Study Guide

Emma Gender

By Jane Austen


Chapter Five
Mr. Knightley

But you were preparing yourself to be an excellent wife all the time you were at Hartfield. You might not give Emma such a complete education as your powers would seem to promise; but you were receiving a very good education from her, on the very material matrimonial point of submitting your own will, and doing as you were bid; and if Weston had asked me to recommend him a wife, I should certainly have named Miss Taylor. (5.11)

OK, we’ve got to admit, Mr. Knightley drives us crazy here. A wife should submit to her husband’s will. We sure hope he’s joking.

Mrs. Weston

[…] perhaps no man can be a good judge of the comfort a woman feels in the society of one of her own sex, after being used to it all her life. (5.6)

Mrs. Weston articulates a stream of which is largely sidelined in this narrative – that women, without men, develop their own societies. Readers, the most reliable judges of a novel, are hereby warned not to judge women’s (or Emma’s) actions in society too quickly.

Chapter Eight
Emma Woodhouse

[…] till it appears that men are much more philosophic on the subject of beauty than they are generally supposed; till they do fall in love with well-informed minds instead of handsome faces, a girl, with such loveliness as Harriet, has a certainty of being admired and sought after, of having the power of chusing from among many, consequently a claim to be nice. (8.44)

Emma’s conviction that Harriet is a gentlewoman leads her to expect unrealistic things from her marriage. Note how many conditional phrases pepper this quote!

Chapter Nine
Mr. Woodhouse

[…] she had the pleasure of seeing him most intently at work with his recollections; and at the same time, as she could perceive, most earnestly careful that nothing ungallant, nothing that did not breathe a compliment to the sex should pass his lips.

Mr. Woodhouse, ever the gentleman, would rather re-iterate the same riddle several times than repeat one of the many ungallant ones about women which he knows. (9.7)

Chapter Fourteen
Emma Woodhouse

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. (14.24)

Austen’s female characters frequently reflect on the different possibilities available to different genders. In this case, Emma reflects upon the utter economic dependence of women upon their caretakers.

Chapter Seventeen

Isabella, passing her life with those she doated on, full of their merits, blind to their faults, and always innocently busy, might have been a model of right feminine happiness. (17.1)

Isabella may be a perfect woman, but she’s not a very interesting one. There’s a reason why Emma is the protagonist of this story.

Chapter Thirty

Oh! the blessing of a female correspondent, when one is really interested in the absent! (30.36)

Besides the obvious sexism of this statement (women are the only ones around with time to write letters), Austen might be alluding to the way that women are frequently the storytellers in this text. Sort of like Austen herself.

Chapter Thirty-Five
Mrs. Elton

[…] I was not thinking of the slave-trade […] the governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies. (35.15)

The life of a working woman was one to be shunned. By allowing Mrs. Elton to compare the life of a governess to that of a slave, however, Austen might be expressing an isolated (and privileged) view of relative social injustices.

Chapter Forty-Two
Mrs. Elton

But consider—you need not be afraid of delegating power to me. I am no young lady on her preferment. Married women, you know, may be safely authorised. (42.14)

Mrs. Elton unwittingly parrots a common social convention: unmarried women are always scheming to get something (like a man’s attention) out of any social engagement. Married women are safe, because they no longer desire men. Hmm.

I am Lady Patroness, you know. It is my party. I will bring friends with me. (42.12)

Mrs. Elton expresses a deep need to be the top of the social ladder. Her grasping is funny – but it articulates an understanding of the importance of social networking in Austen’s novel.

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