A disturbing pattern exists in Austen’s portrayal of romantic relationships in her novels, the significance of which is difficult to discern. A young woman of intelligent, creative mind, personal resourcefulness and energy sets off on a heroine’s adventure; by the end of her story, a man of superior wisdom and either superior age, income, or both, has worn her into submission. She has lost a significant part of her former charm—her dynamic self-assurance—and been transformed into the conventional subservient wife represented by secondary female characters in her story. What appears on the surface to be a Bildungsroman of a woman’s growth and character development seems to be, at its core, an account of the gradual degeneration of her ego-integrity. Think of Henry Tilney purging Catherine Morland of her silly imagination in Northanger Abbey; Colonel Brandon guiding and protecting a chastened Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility; and Darcy shaming Elizabeth Bennet out of confidence in her own judgment and awing her with his wealth in Pride and Prejudice. Why does Austen seem to kill her heroines’ verve in marriage? Why does she choose husbands for her heroines who are more like fathers than lovers? Austen’s association of love with paternity is nowhere more prevalent than in Emma.
The overwhelming assertion of the novel’s introduction is that the heroine needs a man to rein her in and create boundaries to her will and desire. We learn that Emma “had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her” (5). Her early loss of a mother and, to a larger extent, her father’s weakness contribute to this problem. She possesses “a most affectionate, indulgent father, and had . . . been mistress of his house from a very early period” (5). Emma’s governess, Miss Taylor, became a sisterly companion rather than an authority figure in her life: “the mildness of her temper had hardly allowed her to impose any restraint; and the shadow of authority being now long passed away, they had been living together as friend and friend very mutually attached, and Emma doing just what she liked” (5). Emma requires mastering because from early youth she has assumed the role of mistress and exercised the independent will of a male adult. The narrator announces the heroine’s danger on the first page: “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” (5). The novel’s suspense generates from the concern evoked by the “problem” of Emma’s too-great liberty and self-love; we wonder how these tragic flaws will lead to “evils” and in what manner those evils will be resolved. Ultimately, they are resolved by the intervention of a fatherly lover.
The first and most important man in Emma’s life is her biological father, Mr. Woodhouse. In a striking reversal, she functions as his parent, caring for his needs and guiding him with her superior understanding and emotional strength. “He was a nervous man, easily depressed; . . . hating change of every kind” (7). Though much older than his daughter, Mr. Woodhouse “could not meet her in conversation, rational or playful” (7). Every way Emma’s inferior, he cannot provide her with the figure of authority, wisdom, and strength that the narrator asserts she so desperately needs. Instead, he looks to her for leadership and comfort. In short, “his talents could not have recommended him at any time” (7).1
Enter Mr. Knightley. He represents everything that Mr. Woodhouse lacks, including physical and mental strength, action, social savvy, and assertiveness. “Mr. Knightley, a sensible man about seven or eight-and-thirty, was not only a very old and intimate friend of the family, but particularly connected with it as the elder brother of Isabella’s husband” (9). This introduction to Mr. Knightley contains three references to his age. His older-ness stamps him with the mark of a desirable sense and maturity, where it marked Mr. Woodhouse with fussy absurdity and inertia. Knightley’s “cheerful manner” (9) delights others while Mr. Woodhouse’s depressiveness oppresses them. Thus, he seems a more suitable father figure and role model for Emma than her biological father is. With the approximately seventeen-year age difference between himself and Emma, he bridges the gap between her and her father, arguing with and scolding her in a manner suggesting that of an older brother. As Emma observes, “‘Mr. Knightley loves to find fault with me you know’” (10). The narrator adds that “he was one of the few people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever told her of them: and though this was not particularly agreeable to Emma herself, she knew it would be so much less so to her father, that she would not have him really suspect such a circumstance as her not being thought perfect by every body” (11). In the role of teasing older brother or even well-wishing second father, Knightley’s relationship with Emma seems satisfactory. We know that “steadiness had always been wanting” (44) in her character and that no one else really challenged her to grow and improve as he did. However, there is a sadistic strain in Knightley’s hunger to dominate Emma and show her every flaw he perceives in her ideas or actions, and a bizarre sexual tension in his references to observing and participating in her growing up.2 She does not wish her father to know the paternal authority Knightley assumes in judging her character and behavior. Indeed, her biological father seems, in his confidence of Emma’s perfection and indulgence of her wishes, more of a lover type than Knightley does.
Meanwhile, Knightley appoints himself the traditional fatherly roles of teacher and mentor. He instinctively longs to mold and control his protégée and rationalizes this impulse as a generous desire to improve his beloved little Emma’s character. He cannot help but remind her that his greater age signifies greater judgment: “‘I was sixteen years old when you were born. . . . I have still the advantage of you by sixteen years’ experience, and by not being a pretty young woman and a spoiled child’” (99). Knightley treats Emma like a “spoiled child,” but also continually admires and subconsciously desires the grown woman’s sexualized body. His admission to Mrs. Weston exposes this tension: “‘I confess that I have seldom seen a face or figure more pleasing to me than her’s. But I am a partial old friend. . . . I love to look at her’” (39). He attempts to chasten his confession with a reference to his identity as a paternalistic “old friend,” but his continual emphasis on the age difference serves only to suggest the sexual voyeurism of his ongoing observation of Emma’s developing physique. Even when he finally proposes to her, he confesses, “‘I . . . have been in love with you ever since you were thirteen at least’” (462). He had begun to desire her before she was socially or physically a licit love object.
Significantly, Emma’s relationship with Harriet manifests a similar dynamic, in which Emma assumes the same role toward Harriet that Knightley had assumed toward herself. She considers herself superior to her beloved protégée, whom she strives to direct and influence. Harriet assists her project by possessing “a sweet, docile, grateful disposition . . . only desiring to be guided” (26). Emma also admires Harriet’s physical beauty: “She was a very pretty girl, and her beauty happened to be of a sort which Emma particularly admired. She was short, plump and fair, with a fine bloom, blue eyes, light hair” (23). Harriet is a fatted, docile calf to be fed and led around by Emma. Emma both dominates and is attracted to Harriet, and becomes her father figure as well as admirer.3
Knightley dislikes the intimacy between Emma and Harriet from the first. He claims to both Mrs. Weston and Emma that his disapproval emanates from social pragmatism and the instincts of foresight. In actuality, he dislikes Emma’s assumption of the role of alpha male over another when he longs to overpower her himself. Knightley desires Emma’s subjection to someone, expressing regret for her mother’s death only because Emma “‘must have been under subjection to her’” (37). It maddens him that Emma is, as Mrs. Weston reminds him, “‘accountable to nobody but her father’” (40), who grants her total license. Initially, he denies and simultaneously admits his suppressed passion for Emma: “‘I should like to see Emma in love, and in some doubt of a return; it would do her good’” (41). He desires the emotional control over Emma that she possesses over him. Perhaps he recognizes the parallel between himself and Harriet as Emma’s subjects, and wishes to terminate the women’s friendship in order to eradicate the reflection of his own subjugation.
Yet Knightley easily conflates the position of subjugation with the position of wife. He reminds Mrs. Weston of her submission to Emma’s influence when she was Miss Taylor, the governess-companion: “‘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’” (38). This passage reveals Knightley’s view of the role of wife as one of obedience and submission, and his conviction that Emma needs to be taught to obey her own lesson. Knightley parades himself as the personal authority on Emma, and assigns himself the task of completing the unfinished girl’s training, while subconsciously striving to prepare her to be a suitable wife for him.
Emma identifies and exposes Knightley’s patriarchal vision of marriage. She mockingly suggests he marry Harriet (her wife of choice), who would provide him with what all men desire—a beautiful, submissive woman of inferior intellect who seeks to please and is willing to be molded: “‘I know that such a girl as Harriet is exactly what every man delights in—what at once bewitches his senses and satisfies his judgment. . . . Were you, yourself, ever to marry, she is the very woman for you’” (64). Knightley had himself spoken patronizingly of Harriet as in need of molding, but had conceded to Robert Martin’s plan to marry her because he “‘was willing to trust to . . . her having that sort of disposition, which, in good hands, like his, might be easily led aright and turn out very well’” (61). As a fellow alpha male, Emma instinctively perceives the nature of men’s desired romantic relationship with women, because it mirrors her own. The only woman she dislikes is the one she cannot consider her inferior, Jane Fairfax; the two women she loves most dearly submit the most to her sway.4 Emma has herself resolved not to marry, perceiving Knightley’s attitude as the norm: “‘few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s house, as I am of Hartfield; and never, never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man’s eyes as I am in my father’s’” (84).
One might argue that all ends well—Knightley makes himself vulnerable to Emma and recognizes her merit when he proposes. Emma reciprocates his love and “submit[s] quietly to a little more praise than she deserved” (475), rather than confessing her complete botchery of Harriet’s concerns. Knightley and Mr. Woodhouse have reversed roles again: the former becomes the admiring lover and the latter regains the throne of the patriarch, in that Emma chooses her father over her fatherly lover. “While her dear father lived, any change of condition must be impossible for her. She could never quit him” (448). Knightley physically and symbolically submits to Mr. Woodhouse’s and Emma’s preeminence by moving into their home.5
However, Knightley’s love itself seems inspired by Emma’s obedience to his will and pleasure. His first romantic impulse toward her—to kiss her hand—occurs when he discovers she has followed his “faithful counsel” (375) in penitently reconciling with Miss Bates. Moreover, his marriage proposal itself seems prompted by her confession of blind foolishness with regard to Frank Churchill. Perhaps he longs to reward Emma for her obeisance to his greater insight. “‘I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it’” (430), Knightley avers, revealing that he chose for a wife the woman most likely to submit to his authority. Indeed, Austen seems to equate Emma’s ultimate destiny with Harriet’s. Emma has “but to grow more worthy of him, whose . . . judgment had been ever so superior to her own” (475), while Harriet relies on a husband “who had better sense than herself. . . . She would be never led into temptation, nor left for it to find her out” (482). The men love the women; the women defer to the men’s higher wisdom.6
Emma is structured such that each of the central characters feels a romantic desire toward another character that either fulfills a significant paternal function for him or her, or reminds him or her of someone who does. Thus, Harriet develops an attraction to Knightley because he is the closest representative of her social mentor and substitute father, Emma. Emma herself yearns for Knightley because he represents an extension of her biological father; while Emma simultaneously attracts Knightley because for him, she represents an extension of her biological father, Knightley’s social patriarch. Austen develops and critiques several profiles for potential fathers and lovers, theorizing, in both contexts, the desirability of different degrees of instructiveness, protectiveness, nurturance, egotism, and beneficence.
From a feminist perspective, the question of who “wins” (man or woman; father, lover, or beloved) remains ambiguous throughout the novel. Scholars continue to struggle and fail definitively to determine the extent to which Austen satirizes or reinforces the gender status quo. One can at least conclude that in Emma, Austen explores the connections between socially imposed gender roles and personal aspirations to social influence. “Love” becomes a metaphor for social self-referentiality and parasitism. Characters begin with and return to their roots, whether of gender, class, family, or place, and to the familiar psychic essence of selfhood that these elements collectively represent. The only characters who earn true happiness are those who have learned enough to evolve while traversing this cycle of self.
1. Katherine Sobba Green argues that Austen offers “alternatives to the subject positions society made available to women in her period” (153), citing Mrs. Bennet and Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice as examples of “maneuvering women [who] body forth patriarchy against their sex, for in the absence of strong male characters, it is their business to manage the traffic in women” (154). Emma seems to pursue this role of substitute patriarch. Nonetheless, both Emma and Pride and Prejudice suggest that women can maintain such power and significance only by remaining single and lacking “strong male characters” in their immediate households.
2. Knightley and Emma even discuss the brother-sister possibility, and reject it. Emma clarifies their romantic potential as she accepts Knightley’s encouraged invitation to dance: “‘You have shown that you can dance, and you know we are not really so much brother and sister as to make it at all improper’” (331). His emphatic response is “‘Brother and sister! No, indeed’” (331).
3. Gloria Gross makes the persuasive claim that Emma “projects her [own] sexual fantasies about . . . men onto her friend Harriet in order to avoid acknowledging them in herself” (25).
4. Susan Korba analyzes this pattern in the novel, in which “power and sexuality are inextricably linked” (145), and perceives Emma’s participation in the patriarchal relational model of dominance and submission as manifested through her matchmaking efforts (146), through which she exercises control over women’s sexuality.
5. Mary Waldron interprets Emma’s marriage optimistically as one of continued argumentation and negotiation, and as the romantic relationship in the novel that “holds the possibility of becoming a balance of opposing but equal forces, rather than the subjection of one personality to another’s” (156).
6. Korba holds a skeptical view of the novel’s outcome, arguing that Emma’s real sexual desire is for women, and because lesbianism is not an option, she resigns herself “to play woman and wife, to submit in her turn” (160).  While I am not persuaded of Emma’s lesbianism, I agree with Korba that Emma “is able to take an erotic sort of pleasure in exercising mastery” (146).
Austen, Jane. The Novels of Jane Austen. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933-66.
Green, Katherine Sobba. The Courtship Novel 1740-1820: A Feminized Genre. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1991.
Gross, Gloria Sybil. “Jane Austen and Psychological Realism: ‘What Does a Woman Want?’” Reading and Writing Women’s Lives: A Study of the Novel of Manners. Ed. Bege K. Bowers and Barbara Brothers. Ann Arbor: UMI Research P, 1990. 19-33.
Korba, Susan M. “‘Improper and Dangerous Distinctions’: Female Relationships and Erotic Domination in Emma.” Studies in the Novel 29 (1997): 139-63.
Waldron, Mary. “Men of Sense and Silly Wives: The Confusions of Mr. Knightley.” Studies in the Novel 28 (1996): 141-57.