevant to readers in the twenty-first century: respect and compassion for others regardless of social status or personal idiosyncrasies, and the need for honest evaluation of one’s character, morals, and motives.


  • Antihero. (n.d.). Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved February 25, 2014, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/antihero.
  • Morrell, Jessica. (2008). Bullies, Bastards and Bitches: How To Write The Bad Guys Of Fiction, p. 62.
  • Seigneuret, Jean-Charles, ed. (1988). Dictionary of Literary Themes and Motifs. A-J. New York: Greenwood.
  • Campbell, Joseph. (2004). The Hero with a Thousand Faces 2004 Edition. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
  • Flavis, Louine. (1991). “Free Indirect Discourse and the Clever Heroine of Emma.A Publication on the Jane Austen Society of North America, 13. Retrieved from http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number13/flavin.htm#.
  • Booth, Wayne C. (1961). “Point of View and the Control of Distance in Emma.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 16.2. 95-116. JSTOR. Web. Retrieved February 25, 2014.
  • Austen, Jane. (1932). Jane Austen’s Letters to Her Sister Cassandra and Others. Collected and Edited by R.W. Chapman. London: Oxford.
    —. Emma. 1815. Ed. James Kinsley. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.
  • Meng, Brittany (2010). Jane Austen’s Enduring Heroines. Retrieved from Digital Commons @ Liberty University.
  • Koppel, Gene. (1988). The Religious Dimension of Jane Austen’s Novels. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI, Print.
  • Duckworth, Alistair M. (1971). “Emma and the Dangers of Individualism.” The Improvement of the Estate: a Study of Jane Austen’s Novels. 146-178. Baltimore: John Hopkins. Print.
  • Eagleton, Terry. (2005). The English Novel: An Introduction. Maldon, MA: Blackwell. Print.

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